Until now, I had thought that Tolkien’s representation of evil followed either Augustine or the Angelic Doctor or both.  But teaching a bit of Boethius to my undergraduate students this week has opened up new worlds of possibility.  Boethius has much to say of evil, even though it be hard to be understood.  Moreover, it is material Tolkien would have known well, as Boethius’s works impinged like no others upon the medieval world of which Tolkien was a student.

What I am doing for the next couple weeks, therefore, is to take a break from dogging the Fellowship so literally, and instead to look at the theme of evil in Boethius.  This post is the first of four meditations on Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.  In all these meditations I will try to uncover the hidden tracks of Boethius’s influence over Middle Earth, and with the aid of Lady Luck perhaps this will redeem said meditations from the tedium of the lecture hall.

Quoth Boethius:

“This claim of ours may perhaps sound surprising to some, that wicked men, who form the majority of mankind, do not exist, but that is the actuality.  I am not denying that evil men are evil, but I am claiming that in the pure and simple sense they do not exist.”*

There is a claim to wake one up in the morning, no?  But it fits hand-in-glove with the hints Tolkien has been dropping about the Nazgul.  I think Boethius puts the case more strongly than either Augustine or Aquinas.  He goes on to draw an analogy:

“You could say that a corpse is a dead man, but you could not call it a man pure and simple; in the same way, I grant that corrupt men are wicked, but I refuse to admit that they exist in an absolute sense.  Whatever maintains its due order and preserves its nature, exists; if it abandons its nature, it ceases also to exist, for its existence is bound up in its nature.”*

So corrupt men are like corpses.  The image resonates with the Barrow-Wights, with the army of undead cowards in the Paths of the Dead, and with the nature of the Nazgul as “less” than men.  How is it that these men lose their nature as Men?  Boethius tells us that the nature of Man is to seek the good.  The wicked fail to seek the good for whatever reason.  And that makes them corpse-like, for man is not man insofar as he lives but insofar as he lives well.

There is more where this comes from, and I will wrest a few more thoughts out of it before moving on.

 

 *Should you like to read this passage and the more that is where it comes from, as indeed you should, you will find it in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Book IV, at the end of chapter 2.  Should you have difficulty finding Boethius in the archives of your library, perhaps you might look for him under his full name, Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius.  There is a Tolkienesque ebullience to such a name, and it suggests that his mother most likely thought him important.

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