The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality
Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All, due out next month from Open Court Press.
With the permission of the author and publisher, we’ve been authorized to release a preview essay from the book for Internet circulation. Attached is an essay by Eric Katz that reflects on the moral challenges posed by possession of a Ring of Power.
The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality
By Eric Katz
New Jersey Institute of Technology
“If a mortal being—a human or a hobbit, for example—possesses a Ring of Power, would he choose a moral life? When we ask this question, we might be concerned about the physical abilities and limitations of the possessor of the Ring. We might wonder whether a mere hobbit, such as Sam Gamgee, could wield the powers of the Ring in the same manner that Aragorn, a human nobleman could. Would the Ring provide different kinds of power to different kinds of beings, so that some strong willed individuals—such as Aragorn—would have the power to control the minds and actions of others, while weaker-willed individuals—Gollum comes to mind—would only use the Ring as a means of escape and evasion?
Although these are interesting questions about the way the Rings of Power are physically used, in this essay I am not primarily concerned with the physical aspects of the use of the Ring; I am rather concerned with the moral aspects. Does the use of a Ring of Power entail any moral or ethical limits? Is there a morally right or morally wrong way to use a Ring? These questions become even more important when we consider not just any Ring of Power, but the One Ring of Sauron, for the possessor of the One Ring can wield almost unlimited power, and a being who possesses such power would seem to have little reason to concern herself with the dictates of morality.
In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien presents us with several clear examples of the relationship between personal choice, power, and morality. Indeed, the story of the One Ring, and Frodo’s quest to destroy it, can be seen as a modern representation of a problem in ethical thinking originally posed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his classic dialogue, the Republic. Plato was also concerned with the relationship between power and morality. He tells us the story of Gyges, who finds a ring of magical power. The ring causes its wearer to be invisible. Gyges uses the ring to enter the palace, seduce the queen, and kill the king. Plato’s question to us is whether or not one should be a moral person even if one has the power to be immoral with impunity. Does immense power destroy the need to be a moral person?
It is interesting to view Tolkien’s tales of the rings as a variation of this old Platonic moral problem. Sauron’s One Ring is similar to the ring of Gyges in that it gives its possessor the power to act beyond normal limits. The characters who seek to use the One Ring believe that many of their desires can be satisfied, without regard to the interests or needs of any other creature. The story of Sauron’s Ring is a representation of the idea that unlimited power cannot co-exist with morality; the Ring represents the idea that absolute power is in conflict with behavior that respects the wishes and needs of others. But the use of Tolkien’s Ring is a matter of personal choice. One does not have to follow the example of Plato’s villain, Gyges; all beings are capable of rejecting the use of a Ring of Power.
Tolkien’s characters react to the possibility of possessing the vast power of the One Ring in different ways. Gollum is utterly destroyed by his desire for the Ring. Boromir is seduced by the thought of wielding unlimited power for the good of Gondor, but Galadriel rejects the use of the Ring altogether. Sam and Frodo each use the Ring in a limited way and thus avoid its worst effects; but while Frodo succumbs to its power, Sam, like Galadriel, ultimately rejects it. Tom Bombadil appears to transcend the Ring’s power entirely. These characters and their relationship to the use of the One Ring thus reveal to us several different answers to the question posed by Plato. We can make the personal choice to reject unlimited power and to act by the principles of morality.
Let’s examine the arguments and the stories in more detail.
Plato’s Challenge of Immorality
Plato’s long dialogue, the Republic, is concerned with one central issue: the justification of the morally good life. “Why be moral?” is the crucial question that must be answered. The participants in the main section of the dialogue (Books II–X) are Socrates, who defends the importance of the moral life, and Glaucon and Adimantus, who play devil’s advocate and defend the life of immorality. Plato sets himself an imposing task, for Glaucon and Adimantus present the strongest possible case for the life of immorality—can we justify choosing a moral life even when the immoral life is more rewarding? If an immoral life leads to wealth, power, and fame while a morally virtuous life leads to poverty, powerlessness, and abuse, then why be moral?
It is during this argument that Glaucon recounts the story of the shepherd Gyges and his discovery of a magical ring that makes the bearer invisible. As we have seen, Gyges uses the ring for evil purposes—he seduces the queen of the kingdom, slays the king, and becomes himself the ruler of the land. For Glaucon, this is what all men would do. He imagines that there are two such rings of invisibility, one possessed by a just or moral man, and one by an unjust or immoral man. Even the just man would succumb to the power offered by this ring. “No one could be found . . . of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice and endure to refrain his hands from the possessions of others . . . though he might with impunity take what he wished . . . and in all other things conduct himself among mankind as the equal of a god” (Republic II, 360b–c).
For Glaucon, people are morally good only because they cannot act with impunity—they fear punishment for their evil actions. For any person, the best possible world would be one in which the individual could act without any fear of being punished, acting with unlimited power to satisfy his own desires regardless of the evil effects on others. The worst possible world, in contrast, would be one in which the individual would be abused by others with no power to respond. Morality is thus a compromise between these two possible extremes: the rational people in a community agree to limit their own selfish behavior and not harm others. We agree not to abuse other people and in turn society protects us from potential abusers. Glaucon argues that there is thus nothing really good about the morally good life. If we had the power to act as we choose without fear of punishment we would not be morally good. The question “Why be moral?” is thus answered with the cynical response of the immoralist: the moral life is the life chosen by the weak.
Plato seeks to refute this cynical conclusion and justify the value of the moral life. The argument is long, but the essential point of Plato’s response is simple: the immoral life is a worse life than a morally virtuous life because ultimately the immoral life corrupts the soul of the immoralist. The immoral life leads to a fundamental unhappiness: mental anguish, the loss of friends and loved ones, and emotional bankruptcy. All the power in the world cannot compensate for the psychological emptiness of an immoral life. The moral person, in contrast, lives a life of integrity and personal fulfillment, even if he or she is limited in power, wealth, and fame. The moral person is at peace with herself.
For Plato, then, the moral person rejects the use of a Ring of Power. The moral person prefers to live a life of inner peace and integrity, a life guided by moral principles, not a life of power and the mere satisfaction of self-interest. Using the story of a magical ring that gives its possessor unlimited power, Plato is able to illustrate and answer one of the basic questions of philosophy: how should I live my life?
The Temptation of the One Ring
With this ancient challenge to the moral life as background, we can see how Tolkien’s characters demonstrate various responses to the question posed by Plato: would a just person be corrupted by the possibility of almost unlimited power? Through these different responses, Tolkien shows us—not by philosophical argument, but by the thoughts and actions of “living” characters—why we should be moral beings, why we should live a virtuous life. But Tolkien’s stories about the One Ring actually improve and augment Plato’s argument, for Tolkien’s Ring explicitly corrupts the souls of its possessors. The use of the One Ring corrupts the desires, interests, and beliefs of those who wield it. Plato argues that such corruption will occur, but Tolkien shows us this corruption through the thoughts and actions of his characters. Moreover, Tolkien also shows us the difficulties involved in living a life of virtue: there are burdens to be undertaken and sacrifices that must be made to fulfill the requirements of morality.
The character that most obviously illustrates Plato’s argument that the unjust life leads to nothing but unhappiness is Gollum, who is invariably described as a miserable creature, afraid of everything, friendless, homeless, constantly seeking his “precious” Ring. Gollum is the mortal being who possessed the Ring for the longest period of time and he seems almost completely corrupted by the desire for it—every action he takes in the book, even guiding Frodo and Sam on their journey into Mordor, is designed to regain the Ring. It is during the long journey through the barren lands surrounding Mordor that we see the true disintegration of Gollum’s personality, all caused by the desire of the Ring. Gollum constantly talks to himself, for his soul is split in two: one part is Sméagol, the hobbit he was before the Ring came into his possession, and one half is Gollum, the creature whose only desire is to possess the Ring again. The only reason that Gollum cooperates with Frodo and Sam is that the two halves (what Sam calls “Slinker and Stinker”) have made a truce: “neither wanted the Enemy to get the Ring” (TT, p. 274). Frodo recognizes the immense power that the thought of the Ring has on Gollum’s mind. Earlier, he made Gollum swear on the Ring that he would be a faithful guide (TT, p. 250), but soon after, near the Black Gate of Mordor, Gollum was in “great distress” at the thought that Frodo would lose the Ring:
“Don’t take the Precious to Him! . . . Keep it, nice master, and be kind to Sméagol. Don’t let Him have it. Or go away, go to nice places, and give it back to little Sméagol. . . . Sméagol will keep it safe; he will do lots of good, especially to nice hobbits.” (TT, p. 273)
This outburst by Gollum prompts Frodo to get to the heart of the matter, to describe to Gollum the peril he faces, the danger of losing his soul. Gollum swore a promise by what he calls the Precious. The Ring will not only hold Gollum to this promise, but will seek a way to twist it to Gollum’s own undoing. “Already you are being twisted,” Frodo tells Gollum (TT, p. 276). And then, with a strange prescience of the climax of the story, Frodo states that if the need arises, he would himself put on the Ring and command Gollum to cast himself into the fire.
