The following is a philosophical reflection on a theme that I think addresses both philosophical and spiritual apathy. Much has recently resurfaced about Tolkien’s views on marriage and death, and as Tolkien’s works have played a formative role in my life, I am seizing the opportunity to add a small reflection. I also use this opportunity to introduce and post Plato's cave analogy, as it appears in the Republic.
If a reader of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings pays attention, he comes across a strange phenomenon that occurs to the character Legolas. When the three companions reunite with Gandalf following the latter’s return, Gandalf gives a message to Legolas from Galadriel:
‘Legolas Greenleaf long under tree
In joy thou hast lived. Beware of the Sea!
If thou hearest the cry of the gull on the shore,
Thy heart shall then rest in the forest no more.'
These words he considered ‘dark,’ and ‘spoke openly about [his] death.’ Finally, after the battle at the Pelanor, we come across the following passage:
‘Look!’ he (Legolas) cried. ‘Gulls! They are flying far inland. A wonder they are to me and a trouble to my heart. Never in all my life had I met them, until we came to Pelagrir, and there I heard them crying in the air as we rode to the battle of the ships. Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! For the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm.’
‘Say not so!’ said Gimli. ‘There are countless things still to see in Middle-earth, and great works to do. But if all the fair folk take to the Havens, it will be a duller world for those who are doomed to stay.’
Contrary to Peter Jackson’s films, which interpret the elves’ Middle-earth departure as a kind of humanistic passing of the Middle-earth torch to men, for which I think there is little evidence in Tolkien’s legendarium, the elves’ desire to leave Middle-earth constitutes early on the weakness Sauron employs to create the One Ring and enslave Middle-earth in the first place. Within Tolkien’s legends, as explained in The Silmarillion, when Morgoth was assailed and defeated by the Valar host, the elves were summoned or strongly counseled to leave Middle-earth and return into the west, there to be at peace. Middle-earth, and particularly Beleriand, had been laid waste; many of Morgoth’s monsters and servants (such as the orcs, balrogs, dragons, and Sauron) remained, and Middle-earth was changing. The elves, unlike men, were immortal and were bound inherently to the earth, suffering its change and decay; while they lived in Middle-earth the elves knew a deep and abiding sadness. Ultimately, Sauron exploits this weakness; and, with his aid and counsel the elves forge the Rings of Power for the preservation of Middle-earth from change and decay, are betrayed by Sauron, and everything else unfolds creating a prelude to the events in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
We return to Legolas. He has known a kind of bliss in his forest home, but the gulls stir in him a deeper longing for the sea. This longing is ‘perilous,’ such that he can no longer find rest or contentment in the world he now inhabits. Eventually, the elves grow weary of the world and depart.
This is a real phenomenon, one that philosophers, and especially religious persons, have written tirelessly about. Buried deep within every human being is a deep longing, a nostalgic-like desire, that when uncovered forever unsettles the person. Si oblitus fuero tui Jerusalem, oblivioni detur dextera mea. (‘If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand wither’). The psalm describes the nostalgia of the those exiled for their homeland of Jerusalem; yet it describes well the high spiritual and intellectual longing of the human being. If the psalmist loses this longing, he loses his right hand, namely, he loses the best of his dignity and his skill. What is best in him, that in which his greatest joy consists is Jerusalem. If that goes, he loses the best of himself and with it the capacity for greater joy.
To many, philosophers are hopelessly abstracted from the ‘real world,’ and religious persons are fanatical, deluded, or according to some suffer a neurological disorder. In some cases, especially if the very real difference between superstition and religion is considered, there are religious persons who fit this description. There are also philosophers who have profoundly lost a grip on reality, however, some apathetic, naturalists, and atheists suggest this is the norm.
Yet in fact, it is the intellectually or spiritually apathetic person who has not really lived. Only he who has not stirred within himself the concept of the good is not disturbed by its absence. Only he who has seen only the shadows on the wall can laugh at the philosopher who suggests that there is something beyond the shadow.
