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Theistic Philosophy and Tolkien’s Hobbit, Part 1: Character and God’s Goodness: Boethius

Published Monday, August 3, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

As I discussed in a previous two-part post (here and here), theistic philosophy is a useful tool for investigating how productions of imagination can be used to develop a mind more deeply focused on God. Although there are multiple avenues one might take for the application of this argument, in the following series I will argue that theistic philosophers like Boethius, Descartes, and Berkeley help us to understand how the fundamental components of narrative help us to reflect on our orientation towards God, as shown in the chart below. Essentially, each theistic philosopher’s intellectual inquiry helps us to understand rationally what the divine intellect has revealed in Scripture, their arguments each having, I contend, association with one of the classic three fundamentals of narrative – character, setting, and plot. Their ideas can then be applied to The Hobbit in this framework, serving as a case study for our discussion of interpreting literature’s imaginative value from a philosophically theistic point of view. This post will focus on character and Boethian philosophy.

Philosopher Theme Verse Philosophical Contribution Application to The Hobbit
Boethius (Character) (James 1:17) Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of heavenly lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning Through Greco-Roman philosophy, Boethius shows that all human pursuits for happiness, when treated as self-sufficient, leave us unsatisfied and even harmed: only God can be the true source of happiness and so the only basis for the establishment of our identities Character: Prompted by a Boethian mentor figure, Bilbo discovers that his true identity is not sufficiently manifested in the comfort of the Hobbit’s world
Descartes (Plot) (Romans 1:20) …the unbeliever has no excuse… Trusting our own minds for judgment logically requires that we believe there is a God who ensures truth, or else there can be no certain answer Plot: Bilbo discovers new ways of thinking and acting in the world which allow him to become a force of the plot itself
Berkeley (Setting) (Acts 17) It is in God in whom we live and move and have our being
Our tendency to imagine matter as inert, lifeless “stuff” impiously, and irrationally, forgets the dependence of every created thing upon the immediate glory of God
Setting: Bilbo comes to understand a greater sense of how his life in the Shire depends on the larger world, & that he is “only a little fellow after all”
Character and God’s Goodness: Boethius

The Boethian theme of what constitutes true goodness, and so authentic identity, emerges as essential to the reader’s appreciation of Bilbo’s character development. Assuming his conception of the word “good” is self-evident, Bilbo tells Gandalf, “Good morning!” Gandalf, with (mostly) pretended curmudgeonly pedantry, asks, “What do you mean?…Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” (Tolkien 18) Bilbo replies, “All of them at once” (18). This is an admittedly smooth reply but one that passes up the opportunity to appreciate Gandalf’s fundamental point: our use of the word “good” is rather careless and perhaps often entirely mistake. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy is at its root a meditation on how worldly goods do not satisfy the soul but instead point us to God as the basis for happiness and therefore the basis for identity, since what makes us happy is a powerful way to understand who we are. Lady Philosophy, Boethius’s personified mentor in the Consolation, explains, “The whole concern of men, which the effort of a multitude of pursuits keep busy, moves by different roads, yet strives to arrive at one and the same end, that of happiness” (III.ii.233). In Lady Philosophy’s framework, there are essentially five worldly goods which people seek: “wealth, honour, power, glory, pleasure” (III.ii.235). Bilbo is indeed accustomed especially to the creature comforts of the Hobbit’s lifestyle, which in the main prize pleasure and perhaps just enough wealth and honor to support the pursuit of that pleasure. This principle of Hobbit life is set out at the very beginning:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit… it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort… This hobbit was a very well to do hobbit, and his name was Baggins… people considered [the Bagginses] very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected. (15)

We could say, based on this description, that Hobbits arrange the Boethian goods to place pleasure at the top of the list, and subordinate those things which threaten it – such as a desire for power or glory, which could lead to adventures or unexpected behavior. Sensible as this may seem, however, the reader might find a society such as Bilbo’s with no sense of adventure to be somewhat disturbing. And indeed, the commands of Christ to take up one’s cross and follow him could never be obeyed under a strictly Hobbitish way of life, for selling all of one’s possessions, giving up one’s way of life, and surrendering one’s autonomy to another all certainly fall underneath the category of unexpected, I daresay adventurous behavior.

Gandalf functions as a catalyst for Bilbo’s character development in a manner similar to Boethius’s Lady Philosophy, in the respect that both Gandalf and Lady Philosophy push their protagonists to consider a wider range of possibilities than they would in the inertia of their emotional states (Boethius in grief and Bilbo in comfort). Lady Philosophy encourages Boethius to see beyond his immediate appraisal of worldly goods to see that they are not as satisfying as they seem, requiring a refinement of imagination to grasp: “You see, though with a far from clear imagination yet with some idea, that true end of your happiness. Your natural inclinations draw you towards that end, to the true good, though mistaken notions of many kinds lead you away from it” (III.iii.241). Through Gandalf’s influence, Bilbo is summoned out of his comfort zone to the imagined grandeur of the worldly goods favored by the dwarves – namely, great wealth, power, and a position of status in the world. The Dwarf song casts a poetic gleam over the more challenging goods which Bilbo has not before desired:

We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold…

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought,
And light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword. (Tolkien 27)

Bilbo’s character is stretched and expanded by the quest Gandalf pushes him to undertake, such that by the end of it he is no longer entirely satisfied by the “respectable” desires of Hobbits. Returning from his journey to the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo stops suddenly and recites spontaneously a profoundly stirring poem, “Roads go ever on” (283), which suggests that, although he is glad to be home, Bilbo realizes that he has changed and this place will never be home in quite the same way. He has somewhat outgrown the Hobbitish satisfaction in pleasure, which Lady Philosophy critiques in a poem of her own, saying that pleasure “flees, and strikes our hearts/With a too lasting sting” (III.vii.259). Pleasure cannot ever fully satisfy, and the road goes ever on – our nature cannot be fulfilled in Bilbo’s comfortable home, just as Lady Philosophy warned Boethius against identifying himself with his temporal goods.

At the same time, Bilbo is also not entirely satisfied by the worldly goods which the Dwarves loved, seeing their capacity to corrupt the individual first-hand, a poignant moment because it mirrors the moment when their poem stirred in him the longing for a greater identity which prompted him to undergo on this journey in the first place. Led from satisfaction in one temporal good to desire for another, Bilbo is brought to a state of dissatisfaction with the worldly goods as comprising the full definition of goodness itself – just as Gandalf had prompted him to consider at the outset of the narrative. He has a glimpse, and so do readers, of the full texture of what it means to believe that “Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of heavenly lights,” the teaching from James which is the core Scriptural insight running through Boethian philosophy. Wherever the fullest satisfaction of Bilbo’s heart lies, it is not in Hobbit meals or Dwarf gold or Elven crowns – and the Christian reader is reminded that desire’s satisfaction resides within the Lord’s Supper, the jeweled city of Heaven, and the crowns we will someday cast before the Throne.

In the second installment of this series, we will consider Cartesian philosophy as it can be applied to plot in The Hobbit.

In the third and final installment of this series, we will consider Berkeley’s philosophy as applied to the plot of The Hobbit.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla