“But evil men, you will say, have power.”

My second meditation on Boethius begins with his own objection.  Having pressed his claim that evil men do not exist, Boethius comes to the sticking point:  if evil men don’t exist, why are they so powerful?  This is neither more nor less than the problem we have with Sauron and the Nazgul.  If Tolkien really embraces the Boethian/Augustinian view that evil is nothing, why is it that his evil creatures can cause so much harm?

“I would not deny this myself, but their power stems not from their strength but from their weakness.”

What weakness is this?

“If, as we concluded a little earlier, evil is nothing, it is obvious that wicked men have no power, because they can perform only evil deeds.”

This is hard to swallow.

The thing is that you can’t criticize Boethius for not knowing how much harm an evil person can do.  You can’t bring the Holocaust or World War II against him.  As Boethius pens the lines above, he is witnessing the final collapse of Roman civilization while pining in the prison whither he has been sent after betrayal and disgrace by his fellow senators.  The wicked men he mentions will eventually put him to death—an eventuality that he already suspects.  So there is no telling him that he does not know what he is talking about when it comes to the power wielded by evil men.

But power, Boethius suggests, is always a power for something.  Now, what if you set about to get something you want, but it turns out that every power you thought you had ends up hindering you in your quest?  Clearly these “powers” would not be real powers at all—they would be handicaps, because they would render you powerless to fulfill your desires.

It is precisely this that becomes the curse of the wicked.  For they too have desires (for happiness of course, like the rest of us), but they have chosen the ways of evil to bring them about.  And the problem with the ways of evil is that they take no account of the good.  But the good, as Boethius argues, is what all desire, and what is necessary for happiness.  Thus, having cultivated the wrong powers and become strong in the wrong paths, evil men are powerless to attain the good.

What is the weakness of Sauron?  It is the weakness that Boethius ascribes to the evil man.  “He is very wise,” Gandalf says of Sauron, “and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice.  But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.”  In his weakness of mistaking power for the only desirable good, Sauron is blind to all other goods.  On this blindness depends the web and weft of the ensuing plot:  Sauron cannot think that someone would refuse power, and actively seek to destroy the One Ring.