Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Poor Allegory for Tolkien’s Free Will

Please consider the following allegory as my “hypothesis” about the Downfall of Numenor.

 A man, a young police officer, decides to give a gift to his son.  This gift is a handgun.  Being a cautious father, he has taught him much about gun safety, and endowed him with a strong sense that there is evil in the world.  The boy accepts the gift with a sense of awe and respect.  His father tells him to pass the gun on to his son in due time.

The boy grows older, marries, and has a son.  He, as requested of him, passes on the gift, along with the lessons in gun safety and evil’s existence.

The possessor of the gift finds himself walking by a police officer one day and hears him complain that they are unable to stop drug dealing in a particular neighborhood.  The boy walks to that neighborhood shoots a drug dealer, and kills him.  Then he walks a few more blocks and does it again, and again.  The boy then goes to his grandfather, now the chief of police, and gladly informs him that he has put his gift to good use and describes what he did.

It may be obvious that the boy should be arrested, but is anyone else at fault?  Should the father be blamed for these unintended consequences? Does it reach back all the way to the grandfather? Was teaching the boy about gun safety giving him enough knowledge to make good decisions?  Surely, he could now make a decision, the gun would not fire unless he wanted it to, but did either ever say when he should fire? 

Eru gives a great gift to his children, that of free will.   In so doing, he gives each and every one of his children the ability to make choices, to reference my little story he has given them a gun.  The result is that they can turn toward their nature or to turn from their nature.  He also gifts a world in which decisions will have one of the two effects, of either coming toward or going from their nature, since not making a choice is in itself a choice, like the Sindar who stayed behind and never saw the Trees.  This is Eru’s gift of gun safety lessons- a world which has consequences for those with free will. 

The first choice affecting the Numenoreans is before any of them really existed, and its the choice of Elrond and Elros.  Elrond chooses the Elven path, and Elros chooses to be a King of Men. Given that they each choose one, and have the option of both, in their moment it must have seemed that these gifts were equal, that no wrong choice could have been made.  They were also both judged to be great by others, and so others agreed with their choices.  In other words, there was nothing seemingly evil in their choice.  How did they choose though? 

Eru withheld from even the Valar the information necessary to make the “right” choice.   Only part of their respective gifts was revealed to men and elves.  How did Elros then make the right decision to take on a mortal life if he did not have any idea what the second gift really entailed. What did it mean to escape from Arda?  What was to come for mankind next? 

This problem is not isolated to the decision of Elros.  The decision of the Numenoreans to sail West has the same limitation and frame. Some chose to sail East and “escape” from Numenor.  Many though, led by their King, went to their doom in the West.  How did they make their decision given that the Messengers spoke “Indeed the mind of Iluvatar concerning you is not known to the Valar, and he has not revealed all things that are to come.”?

In creating uncertainty Eru made free will a dangerous weapon. To use a modern slogan guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  Free will gives people the ability to act and cause consequences for themselves and others, but the creator of everything chose to withhold information.  This gift of free will was a responsibility, or trust, but the Messengers in speaking to the Numenoreans warn them that their trust will become a bond if they act wrongly.  To me, this implies that proper exercise of free will, gift number one, is the trust, and that the wrong exercise results in death, which is also a gift.  Yet the right exercise of free will also results in death.  Does free will therefore not affect one’s standing with Eru? (This just downright confuses me, and I hope someone can either correct my logic or provide elucidation in a comment.)
Eru went a step further though than the creation of uncertainty and also planted feelings of certainty in the Numenorean mind as well.  Considering again the Messengers they state “The love of Arda was set in your hearts by Iluvatar, and he does not plant to no purpose.”   Now, as their bliss was fading, they knew that there was a greater bliss out there, and that in some way it was supposed to concern them. Now, they in most ways kept the “trust” and of course kept the Ban, until the crucial turning point.  When Sauron came and posed a new world. 

Sauron offered certainty.  The certainty was that “The Valar have possessed themselves of the land where there is no death, and they lie to you…”  In this world there was no more uncertainty, their desires for long life and Arda were reconciled and their hesitation, the fear of the Valar and the ban was becoming overcome by the seemingly true words of Sauron.  The tipping point to completely overcome this fear is when Sauron reveals himself in power by facing the lightning.  Sauron must therefore be right if he possesses such majesty over the Valar’s power.  They made their decision with the information that they believed to be right and true.  They made a decision in a world that Eru created using the gifts of Eru.  Can we say that Eru did not create evil then?   Their decision, evil as it is, must have been an outgrowth of Eru’s creation.

Eru himself might answer our question in his actions though.  Those who sailed west were killed and buried in the “Caves of the Forgotten.”  Yet, they did not lose their greatest gift, because their tenure there was only “until the Last Battle and the Day of Doom.”  Their fate was still not connected with Arda’s.  Eru didn’t take away the gift of mankind from those who opposed him most of all.  And returning once again to the words of the Messengers, this time concerning the Eldar, “The Eldar, you say, are unpunished, and even those who rebelled do not die.  Yet that is to them neither reward nor punishment, but the fulfillment of their being.”  Men and Elves will still fulfill their being, no matter what their use of their gift of free will leads to.

