Fra Josemaria M. Barbin on The Temptation of the Istari

The following essay has been writing for this blog by one of our seminarians, Fra Josemaria M. Barbin.  I agree with it in its entirely.

Some say that J. R. R. Tolkien is a black-and-white thinker who just pits the force of good against that of evil. However, his characters prove how Tolkien’s writing does not fall readily into such simple categories. The Istari (also known as wizards), for instance, reveal that in Middle-earth things are no so black-and-white. Tolkien’s wizards illustrate how one may do evil even with the best of intentions, when one is seduced by the temptation to use an evil means to a good end.

The art of living is not always simple. The circumstances of life do not make it all that easy to live up to noble standards. To do so is a true art, because in moral life, just as in art, one eventually has to formulate a solution where none has existed before. Indeed, this line between good and evil at times can be highly ambiguous, and it is often very difficult to make clear moral choices in complex situations. Our counsels are not always certain.

This is where the temptation of the Istari comes in. The syncretistic meshing of good and evil is precisely the art of cold-hearted wizardry. It is shrewd, cunning, deliberate, foresighted and worst of all: it happens frequently in the real world. The cold-hearted wizard plays not only with fire, but with souls.

In the temptation of the Istari, Tolkien explores the sometime murkiness of the dichotomy between good and evil choices, particularly with regard to the means employed in reaching a specific end. He points out time and again: “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy” (Letter 81). By this he articulates the traditional theological maxim: bonum ex integra causa malum ex quocumque defectu, “An action is good when good in every respect; it is wrong when wrong in any respect,” according to which “a morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together” (CCC. 1755). Tinkering with the Ring is always risky business—even, and perhaps especially, for wizards.

All That Glitters is not Gold

In Letter 156, Tolkien writes that the task of the wizards in Middle-earth was principally to “train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them.” Moreover, he also notes how “these ‘wizards’ were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of ‘fall’, of sin, if you will” (Letter 181).

At this point in the same letter, Tolkien describes the nature of the “temptation of the Wizards”:

The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not” (emphasis mine).

The wizards were exceedingly wise. They possessed knowledge of the first principles in a supreme degree. However, when it came to particular knowledge concerning ways and means, they had no natural pre-knowledge or expertise. For the ways and means to moderation are infinitely varied according to the affairs, circumstances, and especially where “other wills are concerned” (Letter 156), as Tolkien specifies. Like us, the wizards had to learn this through experience. Tolkien explained that the wizards had no more, if no less “certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian.”

Since prudence, strictly understood, is concerned not with universal principles or the end, but with individual cases and particular means to be employed, it follows that the temptation of the Istari mainly consisted in a tragic flaw in the use of prudence. They knew what to do but not necessarily how to do it.

The Prudence of the Cold-Hearted Wizards 

It is extremely significant how Tolkien depicts the way Saruman tries to persuade Gandalf to join him in his evil scheme:

“We can bide our time, we can keep out thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our design, only in our means” (Book II, chapter 2, “The Council of Elrond”; emphasis mine).

Saruman assures Gandalf that the “high and ultimate purpose” will remain unaltered; only the means employed will have to change. But the end does not justify the means. Tolkien once wrote that wizards “could in various ways become self-seeking” (Letter 212). Here Saruman is so deeply inured in his egotistic plot that he can no longer conceive of any choice other than one of expediency. His wisdom remained deep, but his pride outgrew it. And as Chesterton says, “Pride is a poison so very poisonous that it not only poisons the virtues; it even poisons the other vices.” Pride tainted the correct use of prudence, blinding Saruman even to the possibility of choices that do not involve pragmatism, power or self-interest. In the end, he subordinates the end to the means.

Sheer cold-hearted wizardry exchanges the highest ideals for narrow interests. The constant temptation of the Istari, “to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power” (Letters, 156), implies the secret employment of evil means with the view to coerce others, and, thus, gain some type of advantage. It is the execution of an astute plan by words calculated to deceive or circumvent the rights of another person. All this is done in the name and under the guise of the true, good and beautiful. “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The “prudence” of the cold-hearted wizards is utterly wicked, for it is cold calculation that masquerades as the virtue of prudence.

Tolkien correctly suggests that right motives are not enough: they must be coupled with right means. He also explains how the Ring is a great temptation for anyone because it is so easy to assert that one’s intention is to use it for good. Those who operate in this manner, undoubtedly spurred on by the influence of the Ring, do not take into account the corrupting power of the very evil that is being employed in the service of a “just cause.”

An act can be said to be entirely good only when all its elements—its object, circumstances, purpose and means employed—are in conformity with the standards of morality. True prudence then is wise not only in deliberation, but in decision and in direction as well. It carefully considers the correct methods to be employed for virtuous choice, and draws right conclusions about the means to be chosen for virtuous conduct. It ponders on what to do, and how to properly do it. At times, this might require a good dose of wholesome wizardry.

