Wonder and Wickedness: The Anatomy of Good and Evil
The way of humility leads, via the rolling road of wonder, to the heaven-haven of the reward. The way of pride leads, via the thorny path of prejudice, to a hell of one’s own devising.
“For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
In Tolkien’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, Saruman the White renounces his title and office, declaring himself to be “of many colours.” He is no longer content to see reality as being a battle between good and evil, between the light and the darkness. Too “wise” to be bound to such a black-and-white understanding of the cosmos, he spurns the white, the unity of all light, fragmenting it into a pluralistic spectrum, beyond good and evil. Scholars of philosophy can hardly help but see parallels with the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose late work, Beyond Good and Evil, sought to demolish all traditional notions of morality.
Gandalf tells Saruman, as he would no doubt have told Nietzsche, that he had “left the path of wisdom.” Later, after Gandalf has assumed the title of Gandalf the White, he tells Saruman that he has “no colour now” , casting him from the order and from the Council. In rejecting the unity of all colors in the One Light of Goodness, choosing instead the fragmentation of light into a host of relativistic hues, Saruman, in his peacock Pride, does not become resplendent with all the colors of the rainbow but fades into 50 shades of gray until, eventually, he has “no color” at all. Refusing to be one who reflects the light he has become dark, a black hole of malice, shriveling into a pathetic shadow of his former self, much as Nietzsche, shortly after the publication of Beyond Good and Evil, descended into the black hole of madness, declaring that he, Nietzsche, had created the world and signing himself “Dionysus,” the god of drunkenness and ritualized insanity.
What do the cautionary examples of Saruman and Nietzsche, one fictional and the other historical, tell us about the anatomy of good and evil?
The answer is to be found in the black-and-white understanding of the cosmos that they spurned. It is to be found, in fact, in the light of wisdom and wonder shining forth from the mind of Thomas Aquinas, a light that is to the darkness of Nietzsche what the light of Gandalf is to the darkness of Saruman. It is a light that vanquishes the darkness of relativism as well as the will to power that relativism serves.
According to Aquinas, virtue, specifically the virtue of humility, is the prerequisite to all understanding of the cosmos.
Humility predisposes us to a sense of gratitude for our existence, and not only our own existence but the existence of all the things that we see. Such gratitude enables us to see with wonder, which prompts the contemplation necessary for the dilation of the mind. This, therefore, is the way that we become open to the light of reality. Humility, gratitude, wonder, contemplation and dilation (dilatatio): This is the fivefold order of perception which awakens our five senses to the Real.
If the foregoing is the path of perception leading to true enlightenment, the way of wonder, its inversion can be seen as the road to nowhere leading to the nihilistic endarkenment, the way of wickedness and ultimately madness.
The lack of humility (Pride) predisposes us to a sense of ingratitude for our existence, and not only our own existence but the existence of everything else. Such ingratitude succumbs to the sin of cynicism, blinding us to any sense of wonder, thereby preventing contemplation and promoting mindless distraction in its place, closing the mind to reality. Pride, ingratitude, cynicism, distraction, and the closing of the mind: This is the fivefold order of misperception which numbs our senses so that they are no longer able to sense or see the presence of the Real.
In the light of such an understanding of the anatomy of good and evil, the words of G. K. Chesterton, uttered on his deathbed, encapsulate the simple difference between the wisdom of humility and the light it brings and, on the other hand, the wickedness of pride and the darkness to which it leads. “The issue is now quite clear,” said the dying Chesterton, emerging from a sort of semi-conscious reverie. “It is between light and darkness and everyone must choose his side.”
Chesterton chose the light and the delightful sanity of sanctity. Nietzsche chose the dark and the insanity of pride, declaring as he died that he was himself the very God whom he had declared was dead. Chesterton chose the God in whose image he was made, and died splendidly sane. Nietzsche made himself God, the very definition of pride, making his increasingly mad cosmos in his own increasingly deranged image. The way of humility leads, via the rolling road of wonder, to the heaven-haven of the reward. The way of pride leads, via the thorny path of prejudice, to a hell of one’s own devising. Chesterton was right. Everyone must choose his side.