Friday, April 29, 2011

Tipping Point. Not By: Malcolm Gladwell

When was Númenor doomed to destruction? From the course of the story one might conclude that the imprisonment of Sauron was the tipping point. However, just before Ar-Pharazôn lands in Aman he hesitates. Could Númenor have been saved in that moment?

As a Child of Eru the king had free will, so perhaps still had a choice in that moment. But choices are not made in a vacuum. He was bound by his personality and his previous choices. Would it be believable that Ar-Pharazôn (one who had rejected the Valar, cut down the White Tree, trusted to Sauron, railed against the thunderstorm eagles of Manwë, and had built a great navy for conquest) would turn back within sight of his destination? That seems implausible. Even though he hesitates on the threshold the king is already doomed by his character.

In a similar way we can look at the imprisonment of Sauron. If things had gone differently, could Númenor have survived? Perhaps they could have stormed Mordor and Sauron would have fled or been destroyed. This may have saved Númenor for a time, but I don’t think it would have stopped them from sailing West eventually. We see the sources of their discontent before Sauron. They had begun to fear their ‘gift’ of death. They had turned from gift-givers to conquerors, ruling over men in the East. Always there was a longing in their hearts to break a ban that they did not understand.

So when did it become inevitable that men would attempt to take Aman? I believe that it was inevitable even before men made any choices, before they originally fell in with Melkor. We see that “for in those days Valinor still remained in the world visible, and there Ilúvatar permitted the Valar to maintain upon Earth an abiding place, a memorial of that which might have been if Morgoth had not cast his shadow on the world. This the Númenóreans knew full well” (The Silmarillion, p. 313). Here lies the root of the problem. The Valar create a place free from the touch of evil and bar the entrance to people suffering under evil. Not only that, they make the place not all that distance from the suffering people. The elves regularly go back and forth between Aman and Middle-Earth. In Númenor one could actually see Tol Eressëa. If you hold a feast within sight of people starving to death you should expect trouble. It just is not surprising. It’s like you’re taunting them, deliberately holding the fruit above Tantalus’s reach.

If, upon their awakening, all men had joined together against Melkor they still would have been tempted to go West. Even if they were never servants of the darkness, they still would have suffered because of it. They would have been aware of a land in which they would not be assailed by disease, or orcs, or dragons. From this would come desire for Aman. We discussed the source of such desire in class, but we were much more positive about it. It was suggested that people have a natural inclination to turn to God. Sailing West seems to come directly from that. The West is a place in which there is light whereas the East holds darkness. The West has order, the East chaos. The West has piece, the East has war. Also in the West reside the Valar, children of Eru’s thought. To be close to them would be to be closer to Him. In the East there resided Melkor, who had strived against the plan of Eru. If you were given a choice between East and West, without the ban, it would seem to be not only more pleasant, but in fact more moral, to choose to go West. The ban of the Valar opposes not only the desires of the proud Sea-Kings, but also the natural inclination of every single human.

This argument appears to pose a problem for free will. The inevitability of the fall of man comes before even the first choice of man, residing in man’s nature and the world he is born into. Where is the free will in that account? How do you account for Amandil and the Elendili? For an answer to that question let’s turn to The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, a book written by University of Chicago professor John Mearshiemer. The book seeks to answer the question of why great states behave as they do, often conducting war upon each other? Mearsheimer says “my answer is that the structure of the international system forces states which seek only to be secure nonetheless to act aggressively towards each other…. This situation, which no one consciously designed or intended, is genuinely tragic*.” Such system-level accounts are not uncommon in political science. Forces can be named driving human actions without any mention of individual humans. This demonstrates the way in which things can be predetermined in a world with free will. Free will belongs to individuals. Large societies, or the race as a whole, do not have the same free will. The society is built up with so many tiny choices that there does not seem to be any choice.

