Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Free Will and Morality

This has been posted really quickly, but Scav. That is all that needs saying.

What really struck me about our discussion of free will and evil was how we defined what evil was and how easily someone could swing from good to evil in a very short time. Gandalf is seemingly the most perfect wizard who could never be evil, yet Tolkien noted how even he would fall when given something as powerful as the One Ring, as he would “remain ‘righteous’, but self-righteous. He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’, and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great)” (Letters 333). He would become evil, despite his entirely good intentions. We determined in class that such power in the hands of one individual would lead to temptation and would crush the free will of those who surrounded the empowered, making that person evil. I want to look more into this spectrum of morality that Tolkien is using and figure out if this definition of evil is sufficient and accurate, as some doubts have arisen in me.

I would first note that there is an assumption that there is an objective good and an objective evil and that Iluvatar meant for all creatures to have free will. We view the oppression of free will to be a great evil, despite beings like Morgoth or Sauron potentially seeing it as a good. To make this assumption, we have to infer that Iluvatar made all beings with free will and did not want anyone to infringe on that, and anyone who did is evil. Sauron’s attempt to dominate others is then, by definition, an inherently an evil act. If there was no assumption like this, then good and evil would be entirely relative. To paraphrase a playwright whom Tolkien disliked, only thinking about something would make it good or evil. By itself, the thing merely exists. We determined that this objective morality is the type of good and evil that Tolkien wanted present in his legendarium, but I think that there are a few issues with it, as I will elucidate later.

Assuming the objective morality for now, we can first look at how good and evil are styled. Tolkien portrays ‘good’ people as kind, just, honorable, and noble, among other traits. Most importantly, good people are merciful, as shown in Frodo, Bilbo, and Sam and their treatment of Gollum. ‘Evil’ is shown more in line with our primary reality’s conception of the seven deadly sins. Pride, wrath, gluttony, and envy are all traits that are exhibited by evil people on Middle-Earth. However, these seem to be only traits of good and evil people. We determined that true evilness is the suppression of the free will of others. That is what makes the Ring of Power so evil, it gives the user the temptation and power to achieve great ends. Sam could make all of Mordor into a peaceful and wonderful garden (LOTR 880), Gandalf could destroy Sauron and become more powerful than anyone in Middle-Earth, Galadriel could become a queen and goddess and equally powerful. However, while they might have good intentions with their power, their domination of others would make them evil in the eyes of Iluvatar, as they would inevitably force their will upon innocents.

With this in mind, where does one draw the line between what is good and what is evil? Suppose for a minute that Gandalf does get the Ring. He uses the power of the Ring to overcome Sauron and establish peace over all of Middle-Earth. It would be logical to say Gandalf was  It is at this point that Gandalf seems to swing to evil because he forces peace and his idea of justice upon all of the free people of Middle-Earth, whether they like it or not. That would be evil. I wonder if he became evil earlier in this hypothetical case, such as in his attack on Sauron. My reasoning behind this stems from the idea that all beings have free will. All beings including Sauron, since he is a Maiar and was created by Iluvatar like everything and everyone else. Gandalf’s assault upon Sauron is an attempt to dominate his will and cast him out of Arda, making Gandalf’s attack evil in nature. People may counter that since Sauron committed terrible and sinful acts and deserves to be destroyed, but that would still mean violating his free will. It would be two ills making a good. The argument that Sauron is evil and must be banished is a slippery slope, as the only objective judge to that question would be Iluvatar, who is far aloof of Middle-Earth in this time. Whether or not Sauron committed evil acts, the action to remove him from Middle-Earth is still evil in nature, as it is forcing him against his will. Unless there is some other point I am missing, it would seem that evil is a lot more complicated that it seems.

I want to look at another example I thought of while in class. After the Ring is destroyed and Elessar becomes king of Gondor and Arnor, he undertakes a series of campaigns to reestablish the kingdom to its former glory and mop up what is left of Sauron’s forces (LOTR Appendix A). One of the places he conquers is Umbar and the Corsairs who were loyal supporters of Sauron. Once again we find that Elessar is acting with good intention, eliminating those that would do harm to others and reestablishing rule over his land. However, since free will is in all people, we have to assume that this includes the Corsairs of Umbar. If this is the case, then Elessar is restricting the free will of the people of Umbar by making them submit to his kingdom by force. He has nothing but good intention and cares for the good of every person under his kingdom, but he is still dominating an entire people. By the definitions that we worked out in class, this would be considered evil, just like the hypothetical Gandalf example above. I don’t think that Elessar is evil, so either I am wrong or this definition of evil needs refining.

