Plato, Tolkien, and incomplete theories

On a long drive last week, my wife and I read aloud to each other from a collection of essays titled The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson.

In the first essay, an interesting discussion of the nature of evil and ability of power to corrupt ensued.

Apparently, Plato also told a story about a magic ring that made you invisible. A farmer used the ring to sneak into the castle, seduce the queen and murder the king. There are plenty of parallels that can be applied (or not) to different themes and characters’ actions in the Lord of the Rings.

At the end though, the author of the essay (Eric Katz) just doesn’t get it. Check this out.

Here, he is questioning how it was that Sam was able to resist the evil of the One Ring, while Frodo (and plenty of other folks) were not:

Sam must remain true to himself, and the central mission in his life is to protect Frodo.

Sam though, is stymied in his attempt to follow the orcs into the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and eventually he stands alone on the high path that leads into Mordor. It is here that Same encounters his fundamental moral decision. He feels the power of the Ring, even though he is not wearing it, for “as it [the Ring] drew near the great furnaces where, in the deeps of tie, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring’s power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will”.

Sam now feels himself “enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor”. The Ring tempts him, “gnawing at his will and reason,” and he sees a vision of himself as “Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur.”

“And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees ad brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.”

But Sam is equal to his test, and he knows that it is not for him to bear the Ring and challenge the Dark Lord. Tolkien explains that two things keep Sam safe from the seductive power of the Ring: his love for Frodo and his own sense of self.

“The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”

Deep down in his heart, Sam knows who he is. As Galadriel knew to remain Galadriel and to reject the Ring. Sam knows that he can never be other than the plain commonsense hobbit, Samwise Gamgee, the small and caring gardener of the Shire. Fortified by his love for Frodo, he remains true to himself and rejects the power of the ring.

-Eric Katz, The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality

On and on, he keeps using that phrase “being true to yourself”.Gosh, how often do we hear this mush? It’s on every other kids TV show on PBS. It covers those cheesy motivational posters in the office.

Anyone who has read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy knows that he spends the whole first chapter showing the utter foolishness of “believing in yourself” and “being true to yourself”. The one who believes in himself the most is locked up in an insane asylum. Either that or he is a wicked tyrant.

Throughout Mr. Katz entire clever discussion (and he does ask many excellent questions), it is remarkably clear that he does not believe any such thing as The Fall ever happened. To him, there is no such thing as original sin, total depravity (or even partial depravity) or any of these other core Christian doctrines.

Tolkien was a thoroughly orthodox Christian. When you leave these key theologies out of the discussion, you are guaranteed to miss the point, and he does.

Sam is not true to himself. He is HUMBLE.

Fortunately, a later essay in the book touches on the same topic, this time heavily informed by Christianity:

The fall of Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve has a similar pattern, [Augustine] thinks: in both cases, there were good creatures who wanted to have more than their fair share of the good things in the world. This desire is the source of all evil, and when we freely give into it, evil is born.

As he says in another place, “Whence comes this turning away, unless man, to whom God is the only Good, replaces God with himself to be his own good, as God is the Good to Himself?”

Tolkien echoes this view in one of his letters. He says that the War of the Ring “is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved, It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour”.

Finally, addressing the issue of Sam:

Sam is also able to resist the temptation of the Ring because he knows that his humble garden is “all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command. Unlike corporate executives who try to steal from their stockholders and avoid responsibility for the consequences, Sam is content to tend his garden. He resists the desire to occupy a place that is not his own, and thus allows the lure of the One Ring to pass him by. How many of us could resist the same temptation?

-Scott A. Davison, Tolkien and the Nature of Evil

Secularism is so short on the tools needed to understand ourselves and other men. A classic example is psychologists going to great lengths to understand our social problems and motivations, all the while refusing to even consider the possibility that “Sin” might actually exist. It’s no wonder their conclusions are confusing and usually of little assistance.