So since he who has control over good things can do all things, whereas those who control evil things cannot do everything, it is clear that those who can do evil things are less powerful.

The professor whom I am assisting in the course on Boethius neatly divides Boethius’s “evil beings” into three categories.  Some men are evil through ignorance, because they simply do not know what the good is, or because they are deceived.  Some are evil through weakness of the will, because they know what is good but they desire evil more than the good.  But some are evil through malice, and they do what is evil because they know it is evil.  They take delight in the harm they cause.

In the case of Tolkien’s characters, at least the ones who are tempted by and succumb to the Ring, the first two categories seem to merge.  Through weakness of will Isildur keeps the Ring on account of its beauty, and he is thereby deceived into thinking it harmless.  Through ignorance, Bilbo and Frodo keep and use the Ring for many years, and it wears away the strength of their wills to the point that Bilbo barely gives it up, and Frodo cannot do so at all, even though at the last he knows with perfect clarity how evil it is.  Gollum desires the beauty of the Ring from the beginning, and murders for it; he is then deceived into thinking that, with the Ring’s help, he can learn great secrets under the mountains.  In all such cases, the action of the Ring depends on deception and the weakness of its wearer’s will, and its result is not to increase the wearer’s power, but to drain it away.

But what of the beings who are evil for evil’s own sake?  In what sense are they powerless?  Here I think my two previous meditations pertain the most.  For it is of these evil men, and only of these evil men, that Boethius asserts that they simply do not exist.  He qualifies this, of course, by saying that such men do not exist as men—they exist as something less, as corpses exist.  But do what sorts of powers pertain to a corpse?

… All power is to be reckoned among desirable things, and all desirable things are related to the good as to the high point of their nature.  But the capacity to wreak evil cannot be related to the good, and so is not something to be desired.  Yet all power is desirable, so it is clear that capacity for evil is not a power.

As it is with the Ring, so it is with Sauron and all evil beings.  They possess no powers except temptation and deception, acting like parasites on the ignorance and weakness of other beings.  In cases where these other beings resist temptation and deceit, they sometimes have the power to destroy.  But Sauron and all his ilk are wholly powerless to create: they can only destroy what has already been created.  They are powerful in the sense that leeches are powerful, deriving their capacity to cause harm only from the constitution of their victims, and not from any real power radiating from their own beings.

You see kings seated high on lofty thrones,
In gleaming purple bright, fenced by grim arms,
Speechless with rage, threats on their louring brows.
Draw back this veil of arrogant, empty show,
Then see close chains which bind the lords within.
Lust with its poisonous greed excites their hearts;
Wild anger whips up storm-waves in their minds;
Grief plagues these captives, slippery hope torments.
The king you see by many lords possessed,
His aims frustrated, by harsh masters pressed.

Or, as Boethius writes in the following chapter:

True voices and true shapes were lost;
Bereft of human norms,
Their minds alone endured unchanged
To mourn their monstrous forms.

(Consolation of Philosophy, V.2 & 3)