Based off of these examples, I take issue with the morality and definition of evil that we came up with. Desiring to dominate the free will of others can be present in good people with good intentions, not just sinful and evil people whose intentions are easy to discern. This definition leaves so many possibilities open as to who has free will and who can take it away. Logically, only the creator, Iluvatar, can take away the free will of any being. However, since we do not have any sort of clarification from Tolkien as to the active role Iluvatar plays in the Third Age, we cannot simply assume that Sauron and the Corsairs automatically lose their free will when they commit sinful and evil acts upon others. As I said before, I don’t know if the definition of evil we came up with was sufficient, but at the same time I don’t know what else it could be. I will admit, I am torn.



  1. "If there was no assumption like this, then good and evil would be entirely relative." Exactly, this is what I said in class, and Tolkien would agree. Without the concept of free will, it becomes very difficult to talk (in human terms) about good and evil. There needs to be a standard against which to judge. But having that standard enables you to ask whether what Aragorn did in waging war against Umbar was good or evil; the other option is "Might makes right." Does this help? RLFB

  2. You raise the interesting and thorny problem of how one goes about determining the goodness or wickedness of an action, and whether Gandalf's war against Sauron or Aragorn's war against the corsairs of Umbar are good deeds since - after a certain fashion - they are imposing their will on their enemies. However, there is a distinction to be made here between Aragorn's war on Umbar and Sauron's war on Gondor. Sauron's war is motivated by a desire to subjugate the free people's of Gondor; however, Aragorn wages war on Umbar in order to free them from the vestiges of Sauron's yoke. Sauron had enslaved to his will these men, and it doesn't seem logical to say that one his own will on an enslaved man in the action of freeing him.

    In this way, one can see that goodness never seeks to dominate the will of others, but rather to free or guide others. In this way, the definitions of good and evil that we came up with in class could still stand. With that being said, I agree that coming up with a succinct, inclusive definition of evil is not an easy task, and I don’t think Tolkien would want it to be. For this reason, fantasy is a better medium to approach an understanding of evil than simple definitions in our primary reality. LDD

  3. I think there's an important distinction that needs to be drawn between "getting someone to do something against their will" and "dominating their will." When a parent forces their child to do their homework they aren't doing something evil. If a parent used a mind control ring to force their child to do their homework, that would be evil. This, I think, clears up the distinction somewhat over Aragorn's conquest of the Umbars, or the destruction of Sauron.

    There's also an elephant in the room in the discussion of wills, namely the will of Eru. If we assume that Tolkien is adopting classical Christian metaphysics, which I think is wholly reasonable, then the Good is identical to Eru's will. This alters our definition of evil somewhat, and I think offers clarity. Melkor is not evil because he seeks to dominate other wills, he's evil because he sets his will in opposition to Eru. This manifests itself in the attempted domination of others (if Eru is in charge it seems like opposing his will necessarily entails attempting to take control of something that should be controlled by Eru). Gandalf setting himself up as some sort of dispenser and arbiter of the Good, is essentially what Melkor tried to do, indeed what all the evil characters seem to do.

  4. I think the previous comments have really brought up good points about our discussion of free will and evil. I would agree with "dyingst" that in our thinking of good and evil in LOTR, it is important to remember the will of Eru. Evil isn't just the domination of others' free will...after all, Tolkien's project is to "make visible and physical the effects of sin or misused free will." From this we see that there is clearly a concept of Good, and deviation from Good. Eru's will seems to be what's Good, and to go against his will is an act of misusing free will. So, in thinking about Good and Evil in LOTR, it seems that we must not only look at the domination of others' free will as an example of Evil, but also see that Eru's (God's) will is also a framework in which Good and Evil is defined.


  5. I liked your discussion. Hypothesizing the events after LotR (or alternate stories) is a good exercise to “stretch out” Tolkien’s assumptions about good and evil to their logical extent. It’s also good to challenge the class discussion. However, note that “free will” is a loaded term, especially to someone like Tolkien who crafted such a deeply layered world. Yes, Gandalf would be evil despite his best intentions were he to have the Ring, but it is not right to say that it’s a “slippery slope” to banish someone like Sauron “just because” he is evil and therefore takes others’ free will. There are many types of free will and evil, as you allude to—reconsider the reconstruction of Gondor and the king, since isn’t it more beneficial to free will to have protections and laws than it is to be a chaotic land ruled by a single person who uses fear and violence? Sauron is evil not just because he “takes away” free will, but because he has created a system in which free will is not even a question (think 1984!). His absolute rulership, represented by the Ring, eliminates the very question of free will. While Gondor and its rulers might create a kingdom of laws and restrictions, it is within the realm of free will that this takes place.

    Scotty Campbell