Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Free Will and Human Nature

           Although our lengthy discussions in class and on the blog about the nature and meaning of evil have often raised more questions than they've answered, some things have been made quite clear indeed. One of these is that we (members of this class and of the race of men) don’t want to be good angels. We don’t blame the Númenoreans for their fall. Many of us even claim we would do the same.
 One consideration that seemed to be brought up quite often on the topic of why we would ourselves be bad Númenorians, or at the very least why we don’t fault them entirely for the fall of Númenor, is that to some extent it seemed inevitable. Or rather, it was “human nature,” a concept which I think warrants some attention within our discussion of evil and free will. In our discussion of the bad Númenorians we often attributed their fall to unshakable internal motivations, for example the desire to improve one’s lot, to strive for something, to challenge authority, to know the truths that are kept secret from them, or even to “push the big red button.” Moreover, these motivations seem somehow to be inherent in human nature. While it is clear that Sauron pushed and manipulated the Númenorians, contributing to their turn away from the Valar, the changes taking place among men, the rage, violence, and fear of death, were already present. In fact, it seems that even without Sauron’s influence it was only a matter of time before they fell on their own—that to do so is simply a part of being human.
Moreover, this is not the only instance of human nature leading men to such an end. One very common trend noticeable throughout Tolkien’s work is that history tends to repeat itself time after time. Nothing happens only once. Even the Lord of the Rings itself is not the only—or even the first—story of its kind in Tolkien’s history. Not only is it not the first time forces of middle earth have sought to destroy Sauron, but Sauron himself, as we have seen, is a repetition of sorts, a subordinate of Morgoth following in his footsteps. Even the fall of Númenor which we have been discussing was not the original fall of man but the second, for man as a race had already fallen long before. When man fell the first time, falling under the sway of Morgoth, the ancestors of the Númenorians remained loyal to Iluvatar, and yet in time even they made the same mistakes as their ancestors, following Sauron to their doom. Thus it seems that even when some men succeed, and manage not to succumb to what might be considered their nature, they are not free from its influence, or from future failure.
If these aspects of human nature are truly as inescapable as this story makes them seem, what does that say about the free will that men are so explicitly given in Tolkien’s world? In order to fully discuss the concepts of evil and free will with respect to men in Tolkien’s works, we must first consider why it is that despite the free will granted to men to deviate at their will from the music of Iluvatar, nevertheless the same repeating patterns are visible throughout history. Certainly it is difficult to consider men as having this free will when they are seen to make the same decisions again and again almost without fail. It is this line of thought which takes us to the idea of the fall as Númenor as being inevitable according to man’s nature, and perhaps to question the true extent of man’s free will.
            In order to consider the origins of this nature, and perhaps even its consequences, one must keep in mind the origin and the creation of men according to the Sillmarillion. As Flieger discusses, man came about not in the first song, when the music was all according to the plan of Iluvatar, nor the second, when it was corrupted by the interference of Morgoth’s music. Rather, they came into being during the third song, when Iluvatar took the interfering music of Morgoth and worked it into his own greater piece. “The children come with, not (as might be expected) in the third scheme, which is not just the result of Melkor’s rebellion, but also Iluvatar’s acceptance of it and decision to work with it” (Flieger 128). While we know that man was created by Iluvatar alone, it still seem that there is something of Melkor inherent in human nature, quite possibly as a result of these origins. If humans then are not free of this nature are they truly free of the song itself?

            The question that we must ask then is what does it mean to have free will if it always leads to the same things. Is it really free will at all? If it is and men really can change the music they why do the persist in repeating the same mistakes? Is it really possible for men to change these trends in history—could the Númeorians have, perhaps, resisted their nature and prevented the fall of Númenor—or are men just as constrained by their nature as elves are by the music? Although there is clearly much to discuss on these subjects, my inclination based on what we’ve read so far is to believe that despite man’s freedom within the music they are nevertheless still shaped by their natures and their role in the music in such a way that the fall of Númenor was inevitable, and that even for men to change the music is not as easily done as one might think.



  1. I agree with you. It seems that mankind has the ability to make free choices, but they seem to fit patterns within the music itself. As the early men fell and allied with Morgoth against the Valar, so did the Númenorians fall, albeit eventually, in both cases with a select few exceptions. It seems that they fell, in both cases, due to a lack of understanding and acceptance of how the Valar expected them to behave. In the case of the earlier transgression, it mentions that almost all the men fought for Morgoth. That said, it seems that the Valar never step into Middle-earth to correct any action until it is of the most dire need. As a result, I can only wonder how aware the men were of the Valar and their positions. The second time, when Númenor fell, it seems that the men were told (thousands of years in the past) “Don't go past here.” While we talked about the desire to “push the big red button” in class, I can't help but feel that there is more at work here. Even the kings of Númenor never met the Valar in person and seemed to have little contact besides the elves who would would come out every so often to bring gifts. It seems that the Valar will be content to watch a completely deteriorating state (even one they loved) move ever closer to the transgression without even sending a message. As a result, I wonder that it took so long for Númenor to fall, given a distinct lack of correction. Although, I suppose it could be argued that the pattern guaranteed some faithful.