Humanity as a whole may move down one path, but every individual must decide wheather to move down that path as well. Amandil chose for himself a different path. If Ar-Pharazôn had chosen a better path he may not have saved humanity forever, but he could have saved himself at least. Following the path of humanity does not excuse us our individual actions.

*Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politcs. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 3

Doug MacDonald


  1. You make two very important points here, but I'm not quite sure I understand how they are linked. On the one hand, there is the temptation apparently set up by the very gift of Numenor to Men; on the other, there is the responsibility of each individual to choose good over evil despite the tendency of the system he or she finds him/herself in. I wholly agree with the latter point (as would Tolkien), but perhaps I am misreading the first part of your argument. If the ban creates the situation such that it would be natural for men to be tempted, how is it possible to make the choice, as it were, to go against one's nature and not want to break the ban?

    On another note, I think that, for Tolkien, it would be very important for there to be the possibility even unto the moment before he stepped on the sand of Valinor for Ar-Pharazon to turn back, that is, to repent. In Catholic theology, it is possible to repent (turn back to God) up to the very moment of death; this is how merciful God is.


  2. Professor Brown brings up a good point when she mentions that Catholic theology maintains one can repent up until the moment of death, but I think you point out some interesting motivation dynamics in your post. I especially like your quotation of Mearsheimer’s argument regarding the differences between societal choices and individual choices. Ar-Pharazôn is in a unique position because he is the manifestation of Númenorean society and beliefs. While he can be labeled as the one who is personally responsible for the rejection of the Valar and the invasion the West, one has to wonder how much this drive is shaped by the voices of his councilors and the Númenorean masses. As you pointed out, this discontent has long been festering among the people and many kings (at least 4? maybe more? I lost count) have come and gone since this obsession with avoiding death first manifest, including in its forms of conquering Middle-Earth and demanding tithes. So while as he may have hesitated before invading the shores of Aman, do you think that his desire to press on also stemmed from a belief that this was needed and desired by his own people behind him? And that even if he did not lead them forward, then someone else would have lead the charge and, in doing so, taken the crown and (believed) glory from him? Could he have repented, wished he could not have come so far, but then gone on anyway? So while Catholic theology may allow repentance up until that last moment, this allowance does not lessen at all the increasing difficulty of following through on that repentance and turning back towards God. That is the danger of sin: as one continues to act against God and the good, it becomes increasingly difficult─ but not impossible─ to overcome the effects of those sins and turn back; how much more difficult must it be for the king, the supposed embodiment of a people’s spirit?

    I wish I knew why Men were doomed to be born while Melkor’s power was still at its might. This is something which Tolkien chooses not to explore for some reason. He makes it very apparent that Ilúvatar has a desire to have his Children enter at a certain time, especially regarding Men, so what is so desirous about Melkor’s presence─ a corrupting and horrific influence everywhere else─ that he plans for his most complex (and potentially even his favorite) creation to be born under its shadow?

    J. Trudeau

  3. You argue fairly well for a system of individual free will beneath a system of determinism. In certain cases, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. For example, when Feanor is deciding whether or not to surrender the Silmarils to the Valar, he makes a decision without knowing that the decision has been taken from him already. Clearly, Tolkien is attempting to illustrate that the power of free will comes from how it impacts the agent. Feanor is not robbed of his free will because the Silmarils have been stolen—his choice carries weight because it is genuine, even if he cannot enact it. This is a case in which “fate” has been determined even if the individual has a choice in their own state.

    However, I have to wonder whether this truly fits Tolkien’s free will in every case. For example, Argorn is both an individual and—in a certain sense—tied to the larger “fate” of Middle-earth. If fate exists, then Aragorn’s agonizing decision at Amon Hen, then, is only agonizing because he thinks he has a choice: his path was always into Rohan, following Merry and Pippin. While this might seem a neat solution, it does rob him of some of the humanity and emotion of the moment. It robs him of the power such a choice has. Or do we only have free will when we are not major characters in the “story-arc” of the world, when we are beneath the notice of fate?

