Of Falls and Neoplatonic Rises: Musings on Augustine and Boethius in Tolkien’s Middle-earth
This is one of those subject matters better suited to a thesis than a blog post, and far smarter people than I have tackled the question in a more detailed and accurate manner. But it’s a question that’s been running around in my brain for a fortnight or so. So today I thought I would offer some musings on the influence of Augustine and Boethius on Tolkien’s Middle-earth. As one does. More specifically, I shall focus on the issues surrounding Evil, for the selfish reason that it sheds some light on Tolkien’s Neoplatonic influences, a subject that interests me. Besides, much ink has been spilled elsewhere on Tolkien’s handling of Boethian Free Will, Providence and Fate, so rather than doubling down on that aspect, consider this a way of mixing things up a bit.
Some background is probably in order. Saint Augustine of Hippo was a late fourth and early fifth century Churchman. Born in Roman North Africa, he later moved to Italy, where he wrote some of the most influential texts in the history of Western philosophy. The City of God (426) basically starts out as an attempt to tackle a question of some significance in the early fifth century – if Christianity is the True Religion, why did Pagan Rome successfully conquer an Empire, whereas Christian Rome got itself sacked by Alaric’s Goths? Were the Pagans right after all? Augustine utilised his background in Neoplatonist ideas, and differentiated between the Earthly City and the Spiritual/Heavenly City. Earthly concerns are corrupt, so the Earthly Rome fell… but the Spiritual City did not. Augustine considers Earthly concerns inherently tainted by the Fall of Man, and as such morally bankrupt and fundamentally unimportant, with post-Fall Man being naturally wicked if left without appropriate guidance. Eventually, the Earthly City will be destroyed in the biblical apocalypse, as per the Book of Revelation, while the Spiritual City shall endure.
Boethius lived about a century later, being a Roman aristocrat and public servant in the late fifth and early sixth centuries (so after the collapse of the Western Empire). Alas, he found himself on the wrong end of the vicious politics of Late Antiquity, and ended up being imprisoned and executed.
While in prison, Boethius penned The Consolation of Philosophy (524), which on the most basic level is an exploration of why bad things happen to good people. Boethius was a Christian, but his actual work can be read from either a Christian or Pagan perspective – he makes significant use of both Stoic and Neoplatonist ideas, and he was one of the most-read writers for the next thousand years. Boethius, like Augustine, considers Evil to be absence of Good, but does not invoke the Fall of Man to explain it. Rather, Boethius considers Man to be naturally good, rising towards the transcendent Good, except when we use our Free Will to foolishly seek non-virtuous paths to happiness. Bad things may temporarily happen to good people, but true happiness is only to be found in the Good, so only good people are truly happy. Transient Fortune and its imitation goods are unimportant, while to be Evil is to be truly miserable. In fact, Evil is not merely a miserable state, but actually irrational. Somewhere, the shades of Socrates and Plato nod with approval.
One can thus see some overlap, and some distinctions. Both Augustine and Boethius were Christian writers, and both were influenced by Neoplatonism (whence comes the idea that Evil is an absence, not a thing unto itself). The grim environment of their surroundings naturally shapes these texts too. However, whereas Augustine considers (post-Fall) Man to be naturally wicked, Boethius considers Man to be naturally inclined towards good. Or to put it more succinctly, Augustine Falls, but Boethius Rises.
Well and good, but where does Tolkien fit into this? Well, Tolkien’s starting point meant his work was always likely to share some philosophical overlap with these two older writers. After all, Tolkien was himself another Christian writer, who also utilised a fair bit of Neoplatonism in his work (albeit he is less overt in his Platonic influence than C.S. Lewis). Between the demiurgic Valar, beneath the transcendent One (literally called this), the Atlantis analogy, and Evil not being able to create, one can definitely see the influence of Neoplatonism on Tolkien’s world*. Matter is the lowest and least real form of existence in Neoplatonism, and Evil is an absence, to the point where (as per Boethius himself) doing Evil makes you less real… so it is also notable that Morgoth eventually becomes trapped in a material form. Indeed, the relationship of material bodies to the Valar and Maiar (as mere clothing of the spirit) is very Neoplatonist generally, though the situation with the incarnates is quite different.
*Oh, and Tolkien’s Flame Imperishable corresponds pretty well with Plotinus’ Intellectual Principle.
