“We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything.”
—Blaise Pascal

J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings, has for generations captured the minds and hearts of readers with themes and characters that embody the steadfast quality of what can today, and what was in the distant past, be best described as virtue. Although the modern lexicon writes of such concepts as honor, fidelity and nobility, these are terms—perhaps due to their immateriality—rather infrequent used. This may be due to the connotation associated with these words; a connotation which necessitates a timelessness only made possible by the existence of a source of permanent good. Nevertheless, the heroic daring of Aragorn the King, as well as the patient sacrifice of Frodo the hobbit, are representative of the high moral plane from which Tolkien writes. It is also a plane where the Professor invites one to dwell in, if only for the glimmer of a night’s read.

What separates Tolkien’s work from other narratives, especially those inspired by his prose, is the rich profundity and dexterity with which he wove his tapestry. Recent scholarship has shown the interconnectedness of Tolkien’s writing to the vaunted schools of ancient philosophy, specifically those of ancient Greece. However, there exists in The Lord of the Rings a subtle yet quite detectable call to the thought of the medieval philosopher St. Augustine. This call is particularly resonant today, an age where there appears to prevail an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Augustine, as a student of the ancients (in particular of Plato), knew well that knowledge was not synonymous with wisdom. Often, the quest for the former entailed the preclusion of the latter.

Saruman’s Sorcerous Temptation

In Gandalf’s account to the Council of Elrond, Tolkien relates this very dilemma. As the chief advisor of the soon to be fellowship of the ring recounted his fateful meeting with the wizard Saruman, elements from Augustine’s City of God can be positively deduced. To be precise, there is a strong correlation between the characters of Saruman and Gandalf—both wizards sent to middle earth to defend its inhabitants—and Augustine’s discussion on the citizens of earthly and heavenly cities.

It is a matter of importance in Tolkien’s account to first mention an essential change in the character of Saruman. As Gandalf approaches the forbidding, frigid redoubt of Orthanc, he notes this metamorphosis in his old colleague–a shift not only in temperament, but also in appearance. As Saruman reveals his design to allow another Istari, Radagast the Brown, to lead Gandalf to Isengard, the growing contempt with which the former views his peers is palpable: “Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message.”

In addition to the treacherous ice in Saruman’s voice, Gandalf notes the visage itself of his old friend taking new shape. “I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colors, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.” Saruman himself boasts of this recent transcendence, naming himself “Saruman of Many Colors.” When Gandalf expresses his own preference for Saruman’s forsaken white vestments, the latter responds with the limitations he sees in the simple hue. “It serves as a beginning . . . The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

This condescension for the older and stolid instead of the newer and ostensibly more liberating elicits one of Tolkien’s greatest caveats for seekers of earthly dominion. Gandalf reminds Saruman that “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Viewing these fundamental and ultimately corrupting changes in the character of a once great seer prods one to wonder about just what exactly has caused this sudden course. Perhaps holding out some expectation that Gandalf would align himself thusly, Saruman is open and forthcoming with his rationale: “The Elder Days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger days are beginning. The time of the Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule.”

This blunt attempt at a justification is telling. Saruman, as the most senior Istari, or wizard, manifests the fruits of countless ages spent studying in the defense of the free peoples of middle earth. It was to him, as head of the White Council, that the opportunity and duty of gleaning all the dark lord’s machinations fell. Hence, it was Saruman, and possibly the higher elves such as Elrond, who began to deduce the fading majesty of Rivendell and Loth Lorien.

It is what Saruman decides to do with his knowledge that sets his path. Unlike Gandalf (and possibly Radagast as well), Saruman proves false to the charge he was given as an Istari. As some of the oldest beings on middle earth, the wizards were charged to fulfill one main mission: to aid those who would challenge might of Sauron. Though possessed of prodigious strength in their own right, it was not theirs to manipulate worldly events, or worse, to coerce the free wills of those of lesser stature. Yet, the potential to do these very acts are enticing to Saruman. Though he, like his brethren, hail from beyond the sea, Saruman did not merely wish to serve out his tenure as he was charged. Instead, he begins to see in this middle earth something to shape, prod, and–in his mind–perfect.

