Mercy, Responsibility, and Virtue
A Comparison of the Philosophical Beliefs
of J. R. R. Tolkien and Marcus Aurelius
Although J.R.R. Tolkien and Marcus Aurelius come from different cultural backgrounds, they share many of the same thoughts on how to live a virtuous life. Both Tolkien and Aurelius believe in a conscious will within everyone, that even those undeserving of mercy should be given it, that one’s control only extends as far as how they respond, and living with virtue is more important than material success. Aurelius emphasizes tranquility in oneself, while Tolkien focuses more on one’s duty to others. The background of the two men will be given before the comparisons are drawn.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the second century, notable for being considered a philosopher king by both his contemporaries and later historians. Aurelius often wrote down his thoughts to himself. Long after his death, these thoughts were compiled into a book called Meditations, which is considered one of the defining works of the stoic philosophy. Stoics believed that the external circumstances should be divorced from one’s complexion towards their situation. To a stoic, the only things a man has control over are his thoughts and actions, not the circumstances into which he is placed.
J. R. R. Tolkien was a medieval historian from the mid-nineteen hundreds. He is best known for The Lord of the Rings, an epic story about unlikely heroes journeying to destroy a great evil. Tolkien was a devout Christian, and although he had a distaste for direct allegory, he still evoked his Christian values in his story. In a letter, Tolkien once wrote “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” (Tolkien, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, pg. 175) Because of this, much of the Middle-earth legendarium reflects Tolkien’s view on the world and one’s part in it, and can be examined to give insight on his beliefs.
The first belief shared between Tolkien and Aurelius was the belief in an independent will that governs one’s actions. In the Lord of the Rings, all sentient beings on Middle-earth are imbued with “The Secret Fire”, a divine spirit which gives one free will and thought. This is identical to what Aurelius regularly calls “The God Within”, from which one determines what is right and wrong and by comparison makes judgment. This belief that within all is a soul which informs people of morality and gives one the will to make moral choices is essential to the concept of responsibility for one’s actions.
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf explained to Frodo how Gollum went to Mordor and told Sauron about the Ring and who possessed it. When he heard this, Frodo lamented that it was a pity that Bilbo did not slay Gollum when he had the chance. Gandalf replied by saying; “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the ring so. With Pity” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 78). Gandalf makes it clear that Tolkien believed that forgiveness of others, regardless of how wretched they may be, is not only required for sake of the one receiving it, but also for the sake of the one giving it. Had Bilbo taken the One Ring as Gollum did, through murder, he too would have been corrupted by the Ring.
Likewise, Aurelius expressed that even those who are distasteful must be treated with kindness and mercy in the opening passage to his second book. “Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, the arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me; not [only] of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in [the same] intelligence and [the same] portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him” (Aurelius, 2-1). Stylistically, this differs from Tolkien in the scale at which the conflict occurs. Tolkien’s example uses an extreme, dealing out death in judgment, to exercise the point of mercy, while Aurelius instead calls to a situation which one finds themselves in daily. Aurelius also stressed the importance of treating others with mercy for one’s own sake more prominently. He argued that when one allows another person’s negative attitude to affect one’s own, they harm themselves. Thus, one must instead treat them with kindness and hope that they too learn the nature of good and evil. In the end, the point both men made is the same; even those undeserving of mercy should be given it, for pity’s sake and for one’s own sake.
Tolkien and Aurelius also agreed that one’s control can only ever truly extend over oneself, not one’s circumstances. Tolkien demonstrates this belief when Frodo and Gandalf were discussing the ring. Frodo remarked “I wish [Sauron arising] need not have happened in my time.” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 67), and Gandalf replied “So do I, … and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us”(Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, pg. 67). Aurelius too believed that control lies only in how one responds to a situation, as this is a point repeated many times in Meditations. One example comes from the eighth book; “If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now”(Aurelius, 8-47).
Because Tolkien and Aurelius thought that one’s agency lies only in the choices they make, and not the outcome of those choices, both men concluded that one should live for virtue rather than live for worldly success. Unlike Bilbo’s adventure in The Hobbit, Frodo was left scarred by his journey. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo was stabbed by one of the Nazgûl, using a wicked blade which poisoned him. While he was treated in Rivendell, and recovered for the short term, the wound never truly healed. He would often grow ill from it, and it tormented him for his all of his life after the War of the Ring. However, because of his moral conviction in taking the Ring to Mordor, he was allowed to find peace by leaving with the Elves when they sailed into the West. With this, Tolkien sought to make a distinction between earthly success and moral success. Although Frodo suffered greatly for his choice to become the Ring-bearer, his action was still virtuous and he was rewarded, as Tolkien believed that in the end there would be justice for those mistreated.
Aurelius said in his seventh book; “Everything material soon disappears in the substance of the whole; and everything formal [casual] is soon taken back into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is very soon overwhelmed in time” (Aurelius, 7-10). To Aurelius, living for the material would always end in sorrow, as nothing material is permanent, while living for virtue would satisfy oneself and leave one happy. This is best exemplified by the following quote; “Let fall externally what will on the parts which can feel the effects of this fall. For those parts which have felt will complain, if they choose. But I, unless I think that what has happened is an evil, am not injured. And it is in my power not to think so”(Aurelius, 7-14). Injustice was to be subverted by realizing that although the circumstances may have been harsh, it was not a reflection of one’s character and thus could not truly be considered evil. In either case, while physical success is not guaranteed, spiritual success is, so long as one acts with virtue.
The works of Tolkien and Aurelius are different in presentation but united in message. The historian told legends to inspire mercy, responsibility, and the courage to live with virtue, while the philosopher-king lamented deeply on how to live with these same values in day to day life. Living largely without influence from one another, they came to the same conclusion. Perhaps the similarities in the beliefs between these two wise men speaks to an unconscious truth in everyone, not unlike the knowledge of good and evil given by the Secret Fire or the God Within.
Aurelius, Marcus. The Meditations. classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Humphrey Carpenter. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Harper Collins, 2006.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.
Other Works Referenced, but not directly cited
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of the Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion: Epic History of the Elves in the Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin 2001.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.