Ignoring these shared characteristics descending from Plato and Sons, I think the biggest uniquely Augustinian influence on Middle-earth is Tolkien’s thematic interest in the Fall. From Melkor (whose Fall presaged all others), to the Noldor, to Númenor, to Saruman, to Lotho Sackville-Baggins, Tolkien loved this framework of a story. Save for some dark hints in The History of Middle-earth, he does however keep the Original Fall of Man off-screen. This was actually a deliberate choice on Tolkien’s part, for reasons of secondary world integrity, though he does acknowledge elsewhere that an Original Fall took place. And in Augustinian fashion, each of these Falls cast a long shadow – neither the world nor its inhabitants is ever the same again. “Nothing was evil in the beginning,” not even Sauron, and yet the history of Arda is that of the long defeat. Only through divinely-influenced eucatastrophes in the First and Third Ages (themselves preceded by two desperate and difficult pilgrimages from Earendil and Frodo respectively) can this trend be temporarily averted.
Another Augustinian influence on Tolkien’s Middle-earth is the handling of Ethics. Smarter people than I would point out that Tolkienian Ethics are Virtue Ethics (think Aquinas’ revisions of Aristotle), rather than the more Deontological system (Divine Command) associated with Augustine. True enough. What I meant was that Augustine explicitly addresses the question of whether a good consequence can come from a bad act (i.e. whether moral ends justifies unsavory means, a question at the heart of The Lord of the Rings). And sure enough, Augustine’s conclusion is a negative one. One cannot achieve a positive consequence from using the One Ring, even with the best of intentions. Boromir take note.
Where I feel Tolkien departs from the Augustinian framework is that he does not draw such a strong distinction between an Earthly Middle-earth and a Spiritual Middle-earth. A distinction is there, of course. It is the entire point of Frodo’s Journey into Mordor being the real story of The Lord of the Rings, and not Aragorn and Gondor. One ordinary person’s moral struggles are more important than all the King’s Horses and all the King’s Men, and Gandalf’s aside to Denethor (“For I too am a Steward. Did you not know?”) points out that there are things that transcend the mere political. It’s just that temporal affairs do matter in Tolkien, even if they play second fiddle to other concerns. Otherwise one might as well put on some yellow gumboots, and run off and join Tom Bombadil – admirable in his own way, but of little help outside the Old Forest. Nor is Sauron simply a Political threat, a la Alaric and his Goths, who happens to give
Rome Gondor a well-deserved smack-down for its failings – he’s a Spiritual threat too, with all that entails. Augustine was not envisaging a Fallen Angel (which is what Sauron essentially is) literally running a temporal Empire as an immortal God-King, even if his line about Empires being little more than dens of thieves maps pretty well onto Númenor.
I think it is an open question as to whether the (fallen) inhabitants of Tolkien’s universe are naturally bad (Augustine) or naturally good (Boethius). To my mind, the Boethian model is a better fit, and not merely because Middle-earth shies away from enforced moral guidance. The people of Middle-earth are not subject to organised religion (for reasons of secondary world integrity), while I feel that the “average” person of the setting is more likely than not to do the right thing. Frodo is himself one such Everyman, who grows morally over the course of The Lord of the Rings, learning the importance of mercy as he goes. The mercy granted to Gollum saves the world, of course, whereas the mercy shown to Saruman results in The Scouring of the Shire, but temporary worldly consequences are less important than virtuous Doing the Right Thing for its own sake. Only then is humanity (or hobbits) acting in accordance with their true nature. Frodo himself demonstrates this, via granting Saruman further mercy at the door of Bag End. Channelling Boethius, he has come to see Saruman’s wickedness as an illness to be benevolently treated.
One of the criticisms Augustine levels at the Roman Stoics is the notion that virtue arising from human reason and action is not enough. In his view, true happiness can only be achieved via Christianity, whereas the idea that it can be achieved by purely mortal endeavour is the height of arrogance. One can see echoes of this at Mount Doom, where neither Frodo nor anyone else can willingly destroy the Ring. No-one can be perfect in a Fallen World (and yet the Ring is destroyed via Boethian Providence.. which I shall pass over for reasons stated earlier).
Boethius was writing for Pagans as well as Christians, and is explicitly invoking the ideas of Pagan Philosophers, rather than Theology. As such, he is more concerned with demonstrating that virtue is its own reward, and vice is its own punishment. Virtue brings us closer to the divine, and vice further away. Frodo and Sam both exhibit moral growth, accompanied by virtuous acts, albeit Transient Fortune is kinder to Sam, who finds himself able to live a comfortable life with his wife and family. Having come up against the hard limits of what is possible with mortal endeavour, Frodo’s ultimate reward is indeed a spiritual one (though I personally imagine him living long enough on Tol Eressea to see a reunion with Sam). But what of Boethius’ discussion of Evil?
