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.