Emerson and Tolkien: Is man evil?

Peter Jackson, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’s extended edition, has Gandalf speak words that J. R. R. Tolkien would never have approved. Words that undermine the entire point of The Lord of The Rings.

As the Fellowship approaches Moria, Gandalf warns Frodo that “evil will be drawn” to the Ring “from outside the Fellowship” and likely “from within.”

Watching Boromir pass by, Frodo asks, “Whom then do I trust?”

“You must trust yourself,” Gandalf replies, “trust your own strengths.”

The idea that you should “trust” your “own strengths” does not originate with Tolkien’s Catholic theology—rather, it comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, described colloquially, is the idea that “the Force will be with you. Always.” Emerson—like Yoda—believes in an “Over-Soul” which encompasses all Nature and every human being. The Over-Soul is God: it is the “Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom” and “Reason” that holds the universe together and imbues it with life. It is the “Creator” and “Father” [1] in “which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.” According to Emerson, “Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.” [2]

Because a man is a part of God—the Over-Soul—he ought to “trust” his “own strengths.” Frodo, according to Emerson, ought to rely on his own abilities and judgment since he is Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, Reason, Creator, and Father. As long as he depends on himself, Frodo can do no wrong; Frodo cannot sin; Frodo is good.

How does this undermine The Lord of the Rings’ message? Tolkien’s point is that evil exists and must be fought. As Sam says in The Two Towers film, “There’s some good in this world…and it’s worth fighting for.” But if Emerson’s transcendentalism—the philosophy behind Gandalf’s line in The Fellowship of the Ring—is true, then evil does not exist and people do not do evil things. Man is basically good. Although one could fight for the good Over-Soul, there’s no evil to defend it against. Emerson’s transcendental belief in man’s natural goodness directly contradicts Tolkien’s assertion that evil exists and must be fought.

Yes, I know. It seems foolish for Emerson, who lived and wrote in ante-bellum America, to believe that man is good. Yet he thinks man is born perfectly good, able to unite intimately with Nature: “Infancy is the perpetual Messiah.”[3] Man “falls” from his infant perfection when he comes into conflict with Nature, the rest of humanity, and the Over-Soul. “The reason why the world lacks unity,” Emerson writes, “and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.”[4]  In other words, bad things happen because people are not united with the Over-Soul. For Emerson, man is evil only to the extent that he is in disharmony with the Over-Soul; man is good to the extent that he synchronizes his actions and attitudes with the Over-Soul: “Whilst a man seeks good ends, he is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so far as he roves from these ends… he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death.”[5]

It seems equally foolish for Gandalf, an angelic being who has lived for centuries in a severely broken world, to counsel Frodo to “trust” his “own strengths.” Gandalf cannot believe that elves, men, and dwarves are basically good. Neither can anyone who knows and loves Tolkien’s works believe that humans are basically good.  The Lord of the Rings proves that humans are evil—and yet that evil, shadow, and even darkness must pass. And that when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. And that there’s good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.


[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.” In Nature and Selected Essays, ed. Larzer Ziff (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 49.

[2] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Over-Soul.” In Nature and Selected Essays, ed. Larzer Ziff (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 207.

[3] Emerson “Nature” 77.

[4] Ibid., 79.

[5] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge 1838.” In Nature and Selected Essays, ed. Larzer Ziff (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111.

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Filed under Being a Bookworm, British Nerdiness, Philthy: Philosophy & Theology, Torrey Honors Institute

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