Saturday 6 August 2011

Tolkien and the nature of evil: Morgoth versus Sauron


J.R.R.Tolkien, written c. 1958, edited and published by Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

The full excerpts from Tolkien are at:

From which shorter pieces are here shown in italics:


To gain domination over Arda, Morgoth had let most of his being pass into the physical constituents of the Earth – hence all things that were born on Earth and live on and by it, beasts or plants or incarnate spirits, were liable to be ‘stained’.

Morgoth at the time of the War of the Jewels had become permanently ‘incarnate’: for this reason he was afraid, and waged the war almost entirely by means of devices, or of subordinates and dominated creatures.

The time of Melkor’s greatest power, therefore, was in the physical beginnings of the World; a vast demiurgic lust for power and the achievement of his own will and designs, on a great scale.  (…)


Arda = The Earth. This suggests that 'the devil' (i.e. Morgoth/ Melkor) did his work mostly at the beginning of time, via 'original sin' (the 'staining' of almost all things) - but is now and consequently a much diminished being - doing his evil work via subordinates such as demons (= fallen angels) such as Sauron and (probably) Saruman.

 * ‘Morgoth’, when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence, and his only notion of dealing with them was by physical force, or the fear of it. His sole ultimate object was their destruction. 
Elves, and still more Men, he despised because of their ‘weakness’: that is their lack of physical force, or power over ‘matter’; but he was also afraid of them. He was aware, at any rate originally when still capable of rational thought, that he could not ‘annihilate’them: that is, destroy their being; but their physical ‘life’, and incarnate form became increasingly to his mind the only thing that was worth considering.

Or he became so far advanced in Lying that he lied even to himself, and pretended that he could destroy them and rid Arda of them altogether. Hence his endeavor always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object:

Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own ‘creatures’, such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men. (…)

Melkor could do nothing with Arda, which was not from his own mind and was interwoven with the work and thoughts of others: even left alone he could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos. And yet even so he would have been defeated, because it would still have ‘existed’, independent of his own mind, and a world in potential.

Note - Melkor could not, of course, ‘annihilate’ anything of matter, he could only ruin or destroy or corrupt the forms given to matter by other minds in their subcreative activities.


This is the nature of ultimate evil as nihilism, as destruction - the urge to leave 'nothing' behind - or, since this is impossible, chaos. 

Tolkien does not say so, but the logical implication is that if Morgoth actually succeeded in reducing the whole world except for himself to formless chaos; then he would inevitably have turned destruction upon himself - as being the only remaining example of God's creative power. 

He would have 'committed suicide' - in so far as this was possible for an immortal - Morgoth would have destroyed himself to the point where he had no power remaining to destroy anything more.


Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. 

He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and co-ordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction.

Sauron had, in fact, been very like Saruman, and so still understood him quickly and could guess what he would be likely to think and do, even without the aid of the palantíri or of spies; whereas Gandalf eluded and puzzled him.

Note – [Sauron’s] capability of corrupting other minds, and even engaging their service, was a residue from the fact that his original desire for ‘order’ had really envisaged the good estate (especially physical well-being) of his ‘subjects’.


Morgoth [by contrast with Sauron] had no ‘plan’: unless destruction and reduction to nil of a world in which he had only a share can be called a ‘plan’.


Tolkien is drawing a contrast between primary evil which is nihilistic; and secondary evil which seeks power; primary evil has no plan, secondary evil schemes and strategizes to impose their will upon everything - justified as being for the good of everything. 


But this is, of course, a simplification of the situation. Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction, and his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism).


Tolkien is saying that what begins with strategic plans for power, to impose order, will inevitably end with destruction for destruction's sake.

Secondary evil, as it advances, will be drawn to partake of the nature of primary evil: nihilism.


Melkor incarnated himself (as Morgoth) permanently. He did this so as to control the hroa, the flesh or physical matter, of Arda. He attempted to identify himself with it. A vaster, and more perilous, procedure, though of similar sort to the operation of Sauron with the Rings. 

Thus, outside the Blessed Realm, all matter was likely to have a Melkor ingredient, and those who had bodies, nourished by the hora of Arda, had as it were a tendency, small or great, towards Melkor: they were none of them wholly free of him in their incarnate form, and their bodies had an effect upon their spirits.

But in this way Morgoth lost (or exchanged, or transmuted) the greater part of his original angelic powers, of mind and spirit, while gaining a terrible grip upon the physical world. For this reason he had to be fought, mainly by physical force, and enormous material ruin was a probable consequence of any direct combat with him, victorious or otherwise.


Sauron's, relatively smaller, power was concentrated; Morgoth's vast power was disseminated. The whole of Middle-earth was Morgoth's Ring, though temporarily his attention was mainly upon the North-west. Unless swiftly successful, War against him might well end in reducing all Middle-earth to chaos, possibly even all Arda.

...the dilemma of the Valar was this: Arda could only be liberated [from Morgoth] by a physical battle; but a probable result of such a battle was the irretrievable ruin of Arda. 

Moreover, the final eradication of Sauron (as a power directing evil) was achievable by the destruction of the Ring. 

