Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boromir, Sauron and other ramblings.

Shippey’s reading of good and evil in The Lord of the Rings wasn’t required for Monday so I’ll summarize it here. “In Middle-earth, then, both good and evil function as external powers and as inner impulses from the psyche.” (pg. 153)

This reading reconciles the two notions of evil that dominate Christian thought.
Manichaeanism holds that “Good and Evil are equal and opposite and the universe is a battlefield.” (pg. 141) The Boethian view holds that evil is the absence of good and that evil was “not in itself created (but sprang from a voluntary exercise of free will by Satan, Adam and Eve.” (pg.140) Manichaeanism presents good and evil as external whereas Boethius’ view evil is not external (what evil is exactly I will go into a little bit later). I agree with Shippey’s reading and would like to explore in a little more depth how the Boethian view is seen in some aspects of The Lord of the Rings. The reason for this is that I am not familiar with Manichaeanism but am somewhat familiar with Boethius.

Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy” is a text that has colored much of Medieval (and prior) literature. Chaucer took a lot from Boethius. Tolkien certainly encountered Boethius and was probably very thorough with the claims made by him. Shippey gives us the bare essentials of Boethius’ notion of evil but if I intend to study evil in Boethian terms then I think I’ll have to explain in the briefest and simplest possible way, my understanding of his argument.

The argument begins with the premise that creation did not create evil therefore there is no dichotomy between good and evil. Evil comes about when Adam and Eve attempt to change their nature at the temptation of the serpent (Satan). Therefore evil is an act of free will. It is when an individual presents a wrong account of himself or goes against their nature. For Boethius, good is an ontological state of being what you are. Humans are creatures of reason. He is echoing Socrates by suggesting that evil is irrational, therefore a mistake and that a truly rational person (that is a true human) would not do evil (a corollary of this is that evil harms the evildoer). Therefore evil is an absence of reason. Furthermore, when a human uses reason poorly to present a bad account of himself or the world, this too is evil. For example, if one blames one’s unfortunate position on fate instead of the free will you exercised that led to you being in that position, this is a wrong account of the world. Now let us turn to The Lord of the Rings and see which characters give good accounts and which ones present flawed accounts.

Boromir is the classic case of evil existing as a wrong account of the good. Boromir, acting initially from noble impulses, thinks that the ring can be used against Sauron. This implies that the ring can be used as an instrument of the good. This is false but it is a delusion that Boromir insists on perpetuating. Thus we can see that Boethian concept of good and evil has something to do with genuine self-awareness.

Saruman also perpetuates a delusion. Saruman sees himself as an ally of Sauron instead of an instrument. Gandalf tells him that Sauron is not one for sharing and it seems obvious to us but Saruman’s willingness to allow temptations of power to change his essential nature (white transformed into many-colored) is thus a form of Boethian evil because it is self-deception.

Sauron is the most interesting case of evil being a poor account of oneself. Sauron’s ambition is domination which in Boethian terms is an absurd desire. In Boethian terms happiness comes not from power, or possessions but by being true to oneself. It is almost impossible to think of Sauron as happy. At best, one can think of him laughing vindictively. Sauron’s reason has been so entirely perverted that he can never be happy no matter how many races he has dominion over. Of course this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t destroy Sauron. I am not suggesting that evil’s punishment is merely the misfortune of being evil because through the bad logic of evil many innocents suffer and therefore we should actively work against evil. However, it is satisfying to note that no matter what, in terms of happiness, Sauron can never truly win.

And what of the good? The good in The Lord of the Rings present good accounts of themselves. Sam is a wonderful example. His account of himself is honest and pure. (I am Master Frodo’s servant is an easy tenet to embrace) and unclouded with delusions. By staying true to his account of himself he fulfills his duty. Aragorn is also an excellent example. In Bree, he is Strider, nor does he name himself as Aragorn King at the Council of Elrond because he is not yet King. He changes his account of himself only after his nature changes, not preemptively. He is also not inclined to self-deception. I was alarmed by the idea put forward during discussion on Monday that Aragorn claiming all his decisions had gone amiss was an admission of weakness. We can see Boromir blustering on claiming his decisions have been perfect from the beginning but we know this to be a flawed account. Aragorn’s admission of fallibility is heroic and shows him to be self-aware and therefore, good.

Another component of the good that Shippey claims Tolkien is particularly enthralled by is the idea that the good cannot stand down (it cannot relinquish its claim on being the good) even against certain defeat. This heroic ideal embodied by Ragnarok can be understood in Boethian terms as well. If the good is about staying true to one’s nature then we see this stubbornness in the face of defeat is merely the refusal to present a bad account of oneself. This is the highest good in Boethian terms, this is tantamount to Eve refusing the temptations of the serpent. This is showing that good is an act of free will that says I will act with reason, in defense of my nature. Evil is misunderstanding one’s nature and thinking that it is logical to act with free will against it. Tolkien uses Boethius beautifully and deftly in The Lord of the Rings.

It is bothersome to see critiques of Tolkien that say that his ideas about Good and Evil are simplistic and that Tolkien’s fairy stories are bereft of any intellectual tradition. I hope, through this blog post, I have shown that such claims are bereft of logic and present a bad account of Tolkien’s work, and therefore are the absence of good i.e. they’re wrong.

R Rao

7 comments:

  1. Very nice account of the way in which a Boethian reading of the LotR helps us to understand the nature of evil in the story as self-delusion and an effort to act against one's nature. I'm a little confused by how you are using the idea of "nature", however. Aragorn does not so much change his nature as take on the role for which he was born in becoming king. And yet, he is uncertain at first how best to fulfill this role. Perhaps weakness was a bit strong, but there was (as you point out) a consciousness of fallibility and, therefore, an uncertainty which he does not exhibit in quite these terms once he has gone through further trials (at Helm's Deep, in taking the Paths of the Dead, in Gondor). We need some space for thinking about the possibility of change as a fulfillment of character, not necessarily a change in character.

    RLFB

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  2. Indeed, many medieval thinkers presume some kind of fundamental good, all evil being adventitious. I’ve always thought that the Christian tradition, beginning with at least Augustine, has emphasized evil as an act of the will, not necessarily as an act against reason. A reasoning person can err, and an evil person can be very clever. How consoling Boethius’ Consolation is has often been a mystery to me. At any rate, Boethius begins with the question of suffering, which means that the evil that he is rendering an account for begins not as the platonic kind, in which evil is a consequence of a lack of knowledge (the good being unseen), but as something arbitrarily happening to innocent people. Sauron is obviously evil, but is he self-deluded? Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that the narrative he’s told himself is unreal: his suffering is not suffering if he can see it in the right way. But the narrative of Sauron is all too real, as are the stakes. Saruman strikes me as blind and stupid (which I only know because I’m outside the story), resistant to illumination (unlike Boethius in the Consolation), indeed self-deluded. But he doesn't know that. His fault is not self-delusion as such, but in an act of the will that resists illumination. Boromir has noble motives, even if they are founded on foolhardy grounds. But I very much agree with the point you end on: good is an act of the will in defense of one’s nature. This makes good a choice, a striving upward, instead of an abstraction that one must seek to understand. Like evil, I don’t know if it can be understood.
    JCT

