Quote of the day

>> Monday, November 22, 2010

I'm re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings--well, actually, I just finished re-reading The Hobbit and have picked up LOTR, and found that this still moved me:

"I am sorry," said Frodo. "But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum."

"You have not seen him," Gandalf broke in.

"No, and I don't want to," said Frodo. "I can't understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement....


Gandalf goes on to talk about whether or not Gollum has a purpose, and of course the point of the conversation much later becomes evident when Gollum indeed serves a purpose perhaps predestined for him or at least foreseen by greater powers. But Gandalf (and, one suspects, Tolkien) makes his point right there and then: Gollum certainly deserves death--Gandalf has just described just prior to this passage not only how Gollum killed his best friend for The Ring, but how Gollum also killed and ate babies. (I shit you not: "'The wood was full of the rumour of him, dreadful tales even among beasts and birds. The Woodmen said that there was some new terror abroad, a ghost that drank blood. It climbed trees to find nests; it crept into holes to find the young; it slipped through windows to find cradles.' [emphasis added]")

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?" There are those for whom the main argument against capital punishment is the fallibility of human judgment, but here, in a fantasy novel, is as eloquent a statement as any as to how I'd be against it even if humans could get it right every time, and never prosecute or convict or execute an innocent even once. Because it's not just the limit of human judgment but of human wisdom, of the power we ought to exercise; if I were a religious man, as Tolkien was, I'd say that life and death were the provenance of God and God alone; as I'm not a religious man, I'd have to say it rightly belongs to nobody.

I suppose I could go along like that for awhile in ever-widening circles, but we can leave it there for now. I give you the quote of the day for today, though it's somewhere around seventy years old. A reminder that humility is an element of pity, and pity of compassion.




2 comments:

Nathan Monday, November 22, 2010 at 8:55:00 AM EST  

I'm going to agree with you on its eloquence, but disagree with you on its meaning. You equate it with wisdom and judgment (and, yes, power). I'd take it at its most direct meaning...if you don't have the ability to restore or create life, you don't have the right to take it.

And, as usual, I'll have to continue by arguing with myself that it's a naive and idealistic viewpoint. I never give myself a break. :)

(Good quote anyway)

Eric Monday, November 22, 2010 at 1:51:00 PM EST  

Nathan, I'm not sure we're really disagreeing; I think in Tolkien's view, how one exercises power is a part of wisdom, so they're hand-in-hand if not the same thing. If one doesn't have the power to restore life, one should have the wisdom not to take what cannot be returned.

You're right, too, that it's perhaps naive and idealistic. But (to help you argue with yourself) what else do we have worth anything, if not idealism? It is how we measure ourselves against our ideals that we are and should be judged; if we're merely creatures of what is necessary and pragmatic from situation to situation, we are exercising no more moral capacity than my cat possesses, or any other small-brained beast of limited or no self-awareness. We are animals, yes, but we are (I hope) moral animals, and it's this distinction, if you will, that separates us from beasts within the Animalia.

Or so I'd like to think, even if it does smell suspiciously like metaphysics....

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