Thursday, May 25, 2017

Love: philia and agape

In class, we touched on the different forms of love that are present in The Lord of the Rings. We talked somewhat extensively about the (perhaps misplaced) love that Eowyn has for Aragorn, as well as the romantic love between Aragorn and Arwen. The love between Frodo and Sam, however, is a different beast altogether. I think this relationship is much more complex than a simple love a servant may have for his master and is best analyzed in two different lights: that of the ‘brotherly love’ of philia and the unconditional love of agape.

It is easiest to understand what is meant by philia through some examples, particularly those relevant to the relationship between Frodo and Sam. Talking about philia in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says “But there is another kind of friendship, viz. that which involves an inequality between the parties, e. g. that of father to son and in general of elder to younger, that of man to wife and in general that of ruler to subject,” (Ethics 1158b11). This immediately seems applicable to Frodo and Sam, and is largely the sense of love that we discussed in class (the comparison to a World War I captain and his porter comes to mind). Frodo and Sam’s relationship at the beginning of the journey is inherently asymmetric: Sam begins (and remains) Frodo’s servant and gardener. This does not imply, of course, that the extent of their relationship is that of a master-servant relationship. Indeed, as Aristotle says, such a relationship easily develops into the friendship of philia which results in different types of fulfillment for both parties involved. Aristotle also provides a few examples of such type of love, notably stating that “men address as friends their fellow voyagers and fellow soldiers,” (Ethics 1159b27). Again, given the context of the story, this seems extremely applicable to Frodo and Sam.

Viewing the Hobbits’ relationship through the framework set up by Aristotle, as seems reasonable, we can gain a few insights into its significance. Such a love between two unequal people, according to Aristotle, has a sort of uplifting effect on the ‘inferior’ of the relationship – “It is in this way more than any other that even unequals can be friends; they can be equalized,” (Ethics 1159b1). By this, Aristotle means that each member of such a relationship gets out of the relationship fulfillment in proportion to their own qualities. Sam, through his love and service to Frodo, is elevated to something above what he was at the beginning. We clearly see this through the course of their journey: Sam starts as essentially an archetypal Hobbit (not very adventurous or ‘simple’), and by the end he has become a hero in his own right. His character development is largely motivated (although, it should be noted, not exclusively) by his desire to serve Frodo, and that desire itself arises out of Sam’s love for him. Frodo, too, is uplifted by his love for Sam over the course of their travels. Frodo frequently is pushed onward and encouraged and even carried by Sam, and would not have reached Mt. Doom without him. This type of relationship is quite succinctly summarized by Aristotle thusly: “friendship asks a man to do what he can, not what is proportional to the merits of the case … but the man who serves [his friend] to the utmost of his powers is thought to be a good man,” (Ethics 1163b17). Frodo and Sam serve each other as they can, and each is uplifted because of this.

This “brotherly love” seems to accurately describe the type of relationship described in class. While it is no doubt applicable, I argue that the notion of agape sheds a different light on the relationship between Frodo and Sam. Agape is exemplified by the divine love that God has for humans, but also that love that humans have for God. When directed towards other humans, this type of love has its root in a love of God. In a sense, we direct this love of the divine towards other humans on earth. The notion of Frodo as a Christ figure was briefly mentioned in class, but I think such an idea is very relevant here. If Frodo had Christ-like qualities (even unintentionally so, as he admittedly hated allegory), then Sam’s love for him naturally may reflect some of the qualities of this love of God. Further, agape is frequently described as unconditional – it is the love that Christians are called to have for all people, even their enemies. While Frodo is of course no enemy to Sam, I think it is still fair to characterize his love as unconditional, especially considering the great trials he goes through for it.

This distinction becomes meaningful when we consider the aspects in which agape differs from philia. There is a sacrificial aspect to agape, as evidence in the Gospel of John – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (John 3:16). Here love is meant in the sense of agape. It is a love that drives one to sacrifice greatly for the object of the love. Sam is, of course, the perfect example of such a sacrifice. He is willing to give up those things he holds most dear – the Shire, Rosie, gardening, etc – to follow and serve Frodo in Mordor. Furthermore, he does so with no true expectation of reciprocity. To be sure, he enjoys Frodo’s companionship and friendship, yet his love for Frodo persists even after he may no longer reasonable expect to enjoy such things. The episode in Cirith Ungol perfectly exemplifies this: Sam takes the Ring, but through his love for Frodo he can overcome both its temptation and the despair of having ‘lost’ his master long enough to discover that he had not truly lost him at all. In these instances, Sam fully loves Frodo with “all of [his] heart, all of [his] soul, and all of [his] spirit,” (Matthew 22:37). The lack of reciprocity is the main distinguishing factor between this love and that of philia, and likely the most important in its implications. Sam loves Frodo unconditionally with no expectation of receiving such love in return. If Frodo is really Christ figure, then Sam is truly a model ‘Christian’.