But what of the reasons for Saruman’s long dormant and now revealed manipulative designs? As he and the other Istari have been sent to middle earth, he knows full well that along with the much more powerful dark lord Sauron, they were not the authors of their fates. By not being in himself a creator and so not deserving of the attendant praise of this position, Saruman settles on another position of privilege: “But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see.”

Here a warning from Tolkien concerning the temptations inherent in knowledge per se is addressed. Instead of carrying out his entrusted vocation—that of aiding the free peoples against Sauron’s predations—Saruman is in a way narcissistically drawn to his appointed position. He is the head of the White Council, the eldest and most powerful of the Istari, the one to whom was given the dark tomes concerning Sauron to best find the means of combating him. Yet Saruman does not seek to serve but to rule. He condescends against those, like Radagast, and even perhaps Gandalf himself, who are either too naive, or too loyal, to see that Sauron now holds the doom-ridden field. Corrupted by his long years delving into the craft of the dark lord, he begins to see himself as above his task, elevating himself and potentially Gandalf to the identity of the Wise. Of course, this wisdom proves itself false because the knowledge it is comprised of is not used for the betterment of the many, but rather to suit the vanity of the self. To Saruman, wisdom not only deserves but demands entitlements.

Vanity, by itself, may prod an individual to thoughts and actions seldom before entertained. However, if this self-love is coupled with a belief in a higher calling linked to one’s destiny, greater and darker schemes soon will follow. After reminding Gandalf of the futility in enduring Sauron’s wrath, Saruman attempts again to bring his fellow into the fold: “There is no hope left in Elves or dying Numenor. This then is the choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power.”

Perhaps in expectation of Gandalf’s rejection of such an entreaty, Saruman goes on to illustrate the benefits of aiding, or turning a blind eye to, the dread of what was to come. “As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it.” By using such argument and reasoning–gifts Saruman was well known for—Gandalf’s initial misgivings about renouncing his trust to middle earth are given pause. Saruman does not ask for Gandalf’s allegiance for the paltriness of the former’s narcissistic gain. Rather, the new and many colored wizard elevates a sacred cause above the both of them; a calling seemingly higher than their original preordained directive.

What is the grace conjured up by Saruman? He soothes: “We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.” Allowing Gandalf to recount the numberless years spent striving against the machinations of the dark lord, and the apparent inefficacy in ever truly vanquishing him, Saruman now asks his old friend to look the other way. “There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.”

Again, the mockery and emptiness of Saruman’s proposition is bared. If the “high and ultimate purpose” is as august as is claimed, why is there the need to cloak it in anything other than its supposed splendor? Why does the cause require the stifling of any scruple either of the wizards possess? Lastly, just how exalted is knowledge, rule, and order when to attain them one must first reject or pervert what is ostensibly a heavenly mandate of caring for the creations of middle earth? In this scheme, the holy purpose entrusted by Valinor to the Istari is but a means to the ends of the Wise.

The Necessary Limits of the Earthly City

This attachment to earthly dominion in spite of heavenly mandate carries with it grim warnings from Augustine. In the fifteenth book of The City of God, the early Church father depicted a dichotomy bearing great similarities to Tolkien’s dialogue. This paradigm entailed what Augustine called the two cities; one enthralled to the temptations of earth, the other allied to the hosts of heaven: “This race we have distributed into two parts, the one constituting of those who live according to man, the other of those who live according to God.”

Representing these are the primordial scions, Cain and Abel. Augustine claimed the elder of the two, Cain, as belonging to the earthly city while the younger Abel was subject to the heavenly. Aside from their differences in livelihood, a crucial point of divergence between the two lay in their attachment to the world. “Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none.”

Cain, perhaps due to his closeness to the fruits of the earth as a farmer, begrudges his brother’s offerings to God; especially so when the Abel’s more pastoral sacrifices were deemed by God to be more favorable. After committing the world’s first murder, and being branded for posterity for the deed, Cain founds what was presumably the world’s first city. Augustine would later on draw an eerie parallel with the founding of this first earthly city and the founding of Rome. Both cases involve not only murder, but the tragedy and malfeasance of the act committed between brothers.

It is of interest and pertinence to Tolkien to examine the qualities of the earthly city, following from its less than virtuous establishment by Cain. Aside from Augustine’s initial distinctions of the denizens of this world as being “by nature vitiated by sin,” we find that earthly dominion may correspond to Saruman’s vision of a future he desires to rule.

The earthly city, in proportion to its temporal nature, does not look beyond itself for goods greater than what it can provide and “has its good in this world.” Sadly and inevitably comes the realization of the fleeting solace—which is the most one can hope for in this world. As Augustine maintains, whatever boon one envisions as possible in this temporal existence, it “is not a good which can discharge its devotees of all distresses.” In fact, this veneer of earthly satisfaction, once pealed away, soon breeds earthly resentment: “ . . . this city is often divided against itself by litigations, wars, quarrels, and such victories as are either life-destroying or short-lived.” However strong and wise establishers of earthly dominion may be, even as strong and wise as Saruman of the many colors, this inexorable march to doom resounds because “it seeks to triumph over the nations though itself in bondage to vice.”

If the wise and their self-proclaimed leader Saruman are as they profess, would they not be cognizant of the futility inevitably shadowing their quest for power? Referring again to the first brothers, Augustine discusses the reasons motivating Cain to slay Abel: “ . . . nor did the murderer envy the other because he feared that, by both ruling, his own dominion would be curtailed . . . he was moved by that diabolical, envious hatred with which the evil regard the good, for no other reason than because they are good while themselves are evil.”

What is ultimately tragic about a character such as Saruman—and in a way many who today pursue knowledge and control beyond the limits prescribed by wisdom—is that it should be these who know and realize the natures of their fall. Saruman was once the chief of those allied to combat the adversary. Once his corruption turned him from his trust and former friends, it did not permanently block their memories from his consciousness. In fact, it may be said that the disgust he feels against Radagast, Elrond, and even Gandalf for adhering to good is magnified by this knowledge. In hating where he came from, Saruman inescapably hates himself and where he is going. This loathing is at times a thing ignored, an inconvenient reminder set aside when blazing new frontiers of discovery not tempered by reason. The consequences of this folly constitute the greatest of Saruman’s many treasons.

As Saruman elevates knowledge, rule, and order above his mandate to safeguard middle earth against the ravages of Mordor, so do the seekers of the earthly city cling to temporal bliss in spite of the commands of heaven.

Not only are tangible goods deified, but a much darker phenomenon occurs; a phenomenon, Augustine claims, manipulates the celestial to garner the corporeal: “And this is characteristic of the earthly city, that it worships God or gods who may aid it in reigning victoriously and peacefully on earth not through love of doing good, but through lust of rule.” In stating this, Augustine clearly lays out, almost in a Platonic sense, the misshapen nature of a lust for earthly power: “The good use the world that they may enjoy God: the wicked, on the contrary, that they may enjoy the world would fain use God . . .”

Failing to distinguish what is intrinsically better between two paths of living is sad and regrettable. Being able to distinguish the offerings of heaven and earth and choosing wrongly implies conscious sin. Masking the choice for the earthly with the glory of the heavenly, only so the former can be surreptitiously enjoyed, portrays a soul so twisted it brings about its own enslavement.

These indeed are days where things once only conceived by reverie gleam ubiquitously as banners of human achievement. Researchers have recently even attempted to perform what was once only thought of as the workings of heaven: the cloning, hence mock creation, of a human being. In light of the now revealed failure of this endeavor, it would behoove one to ask whether this was due to the belief in the paramount supremacy of the earthly city. Tolkien would remind the reader of the creeping corruption brought about by this pursuit. With Augustine, the Professor shines a solitary, though crystalline, light on the attainment of something other: a city which discharges the distresses of those who seek it in earnest humility.