Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Identity and Ignorance, Good and Evil

How does identity play a part in choices?

In class we've drawn a simple bright line between free will and dominion, and how they are respectively the epitome of good and evil. Even for choices that blur the line slightly, the general categorization either still fits or an exception exists. Generally this example is one of coercion; the Ring controlled Frodo at the time, etc. Recognizing the evil in one's heart, it follows, is then acknowledging the choices that one can make and acting accordingly.

Identity is key in Tolkien's world. Taking or dominating another's identity is evil. Treebeard's home is a perfect example of identity's importance: the wood conveniently shaped itself to serve the needs of a house, not through coercion but rather because of its very nature. The Palantiri are examples of dominating identity; when one looks into a Stone, one must fight the will of Sauron to keep from being utterly corrupted and falling under his control. Items of elven make are not exactly magical but rather have innate characteristics that can be construed as magic: Anduril and Sting hate orcs, Galadriel's mirror shows what it wills without her controlling it, etc. Items of evil, on the other hand (the One Ring, the Ringwraith rings?) attempt to assert their identity over others and co-opt identity.

While choices can be based on identity, knowing oneself can override free will and choice by simply asserting a principle. The Ring has no power over Sam, not because he chooses against it (indeed, he took the Ring from Frodo and even put it on in Mordor itself) but because the Ring simply cannot gain a hook into Sam's identity to corrupt it. Sam desires to be a simple gardner, a wish that the Ring does not have the power to grant. Similarly, Tom Bombadil, being his own master, has no to change his own or else's identity. In contrast, anyone with willpower who wishes to wield the Ring for good or evil, such as Gandalf, Galadriel, and Saruman, desire to change people for better or worse, and so fall under the Ring's sway; Gandalf and Galadriel must make a conscious choice to turn away from the Ring, and it costs them something to do so. While it does not seem so at superficial glance, their identity, once again, dictated the choice that they would have to make.

Take this idea a step further. Throughout the book, every major choice is fairly well predicted and dictated by a character's identity: Faramir will let Frodo go, Aragorn will rejoin his people, Pippin will look into the Palantir, Gandalf will do everything that Gandalf does. On the other side, you can fairly predictably rely on Gollum to betray Frodo, Frodo to forgive Gollum, Saruman to refuse to surrender, and Sauron being supremely arrogantly evil and so launch an attack on Gondor. In fact, the only confusion of choice, where the reader is left in possible suspense, is at the end, when Frodo fails and claims the Ring for his own; I cannot imagine too many people expected that, after all of Frodo's successes against it.

So how free is the idea of choice, then? If whatever one chooses will be a foregone or at least predictable conclusion, then having free will holds less meaning if one will not exercise it. The simplest answer would be that as long as someone chooses to act true to his identity, that is still exercising free will, and anything that would make him act contrary to his identity would mean that he is being in some way coerced or dominated.

Is a choice made in ignorance considered evil?

In Tolkien's world, while the ability to choose may be good, there is usually a “right” and “wrong” choice. What happens, however, when ignorance of a situation or identity takes away the apparent right to choose? Does this count as depriving someone of choice, and so will that person's subsequent action be evil?

This does not seem to follow at first, but look at a few examples. Returning to Sam, when he believes Frodo dead he takes the Ring, ostensibly to complete the Quest, but then immediately fails his will save and puts it on, almost dooming the Quest; he was ignorant of Frodo's condition and of the power of the Ring. Boromir, at the Council of Imaldris, demands that the Ring be sent to Gondor and its power wielded for good, not knowing the corrupting nature of the Ring. Pippin, driven by simple curiosity, looks into the Palantir and so exposes his mind to the will of Sauron. Grima Wormtongue makes Theoden believe that he has no choices or options until Gandalf clears his mind. Denethor believes that after the death of Faramir, he has no choice but to give up the city and take his own life, not knowing that Faramir was still alive and help was on the way. All of these examples, driven by ignoranace, have disastrous consequences throughout the book until, in some cases, knowledge illuminates the situation and allows the character to re-make his choice or fix his mistake. The initial actions, however, certainly served the purposes of Sauron, and could even be construed as evil; all these choices were actively motivated and generally involved the domination or command of other people or things. Counterexamples, when characters act properly despite remaining ignorant, do not readily spring to mind.

What these two mini-examples imply, then, is that to exercise free will and choice in a “good” way, one must know one's identity and know the situation before acting, otherwise the purposes of evil may be served. Simply possessing free will is not enough; it must be properly wielded, otherwise it can still be easily corrupted and tainted from its original purpose.

The two questions I pose in this post are fairly open-ended and intended for discussion; while I do take a stance and will advocate it, it is mostly in the interests of providing a starting point and giving something to attack and defend so we can explore the answers in greater detail.

-Prashant Parmar

6 comments:

  1. I can think of one counter-example quite quickly: the choice that Aragorn has to make whether to sleep or go on and risk losing the trail. At that point, he is still in ignorance of what has happened to Merry and Pippin, just as Sam was in ignorance of what had happened to Frodo or Denethor was in ignorance of what had happened to Faramir. Or does this not fit your criterion of ignorance?