I earlier noted that Morgoth’s eventual ‘material’ fate is one of the more Neoplatonic moments in Tolkien, and corresponds nicely to Boethius’ idea that Evil makes one less real. Morgoth also fits the Boethian idea of evil misery very nicely – he thinks setting himself up as King of the World (with the ultimate aim of destroying Creation) will somehow give him satisfaction. But it doesn’t. He’s a coward, the only one of the Valar to know fear, and he lives in perpetual pain via the self-inflicted proximity to the Silmarils in the Iron Crown. Morgoth is as far from achieving satisfaction or happiness as anyone in the mythos, but because he is Morgoth Bauglir, the Greatest Fool in Arda, he never, ever learns.
We have less to go on with Sauron, since he is famously off-stage for so much of the story. But we do know that Sauron’s great fear is that someone will use the One Ring against him. Sauron even bases his entire war strategy on this assumption. And this fear only arises because of his own evil decision to create the Ring in the first place – the Dark Lord did not buy himself happiness with his scheming, but rather centuries of anxiety, until eventually he is brought down via his own blindness.
And so on. Saruman’s gradual accumulation of vice ends up with him becoming a miserable and petty bully, with nothing better to do than abusing hobbits. By this point, he is even incapable of feeling happiness except insofar as he is hurting others – in short, a pathetic force of negativity. It is not merely a Fall, though obviously that model applies too, but also potentially a diminishing of being. Saruman, as per Boethius, has arguably become less real, and after his material form is killed by Grima Wormtongue, there will be no returning. For the remainder of Arda’s existence, he, like Sauron, will be an impotent spirit in the shadows. Quite the come-down for an immortal being from before the world, who originally came to Middle-earth as the most powerful of the wizards.
So we have good characters Rising in accordance with virtue, and evil characters Falling in accordance with vice, albeit that we must be wary of confusing the temporary and temporal with what Boethius would consider real happiness. In rounding off our discussion of this point, Númenor provides a useful case-study. Yes, it is a classic (and literal) Fall story. The corruption and moral bankruptcy of Earthly Númenor, with the Spiritual side kept alive via the Faithful, is a decent enough fit for the Augustinian paradigm. There is even the apocalyptic event where the Earthly City gets its (spectacular) comeuppance, and the virtuous are saved. But as I have suggested, I think Tolkien differs from Augustine in that he does not dismiss Earthly concerns as unimportant and entirely despicable. The colonies of Imperial Númenor, and the associated issues shall live on. Meanwhile, Númenor can just as easily be viewed through a Boethian lens, where the people’s wickedness is not a function of the inherently Fallen state of Man, but rather of misguidedness and a failure of reason.
Applying the Boethian paradigm, Tolkien uses a quite unusual example of a “false good.” Deathlessness. Certainly, Númenoreans become increasingly fixated on riches and power, the classic Boethian trip-ups, but their real hunger is for immortality. They come to believe that if only they could achieve an Escape from Death, that would somehow satisfy them. Alas, this hunt for a false good alienates them from their ancient friendship from the Elves, while at the same time rendering them fearful, and unable to appreciate their (still extended) lifespans. Which in turn creates a vicious circle, as the people double-down on that which makes them miserable. By the time Sauron arrives, the Númenoreans are monstrously powerful and wealthy, their every material need is met many times over, and they still have a lifespan far longer than other Men… but they have also become cruel and unhappy through their own foolishness. Sauron suddenly finds himself with much to work on.
(The kicker, of course, is that had the Númenoreans been able to escape mortality, they still would not have been happy. Rather the reverse. Tolkien’s other writings make it clear that a mortal in Aman would not have a fun time, on account of their fea (spirit) and hroa (body) being out of kilter. Thinking that Deathlessness could substitute for virtue always was barking up the wrong White Tree).
Phew. As one can see, there are copious Augustinian and Boethian philosophical influences scattered around Tolkien’s mythos, and if you google “Tolkien” and “Boethius”, you will see that I am really only scratching the surface with this discussion. I have consciously omitted discussing Providence, because I feel I would simply be rehashing arguments made more effectively elsewhere. Even focusing more on Evil and human nature is the sort of subject that intricate theses are made of, so consider this a layman’s thoughts after reading the authors in question, together with reading earlier Neoplatonists (Plotinus was a very important source for Augustine).
Both these authors were, of course, highly influential on the intellectual climate of Medieval Europe, a period that interested Tolkien as both academic and artist. Both also have a decent degree of overlap, arising from their own shared sources – albeit Boethius is more positive about people than Augustine. I feel Tolkien tends to side with Boethius where the two are at odds, and he too is more positive about people (and the temporal world) than Augustine. On the other hand, no-one can read Tolkien’s mythos without noticing his fascination with self-destructive moral Falls, something Augustine put at the heart of his own work. And lurking in the background is the common influence of the ancient Neoplatonists – certainly, C.S. Lewis was more overt in his Platonism, but it is there too in Tolkien.