Friday, April 29, 2011

Evil and Ethics and Eru, Oh My

Five weeks in, what I’ve probably enjoyed most about this fantasy fan-fest we call Tolkien: Medieval and Modern is the fact that I consistently find myself mulling over our in-class discussions well after the lecture has been delivered. And it isn’t necessarily that I’m preoccupied with the specifics of Tolkien’s world twenty-four-seven (although my penchant for randomly quoting Gandalf might suggest otherwise); rather, I’m more likely to be stuck on some larger theme or societal implication. Divinity, dream, the very dawn of existence—we’ve dealt with some heavy-hitters in the past few weeks. Wednesday’s class ushered in yet another bevy of significant topics and extracurricular musings. Which works out, considering that I’m expected to blog about it.

I’ll pick up where we as a class left off: at the uncertain intersection of Evil and ethics. The pace of Wednesday’s discussion picked up noticeably—and understandably—when it was suggested that, in the case of Númenór’s downfall, the Sauron-induced practice of human sacrifice was in no way comparable to Ar-Pharazôn’s disastrous westward voyage. Never mind the modern reader’s initial reaction to the two, whatever that might have been; in terms of category and, by extension, permissibility, the latter alone constituted an evil act.

We’ve all seen enough Disney movies and sorted through enough political rhetoric to know that the concept of “evil” gets tossed around a fair bit in our modern lexicon. Wicked Witch of the West? Evil. Your teacher’s grading policy? Evil. Any given political opponent’s stance on healthcare reform? Evil (insomuch as it is socialist treachery/akin to Nazism). Clearly, the word is nowadays applicable to a slew of disparate scenarios and characteristics, all of which are generally understood to be reprehensible or harmful on some level. Human sacrifice would certainly seem to fit this bill. Moreover, when used to condone a given behavior, “evil” begins to sound a whole lot like immorality—evil and ethics, then, are closely linked by common usage, and human sacrifice appears to fall neatly into both categories. The question is, does any of this mesh with Tolkien’s decidedly scholarly understanding of the word? Given Tolkien’s borderline reverence for the lineage and significance of words, this isn’t a question to be taken lightly.

Enter Dorothy Sayers and her fortuitously relevant delineation of the terms at hand, as described in The Mind of the Maker:

“‘Evil’,” for our purpose, must not be considered as being moral evil. The human maker, living and walking within a universe where Evil (whatever it is) is part of the nature of things, is obliged to take both Good and Evil as part of his Idea. They are the medium with which he works. We can consider only the special type of Evil which may make its appearance in connection with his particular act of creation—the type which is briefly summed up in the expression ‘bad art.’”

Here, Sayers draws a distinction between “moral evil”—that is to say, evil as it regards the ethical behavior of human beings—and “a special type of Evil” which she associates with a supreme (or, in the case of her larger illustration, human) maker. The first notion is relatively straight-forward: Disney movies and philosophers alike discuss it, however imperfectly, whenever they assign human actions praise or reproach. Returning once again to the problem of human sacrifice, we see that society—not to mention half the class Wednesday—is fully equipped and more than willing to judge that act on moral grounds, provided that their particular system of ethics is so inclined (or, if you prefer Kant’s take on the matter, unconditionally, considering that human sacrifice violates the supreme moral imperative to value human life as an ends, never a means—the point being that systems of ethics can rest on rational as well as societal foundations).

All of which is well and good, except that Sayers tosses it out the proverbial window when she narrows her scope to include only the second category of evil. Her purpose all along has been to cast light, via the analysis of the act of creation, on that omnipotent Creator who is truly “beyond good and evil.” Hence, the talk of Ideas: in Sayers’ estimation, the Creator creates (as creators are wont to do) in order to give form to an idea. That which results is deemed “good” in that it embodies the Creator’s initial notion. Accompanying this creation is the previously impossible cognizance of what it means not to exist as said new creation—knowledge of the not-creation, in other words. Sawyer goes on to say that this simple lack of being goodness, so to speak, does not constitute evil; creation of good necessitates the possibility for a lack thereof, but this must be accompanied by malice—the “bad” in Sayers’ “bad art—toward the Creator’s original intent in order to be considered evil.

