Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why Can't People Just Follow the One Dumb Rule?

One of the topics I found most interesting from our discussion on Monday was the ways in which the events leading up to the drowning of Numenor can be considered evil, especially in the context the Sayers passage from The Mind of the Maker.  The essential agreed-upon part of evil, recognizing what is good and consciously subverting or corrupting it, is manifested in a couple of ways in the story. The first, most obvious one is the direct disobedience of the Valar in the decision to sail west.  The Numenoreans clearly recognize Iluvatar and the Valar as beings worthy of, at the very least, respect, making a regular “offering of the first fruits to Eru.” In light of this knowledge, and assuming that the will of these beings is “good,” the attempt to reach the paradise of Aman is a clear, deliberate perversion of it, and must therefore be considered evil.

I think that the other way the men of Andor can be considered evil in their actions is much more interesting.  Death is described to them by the messengers of Manwe as a gift of Iluvatar, yet the Numenoreans seek directly to end it, and become immortal.  In this way, they mean to take part of creation, namely themselves, and change it in a fundamental way.  Again, if the intention of Eru is taken as the good in middle earth, this action is decidedly evil based on our definition.  The mortality of men is always described as a crucial characteristic of their race; so much so that removing it is to corrupt the very idea of man, perverting creation.  This could provide an interesting parallel with the fall from Eden, where humans seek to gain knowledge they weren’t intended to have, or, more directly, the Tower of Babel, an accomplishment that was meant to be beyond the reach of man.  From the point of view of the reader of these tales, this seems pretty straightforward case of foolish humans disobeying a higher power. The Valar gave the Numenoreans a paradise on earth with only one restriction on their actions, but the men get greedy and refuse to obey, dooming themselves to a lesser existence.

But what if we try to put ourselves on Andor? As discussed in class and Blaine’s post, it’s not too hard to see why the men of Numenor fall.  It’s easy to read a story about a magical island where there is no sickness or evil and imagine that we’d be happy there for several lifetimes, simply because we can compare it so favorably to our own reality.  This is doubtless what the original Numeoreans felt like when the Valar gave them their island, but if we fast-forward several generations closer to the rule of Ar-Pharazon, wouldn’t they have become somewhat complacent with their lives?  It is one thing to live in paradise having once lived otherwise, but quite another to be born into a land that your ancestors came to 2000 years before whose gift no living man can remember.  Once “paradise” becomes such an established routine, seeking something more from life seems only natural.  Though it was brought up in class that there is some contrast provided between the lives of men on Numenor and those who remain on Middle Earth, it’s not the same as actually being able to improve one’s own status. Of course, the influence of Sauron plays a large part in the actual rebellion against the Ainur, but it’s undeniable that the men of Andor became dissatisfied on their own long before his influence was extended to them. 

So what does this mean for the mortal men (and maybe by extension us humans in our primary reality) if they’re unable to live in a literal paradise without becoming restless and unfulfilled enough to try and steal the one thing that they’re explicitly told they cannot have?  Humans are differentiated from elves by their habit striving against any bonds, but at what point does this turn from an admirable quality that allows them to overcome evil to a detriment that prevents them from ever being truly satisfied?  Sure, the men of Numenor were able to struggle valiantly against the yoke of Morgoth, but it is this same quality that explains why they launched a massive fleet against their former allies on the suspicion that it would grant them immortality. One might argue that the Akalabeth is a cautionary tale, and that these are excessively greedy and prideful men fueled by the hatred of Sauron, but in light of our discussion Monday, and the ease with which people seemed to accept the idea that “heaven is boring,” I don’t think that these characteristics make the Numenoreans exceptional among men.  Though there are those faithful who oppose the actions against the Valar, I would argue that they still fear death just as much as those who fall under Sauron’s influence.  Their decision to return to Middle Earth isn’t mutually exclusive with wishing for immortality, it just means that for whatever reason they put more stock into the tales of old (or recognize that listening to the incarnation of evil that they captured over the divine beings who gave them their island might not be a great idea).  In any case, it seems like mortal men simply cannot be satisfied in a stagnant situation, no matter how close to paradise it comes. 