To stir in the human intellect the desire to know God is, like the sounding of Tolkien’s gulls, in a way fatal to the human being. It does not cause death of the sort that is inevitable, where the physical body perishes. Rather, it causes the death of a worldly joy. This is similar to the feeling of a man who has fallen in love, where all the delights of the world grow dim and gray in comparison to the simple but profound desire to be with the beloved. The person dies in the sense that he loses his capacity to find final joy and happiness in the world, and by contemplating the divine stirs within himself a restlessness never to depart unless graced with the Beatific Vision.
Ultimately this is an interpretation like the one argued for by Plato’s cave analogy. If you haven’t read it, it is a must, and I provided the passage below. Plato speaks well to the ridicule those ‘doomed’ by this perilous stirring experience from the world.
Many tell us, especially socialists, the sexual liberationists, or those like-minded, that we are distracted by fantasies and delusions from making life better on earth. By this they usually mean increasing for everyone the pleasures and nice experiences this brief life provides and eliminating suffering and other forms of displeasure.
But if some experience has stirred this longing in you, the doom of the human being who cannot apart from grace achieve the deepest of his heart’s desires, you know you cannot be contented with the pleasures and good experiences of this life, however profound. You, like a freed prisoner in Plato’s analogy, pity those who ridicule you for your apparent delusions and foolishness. They do not understand you. You desire increasingly that they also understand, and you wish to help them stir this doom. Without a death to that capacity whereby you can final rest in the world of sense, you cannot find the joy of the Beatific Vision. Mystics, especially John of the Cross, have commented on how to seek a kind of darkness in the world of sense, but this is another (important) topic that takes this as its point of departure.
Like the psalmist's right hand, this doom represents what is best and noblest of the human person. It is a death and a doom to a lower joy, but it is a prelude to an even greater bliss. Once stirred, such restlessness cannot be shaken, even if the higher joy is rejected for some lower worldly good.
Eventually, I think, one becomes weary of this restlessness. Either they are led to a kind of moral despair (common in our culture) or a post-modern intellectual one (which is the basis for a kind of agnosticism), or they reject the world and its joys and attend to God.
Here below I will now provide Plato’s cave, which I think is frequently and foolishly interpreted along the epistemic premises of The Matrix, rather than the pursuit of wisdom that Plato advocated. The analogy comes from Plato’s Republic wherein Socrates describes the cave to Glaucon.
I think that Tolkien had Plato’s cave particularly in mind when he conjured the elves’ Firstly, the Isle of the Blessed that Plato references is without doubt the inspiration of Tol Eressëa, the western isle in which the elves settle after they depart Middle-earth. Secondly, even if more remotely, the One Ring is speculated to be inspired by the Ring of Gyges, found in Book II of the Plato’s Republic (whereas the cave is Book VII), which conferred invisibility to its holder.
Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cave-like dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.
I’m imagining it.
Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it —statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.
It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.
They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?
How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?
What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them
And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?
They’d have to.
And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?
I certainly do.
Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.
They must surely believe that.
Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now—because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more—he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?
And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, would his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s been shown?
And if someone dragged him away form there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?
He would be unable to see them, at least at first.
I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.
Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.
And at this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.
It’s clear that would be his next step.
What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?
And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?
I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.
Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes—coming suddenly out of the sun like that —be filled with darkness?
They certainly would.
And before his eyes had recovered—and the adjustment would not be quick—while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, would he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? And, as for anyone who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow get their hands on him, wouldn’t they kill him?
They certainly would.
This whole image, Glaucon, must be fitted together with what we said before. The visible realm should be likened to the prison dwelling, and the light of the fire inside it to the power of the sun. And if you interpret the upward journey and the study of things above as the upward journey of the soul to the intelligible realm, you’ll grasp what I hope to convey, since that is what you want to hear about. Whether it’s true or not, only the god knows. But this is how I see it: In the knowable realm, the form of the good is the last thing to be seen, and it is reached only with difficulty. Once one has seen it, however, one must conclude that it is the cause of all that is correct and beautiful in anything, that it produces both light and its source in the visible realm, and that in the intelligible realm it controls and provides truth and understanding, so that anyone who is to act sensibly in private or public must see it.
