The Temptation of the Earthly City: Tolkien's Augustinian Vision | Dr. Jose Yulo | February 1, 2006
"We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything." - Blaise Pascal
J. R. R. Tolkiens epic, The Lord of the Rings, has for generations captured the minds and hearts of readers with themes and characters that embody the steadfast quality of what can today, and what was in the distant past, be best described as virtue. Although the modern lexicon writes of such concepts as honor, fidelity and nobility, these are termsperhaps due to their immaterialityrather infrequent used. This may be due to the connotation associated with these words; a connotation which necessitates a timelessness only made possible by the existence of a source of permanent good. Nevertheless, the heroic daring of Aragorn the King, as well as the patient sacrifice of Frodo the hobbit, are representative of the high moral plane from which Tolkien writes. It is also a plane where the Professor invites one to dwell in, if only for the glimmer of a nights read.
What separates Tolkiens work from other narratives, especially those inspired by his prose, is the rich profundity and dexterity with which he wove his tapestry. Recent scholarship has shown the interconnectedness of Tolkiens writing to the vaunted schools of ancient philosophy, specifically those of ancient Greece. However, there exists in The Lord of the Rings a subtle yet quite detectable call to the thought of the medieval philosopher St. Augustine. This call is particularly resonant today, an age where there appears to prevail an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Augustine, as a student of the ancients (in particular of Plato), knew well that knowledge was not synonymous with wisdom. Often, the quest for the former entailed the preclusion of the latter.
Sarumans Sorcerous Temptation
In Gandalfs account to the Council of Elrond, Tolkien relates this very dilemma. As the chief advisor of the soon to be fellowship of the ring recounted his fateful meeting with the wizard Saruman, elements from Augustines City of God can be positively deduced. To be precise, there is a strong correlation between the characters of Saruman and Gandalfboth wizards sent to middle earth to defend its inhabitantsand Augustines discussion on the citizens of earthly and heavenly cities.
It is a matter of importance in Tolkiens account to first mention an essential change in the character of Saruman. As Gandalf approaches the forbidding, frigid redoubt of Orthanc, he notes this metamorphosis in his old colleaguea shift not only in temperament, but also in appearance. As Saruman reveals his design to allow another Istari, Radagast the Brown, to lead Gandalf to Isengard, the growing contempt with which the former views his peers is palpable: "Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message."
In addition to the treacherous ice in Sarumans voice, Gandalf notes the visage itself of his old friend taking new shape. "I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colors, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered." Saruman himself boasts of this recent transcendence, naming himself "Saruman of Many Colors." When Gandalf expresses his own preference for Sarumans forsaken white vestments, the latter responds with the limitations he sees in the simple hue. "It serves as a beginning...The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken."
This condescension for the older and stolid instead of the newer and ostensibly more liberating elicits one of Tolkiens greatest caveats for seekers of earthly dominion. Gandalf reminds Saruman that "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."
Viewing these fundamental and ultimately corrupting changes in the character of a once great seer prods one to wonder about just what exactly has caused this sudden course. Perhaps holding out some expectation that Gandalf would align himself thusly, Saruman is open and forthcoming with his rationale: "The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule."
This blunt attempt at a justification is telling. Saruman, as the most senior Istari, or wizard, manifests the fruits of countless ages spent studying in the defense of the free peoples of middle earth. It was to him, as head of the White Council, that the opportunity and duty of gleaning all the dark lords machinations fell. Hence, it was Saruman, and possibly the higher elves such as Elrond, who began to deduce the fading majesty of Rivendell and Loth Lorien.
It is what Saruman decides to do with his knowledge that sets his path. Unlike Gandalf (and possibly Radagast as well), Saruman proves false to the charge he was given as an Istari. As some of the oldest beings on middle earth, the wizards were charged to fulfill one main mission: to aid those who would challenge might of Sauron. Though possessed of prodigious strength in their own right, it was not theirs to manipulate worldly events, or worse, to coerce the free wills of those of lesser stature. Yet, the potential to do these very acts are enticing to Saruman. Though he, like his brethren, hail from beyond the sea, Saruman did not merely wish to serve out his tenure as he was charged. Instead, he begins to see in this middle earth something to shape, prod, andin his mindperfect.
But what of the reasons for Sarumans long dormant and now revealed manipulative designs? As he and the other Istari have been sent to middle earth, he knows full well that along with the much more powerful dark lord Sauron, they were not the authors of their fates. By not being in himself a creator and so not deserving of the attendant praise of this position, Saruman settles on another position of privilege: "But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see."
Here a warning from Tolkien concerning the temptations
inherent in knowledge per se is addressed. Instead of carrying out his
entrusted vocationthat of aiding the free peoples against Saurons
predationsSaruman is in a way narcissistically drawn to his appointed
position. He is the head of the White Council, the eldest and most powerful
of the Istari, the one to whom was given the dark tomes concerning Sauron
to best find the means of combating him. Yet Saruman does not seek to
serve but to rule. He condescends against those, like Radagast, and even
perhaps Gandalf himself, who are either too naive, or too loyal, to see
that Sauron now holds the doom-ridden field. Corrupted by his long years
delving into the craft of the dark lord, he begins to see himself as above
his task, elevating himself and potentially Gandalf to the identity of
the Wise. Of course, this wisdom proves itself false because the knowledge
it is comprised of is not used for the betterment of the many, but rather
to suit the vanity of the self. To Saruman, wisdom not only deserves but
Jose Yulo, Ed.D. teaches courses on philosophy, western civilization, United States history, and public speaking at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He has a Doctorate in Education from the University of San Francisco, with an emphasis on the philosophy of education. He also holds a Master's degree in political communication from Emerson College in Boston, as well as a Bachelor's degree in the classical liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. Originally from Manila in the Philippines, his research interests lie in Greek philosophy, the histories of Greek and Roman politics and warfare, and the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien.
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