The Lord of the Rings, written by J.R.R Tolkien is the most influential fantasy novel of 20th century. One of the central theme of the book is the struggle between the good versus evil; of the war between the ‘free people’ of the Middle-earth against the dark lord Sauron. While the book does describe the military battle between the armies of the good and the armies of the evil, struggle is better shown through how various characters interact with the One Ring. In the book, it is not the wise wizards, the immortal elves, nor the valiant warriors that resist the evil of the Ring. The ones who show the most resilience to the Ring are the Hobbits; simple folks from peaceful, rural society of Shire. This begs the question why is the One Ring considered evil and what is the goodness in those Hobbits that allow them to better resist the Ring?
Before considering the struggle between good and evil presented in Tolkien’s work with philosophical view point, let me first explain what I think philosophy is. To me, philosophy is the process of finding answers to the questions. I do not mean the questions that can be answered by researching the relevant facts or performing experiments to gather data. I mean the questions that cannot yet be answered definitively: What is good? What is bad? Are there absolute truths or only relative truths? What is a soul? What does it mean to know? What is the purpose of life? How does the world work? The questions explored in philosophy need not remained unanswerable forever; indeed, many branches of philosophy have been moved from philosophy proper to give birth to branches of science such as physics. The Doctor of Philosophy in physics uses scientific methods to support hypothesis to answer questions regarding laws governing the physical world. However, the hypothesis in the philosophy proper cannot be supported by gathering and analyzing empirical data. In philosophy, one’s conclusions must be defended using logic and sound arguments to withstand the opposing views. In my opinion, by exploring currently unanswerable questions, philosophy allows mankind to expand our mind and explore the unknown.
The view that the philosophy is about exploring difficult questions is shared by many philosophers throughout the history. Plato, through his depiction of Socrates in Euthyphro, explored the unanswered question of “What is piety? That is an enquiry which I shall never be weary of pursuing as far as in me lies” (Plato, Euthyphro, p.16). The Socrates/Plato wanted to explore what it is about pious act that makes them pious. This question remained unsolved at the end of the work, yet through Socrates, Plato claims that he will never be weary of pursuing such questions; the questions that are worth exploring even without being able to come up with an answer. Another Greek philosopher, Epicurus, emphasized the importance of prudence in his teaching. Epicurus taught that to live happiest life, one need to maximize pleasure and minimize pain through philosophy (Epicurus, Letters, p.1). One important essence of this happy life is to explore the unknown. Only those who are prudent enough to look for answers can triumph over the primal fear of unknown. Those who decide to believe in popular myths rather than philosophically approaching difficult questions continue to suffer fear of not knowing and cannot achieve the pleasurable life (Epicurus, Doctrines, p.2). In modern times, philosophers such as Mill and Kant explored the question of morality. In the introduction to Mill’s Utilitarianism, Mill acknowledged that the question he was about to explore has been discussed since the dawn of philosophy for more than two thousand years without a universally agreed answer (Mill, Utilitarianism, P.1). Even though he knows the question at hand have been failed to be answered for a long time, he nonetheless does his best to present his hypothesis and provide arguments and counter-counterarguments to support his stance.
While Tolkien himself explicitly stated that there are no allegories or hidden meanings behind his work (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, p.xvii), it is but natural for readers to find meaning in author’s work even when there are no such hidden messages from the author. And, as someone who is studying morality in philosophy class, it is but natural for me to find application of Mill and Kant’s idea of morality to the evilness of the One Ring. In Tolkien’s work, the One Ring is evil because it contains the power of Sauron. And Sauron is evil because he served Morgoth. And Morgoth, in turn, is evil because he rebelled against the creator. But, as Socrates did in Plato’s work, let us not be satisfied with the mythical answer and rather try and assess what it is about the Ring itself that makes it evil. Through his character Gandalf, Tolkien explains that the One Ring contains the power to “rule over the others” (Tolkien, p.68), giving its possessor the ability to bend the will of the others to serve him. Applying Mill’s utilitarian approach, from the past examples of tyrants and dictators, we know that forcibly ruling over others against their will result in great pain and unhappiness. According to the Greatest Happiness Principal, something that causes more pain and unhappiness than pleasure and happiness is evil (Mill, p.2). The evilness of the One Ring can also be assessed using Kantian approach. The One Ring’s main purpose is to gives the power to turn others into mere means to achieve its owner’s goal. According to Kant, any action that treats another human being as a mere means is evil (Kant, Metaphysics, p.8). Using Epicurean teaching, we can infer why Hobbits show greater resilience to such evil. While the Hobbits do not live the ideal Epicurean life, as they love feasting on excessive amount of food, they are also simple people who does not understand nor desire great ambitions. When the Ring tempted Samwise Gamgee with the power to restore burnt and barren world back into green fields, Sam was able to reject the temptation because what he truly wished in his heart was a small garden he could tend with his hands. This is in accordance with one of Epicurus’ main teachings; be free of vain desires for grandness (Epicurus, Letters, p.3). By being accustomed to living a “good”, simple life that is free from vain desires, Hobbits were able to resist the evil of using others as means to server their own goal.
The paper looked at an example of philosophy that could be found in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Asking questions like ‘was that villain actually evil?’ or ‘were the protagonists actually justified in their actions?’ is a good example of philosophical activities we do in everyday life outside of the philosophy class. I am doing philosophy when I am in shower or in bed, asking absurd questions like “what if we are living in matrix?”, “are there really aliens out there?”, or “what happens after we die”. Whenever I pass a moral judgement on someone’s action or try to decide whether buying that material good can bring happiness in my life, I am doing philosophy. According to my view of philosophy, whenever I explore questions whose answers cannot be found in textbook or laboratory, I am engaged in philosophical activity.
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.