Which brings us back to Wednesday’s discussion, and the concern regarding the relative reprehensibility of the Númenórians’ two seeming crimes. To compare the two in terms of moral evil is to ground your judgement in the societal; considering first the true nature and intent of Creator and Creation, by contrast, is an approach which sets store by the divine (in a sense that transcends the religious standpoint of any given culture).

Are the two approaches incompatible? I’d like to think not. Sayers demonstrates that the two accounts of evil are not inextricably linked:

In the choice of words, for example, the “right” word will not be the morally edifying word, but the word which “rightly” embodies his Idea, whether the Idea itself is morally good, evil, or “beyond good and evil.”

Still, Tolkien might argue that the God’s Idea—his ultimate intent—is the moral imperative to which all of mankind’s disparate value systems ultimately must answer to. The former beget the latter, so that they need not disagree except in those (all too frequent) cases where human ambition interferes. Such logic holds nicely in the case of Númenór. Eru’s intent was for man to be mortal—any move in opposition of that will could only be considered Evil. Man’s own code of ethics reflected that Idea until Sauron’s deceit sparked inner rebellion. Rebellion beget malice. Malice beget Evil. The downfall of Númenór was sealed.

In the case of human sacrifice, all indications are that it represents a perversion of the Númenórians’ initial code of ethics. If not, they would have presumably been carrying it out well before Sauron’s arrival.

But did it also stand in violation of Eru’s supreme concept of his creation? That much is unclear—and regrettably so, considering that the act’s categorization hinges on that divine designation. Frankly, I don’t have the ability (nor the word space) to guess the mind of Tolkien’s supreme being. But I’m happy to settle for the potentially functional framework of Evil in its multiple forms spelled out by Sayers and illustrated by Tolkien.

-H.M. Glick


  1. Excellent account of the difference that Sayers establishes between moral and aesthetic evil; likewise, very nice insight into why human sacrifice was not defensible as a form of worship for the Númenoreans. I am curious, however, where the distinction you make leaves us with respect to moral evil. Would it be better simply to talk of sin?


  2. I think that the lack of a strong religion within Arda muddles this problem further. While the Numenoreans do worship the "one" before they turn to the Sauron-inspired worship of Morgoth they never have a strong religion that opposes this 'corrupt bad religion'. Not only does this make it hard to contrast their current religion against another form of morality but it also makes the people who refuse to believe in the Melkor religion nothing to hold on to. If they had a belief system with a divinity that was much more instutionalized it would give them a point of resistance and a community of resistance against the so called evil of the new Numenorean religion.
    Tolkien clearly views the Morgoth worshipping religion of the Numenoreans as evil, as it does lead to their downfall and the removal of the Grey Havens from Arda. But within Arda what moral code is their in-place to ensure that this doesn't happen again? Tolkien doesn't provide his world with an instutionalized religion, which is surprising given his Catholic roots, and the Catholic church being an extremely instutionalized and ritual bound religion. Other than worshipping the One, monotheistic God and doing 'good' what are the expectations of the men on Arda? How are they supposed to figure out their moral codes without some sort of guide? Tolkien never provides this to Arda and the Iluvatar never provide a moral code to either the Elves or the Men. Though Tolkien seems to think that they can derive a very Judeo-Christian morality through mere existence. Which is problematic with his Christian views... If we are to believe that men are innately corrupt then how through mere existence can they be expected to derive this Christian moral code?

  3. Great post, Mr. Glick. The question of free will as it is applied by Iluvatar to individuals among his Children may be key. If God grants the individual free choice, unwilling human sacrifice indirectly usurps divine authority by depriving the victim of his or her free will. God's intention is contradicted just as clearly in the case of murder (that is, taking the life of an unwilling innocent) as in the case of sailing west, if in a more abstract sense. As for the lack of organized religious practice, I get a distinct sense that Tolkien intended the realms of worship, magic, and physical reality to intersect with far greater fluidity than they do for us, especially as one looks farther back toward his creation story. As such, religion as a systematic force for binding those realms together is superfluous. Merely living with gratitude and due humility upon the Land of Gift is akin to worship; only when the Numenoreans begin to worship a false god must they resort to lurid religious practice. Of course, this in no way holds for our own latter times, in which the gulf between the everyday physical environment and the mystical-religious one is so much vaster.