In light of this, I wonder if we get a little closer to a reasonable conclusion of the problem of evil with regards to Eru.  It’s been asked in class multiple times what we’re to think of the creator of a world if he has absolute control over its nature and full knowledge of what this nature will bring, yet allows its inhabitants to suffer regardless.  Several times in the Ainulindale, it is reinforced that all things on Ea were created in accordance with the wishes of Iluvatar, and that no amount of meddling from Morgoth could change the outcome that he had intended for the world.  Given this, we’d have to conclude that the creator simply didn’t care about the suffering of the men and elves of middle earth.  Now this may seem like a cop-out solution to give Eru more credit than is due, but what if he recognized that suffering was the only thing that would keep men interested in their lives? If he created men with their ever-striving nature, he would be fully aware of the tendencies that lead to the drowning of Numenor and would be able to use this knowledge to grant them an interesting world full of evils and suffering to overcome.  The Valar, who do not fully understand Iluvatar’s creation, wish to give them a paradise free of suffering, but perhaps suffering, and the more satisfying nature that it grants suffering’s absence, is necessary for men to have satisfying lives.  In this way, the problem of evil isn’t in the nature of the creator, but the flawed (and sort of morbid) nature of the creation, that is bored without strife.

Brian R


  1. I was troubled in class when we seemed to come to the conclusion that “Heaven is boring.” Sure, it’s easy to image getting tired of singing endlessly with the angels all day, and it would seem that living in a place of bliss forever and ever would be a bit dull if there’s no Orcs running around disrupting things. It’s true that an idyllic world would not yield the greatest story, and would put an audience to sleep. But we know so very little about what Heaven is actually like, other than what is described in the Bible as indescribable. It’s unfair to say that “Heaven is boring” when we lack any true understanding of what Heaven actually is:

    “However, as it is written:
    “What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
    and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—“
    (1 Corinthians 2:9)

    Tolkien is quite vague about what happens to Men after they die in his world, but he does mention that they go to “another place,” which we may interpret as the Middle-earth equivalent to Heaven. I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that Ilúvatar doesn’t care about men at all. Since Men are his children, he must care about them to some extent. His seeming lack of empathy to the effects of Melkor’s discord on them may be because he knows that whatever happens to men during their time on Middle-earth, they will receive a bounty of rewards in Heaven. Because Ilúvatar had greater plans for men beyond their existence on Middle-earth, the discord in Melkor’s music did not bother him.

    -Tate Hamilton

  2. I definitely see where you’re going with the idea that Eru might value suffering as an integral part of human lives as an explanation for why he allows them to suffer in the first place. But there’s still the question of whether the creator has complete control over the creation. Did Eru anticipate the creation of the dwarves? Or did he incorporate them into the creation once they were made? If it’s the latter, it seems that Eru does not have total control over his creation, which means that there may just not be a good justification for why they end up suffering. If Eru was surprised by the dwarves (and I think it’s fair to say he was), could he have been surprised by this, too?

    We also have the possibility that Eru is simply taking a step back from his creation after it’s made, i.e. trying to be a good creator. This would keep in line with Tolkien’s larger theme of being able to create something separate from yourself, in order to be able to lose it without losing yourself in the process. Men may not suffer because they’re supposed to; it just ends up happening after Eru loosens his control over his creation.

    However, there are many moments of Eru’s intervention that make this question even more complicated. The one that stands out to me is the scene on Mt. Doom, where Eru intervenes and pushes Gollum into the fire (Letter 192). Why Eru intervenes in some places and not others is up for debate. Maybe it’s allowed for him to intervene in specific moments, but not with larger things like suffering in the lives of men. I don’t know. But anyway, I think there are lots of interesting possibilities, including the one you raised.

    -Daniel Lewis

  3. The suggestion that the good Numenorean's did not necessarily reject their fellows' quest for immortality is both intriguing and plausible to my eyes and points to themes that Tolkien would, I think, generalize to all humanity. You mention the "heaven is boring" claim made by many members of the class, but, regardless of whether this is true or not, is this the right framework through which to view the Numenoreans? After all, Numenor wasn't heaven, and wasn't that sort of the point? The Numenoreans were unhappy precisely because they weren't in heaven, but on clear days could see it in the distance. So, I think you're right that the longing for something more (I might say heaven rather than immortality ultimately) is present in both the good and evil men of Numenor, the difference lies in their reaction to this yearning. We can certainly point to more instances of this through LotR, I've always felt a sort of wistful sadness pervades. We approached the question of what Tolkien thinks might satisfy this yearning in class, how to ultimately "resolve" the issue, and I sense it lurking behind much of your post. Considering what Tolkien is doing with LotR, where do you think he might locate this?