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  3. Indeed, many medieval thinkers presume some kind of fundamental good, all evil being adventitious. I’ve always thought that the Christian tradition, beginning with at least Augustine, has emphasized evil as an act of the will, not necessarily as an act against reason. A reasoning person can err, and an evil person can be very clever. How consoling Boethius’ Consolation is has often been a mystery to me. At any rate, Boethius begins with the question of suffering, which means that the evil that he is rendering an account for begins not as the platonic kind, in which evil is a consequence of a lack of knowledge (the good being unseen), but as something arbitrarily happening to innocent people. Sauron is obviously evil, but is he self-deluded? Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that the narrative he’s told himself is unreal: his suffering is not suffering if he can see it in the right way. But the narrative of Sauron is all too real, as are the stakes. Saruman strikes me as blind and stupid (which I only know because I’m outside the story), resistant to illumination (unlike Boethius in the Consolation), indeed self-deluded. But he doesn't know that. His fault is not self-delusion as such, but in an act of the will that resists illumination. Boromir has noble motives, even if they are founded on foolhardy grounds. But I very much agree with the point you end on: good is an act of the will in defense of one’s nature. This makes good a choice, a striving upward, instead of an abstraction that one must seek to understand. Like evil, I don’t know if it can be understood.
    JCT

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  4. @JCT I think you are absolutely right. You phrased it very well indeed with ,"His(Sauron) fault is not self-delusion as such, but in an act of the will that resists illumination."

    R Rao

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  5. Reading LOTR and watching the movies, I must admit that there was something about Boromir that bothered me; mainly, that he could be so convinced that the Ring could be used against Sauron, completely disregarding the warnings of Elrond and Gandalf. After all, if there was anyone who knew the extent of the Ring’s power, it would be those two. And now that I think about it, I’m still a bit baffled by his actions, and even more by his intentions. One thing that I did find interesting about your post was that you would choose to label the absence of reason as an evil. Like JCT said in the post above, I too had primarily thought of evil as an act of free will. Yet, the more I think about it, the more I see that both these definitions of evil pretty much say the same thing. The gift of Free Will grants both the chance of being reasonable and unreasonable, of acting in accordance with or against human nature. Boromir chose to believe that the Ring could be used to defeat the enemy, despite the fact that the very idea was unreasonable. This doesn’t serve as an excuse for his actions, but I think it speaks of the complexity presented by evil in LOTR.
    -Selene M.

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  6. Like Selene, I was (am?) perpetually confused and dissatisfied with Boromir’s desire to use the Ring against its maker. In addition to the excellent points described above, I would elaborate on why Boromir might have thought and behaved so unreasonably. Faced with the perceived challenge of Aragorn, Boromir lets his pride overwhelm reason. His pride extends beyond his own personal strength—he truly seems to believe that the best Men (of Minas Tirith) can overcome the Ring’s corrupting influence. Indeed his own strength is great, but recognizing one’s own limits is clearly a necessary element of the good. Boromir’s stubbornness does become almost ridiculous before he is finally overwhelmed by the Ring, demonstrating again and again that his self-concept is deeply flawed.

    I started this post as an attempt to address some of Boromir’s unreasonable actions, but I finish with even more questions. As tempting as it is to ask why—looking at Boromir’s upbringing, personal expectations, etc.—any attempt to rationalize his behavior is inherently futile. By trying to explain Boromir’s false beliefs—to ease my own confusion as much as anything—it seems I have instead further emphasized the complications at hand.

    -AS

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  7. R Rao, excellent post. As someone who has read Boethius but didn’t understand him fully, I appreciate this post very much. I particularly like how you made it clear that Boethius, and Tolkien, understood evil to be a perversion of human nature and that human beings, who are naturally governed by laws of reason, commit evil acts when they disregard reason and go against their nature. I am wondering though what Tolkien would say to thinkers and philosophers who do not take such a kind look to humanity and consider evil to be a part of human nature rather than a departure from it. This quarter, I took a class on a Polish writer who seemed to be dissatisfied with everyone and everything and who considered evil to be a foundational constitutive of human nature. What would Tolkien and Boethius say about a philosophy like this one? Is there anyway to maybe reconcile the two sides together? It seems to me though that there is no such possibility because Tolkien and Boethius seem to assert that human beings in their nature have a connection to a higher power while what this Polish writer argues is that there is no such connection. Fundamentally then these two sides cannot be reconciled, something which worries me greatly because, instead of fully prescribing to one philosophy, what if, like me, you waffle between them both?
    BenFinn

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