    ~Sarah Gregory

  4. I very much like this blog. I also believe that the Numenoreans as a people had very little free will in the circumstances in which they found themselves. In fact, when one examines the Numenoreans set up on their paradise island, it almost does seem to resemble a “trap” (as was jokingly suggested in class). For everything they could ever want was given to the Numenoreans, only to be taken away by death. The true nature of death was deliberately veiled by Illuvatar and the Valar. Fear, distrust, and greed—qualities Illuvatar knew mankind possessed—led to their rebellion against the gods. Even if Sauron had never entered into the picture, it is likely that the Numenoreans would eventually have begun questioning why some races (like the Elves) were seemingly privileged, while humans were either left to struggle in the East or live in a restricted nirvana, Too much was inevitable in the Numenoreans destiny, thus their lack of choice. For even if they had decided to quietly accept death rather than rebel, can “choosing” to die really be considered an exercise in free will?

    -Jessica Adepoju

  5. There are so many interesting questions one can ask about the Fall of Numenor, the how and why of it. You pose here an interesting and integral question – namely, when, if ever, was the Fall inevitable?

    You make a good point that putting something so tempting (a beautiful, unsullied land, freedom from all evil, eternal life) within sight and knowledge of those who might want it most is setting them up to suffer, but does this necessarily mean the Fall is inevitable? Couldn’t such a difficult situation be a test for those suffering? (Maybe not a fair one, but still . . .) Maybe the point of the ban is to learn to go against base, natural inclination.

    You discuss the free will of the individual vs. society, but isn’t the will of a society simply the sum or reflection of the will of its individuals. The enormous number of choices that make up our lives, the circumstances that create those choices, and the effects of the choices of others on our own choices pile up such that it can often seem we have no choice. But, regardless of how much factors outside our control may limit our choices, free will is always given to us.


  6. RLFB: I can see how my two points my seem somewhat disconnected. I think of them like this:
    1) Seriously Valar, you couldn't see this coming? Seriously? You left a computer visible in an unlocked car in a bad neighborhood. Of course it got stolen. duh.
    2) Thief, it is still bad of you to have stolen that computer. Bad thief. Bad.
    In a way it is easier for an individual to defy their own nature than it is for a society to defy its nature. One thief can decide not to steal. However, someone else will steal that computer. To put it another way, say the temptation to steal is like a 1% chance of taking that action. Any individual has a 99% chance of resisting the temptation. However, there are 1000 people to consider. The odds that not one of them will succumb to temptation is .0043%. So even the smallest temptation, when applied across the whole of humanity that will ever exist, will eventually be succumb to. Just a matter of time.

    Courtney: I think there is a difference between a test administered to you individually and a test given to the society as a whole. Consider if you will the fall of Joe Random Carpenter Living in Numenor at the Wrong Time. Joe RCLNWT knows the story of the ban and would like to see it unbroken. He passed the test, right? No, he falls even though he hasn't done a damn thing. The King sails forth anyways because he doesn't care what a Random Carpenter thinks. And since Joe was born on the wrong side of the island and never met Isildur or any of the other faithful then Joe is going to die. He failed the test like the king. If his individual decision was all that mattered to his fate then Numenor should still exist for him, but it doesn't. Instead Joe is dead.

    I think this example illustrates that society is not just made up of individuals, but individuals are then formed by society. Whatever Joe RCLNWT does, if the temptation is great enough then eventually enough of his countrymen are going to fail the test. We are affected by other people failing tests and often we can't do anything about it.

    Jacqueline and RLFB: You are right that redemption is possible at the last minute. God is quite forgiving to those who wish to be forgiven. However, if Tolkien had written that the king had turned back at the last minute, would you have believed it? I wouldn't. It is too radical a character shift. It would require a miracle, a road to Damascus moment, to make me believe that he might turn back.