No such eradication of Morgoth was possible, since this required the complete disintegration of the matter of Arda.


Tolkien is here referring, it seems, to the reason why God cannot eradicate evil from a fallen incarnate world - because this would entail the destruction of 'everything' - since 'everything' had been stained by 'original sin'. Tolkien is also - indirectly - elucidating the necessity for Jesus Christ as the answer to this problem of a tainted world; the need for a new world, populated by new Men - a perfected world and Mankind which retains their identity, but cleansed of sin. 


Morgoth though locally triumphant had neglected most of Middle-earth during the war; and by it he had in fact been weakened: in power and prestige (he had lost and failed to recover one of the Silmarils), and above all in mind. 

He had become absorbed in kingship, and though a tyrant of ogre-size and monstrous power, this was a vast fall even from his former wickedness of hate, and his terrible nihilism. 

He had fallen to like being a tyrant-king with conquered slaves, and vast obedient armies.


Tolkien here seems to be referring to the weakening of power and prestige of the demiurgic evil Melkor, of a fallen 'god' - no less, (lower case god - a god not The God) to the state of petulance and petty vengefulness of Morgoth at the end of the First Age - still enormously large and strong and imposing, but a shrunken, blackened, maimed thing compared with his past glory. 

Perhaps Tolkien was also alluding here to the decline of the glorious and shining supreme angel Lucifer to the modern depictions of a goat-like incarnate 'devil'?


Throughout this I kept drawing parallels with the trajectory of evil through stages of increasingly advanced nihilism, as described by Eugene (Fr. Seraphim) Rose in his book 'Nihilism'

and therefore about the trajectory of Leftism from its earlier (e.g. Marxist/ Sauron) aspirations for totalitarian power, to its current (political correctness/ Morgoth) state of irrational nihilistic destruction - culminating in destruction-turned-upon itself - i.e. 'suicide'. 



Brett Stevens said...

This is the nature of ultimate evil as nihilism, as destruction - the urge to leave 'nothing' behind - or, since this is impossible, chaos.

I have to respectfully disagree here.

What makes Melkor evil is his narcissism. He is unaware of anything but himself, and he hates other things for existing, because they interrupt his pure contemplation of self.

Where a Buddha, Christ or Krishna might sit in eternal meditation on the beauty of creation, Melkor will sit in eternal meditation on himself. He is selfish, self-centered, megalomaniac, egomaniacal, narcissistic, solipsistic and in complete denial and hatred of the world around him.

That is not nihilism. Nihilism negates the self. Nihilism negates all inherent value; Melkor insists on inherent value, just not the value of the whole -- he wants only the value of the focal point, the self.

In this way, to my mind, he's a great parable of warning about the modern person: when you become narcissistic and focus on yourself, you destroy everything around you and yet it can never be enough. You will only be happy when the world is obliterated and you and only you exist.

Troels said...

The description of Melkor as a nihilist is Tolkien's own, but he may of course have understood something slightly different with the word than is usual (nihilism is not used for a single, consistent, philosophy, but has come rather to be used for several, albeit related, philosophies) — I think it's a reasonable enough description when we recall that Tolkien applies it to a divine being. Melkor's nihilism seems to derive from Melkor's belief that nothing has any intrinsic value unless it is of Melkor himself.

While he might be able to ignore, or forget, the fact that he is not self-created, he would certainly consider the whole of Eä as worthless, something to be destroyed to make way for something that was of Melkor himself.

Tolkien, I think, suggests that Melkor's nihilism was mainly material: that Melkor's ultimate goal would be a complete destruction of the material world, and even then he would be dissatisfied since he could not destroy matter itself. It appears, however, that Tolkien is also suggesting that Melkor was happy to consider only the matter of the Universe, and that he completely disregarded anything that was outside Eä — possibly deluding himself that Eä was isolated from Eru.

Troels said...

I am not sure that I agree with the characterisation of a ‘primary evil’ that is necessarily nihilistic and a ‘secondary evil’ (presumably a derived evil?) that necessarily seeks power and domination. This is true for Melkor the Morgoth and Sauron specifically, but that is, as I read Tolkien's texts, something that derives from their inherent natures rather than from their roles as primary and secondary evils. The same holds, as I read it, for Sauron's eventual infection with Melkor's lust for destruction and his hatred for God — this is not so much a general consideration, but rather one that is dependent on the specifics of the situation.

With regards to the eradication of evil from Arda Marred, I think we need to distinguish between what would, in theory, be possible for Eru, and what would be possible for the Valar. Eru, had he wanted, would surely have been able to eradicate the marring with a thought, but he would not do so. In one of his letters, Tolkien wrote that “Free Will is derivative, and is only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it, whatever betides: sc. when it is 'against His Will', as we say, at any rate as it appears on a finite view. He does not stop or make 'unreal' sinful acts and their consequences.” I think this is the explanation why Eru doesn't heal the marring with a thought. The explanation in the text refers, I believe, to the Valar, who, while extremely powerful on the scale of the Children of Ilúvatar still belongs to that scale (and thus are far below Eru), but are also bound within Eä and Time.