    Philip R.

  4. Is moral evil simply sin? Given the propensity that we have explored for Tolkien to use heavily Catholicized (but not necessarily allegorical) imagery, particularly in delineations of good and evil, is it not likely that this moral evil—disobeying an order from God, or in this case from Eru Iluvatar, rather than a subversion, a perversion of what was intended with the creation—is merely a sin, one for which the people committing it would not be damned? True, both actions are disobeying direct orders, but it could be argued that both are perverting the worship of Iluvatar, although in completely different ways; still, I see your point, and Sayers’ argument makes it wonderfully clear that the sacrifice is evil but the transgression of sailing into the west is Evil.

    Additionally, is there a dividing line, something that one must cross to get from moral evil to great Evil? Sauron and Morgoth fall firmly on the side of Evil, but what action was it that put them there? When did they cross from simply being cruel, sinful traitors to being un-creators, destroyers, mockeries of gods? Or were they always this way—and if Morgoth was always that way, what does it tell us about Iluvatar that he could create Evil, or that he could create, at least, the propensity for Evil? Or does this all tie back into free will?

    -Michaela Jandacek

  5. Numenor was being punished before Ar-Pharazon ever sailed into the West or prepared his fleet. The sickness and death that plagued the people after the destruction of Nimloth is emblematic of the fall from grace. Paradise was already lost, just not yet wiped off the map physically. This can be seen as a kind of punishment for their misdeeds since the protection/benefit that they were previously afforded was rescinded.

    I would argue that the human sacrifice the Numenoreans practiced was an evil act as much as the destruction of the trees of Valinor was an evil act. The Numenoreans did more than sacrifice, they murdered. It was a malicious act against those whose will and thought they wished to stifle and destroy. Beyond that, the will that they wished to destroy belonged to those who stayed true to the will of Eru. So, the Numenoreans were acting in malice against the will of Eru through the proxy of human sacrifice. What’s more, these sacrifices were to Melkor, entreating upon him to deliver them from death. If that is not a direct rejection and opposition to the will of Eru, I don’t know what is. Had they been sacrificing virgins or otherwise giving the best and purest among them to Eru, then it would have been a morally perverse method of honoring their god rather than a maliciously evil act according the definition you provide.

    However, being mortals without a direct channel to the fullness of divine will and thought, how then are we really to know what the creator's original intent is in order to distinguish right from wrong? If not through imperfect socially constructed morality, then how? If we do define the creator's orginal intent through our morals, then ther should be little difference between true evil and moral evil. There is, of course, a difference between doing evil and being evil.

    -Jason A Banks

  6. It had, at first, surprised me that Tolkien chose to include little or no religion in The Lord of The Rings. For such a religious man, and for a work rife with so much religious illusion, it didn't seem to fit. The very nature of the book seems to be almost spiritual, and yet there is no established religion. When one considers the Silmarillion and the rest of Tolkien's legendarium, it becomes even more baffling. The Silmarillion itself can be seen as quasi-biblical (in that it functions as a work establishing the universe and including a creation story); so why is religion absent?

    For me, this question can only be answered when one considers how we think about religion today, and how they would have thought about religion in Middle-Earth. Belief in the Christian God requires faith, and the absent of overt divinity in our world can make that faith difficult to achieve. It is religion because it requires faith and ritual. We are supposed to praise and worship, because that is what the bible says must be done in order to please God. I would argue that no such faith need be mustered in Middle-Earth. The existence of the Valar and the divinity of Eru is without dispute. There may be false idols that arise, such as Sauron and Morgoth; however, the existence of divinity is unquestionable. Additionally, the Valar demand little of their followers. The Numenoreans needed only to visit the top of a mountain every so often in order to worship Eru. The only thing that they demanded was faith. This is why the transgressions of the Numenoreans were so severe: the violated the sole demand of their God. This is also why the evil of Sauron and Morgoth is contingent upon their desire to be worshiped in the place of Eru.