Such notions of love were likely known to Tolkien, even if he did not explicitly incorporate them in his work. It is likely that Frodo and Sam's relationship cannot be easily placed into either framework, but rather that each highlights different yet important aspects of their love. Being as devout a Catholic as he was, it isn’t unreasonable that Christ’s commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” was on his mind.  In this context, it does seem that Sam’s love is an attempt to represent how a man may express such a divine love. Tolkien himself states that, while he did not write The Lord of the Rings with a theme in mind, “it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind), that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death,” (Letters 267). Much of his work deals with how mortal creatures live their lives in the face of an eventual death. What role do these types of love play in such a life? There is likely no definitive conclusion reached by Tolkien, but C.S. Lewis offers an apt summary in his essay The Four Loves: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”


Works Cited:
Aristotle. Introduction to Aristotle. "Nicomachean Ethics" Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1947. Print. Modern Library College Editions.

The Bible (New American Bible Revised Edition)

Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.


  1. I think that viewing Frodo and Sam's relationship through the lens of philia makes a lot of sense and accounts for some of the nuances in their particular form of love - especially regarding the power dynamic that initially exists between them (a master and his servant, separated by class) and which ends up as something a little closer to equality.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure that I believe your argument that their love could be viewed as agape. Sam definitely looks up to Frodo, but I don't think he views him as anything divine. I think that this becomes especially clear when you think about how Sam sees the elves - this is much closer to an unconditional (even naive) love for beings that he doesn't particularly understand but sees as being on a higher level than hobbits. When you compare how Sam sees Frodo and how Sam thinks about the elves, I think that it becomes harder to argue that Sam really feels agape for Frodo.

    Along those same lines, you mention that it is something unconditional and involves making sacrifices. I don't doubt that Sam came to love Frodo unconditionally and that he made huge sacrifices, but I would point out that none of that would have happened if he wasn't originally compelled by Gandalf (and later the elves) to follow Frodo. The line oft-cited is "Don't you leave him!" and Sam points out that he's worried about what Gandalf would do to him if he disagreed. In fact, Sam would never have ended up near the garden window (thus causing Gandalf to find him and force him onto the journey) if he hadn't been drawn in by the discussion on elves. Again, this seems to suggest that Sam feels agape for the elves, but not for Frodo.

  2. I think it's curious how, in Letter 246, Tolkien describes Sam's vices as comingled with his love for Frodo. He notes how Sam's love "had an ingredient (probably inevitable) of pride and possessiveness," and that "it prevented him from fully understanding the master that he loved." Tolkien is explicit that the translation of self-sacrificing love (what we could understand as agape) into mortal lives isn't perfect: even as Sam sacrifices freely of himself he does it as a flawed mortal, with blinkers on.

    I would note that Frodo also, in his own way, exhibits similar sacrificial, flawed love. He takes on his quest freely, and pushes himself to the absolute limit of his strength. Indeed, his failure to complete his task at the last isn't read by Tolkien as moral failure, but more like his will giving out under the intense pressure of an oppressive force.

    Tolkien also seems to hold out quite a bit of hope as to who can exhibit this kind of radical, self-sacrificial love. In a later passage in the letter he claims that Gollum, given the opportunity (and with the clarity imparted to wearers of the Ring), would have willingly cast himself into Mount Doom with the Ring "for Frodo's sake." This looks like something between unequal philia and agape, but either way Tolkien's conception of sacrificial love is available to characters quite broken and twisted.

    A twisted inverse of agape could be the desire of characters wielding the Ring to use it “for good.” The Ring encourages their desire to reshape and mold the world into what they see (at least originally: Sauron falls off after a little while) as a better place. However, although the original intention may be altruistic, it never requires conscious sacrifice from the Ring-bearers. They all envision themselves as in charge, and as reaping the benefits of their newly reformed worlds. It might be that, under Tolkien’s conception, true love of any sort requires self-sacrifice.

    -Santi Ruiz

  3. I think the tension that you illustrate here between philia and agape is helpful, and I agree that there is something of the divine in Sam's love for Frodo. Perhaps the answer lies in its specificity: it is hard to love abstractly--and perhaps not really love. Sam loves Frodo according to his "rule" which is guided by the star of Earendil, who sacrificed himself to save Middle Earth. The idea of loving God through loving others is important here: if human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, then they participate in and reflect the divine. A great mystery. RLFB