If all the pieces above hold, than in some way Eru created this evil by giving the gift of free will and not giving everyone with free will perfect information with which to use the gift.  On the other hand, if he had given free will and perfect information, wouldn’t everyone have just been a “good angel?” For if you could know the glory or Eru would you not do everything to bring about its fulfillment? And if that’s true, does free will still matter if everyone would make the same exact choices so that we could all just program a robot to make our choices for us?  Wouldn’t we just become robots, or would we be completely blissful? 

Charles J Martino

P.S. So many questions…sorry!


  1. A very apt way of posing the question! It seems that yet again we come up against the question of providence: if God knows what is going to happen, then why doesn't he do something about it, e.g. give us better information? But, then, one could argue that he has given us full information and the problem is that we don't like what we hear: "You are mortal." As you point out, whatever the Numenoreans did, they were going to die--which is exactly what Ilúvatar had told them. Their choice then was whether they died willingly or at odds with their nature.


  2. While I agree that they would either die in line with nature or against it, I am not so certain that we can say with certainty that they get to make a choice about it. Without full knowledge of their nature, which must be more than just death (otherwise what is the "gift" of free will since we know death will be fulfilled), what possible choice can they make. I don't know if its between their nature and anti-nature because they cannot identify it with certainty. The results of their choice will be one of the two, but I don't see how they can know which they are choosing.

    One could argue that they should do what Iluvatar says as their nature, but their initial choice to follow Iluvatar rather than Morgoth for example would not have a knowledge of their nature.

    Charles Martino

  3. I don't mean that they can choose to die or not; I mean that they can choose whether to die willingly or unwillingly. Are you saying that without full knowledge of what death means, they couldn't even die willingly? I'm not sure that follows: you can willingly do something without knowing the consequences; we do it all the time!


  4. The question of whether we can hold Eru responsible for evil is a tricky one, but no matter how I think about it I always come back to whether or not he allowed (intended?) Melkor to become corrupted.

    You state that “Eru created this evil by giving the gift of free will and not giving everyone with free will perfect information with which to use the gift.” I feel this criticism is unfair, as it would be essentially impossible to give actual free will along with perfect information. Free will means the ability to make any decision within one’s own power. In this case the Numenorians cannot choose to simply not die; though they try to research ways to preserve life eternally the closest their knowledge can get them is embalming dead flesh. Immortality can only be given by Eru, not discovered by man or wrested from the Valar. This is the essential irony in the Al-Pharazon’s endeavor, that even if he were allowed to settle on Valinor he would not achieve immortality, as that is a quality of its inhabitants, not of the place itself (though the name “undying lands” is terribly misleading).

    If they had this perfect information, the Numenorians would not have chosen to trespass the ban. But that would hardly have been a meaningful choice; they would be good angels only because they know in advance that all alternatives are inferior. The answer to your final question is both. People would be blissful, but it would be at the cost of becoming automatons, they are not mutually exclusive.

    What does this have to do with Melkor? Eru can’t tell men everything, because then the choice of whether or not to adhere to him is meaningless. But giving free will doesn’t necessitate the emergence of evil; men could all still choose to accept their deaths, to adhere to their natures. It is because of Melkor that they don’t. We are repeatedly told that emerging into his dominion is what first instills a fear of death in men, and it is his servant Sauron who plays upon it in order to destroy Numenor. Without Morgoth’s evil men could have freely chosen to accept death, achieving both free will and good, as perhaps they were intended to do. By instilling free will, Eru was always creating the potential for evil, but Melkor is responsible for evil’s actual creation. Now we just need to know how responsible Eru is for Morgoth!

    David Gittin

  5. I like that you address the difficulty of making a choice without knowing the (even potential) consequences, or when each option is equal – equally risky, equally beneficial, equally logical. But as far ‘right and ‘wrong’ are concerned, I’m curious how you would define a ‘right’ vs. ‘wrong’ choice with regards to the choices of Elrond and Elros. It always seemed to me that each choice was equal; that each brother was free to choose whatever pleased him best, rather than what was ultimately ‘right.’ Of course, from later in the story, we know that their choices best served them and their people, but it still makes me wonder if things would have turned out okay (albeit differently) if they had chosen differently. I think that Iluvatar created the overall plan for his creation, but gave his Children the ability to divert from that plan or change its details. I agree with David that part of what makes it free will is the lack of having all the information. If one knows exactly how things are supposed to happen, it diminishes the element of choice.

    I don’t think evil results grow out of Eru’s creations. I think, as we discussed in class, evil is a potential consequence of creation and, especially, of free will. We could perhaps liken it to fire: What is fire? You can see it and feel it, it can change the temperature and the physical composition of things. But what is it actually made of? Can you really touch it, hold it, put it in a bottle? Fire is a sort of phenomenon of the physical world, a visible, but not exactly tangible, result of fuel, heat, and oxygen getting together in just the right way. As such, it does not need to be invented; what are invented are ways to make fire happen. Perhaps evil is the same way – it is not something that exists on its own or which is directly created as an independent thing, but rather it exists as a result of other things that were created.