Thursday, May 8, 2014

Self-Worship, Self-Denial: Thoughts on Good and Evil

It has long been discussed, the nature of good and evil.  The interaction is describable—homo homini lupus [1] and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” [2]—and aloof.  We have described evil as the absence; the deliberate, contemptuous denial of the good that is the world of God, yet this alone is opaque and needs to be unpacked.  Through The Lord of the Rings, it is possible to make these statements slightly more tangible by a brief study on the characters and those who interact with the Ring.

The One Ring is power.  This seems largely without opposition in Tolkien’s opus: they who wield the ring have the might to dominate the peoples of Middle-Earth.  What does it mean, though, to dominate?  To desire the ability to impress one’s will upon the freedom of sentient beings?  It means to subvert the good works of God, to attempt to pervert them to something apart from Creation.  That, is evil.  Sauron created the One Ring with his malice in the desire to rule the minds of the world.  Desire to rule, desire for power over creation—a wish to extend oneself into and over the world and to be adored for it.  In a single phrase, this evil is a self-worship.

Sauron is definitely one of the more blatant of cases, though self-worship as evil arises in a number of spots in the Lord of the Rings.  Those men who were ensnared by the One with the Nine gained power and wealth over their people [3]; Fëanor gloried in his radiant gems, reveling in the praise of his creation and loathe to part with them [4]; in brief possession of the Ring, Sam saw himself a powerful warrior in possession of a garden of the lands; the Númenórian kings fancied themselves, in their adoration of self, equals to the Valar, and others.  Those who succumb to the desire of self-worship are those doomed to evil.

So how then do we describe evil’s ever-present foil, those who are good?  Simply taking that distillate of evil (self-worship), its opposite stands as self-denial.  That is, denial of the extraneous desires of the individual in the light of preserving the freedoms and wills of others.  Sam is able to give up his desires for glory by focusing on his master.  Gandalf passes his test through his desire to preserve the freedoms of Middle-Earth.  Frodo willingly sacrifices himself through his journey and humility, fully expecting to not survive the venture for, at first, the good of the Shire, and later Creation.

In light of this opposition, the allure of the Ring—and that power to dominate that it represents—is curious.  The Ring is possessed of a will of its own, influencing and seeking the one through which it can dominate.  Its influence is, as Shippey notes, addicting, and the desire to impose one’s will grows steadily in the minds of those around or in contact with It, corrupting them with aspirations of absolute power. [5]  Why is it that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?”  Are all sentient beings possessed on some level of the desire of self-worship?  For it seems that this dedication to power is ultimately undoing: Gollum’s addiction to the power of the Ring and his struggle with Frodo leads ultimately to the Ring’s demise; Melkor and Sauron, in their respective quests to dominate, were ultimately undone more completely than they sought to impose their wills.  The worldly content of good and evil tends to flow in cycles, that evil might arise anew and ultimately be destroyed—that, in another cliché, the “good guys always win in the end.”

What is it that causes this case of good-versus-evil to arise in cycles?  If the addiction and draw to evil ultimately destroys those who indulge the wiles of the Ring, why should the world not be all-good?  The bare beginnings of the answer may lie in the fact that good and evil are a self-consistent dialectic—should one (e.g. good) exist, then so too must the other by way of absence or denial (e.g. evil).  In this framework, there is always the potential for evil to arise where there is good—in Biblical terms, following the Original Sin.

It may be that, as mortal beings—or even immortal—apart from and incapable of perceiving the Mind of God, that we shall never know the reason for these cycles.  Tolkien certainly offers no explanation—Melkor, in his apparent free will, always sought and desired the Imperishable Flame. [6]  Sauron is tempted and falls with the will of Melkor.  Countless others, in their free will, turn to the power and impressing will of the Enemy.  It is possible that the potential for evil—for the desire of self-worship—is simply a facet of free will itself.  If it were not, then it would not be “free” will; though why this may be is known fully only to God.

-M. Maskeri

[1] “Man is a wolf to man,” Roman proverb; referenced here that man preys upon himself and others
[2] Mark 12:31.
[3] Tolkien. Silmarillion 289; kings of men glorify themselves by the stature of their position and wealth
[4] ibid. 78; this small example, while not perhaps on the level of Sauron or the Nazgûl, does epitomize the (start of the) fall from grace that is visible in the fall of the Númenórians
[5] ibid. 301. Shippey. The Road to Middle Earth 139
[6] Silmarillion 16.


  1. I enjoyed your reflections on this week's themes. I wanted to add a thought about self-worship. Human creatures in both Tolkien's legendarium and the Christian story are made of the stuff of God (or Eru). There is some sense, then, that in worshiping yourself you are worshiping God. There is a hint of this in the bible verse about one's body being a temple. Even though I think that verse is sometimes interpreted in a very moralizing way, I think at its most basic, good self-worship would be good self-care. It's sort of like being stewards of the earth (something humans do a pretty terrible job of as it is), but instead of the earth, one must tend to one's body with the same care. If self-worship can be good how is it that it can sometimes lead to such evil, as you rightly point out? I think the distinction is one you also bring up, which is that it is self-worship plus the desire for others to worship you as well, and thus equating yourself with God. In the example of self-care I gave, there is no desire for others to worship you also. You wish to care for your body because God gave it to you and it is therefore good.


  2. You say "Tolkien certainly offers no explanation [for the cycles of good and evil]" and I wonder if this is the case with regard to men. Remember, Tolkien wrote that men yearned for something beyond this world and could never be satisfied in it (this, to my eyes, is the simple answer of why the Numenoreans could not remain satisfied with their worldly paradise). Failing to find happiness in the world, some try to create that happiness by remaking the world in their own image, the self worship you describe. We might extend this to Melkor as well, he yearns for the completion of the Imperishable Flame, but cannot attain it, and thus attempts to warp it to his will.

    The other question I have is whether Tolkien would accept that good and evil must always accompany each other, does that accord with his Catholic sense of the end of the world? I wonder where he would turn to resolve this.