The Voice of Cold-Hearted Wizards

In chapter ten of The Two Towers, Saruman makes his first real appearance. Here he is characterized chiefly by his voice. Like many contemporary politicians, his main power is in his ability to deceitfully persuade. Tom Shippey calls him “the most contemporary figure of Middle-earth,” precisely because he personifies sly politicians, whose main concern is for themselves and whose real intentions are cloaked in sweet, but deceptive language. Indeed, Saruman’s voice had the power to beguile and to persuade in unperceivable ways. The sound of his voice alone

was enough to hold them enthralled; but for those whom it conquered the spell endured when they were far away, and ever they heard that soft voice whispering and urging them. But none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will (Book III, chapter 10, “The Voice of Saruman”; emphasis mine).

As they approached the tower of Orthanc, Gandalf reminded Pippin that “Saruman has powers you do not guess. Beware of his voice!” Here, Tolkien, a man who passionately loved language, was not unaware of its power and sought to warn against the snares of sophistry. An explicit effort of mind and will are needed to escape its peril.

Sophists taught the skill to argue for any position, regardless of whether it was right or wrong. This was done through false but appealing arguments, quibbling, the confusion or entrapment of opponents, emotional appeal and slander, the shouting down of opponents, and the use of other rhetoric, such as the sound bite slogans used by pundits in the media today. In all this, getting at the truth was surely not part of the Sophists’ agenda. It was in fact, irrelevant to their intentions. They were not interested in the truth, but in the execution of their plan at the expense of the freedom of others. This is a clear mark of cold-hearted wizardry.

“You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable,” Gandalf would later tell him. This applies to the ancient Sophists as well as to the cold-hearted wizards of today.

The moral framework of the modern world becomes even more complicated when we consider the means that technology presently offers. The modern Machine is a bull-horn for the shrill and cold voice of Saruman. It is not difficult to find “Sharkeys” surfing the Internet, who disguise their cause in fair words and present facts selectively to fit their agenda. Packaged in ear-tickling verbiage, cold-hearted wizards of the virtual world attempt to persuade others to actions inconsistent with sound moral principles.

The tools of technology are themselves morally indifferent, but in the hands of the acting person they assume the moral quality of a means to an end. The tools of modern communication, not only facilitate the immediate and constant connectivity of persons around the globe, as well as a newfound information democracy, but also the lowering of the standards of journalistic integrity and of personal responsibility. We do not have more transparency as a result but less, and while the quantity of information has increased exponentially, the quality has not, nor has our ability to discern the difference been aided by the growth in technology. Tolkien was quite deliberate in equating the power to quicken a desired result through magic with the potential evil of the modern Machine.

So the wizards of the virtual world get a free pass. The free market of ideas is held to be more important than accountability. In the end, this facilitates the methods of propagandists: deliberate misrepresentation, half-truths, selective reporting, etc. All this diminishes the legitimate freedom of others. The relative protection the computer monitor provides ought not to be a pretext for minimizing accountability. Man is always personally responsible for his acts, whether off or online.

Just as wizards were prone to “err and stray” as Tolkien emphasized, as Catholics we are also vulnerable to the seductive appeal of the Ring. It is possible for us to begin with a good intention, but then to act according to the logic of the Machine. We can taint a decent motive of choice and action by not attending to the order which supernatural prudence requires.

It should be evident, then, how the voice of truth can be drowned out by subtly deceptive language. One cannot build an ivory tower out of the rubble of Isengard. Universal truth is easily sacrificed on the altar of narrow agendas, even if only in the sense that one comes to reject the universal truth that the end does not justify the means. “Proprium virtus moralis est facere electionem rectam” (S. Th., I-II, q. 65, a. 1).  St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that the proper act of virtue consists in right choice, because true virtue does not stop at a good intention, but executes this good intention through morally right choices, namely, with choices that realize the initial virtuous intention. We have to know what to do and how to do it in the right way.

Gandalf as Ring-Lord: A Would-be “Benevolent” Dictator

When Frodo offered him the Ring, Gandalf rejected it and in the process defined clearly the temptation of the Istari:

No!” cried Gandalf, springing to his feet. “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” […] “Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good” (Book I, chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”; emphasis mine).

Perhaps the most profound examination of the ambiguous treatment of good and evil in Tolkien could be found in Letter 246 where he hypothesizes what would have happened if Gandalf was to become Ring-Lord:

Gandalf as Ring-Lord would have been far worse than Sauron. He would have remained ‘righteous’, but self-righteous. He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’, and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great)” (emphasis mine).

The same letter ends with this extremely interesting note:

[The draft ends here. In the margin Tolkien wrote: “Thus while Sauron multiplied [illegible word] evil, he left ‘good’ clearly distinguishable from it. Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem evil”] (emphasis mine).