  2. Of course there are patterns in human behavior; humans are not completely different from one another. But I think it would be a mistake to claim that this fact negates the idea of free will, for two reasons. The first is that mistakes can be corrected and errors identified. To draw an analogy to the history of science, consider the Greeks. They made wonderful strides in geometry and not only proved the Earth is round but accurately calculated its diameter, but when confronted with the movement of the heavenly bodies or the fundamental substances that make up all things, they lapsed into assumption and fallacy. Their mistakes were later rectified, but Copernicus and Galileo made mistakes of their own (Galileo insisted in perfectly circular orbits despite Kepler having proved they were not much earlier). Their errors were identified but others were made, and so on it continues. Our view of the universe is not perfect, but it is better. I believe the same can happen with strength of character and moral fiber. The second reason is that it only takes one person to break the pattern, and anyone can be that person. Again turning to science, many people could have discovered calculus or gravity or evolution or genetics, but one person (or a handful of people) actually did, and those discoveries changed the course of history. Similarly, one person can convince others to resist Evil (we might even say that this one person “redeems” the others; I wonder if that idea has been explored anywhere?).

  3. I’m really glad you brought this up! It seems that ‘human nature’ has been taken for granted by all of us (definitely by me, according to my first reactions to the readings) but I think you’re right in pointing out the difficulties of reconciling a seemingly inevitable ‘nature’ with free will.

    Supposedly, Iluvatar gave humans a ‘nature’ distinct from that he gave to the First Born. As you’ve put nicely in your post, humans were gifted or endowed with an internal tendency or desire to ‘improve one’s lot, to strive for something, to challenge authority’, etc. In other words, to dabble in or toe the line of evil, to act in ways that might diverge from the placid goodness of the elves. That being said, free will seems to be the ability to push back against this innate impulse. This is pretty straight forward; what really confuses me is the point you made about history being cyclical, that the mistakes of the Numenoreans are inevitable and unavoidable. I don’t have a strong response to this, just some scattered reflections. The elves, despite their more amenable natures, also make the same mistakes repeatedly; they are likewise involved in scraps against Melkor and Sauron, and are occasionally tempted by ‘evil’ powers. Their will (or Elvish nature) is a whole other animal than man’s, yet they seem stuck in the same cycle. Is Iluvatar’s song stuck on repeat? Is this self-destructive ‘re-set’ really inevitable, and if not, is it still desirable? -mcs

  4. Tolkien would say this is the definition of the Fall: although human beings were created with free will, it is fallen, and we are now ultimately incapable of choosing the good without grace. RLFB

  5. Dear EF,
    First off, I read but did not finish a comment on this post before my trip and it’s a pity its now so late!

    I think you’re quite right to pick up on the pattern of building conflict, resistance, and loss in Tolkien’s histories. Regarding these patterns, your question whether free will is undermined by an inevitability of failure and defeat is a difficult one. If we cannot find positive evidence for free will, is there real evidence in the text (outside the pattern) that the Numenoreans’ will were externally-constrained? Unlike the Noldor’s doomed war for the Silmarils, is it significant that the Numenoreans never had a doom laid upon them nor was their doom prophesied?

    Secondly, Tolkien’s tales of defeat seem to resonate with classic tragedy in that the heroes bring their downfall upon themselves. Would the sorrow and loss of these repeated failures be so poignant if they were constrained to fall?

  6. It certainly does seem like men are destined to continue to repeat their same mistakes over and over again, but I’m not entirely convinced this is fully due to a lack of free will. I agree with Alex’s comment, especially the idea that one person can break the pattern and change the way humanity reacts to a situation. When I think of “human nature”, I think of what a gut-reaction might be for the average person. I don’t think that reaction is necessarily something fully innate to humans though- I think society and the context of an event are important to determining how someone reacts to a situation. The particular situation that the Númenoreans were in must have had an effect on the way the events took place, so even with complete free will the outcome of the Fall may not have changed. To me, man’s free will may even play a role in determining a societal and contextual environment, which would in turn determine the reactions of the people within that environment. In that sense, maybe the consequences of the past decisions of a people are what lock them into a certain outcome? But it would still be their original actions that put them in that situation. The Men of Numenor certainly were free to do as they liked before these events occurred. -S. Rajan

  7. I feel the same way as RLFB because everything should relate to what we understand of Christian thought. The fall is when humans shows that they had free will and could make a mistake against what God asks. Why then, is it repeated? After the fall, humans are fallible, they make mistakes, and they choose the wrong path. Then it is our responsibility to ask for forgiveness for our sins. Tolkien’s point is that we cannot be inherently good with respect to free will ever since the fall. We were granted free will and as such make choices against God, otherwise it wouldn’t really be free will.

    History repeats itself because existence is a struggle between good and evil. There will always (since the fall of Melkor and then the fall of the children of Illuvatar) be evil, and it is the responsibility of the good to fight against that. Even once good prevails and destroys the ring in this case, there is still evil, and there will always be evil and struggle (like Saruman taking over the Shire). But that is not a statement on free will, that is a statement on the existence and struggles of intelligent beings.