    RLFB

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  2. I've been wondering why the Ring doesn't affect Sam. You say that it doesn't because it cannot gain a grasp on Sam's identity. I agree, but I think it also has to do with possession; Sam already has a master whom he willingly and lovingly serves- Frodo. Therefore, there is no room for the Ring to act as Sam's master and exert influence over him. I think that the Ring seeks out people who are wayward and lacking dedication so that the Ring can be Master. Contrary to what we think, a person cannot be Master of the Ring, rather the Ring consumes a person until there's nothing left. I don't think there is much "choice" or "free will", as you said. I think the characters are merely players in some grander scheme. Everyone acts according to their nature; for example, you can count on Pippin's curiosity to land him in hot water. Does he actively make these choices? I'm not so sure; they seem like inevitabilities to me.

    A. Demma

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  3. I’m not sure that the line we drew between free will and dominion/coercion is necessarily parallel to a line between good and evil. Knowledge can help make a right choice, but ignorance doesn’t necessarily affect the choice as a choice. What evil it may serve is immediately invisible. Nor does knowledge necessarily help one make a right choice either. The image that we drew of free will, I thought, was one that was more neutral, a characteristic of existence that permitted choice between paths, whose ramifications were unclear. But talking of free will is too abstract for me: free choice makes more sense to me (and was the preferred term for some medieval thinkers, before the scholastics). I appreciate your points about self-knowledge. A lack of self-knowledge can certainly impair, and stand as an obstacle to achievement (this is where Frodo is, always between impulses, in touch with something dark within as well as with something noble - or is he coming to a greater self-knowledge in this?). But when you extend the need for knowledge to the situation, you seem to want the characters to be more than they are, almost like gods, gods alone for whom, besides the readers, the characters might look morally ignorant instead of just retrospectively stupid (or, more kindly, ill-informed). Are you not talking about right choice more than free choice? Not only is a choice not really a choice if it is compelled; but it’s not really a choice if it’s not critical (i.e., if the consequences are visible). The journey is about critical choices, because there’s always a fork in the road.
    JCT

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  4. RFLB- I don’t know how strong of an example that is though. Even if he’s ignorant of Merry and Pippin’s status, the choice of going forth in the search seems to be an easy one, and one whose worst outcome would be far from disastrous. Of course, I say this as I’m about to go to sleep, so it’s easy for me to say that brushing off sleep is of course the right option haha

    Gollum seems to be one of the harder characters to pin down in terms of identity. After hundreds of years with the Ring, is his true nature still Sméagol or is it Gollum? He seems about ready to make the choice to deliver them from Shelob on the stairs of Cirith Ungol until Sam wakes up and scolds him.
    I’ve always found the diverging personalities of Gollum to be fascinating. One of my favorite parts of the movies continues to be the dilation/constriction of his pupils when switching between the two.

    -MA

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  5. RFLB- I don’t know how strong of an example that is though. Even if he’s ignorant of Merry and Pippin’s status, the choice of going forth in the search seems to be an easy one, and one whose worst outcome would be far from disastrous. Of course, I say this as I’m about to go to sleep, so it’s easy for me to say that brushing off sleep is of course the right option haha

    Gollum seems to be one of the harder characters to pin down in terms of identity. After hundreds of years with the Ring, is his true nature still Sméagol or is it Gollum? He seems about ready to make the choice to deliver them from Shelob on the stairs of Cirith Ungol until Sam wakes up and scolds him.
    I’ve always found the diverging personalities of Gollum to be fascinating. One of my favorite parts of the movies continues to be the dilation/constriction of his pupils when switching between the two.

    -MA

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  6. In response to your second question, I do still think that the "correctness" of the choice made, whether in ignorance or not, matters when discussing what is good and what is evil - Tolkien does not seem to subscribe to an ends-based system of morality. Though all of the characters you list make some bad decisions, by the end of the trilogy we definitely do not see them as moral equals. Pippin is pretty thoroughly heroic, as much as someone who is not divine (ie Gandalf, etc.) can be, and when one examines what he did - looking into the Palantìr out of curiosity - there is nothing inherently evil in the action. Théoden, who also comes out as squarely heroic, is slightly trickier, because it depends on the degree to which you think it was Théoden acting or whether Wormtongue entirely controlled his mind. Nevertheless, Thédoden never actively helped the forces of evil, but instead did nothing. Boromir falls more into a grey zone - though his heroic qualities are acknowledged within universe, so are his failings. Even though his choice that you give was made in ignorance of the corrupting nature of the ring, Boromir still tried to take control of an item that, by his reckoning, should have belonged to Aragorn or at least Frodo. Denethor, though not evil in the way that Morgoth, Sauron, or even Saruman is, is still a darker shade of grey than any of the other characters you mentioned. Though he did not know that his actions would have killed Faramir, he did know that they would kill himself - and suicide is a grave sin by the reckoning of Catholics such as Tolkien.

    Though all characters acted in ignorance, they made choices of varying degrees of moral "correctness" and that seems to play in how readers view them overall.

    Taylor Ehlis

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