I have the same thought, at least as far as I’m able.
Come, then, share with me this thought also: It isn’t surprising that the ones who get to this point are unwilling to occupy themselves with human affairs and that their souls are always pressing upwards, eager to spend their time above, for, after all, this is surely what we’d expect, if indeed things fit the image I described before.
What about what happens when someone turns from divine study to the evils of human life? Do you think it’s surprising, since his sight is still dim, that he hasn’t yet become accustomed to the darkness around him, that he behaves awkwardly and appears completely ridiculous if he’s compelled, either in courts or elsewhere, to contend about the shadows of justice or the statues of which they are the shadows and to dispute about the way these things are understood by people who have never seen justice itself?
That’s not surprising at all.
No, it isn’t. But anyone with an understanding would remember that the eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, namely, when they’ve come from the light into the darkness and when they’ve come from the darkness into the light. Realizing that the same applies to the soul, when someone sees a soul disturbed and unable to see something, he won’t laugh mindlessly, but he’ll take into consideration whether it has come from a brighter life and is dimmed through not having yet become accustomed to the dark or whether it has come from greater ignorance into greater light and is dazzled by the increased brilliance. Then he’ll declare the first soul happy in its experience and life, and he’ll pity the latter—but even if he chose to make fun o f it, at least he’d be less ridiculous than if he laughed at a soul that has come from the light above.
What you say is very reasonable.
If that’s true, then here’s what we must think about these matters. Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes.
They do say that.
But our present discussion, on the other hand, shows that the power to learn is present in everyone’s soul and that the instrument with which each learns is like an eye that cannot be turned around from darkness to light without turning the whole body. This instrument cannot be turned around from that which is coming into being without turning the whole soul until it is able to study that which is and the brightest thing that is, namely, the one we call the good. Isn’t that right?
Then education is the craft concerned with doing this very thing, this turning around, and with how the soul can most easily and effectively be made to do it. It isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately.
So it seems.
Now, it looks as though the other so-called virtues of the soul are akin to those of the body, for they really aren’t there beforehand and are added later by habit and practice. However, the virtue of reason seems to belong above all to something more divine, which never loses its power but is either useful and beneficial or useless and harmful, depending on the way it is turned. Or have you never noticed this about people who are said to be vicious but clever, how keen the vision of their little souls is and how sharply it distinguishes the things it is turned towards? This shows that its sight isn’t inferior but rather is forced to serve evil ends, so that the sharper it sees, the more evil it accomplishes.
However, if a nature of this sort had been hammered at from childhood and freed from the bonds of kinship with becoming, which would have been fastened to it by feasting, greed, and other such pleasures and which, like leaden weights, pull its vision downwards—if, being rid of these, it turned to look at true things, then I say that the same soul of the same person would see these most sharply, just as it now does the things it is presently turned towards.
And what about the uneducated who have no experience of truth? Isn’t it likely—indeed, doesn’t it follow necessarily from what was said before—that they will never adequately govern a city? But neither would those who’ve been allowed to spend their whole lives being educated. The former would fail because they don’t have a single goal at which all their actions, public and private, inevitably aim; the latter would fail because they’d refuse to act, thinking that they had settled while still alive in the faraway Isles of the Blessed.
To stay there and refuse to go down again to the prisoners in the cave and share their labors and honors, whether they are of less worth or of greater.
Then are we to do them an injustice by making them live a worse life when they could live a better one?
You are forgetting again that it isn’t the law’s concern to make any one class in the city outstandingly happy but to contrive to spread happiness throughout the city by bringing the citizens into harmony with each other through persuasion or compulsion and by making them share with each other the benefits that each class can confer on the community. The law produces such people in the city, not in order to allow them to turn whatever direction they want, but to make use of them to bind the city together.
 II. 106
 III. 149-150.
 Ps. 137:5.
 Plato’s Republic 7.514a-520a: transl. by G.M.A. Reeve.