Sara Reads no. 13

A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.

Okay, so, the hiatus is officially over. Let’s jump right on in…

A Tale of Two Evils
I read a fascinating essay this past week about evil in The Lord of the Rings. In it, the author argues—quite convincingly in my view—that Tolkien explicitly rejects the Manichean concept of evil in his narrative, instead presenting a story that reflects an Augustinian view of evil. The crux of this argument may be summarized by the statement that, despite his ultimate inability to destroy the ring himself, Frodo’s quest was won the moment he elected to spare Gollum’s life in Emyn Muil. I’ve heard, and agreed with, this argument before; I’d never seen it put into such philosophical terms before, however.

In Manichaeism, good and evil are separate and opposing forces who battle with one another. This concept of separate and opposing forces is a cornerstone of the problem of evil: how do we reconcile the existence of evil with the presence of an omnipotent and (supposedly) benevolent deity? Augustine’s philosophy represents an attempt to respond to this problem, arguing that there is no separate force of evil in the world. Instead, evil is the absence or corruption of good. I won’t go in to how this plays out in The Lord of the Rings, particularly since someone who understands theology far better than I do has already done such a marvelous job, but the very idea of conflicting views of evil struck a cord in me—particularly in light of the fact that I have recently seen these conflicting views playing out on the US national stage.

The Evil of Politics
One of the things that has struck me in the current presidential election is the narrative of the importance of ideological purity. This was a big theme of the primary election contest between Bernie Sanders, who was perceived to be a more steadfast (and therefore trustworthy) politician than his opponent Hillary Clinton, who was perceived to be too willing to compromise her ideals for the sake of political expediency. At the time, I considered this philosophical divide in terms of a struggle between idealism and pragmatism, and as a pragmatist myself, I found myself sympathizing more with Clinton than with Sanders. Looking back on the primary election, however, it strikes me that the contest could be read in terms of  an ongoing debate about the nature of evil.

In the Augustinian view, evil grows through a failure to do good—through the compromise of ideals. In the Manichean view, evil is a force to be combated—and sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Many (most?) of our classic heroic tales involve the Manichaen showdown between good and evil, and some of them explore the necessity of moral compromise to success. The hero who becomes what he beholds, in the manner of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables, or Russell Stevens in Deep Cover, or Frank Castle in Daredevil, is one of our most celebrated and compelling character tropes. Everyone loves an anti-hero, after all. But, interestingly, not when it comes to politics. Or not, perhaps, when it comes to women in politics. Though Clinton and Sanders have a demonstrably similar senatorial voting record, for example, it is Sanders who was perceived as the champion of uncompromising idealism. And one could argue that he would have been perceived as such regardless of whether or not that was actually true.

The Evils of Resistance
From politics to pop culture…

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I’m rethinking my perspective of the philosophical divide between Charles Xavier (and his X-Men) and Erik Lehnsherr (and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutant) in terms of Augustinian (Xavier) and Manichean (Magneto) evil. When you think about it, Xavier’s insistence on peaceful coexistence regardless of provocation is very akin to the idea that in order to maintain goodness one must eschew all forms of evil, no matter how efficacious they might be. By contrast, Magneto’s belief that mutants must defend themselves violently (and sometimes preemptively) in order to survive is equally akin to the idea that a battle to the death is the only way to vanquish evil, no matter how morally compromising such battle might be.

In the decades since the X-Men’s 1963 debut, writers have explored these concepts in a variety of ways—including through the introduction of multiple X-teams, each with their own interpretations of Xavier’s dream, and through the compromising of Scott Summers (for many years the chief adherent of Xavier’s philosophy) and even Xavier himself—ultimately pushing the X-Men to the brink of extinction to see how these diametrically opposed philosophies hold up under duress. Many fans have taken sides in the debate, with some pragmatically arguing that Magneto was right, while others idealistically maintain that Xavier was. As a pragmatist, I’ve always found myself sympathizing more with Magneto than with Xavier, but this new (to me) philosophical framework has got me wondering if I want to rethink that.

Don’t be surprised if I wind up writing an essay about the corruption of Scott Summers from the perspective of Augustinian theodicy, is what I’m saying.

Final Thought: On Solitude and Loneliness
A week or so ago, The New Yorker published an absolutely beautiful essay on solitude by Donald Hall. In this essay, Hall describes a craving for solitude—developed in childhood—that deeply resonates with me. There has always been, for me, a distinct and palpable difference between solitude and loneliness, neither of which have anything to do with the presence or absence of companionship. And so it is for Hall, who poignantly describes the double solitude of the life he lived with his beloved wife. His message is clear—being alone need not be lonely; being with a companion need not disturb the perfection of inner solitude.

Seeing this sentiment expressed so eloquently by Hall in this essay was profoundly moving.

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3 thoughts on “Sara Reads no. 13

  1. The big thing I took away from Augustine is the idea that the source of evil is humanity, that it only comes about through a person’s will to turn away from goodness or God. Augustine certainly had particular ideas about what God is, but I am much more loosey-goosey on that, and therein lies my discomfort with identifying acts of evil. Your musing about Magneto makes me think about the BPP and Elaine Brown’s recent critique of BLM as “plantation mentality,” and I wonder how we can ever know whether a person is willfully turning away from God or rather searching and not knowing how best to be in alignment with the Divine. Ultimately, I find great theological affinity with the idea that evil is created by the actions of people (and that no part of Creation can be evil in and of itself since it is part of God), but it leaves me in an ethical bind because it relies on a logic of “free will,” and choice that I think is problematic. The body of philosophy on ethics is YUGE, though, and lord knows when I will be able to sort through it. My friend Nick teaches Intro to Ethics and talks about it a lot, but I feel like I need to do a whole ‘nother Ph.D. to get a meaningful grip on it. Maybe I can start that after I apply for jobs and finish these encyclopedia entries… 😉

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    • Oh, I know what you mean! Posts like this are always a little nerve-wracking for me because they involve writing about something that I’ve just started to be interested in but actually know nothing about (and don’t necessarily have time to learn much about at the present moment). Maybe we can start a new course of study together, once you’re done with jobs and encyclopedias and I’m done with applications and writing workshops! I’d really like to study some theology. I think it’s time.

      The point you raise about Magneto is really interesting, though. This issue of whether we can know if someone is willfully turning away or honestly searching introduces the question of whether intentions matter more than actions, and I think that’s another point about which many people are not in agreement. I think it’s safe to say that Magneto, like all great villains, believes that he is honestly searching rather than willfully turning away—or has at least convinced himself of that in spite of any doubts—but again do his feelings matter in the face of his actions? The road to hell is supposedly paved with good intentions, but the commission of sin in the mind is also held by some to be equivalent to the commission of sin in fact. It’s all very tricky, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know what I think. More data is required. 😉

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  2. Augustine would say, I think, that scripture defines what it means to “turn away from God,” but if, like me, you don’t buy that because scripture is just as fallible as anything human, then I think intention is all you have left if you want to keep with him. I think something called consequentialism is the school of philosophical thought that argues that it’s about effects… Anyway, this is all just me continuing to try to marshall forth what I remember from my year of teaching Western Civilization, which was 11 years ago and, while extremely useful, hardly exhaustive. Rather than read theology, though, I’d like to read ethics. Maybe we can come up with a short reading level st that combines the two? Oh, so many future projects already! And in the meantime, I spend my energies on hannigram fan fic…

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