Gandalf’s temptation would have been much more subtle. It is unlikely that he would have been an iconoclast, scandalizing others by flaunting his hypocrisy in public. Nonetheless, he would have been a self-righteous hypocrite as Tolkien points out; for he would have claimed that his knowledge of the universal principles (which would have remained great as Tolkien specifies) allowed him to manipulate things subtly so as to modify their structure without really changing them essentially. This would have been the subtlest form of the prudence of cold-hearted wizards.

Gandalf would have certainly given his subjects what they needed and not exactly what they wanted. But no matter how benevolent his dictatorship it might have seemed to be, it would have stripped his subjects of the necessary interior condition of liberty to adhere to the good. Gandalf would have overstepped his competence as a moral force, which, based on freedom and responsibility, is meant to guide the energies of all towards the common good.

This is not to say that legitimate authority is without the power to coerce within the limits of law (divine, ecclesial and human), but that the nobility of the end does not bring a proportionate increase the power to coerce. Nor the “benevolence” of the authority, or the evil of the times authorize a power to violate basic human freedom. Gandalf was eminently good, his cause was supremely noble, and he confronted the greatest evil. He still would not touch the Ring.

Had it been otherwise, he would have “benevolently” imposed the good in a subtly despotic manner. In this way, the climate of genuine freedom would have been contaminated by the stench of the Machine. It would have been a very subtle form of coercion of the will inspired by the logic of the Ring. It would have been sheer wizardry—sheer cold-hearted wizardry.

No wonder Tolkien says that Gandalf would have been far worse than Sauron. Gandalf, the Ring-Lord, would have so integrated good with evil means (subtle coercion of the will in the name of good), that the distinction between good and evil have become confused. It would have become a case of beauty in the beast, in which the good became detestable. This is the art of sheer cold-hearted wizardry at its worst.

In reality, it is only by authentic freedom that man can turn himself towards what is good. Man’s dignity requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses of the passions nor by the mere constraint of cold-hearted wizards.

Man gains such dignity when, ridding himself of all slavery to the passions, he presses forward towards his goal by freely choosing what is good, and, by his diligence and skill, effectively secures for himself the means suites to his end (Gaudium et Spes, 17).

In fact, when uninhibited by disordered passions, human nature, elevated by grace enables us to judge correctly about the universal principles of right and wrong. So also, when judgement is to be made about a particular line of action, as a man is, so he judges. The licentious man judges for pleasure, the cowardly man for neglect of duty, the cold-hearted wizard for apparent good. Thus emerges the necessity to cultivate true virtue. The end does not justify the means (CCC. 1753). Or as Tolkien would say, “You can’t fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy” (Letters, 81). No good can come from the Ring. Even in the hands of a benevolent master.

All that glitters is not gold. And all that is gold does not glitter.

As Catholics we are “mortals hemmed in a hostile world” as Tolkien would say. Our Lord exhorts us to be as innocent doves and as wise as serpents (Mt. 10, 16), not as calculating as cold-hearted wizards. Evangelical “wizardry” teaches us the logic of the Cross, not that of power and domination. The Cross of Christ does not glitter: it saves. Our Lady’s mediation of divine grace does not glitter: it sanctifies. The untarnished keys of Peter do not glitter: they illumine. The wisdom of the Gospel, “source of all saving truth and moral discipline” (Dei Verbum, 7), has been a stumbling block not only to Jews and foolishness not only to Gentiles– but it been also a stumbling block and foolishness to the cold-hearted wizards of today.

3 thoughts on “Fra Josemaria M. Barbin on The Temptation of the Istari

  1. Thank you both – a lot to think about, here!

    I hope you will excuse a couple nearly-random thoughts or observations, to start with.

    Tolkien’s observation that “the task of the wizards in Middle-earth was principally to ‘train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them’ ” makes me wonder if Raphael’s actions in the book Tobit may have been part of his inspiration for the presentation of the Istari.

    It is interesting to compare what he says about how Gandalf would have erred – “He would have continued to rule and order things for ‘good’, and the benefit of his subjects according to his wisdom (which was and would have remained great)” – with some of the ways he works with depicting Sauron in his drafts for his account of the corruption and destruction of Numenor. For instance, “he made himself a great king in the midst of the earth, and was at first well-seeming and just and his rule was of benefit to all men in the needs of the body; for he made them rich, whoso would serve him” (DA I, paragraph 19 in HME IX). The difference is that this is already calculation on the part of Sauron who desired “to be both a king over all kings and as a god to men.” Gandalf, by contrast, astutely foresees how hypocritical and self-deceiving and -deceived he would almost certainly become.

    It seems worth noting that even if “Gandalf would have made good detestable and seem evil”, it would still have been the ultimate responsibility of his victims as far as possible to resisting this ‘seeming’ and rightly distinguish the good from the ways in which he made it “detestable”.

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