Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Purpose of Free Will

Our last class ended without providing an answer to a very intriguing question. What do you do when you give your creations free will and they use it “inappropriately”? In this context, I am mainly concerned with Ilúvatar in The Silmarillion providing his children with free will, however the same comparisons can be made to human beings in the primary reality and our creator, God. What do I mean by “inappropriate” use of free will? Is not the whole idea behind having free will the ability to choose one’s own actions depending on particular wants and desires? If the elves and men act so as to fulfill their own personal objectives or missions, then it appears as though they used free will appropriately. However, I believe that there are numerous ways in which the “inappropriate” use of free will is evident.

In order to determine what is appropriate and inappropriate when discussing free will, we can look to St. Augustine who explains the nature and actions of both good and bad angels. In his work, he states that “the good and the evil angels did not arise from any difference in nature or origin” and later on explains the infallibility of this statement since “God created both, and He is good in His creation and fashioning of all substances” (City of God 471). These remarks provide us with two key pieces of insight into the previously stated question. First of all, we are now aware that two kinds of beings, the good and the bad, exist, but that since they are the same nature, we have to look to their choices, or free will, in order to determine their differences. This leads us to infer the second part, which is that these choices must have an appropriate or inappropriate use since they lead to the formation of two opposite beings. So which choices are “inappropriate”? Again, we can look to St. Augustine and we see that “God created their nature so good that it is harmful for it to be separated from Him” (473). Therefore, any actions of free will that bring the elves or men further away from Ilúvatar are the ones considered “inappropriate”. Several different levels of these uses of free will exist within Tolkien’s works, ranging from slight, temporary separation such as Aulë’s creation of the dwarves to massive, permanent detachment such as most of the actions of Melkor. Now that we have defined inappropriate use of free will, the question becomes why does this option even exist?

Ilúvatar is the creator of all things in Middle-Earth and possess infinite power. When his creations begin to use their free will inappropriately, thus going against Ilúvatar’s intentions, why doesn’t Ilúvatar simply intervene and basically say, “You all messed up so I am going to erase these bad decisions and I want you to try again?” Essentially, Ilúvatar would have nothing to gain from these interventions because the elves and men would never learn how to remember their creator. If Ilúvatar simply fixed everything when someone made an evil decision, then what is stopping all of the elves and men from always performing evil actions? They would know that they could basically get away with anything because Ilúvatar is always going to be there holding their hands and cleaning up their messes. There is nothing to learn from these actions and Ilúvatar’s children would eventually lose appreciation for him. The distinction between good and evil angels would be nonexistent since elves and men are made of identical natures and now any decision they make is basically irrelevant. If this were the case, then Ilúvatar should not have provided his creations with free will in the first place. However, we can obviously see that this is not the case.

Instead of intervening, Ilúvatar takes a step back from the activities of all his creations and allows everything to play out, regardless if his children are using free will appropriately or not. This is most obvious when Fëanor refuses to relinquish the silmarils upon the darkening of Valinor (Silmarillion 79). As a result, this action brings about the categorization of good angels and bad angels. Since Ilúvatar is not there guiding the actions of the elves, they must learn how to remember their creator and find true happiness on their own. Some qualities of good angels would be ridding themselves of material attachments, sacrificing for the will of Ilúvatar, and ultimately remembering their creator. When these things are fulfilled as a result of the appropriate use of free will, we see that Ilúvatar provides an even greater outcome. For example, Aulë sacrificed his ultimate creation of the dwarves because he remembered that Ilúvatar was the only being that he should please and in return Ilúvatar grants the dwarves life (43). Another example demonstrating this point is that of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings. When facing the Balrog, Gandalf sacrifices his life and his mission so that the rest of the fellowship is able to continue on with theirs and as a result, he is granted a new life with far greater powers than before (Letters 202). However, Fëanor is incapable of sacrificing his crowning achievement of the silmarils and thus distances himself into darkness and fails to ever remember his creator. All three of these examples demonstrate the necessity of choosing appropriate actions of free will. Only by undergoing these types of self-sacrifice and severing all material attachments in Middle-Earth, the elves and men will be able to maintain eternal bliss and fulfill their true purpose of always remembering their creator Ilúvatar. These decisions could not be made if Ilúvatar stepped in after any evil decisions.

So what should you do if your creations are using free will “inappropriately?” Basically, not much. The whole point of providing free will is to allow your creations to find you voluntarily because only then will they truly understand the significance and power of the creator. However, there is one more twist in this debate. Flieger proposes the idea that “The music will always have the same form, but how it is played (to extend the metaphor), whether fast of slow, presto or andante, is up to the performers” (Splintered Light 115). In light of the current conversation, to what extent is this idea true? Even though Ilúvatar is watching the action from the distance, does he still ultimately control all of the events? I am not exactly sure how to answer this question, but it appears to be an additional piece of the puzzle that would be beneficial to consider.

--Will Long


  1. Dear Will,
    Thanks for your application of Augustine’s logic on the angels to the Ainur to underline the crucial role of the will in determining whether they act well or ‘inappropriately.’

    However, I am not quite satisfied with where we arrived on what is ‘inappropiate.’ As you found, all an Ainu’s actions have free agency and so can in a way “fulfill their own personal objectives or missions.” But which objectives are right and which wrong? Is it intention of the objectives, as we suggested in class? How does ‘temporal separation’ (as Aule jumps the gun with the dwarves) fit?

    Secondly, your hands-off view of Eru (allowing free choice to work and find the right way on its own) has some insight. But how doies this view mesh with the ‘ultimate control’ which you finally wondered about and which Eru seems to claim: “…Nor can any alter the music in my despite….” (Sil.,‘Ainulindale A,’ after great chord) Is there really an ultimate conflict between the exercise of free choice and Eru as source of all the Music?

  2. I am a little bothered by your designation of what constitute inappropriate exercise of free will, since you seem to say it seems to exist on a sliding scale. Granted, it makes some sense that it should be, since there are apparently some actions which are somehow more redeemable than others, i.e., Aule's creation of dwarves vs. Feanor's hoarding of the simarils. Yet to suggest that there is some (not easily defined) scale of appropriate use of free will muddies the waters between what is appropriate and inappropriate. Are there neutral exercises? If there is no clear line, it makes it difficult to really evaluate actions at all. Perhaps it has more to do with actions that follow those exercises of free will which make an action either appropriate or inappropriate. Some subsequent actions make it easier to incorporate the initial action back into the music, some less so. Of course, we continue to have problems when you consider that the subsequent actions are themselves acts of free will.