  4. My .02: I think the last part of your post gets at a question we've really been wrestling with in class lately, and an important one - that is, how distinct are the wills of the Valar from that of Eru? Divorcing the two (as you suggested) would certainly make the Fall of Numenor more readily explainable: that the Valar didn't fully understand Man's nature to strive beyond their bounds and could not foresee what they wrought in granting them Paradise, as Eru probably could have/did. And it's not easy to see why Eru would create Numenor, knowing that he would eventually destroy it, right? But that sort of problem gets at much larger problems in Christianity, too, about Fate and the Will of God, so perhaps Tolkien was intending to weave similar complexities into his own work, yeah? Seems possible to me, anyway.

    And I also don't really buy into the whole "Heaven is boring" thing as the cause of the Fall of Numenor. I can't find the quote at the moment, but it is mentioned in the Akallabeth that the problem with Men is that they were very much in love with the world and didn't want to leave it - perhaps if Heaven really was boring then they would've been more willing to let it go, and the whole mess could have been avoided indefinitely. That, for me, is where the Valar really went wrong: the world they created for Men was too perfect, so that in their comparatively short lifetime Men simply couldn't get enough of it and always wanted more. That isn't the case with Middle Earth or our own world, where the trials and hardships of life make it easy for us to eventually let it all go.


  5. There have been a lot of good points in the comments (that I've just now read).

    Tate's idea of Eru having a vision beyond that which can be comprehended by the denizens of Middle Earth (specifically heaven), definitely makes sense, but I've always been personally unfulfilled by that sort of explanation. It's a completely reasonable way to explain the problem of evil, and I guess the fact that I can't wrap my head around it is kind of the point. As far as the Numenoreans go, the fear that they associate with death seems to indicate that if this idea of heaven is part of their theology, it was lost at some point, or not fully accepted.

    I think this sort of ties in to what Dan and WD (especially your last sentence) said too. Throughout LOTR, the characters talk about the ways in which the world has decayed since the first age. The Ents have no Entwives, Gondor and Rohan have been reduced by the menace of Sauron, and the Elves especially feel like they've fallen from grace. The idea of sailing West from Middle Earth seems to be the equivalent of going to heaven, but it's only a happy event after characters have accomplished what they wanted in life. I think this is equivalent to how the first generation of Numenoreans were quite happy with Andor, since they had conquered darkness and earned the respite from suffering.

    I get the feeling in a lot of places in LOTR that the war of the ring is meant to be the finale for many characters: the last triumph of good over evil necessary to leave the world satisfied. Whether they go West or simply pass doesn't seem to matter as much. They might never stop wanting more, but having accomplished something so great as to vanquish evil in their time, maybe they finally feel like they've done enough.

  6. I think your question has less to do with the relationship between Eru and the Numinorians and more to do with human nature. Man’s rebellion against the established order, even to his own detriment, is a powerful symbol of his free will. If man followed all of the rules all of the time how could we possible know that we have a will our own which we have control over? It is the transgression of the established order which shows our ability to act upon our own selfish desires. I think this tied with the fact that in order for good to have any meaning at all, there must be suffering and evil. Without the contrast of evil as a counterexample we could not possibly understand what true goodness is. This view is expressed by Rousseau in his novel Emile by the Savoyard Vicar when he says that there must be abuse of freedon in order for men to deserve praise for their proper use of it.
    I think this still fits within a frame work of general predestination because even if the end point is certain, what remains uncertain is how the story gets there. The journey to the conclusion of predestination is dictated by the sum of all the individual choices of man.
    In this context I think a fear of death can be seen as an anxiety about losing one’s free will. Death is a total unknown, but more than that is a force we are utterly powerless against. Man can tame nature, man can tame the animals, man can dominate the land, and man can even dominate other men. However death is a force wholly unconquerable, a force which man is completely powerless against. This powerlessness is in direct defiance of our ability to exert our free will to decide our own fate. This relates back to the idea of the predestined journey where the path remains unknown even with a fixed endpoint.

    -Blake Alex