Gollum is thus a clear example of the corruption of the soul and the loss of a meaningful life caused by the overwhelming desire for the Ring of Power. But Gollum is not a complete example of the problem posed by Plato, for we do not see the moment when he makes the choice to use the Ring. For Plato, as well as for Tolkien, the crucial moment in each character’s story is the moment in which they are tempted to use the Ring. It is that moment of choice that determines a character’s fate, that moment of choice that bears a remarkable similarity to Plato’s story of the shepherd Gyges and his decision to use the ring of invisibility. Gollum’s moment of choice occurred long before the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings—even long before the beginning of The Hobbit. Although Gandalf recounts the story—how Sméagol kills his friend Déagol to gain possession of the Ring (FR, p. 58)—we do not live through Sme_agol’s original moral crisis and decision. In Gollum instead we see merely the final result of the life led in the pursuit of power, a life of misery and corruption.
Boromir is the character who most closely fits the model of Glaucon’s moral argument concerning the shepherd Gyges—the virtuous man corrupted by the temptation of power. Tolkien depicts Boromir as a man of action—noble, good-hearted, and brave—who is bewildered by the complexities of the plan to destroy the One Ring. During the Council of Elrond, Boromir asks why those assembled should not think that the Ring “has come into our hands to serve us in the very hour of need . . . . Wielding it the Free Lords of the Free may surely defeat the Enemy . . . . Let the Ring be your weapon . . . Take it and go forth to victory!” (FR, p. 300) Boromir wants to use the One Ring for good purposes. He sees nothing wrong with using the Ring to satisfy the desires of the free peoples of Middle-earth (and of himself) to defeat the evil of Sauron….”
[Here ends this excerpt; It's a long essay that doesn't fit on this page. We contine to another extract from the conclusion of the essay here:]
“Personal Choice, Power, and Morality
“Why be moral? What kind of life should I choose? What kind of person should I become? These are the fundamental questions of ethics, or moral philosophy. In Tolkien’s tale of the One Ring of Power we find the answer to the challenge to the moral life first proposed by Plato almost 2,400 years ago. Faced with the ability to satisfy one’s desires without limit and without consequences, can a person choose the path of virtue and renounce immense power? For Plato, the answer was yes, for the moral person can realize that a life of immoral power will corrupt the heart and soul. Power without love, friendship, and personal fulfillment will lead to unhappiness, a fundamental unhappiness that is beyond relief.
In Tolkien’s characters we see vindication of this Platonic vision of the importance and meaning of the moral life. All of the characters who encounter the Ring are given a choice; all are tempted to wield the Ring, and some find within themselves the power to reject it. Indeed it is the one character without a choice—Gollum, for his choice was made long before the events of The Lord of the Rings begin—that perhaps most exemplifies the fundamental unhappiness that is the result of the ceaseless quest for power without a moral life. The moment of choice is essential—the moment when a rational being must decide what kind of life he will lead.
Plato returns to the idea of choice at the conclusion of the Republic. There he calls the selection of one’s fundamental character “the supreme hazard for a man” and one that must be guided “with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul” (Republic X, 618b–e). Tolkien also has his characters fix their gaze on the nature of their souls. For Galadriel, Bombadil, and Sam, the characters who most clearly reject the Ring, who remain uncorrupted by its seduction of unlimited power, their strength comes from their awareness of their own being, who they are and what they can accomplish. These characters know their own limits. Why be moral? Plato asks. And Tolkien answers, “to be yourself.” What kind of life should I choose? A life that is in accord with my abilities. If you need a Ring of Power to live your life, you have chosen the wrong life.”
Note: This essay is forthcoming in Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, eds., The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All (Open Court Press, 2003). Released for Internet circulation with the permission of the author, editors, and publishers.