Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Temptation and "Hidden" Free Will

I suppose it's not altogether surprising that thoughts about this class and its themes and questions have crept into other areas of my life. This phenomenon was particularly striking to me this week, since I have just finished analyzing a passage concerning the interaction between free will and temptation for another class. The way this passage (from the Probation of Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi) describes free will in an instance of great temptation was at first slightly counter-intuitive to me, but after analyzing and understanding it more, I do think that it's an extremely helpful way of thinking about the effects of temptation, particularly when considering the cases in which Frodo is tempted by the Ring (ie. when looking at our “Choice?” column from class).

In the Probation, the nuns describe instances when Maria is tempted by the devil as times when her free will is not taken from her, but rather it is hidden from her. In the same way that, in the material world, it is harder to use an object when we cannot easily find it, Maria still can use her free will – it is merely much more difficult to do so. (In her case, this is happening as a part of a test set out for her by God.)

This seems to me to be a very apt image to keep in mind when considering how the power of the Ring works over Frodo. The temptation of the Ring (which seems to vary in degree with relation to his location and the circumstances in which he finds himself, as well as how long he has carried it) makes it far more difficult for Frodo to summon the will to prevent himself from slipping on the Ring, for it has, in a sense, been hidden from him. Consider as an example the passage at Cirith Ungol when Frodo's hand moves to the Ring as though compelled by some other force. After the outside power has begun to move Frodo's hand toward the Ring, “his own will stirred; slowly it forced the hand back and set it to find another thing...” (Bk 4, Ch 8). It is not the case that Frodo temporarily lost his will – he is not without it. Instead, it is merely hidden from him for the moment, and it must be “stirred” or found in order for Frodo to express it. Though it seems a time of temptation is just when our will should be most accessible to us, it seems rather to be a time when it is most hidden from us. Thus, we must rely on even greater strength than ever to overcome the temptation and find and use our own will.

But why must we be tested by temptation in this way? Why can't we keep our will handy and accessible at all times?

I believe that this can be explained though one of my favorite brief exchanges in the whole trilogy, which comes shortly after one of the Faramir passages we were assigned to read for class. Within the assigned passage, upon learning that Frodo bears the Ring, Faramir proclaims that it is “A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality!” (Bk 4, Ch 5). He says this in his moment of decision – this show of quality would be to return the Ring to his father at Minas Tirith. Afterward though, after Frodo has gone to sleep and Sam is preparing to do the same, Sam speaks to Faramir about the latter's previous remark:
“'Good night, Captain, my lord,' he said, 'You took the chance, sir.'
'Did I so?' said Faramir.
'Yes sir, and showed your quality: the very highest'” (Bk 4, Ch 5).

And Sam is correct. It is our choices that define the quality of our character and enable us to prove or demonstrate that quality to others. For that act of proof to truly mean anything, we must face challenges and temptations; it must be, at times, difficult for us to “find” the will to make the decision that we know must be made. One's quality must be tested before it may be lauded. In the same way, we see that no one will succeed every single time; no one is perfect. Similar to the conclusion in our discussion of whether Feanor's sins make him “evil,” we are thus led to reason that some badness or weakness does not ruin one's quality entirely. This is why, though Frodo does not complete his task in the appointed way, his personal quality is not to be blamed, nor did the quest actually fail. Though he faltered in that one final instance, caving to the immense power of the Ring's temptation, he had already established his quality over the course of all the other choices that had faced him over the course of the journey. Most notably, he had spared Gollum – the choice that ultimately allowed Gollum to be present at Mount Doom and to ensure that the quest was, in the end, completed. Frodo's quality was tested time after time, and one instance of “failure” was not enough to overpower the true representation he had established of himself as a good and merciful person. For that overarching quality, he was redeemed.

(Since I'm sure most of our page numbers are different, I've given books and chapters for the Lord of the Rings references/quotes.)

-Catrina D.


