Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Objective Literary Morality

I argue that morality in the mythology of the Lord of the Rings has to be objective because the good and bad that are described within that mythology are constitutive of a closed universe. By that, I mean that the events transcribed in the Silmarillion represent historical truth just as much as the events transcribed in the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s entire set of works is its own universe, it is not subject to the same diversity of opinions and debate that we see in our own world. That means that when we perform an analysis of the morality in The Silmarillion, we do not have to make the same types of assumptions about the objectivity of goodness that real-world philosophers must make. We can take it face value. This becomes clear when we examine the way morality and history intersect in our own world compared to how they intersect in The Silmarillion. 

Morality, as it is conceived of in our own world, must be considered a relative term. Morality is that which deals with the distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad. People tune their moral compasses using a multitude of tools. The first and most commonly used tool to guide one’s morality is religious doctrine. Religions provide their followers with a set of rules. When a follower adheres to those rules, they are good. When they fail to adhere, they are bad. At the outset, this sounds very objective. The problem is that there is such a diversity of religions today. Many people have a choice for which doctrine they care to follow. Their morality is relative, literally related to what doctrine they choose to adhere to, or to what extent they choose to adhere to a particular doctrine. Although most religions claim to be aiming toward objective goodness, the diversity of the paths they take to reach that goodness is strong evidence that the goodness is not objective at all, but rather dependent on that religion’s particular conception of that goodness. Religion is not the only tool people use, however.

Many also claim to use personal experience and gut-feeling in order to help them determine what is wrong and what is right. Others argue that our sense of goodness actually has its basis in evolution and our biological nature, and is not a matter of spirituality whatsoever. Regardless of where we believe our morality comes from, it is still important to understand that it is still fundamentally dependent on our subjective experience.

However, for Saint Augustine, good is objective. He writes in City of God that “…there is only one unchanging Good; and that is the one, true, and blessed God. The things he made are good because they were made by him” (472). This logic is easy to follow. Because God is good, the things he made are good. Things derive their goodness from the goodness of their creator. The qualitative aspects of good do not derive their goodness by the absence of that which is conceived of as bad, or not good. However, the argument that Augustine makes rests on the powerful assumption that God has to be good. When we read the Silmarillion, we do not need to make that same assumption. It is told to us plain and clear that the music of creation seemed good to Ilúvitar (p. 16).

If someone were to read Genenisis today, they would be able to compare that creation story to a number of others, decide which one felt most right to them, or neglect to believe any. Someone reading The Silmarillion does not have this choice. There is no option but to accept that it represents the historical truth of what happened. No alternative is presented. That does not mean that their might be a diversity of belief in Middle Earth. Indeed, we see disagreements among men whether immortality is good or bad, whether Sauron should be worshipped as divine or not. However, the actual foundations of right and wrong are clearly found in Ilúvitar, whereas our own world is much subjective and up to interpretation. 

History, by contrast to morality, is usually considered to represent phenomenon objectively. History tells the chronology of events, one thing after another. Of course, there is still much debate within the field of history. And certain ideologies and personal biases can color the way history is analyzed and perceived. Despite this, however, there is a commonly held sense that history tells us the truth of what really happened, whereas moral matters are more difficult to discern correct answers to. The Simarillion tells us the histories of the first ages of Middle Earth. As such, it reflects this same objective quality.

The analogy that Sayer provides in her work Mind of the Maker helps to illustrate what I mean. When a writer chooses the right word for a place in his poem there are two interpretations of the goodness or badness of that word. The first is whether or not that word is good because it is the best of all of the possibilities, or bad words, that could have been chosen instead. The second idea is that the writer himself was good, and so the goodness of the word is endowed upon it by virtue of the fact that it was chosen by someone good. In the first case, the goodness is relative. The goodness of the word is derived from the badness of the other words. In the second case, the goodness is objective. The writer could not have chosen a bad word, because any word he chose would have been good. That does not mean that the characters within that poem cannot wrestle with good and bad. It does mean that we the readers know that that word represents a good choice. The process that went into the creation of the world and the creation of the Silmarillion itself is indicative of that second type of process. Whatever Ilúvitar or Tolkien created had to be good by virtue of the fact that they created them--they derive their moral consistency from their creation, not from that which they were not created. There was no other viable choice because that choice could not have simultaneously complied with the will of the creator. The choice that was made had to be the right or good choice. 

We can therefore divide the closed universe of a text into two different levels. The first level is that of the writer and his readers. The second is the world of the characters. Within that first level, we must consider the morality of The Silmarillion to be objective. It is objectively true because it was created by Tolkien, we have no other mythology to prefer to it. The same goes for the immediate creations of Ilúvitar. They had no choice but to believe what they were currently experiencing was objective reality. History and morality were one and the same. Morality begins to become a relative concept when entities further away from that creation, like elves and men for example, begin to interpret the world around them and make decisions about right and wrong. That activity should be considered distinct from what actually is right and wrong, which can only be determined by the creator and his qualities. 


1 comment:

  1. Technically, what you are wrestling with here is the problem of frames: which frame to view the world through. From within the frame of Christian doctrine, the creation is just as objectively good as it from within the frame of the Ainulindale. It does not matter that some now do not see things through this frame for the objectivity of those who do. A better question might be: Why did Tolkien not give his characters different religious traditions? Perhaps the Dwarves tell a different story from the Elves and Men. RLFB