  1. Also having read the De' Pazzi Probation (hooray, Demonology!) I experienced the same kind of overlap as you did. I had been struggling, however, with what exactly her "hidden" free will was--at first I thought it was just a way to explain her actions without compromising the God-given gift of choice, but the way you connect it to LotR and Frodo in particular makes more sense, and for both works as well. Also, I can't help but think of Harry Potter (revealing me as a true child of Gen Y) and Dumbledore's reminder that "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Perhaps it's too easy to compare Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings (and I feel a bit cheap doing it here) but I think that Tolkien would have agreed, especially given his idea of limits and intention as the true measure of someone's heroism, regardless of whether or not they "failed."


  2. I think there’s an aspect of the free will conundrum which we haven’t considered yet—the role grace plays in decisions and consequence. To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia: “As pure nature is in itself completely incapable of performing salutary acts through its own strength, actual grace must come to the rescue of its incapacity and supply the deficient powers…Grace, as a moral cause, presupposes the existence of obstacles which render the work of salvation so difficult that their removal is morally impossible without special Divine help.”

    Frodo, I think, is a prime example of this. By the time he reaches Mt. Doom, he is facing obstacles so steep that just his nature is incapable of surmounting them. So, grace rushes in to supply the deficient powers. Not only that, but grace comes in the form of Gollum—whom Frodo spared out of mercy, which is in itself an act born from grace. Tolkien would never have dismissed the importance of the choices all his characters make, for grace does not seek to diminish the weight decisions carry. However, when he sets his characters up against such great obstacles, I have to wonder if he doesn’t also seek to give them great aid.

    While I don’t disagree that at times free will can be “hidden” from us or that we can be mislead—which is a very cool thought, and one I haven’t heard before—I think that Tolkien is confident in the idea of grace making up the difference.

    ~Sarah Gregory

  3. That's one of my favorite passages, too; indeed, one of my favorite words in the whole book as Tolkien uses it: "quality" here becomes the essence of one's character, more important than social status or talent or any of the other things that one might point to. Faramir's quality is of the highest and it has to do with the choices he makes, not his prowess as a warrior or even as a captain, but it only becomes clear (as you rightly say) when it is put to the test. That said, I'm not sure about the idea of one's free will being "hidden" nor am I certain that this helps us understand what is happening with Frodo, but it is an intriguing parallel that you suggest with Maria Maddelena.


  4. Another telling passage that seems to support your post is Frodo's internal struggle at the Amon Hen. Being on the Seat of Seeing, he was able to see all around him, and everywhere he saw signs of war. The Misty Mountains, Mirkwood, Moria, and the rest of his field of vision was under the influence of the great war that was beginning to break out- the catalyst of which, Barad-dûr, suddenly came into vision and held his gaze. "Wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of stell, tower of adamant, he saw it. . . All hope left him."
    The temptation to give in to such an all-encompassing threat almost obscured his will, as he couldn't deem whether he heard himself saying "never, never" or "verily I come, I come to you. " Along with these, another voice (Gandalf's) telling him not to give in to the Ring, and "the two powers strove in him." Finally he was able to throw these both off: "Suddenly he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose."
    It's moments like this, and keeping in mind his mercy towards Gollum as well, that lead me to agree with you in deeming his quest a success despite his ultimate failure at the Sammath Naur.


  5. I think this is an excellent way to think about Frodo’s situation, at those times when it is difficult to tell whether or not Frodo has, or is able to exercise, free will. We see him at times struggling between two competing voices/impulses, or being overcome for a moment before exerting himself to resist. I find it helpful to think of Frodo’s free will as being “hidden” at these times, or in some way inaccessible or forgotten to him. I think at times of great difficulty, part of the difficulty is feeling that we are trapped, not given a choice, or have to choose amongst only bad options; the reality is that we always have a choice, even among limited options, but sometimes forget that we are able to choose despite the constraints.

    You also make a good point that our true character can’t be fully known (to ourselves or others) until it is tested. Whatever lies inside us makes no impact on the world, has no practical purpose, until it comes out through action, and that often requires circumstances that will provoke such action. Likewise, you are right to note that no one gets it right every time and so one lapse in a series of good acts does not equal “failure.”