back to Weekly Archives
Here's another enlightening piece by Ken Chumbley. This one is more social commentary than his usual pieces but it still has plenty to say to the NT elect. Contact Ken if you wish him to send you his regularly produced offerings. [email@example.com]
At least five separate opinion polls named J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings the best book
of the twentieth century, and the three movies based on it only increased its popularity. What
many fans of the trilogy don’t know, however, is that Tolkien’s plot about a magic ring came
from the Greek philosopher Plato. In the second book of Plato’s Republic, Plato’s brother,
Glaucon, plays devil’s advocate in a discussion with Socrates about morality. Glaucon recounts
an ancient story of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a golden ring after an earthquake split
the ground where he was pasturing his flock. When he put on the ring, he discovered that
when he turned it a certain way, he became invisible, and when he turned it back, he was visible
again. Realizing the power invisibility gave him, Gyges used the ring to seduce the queen, kill
the king, and con the people. Glaucon’s point was that if men thought they could get away with
their deeds (by, for instance, becoming invisible when it was convenient), they would live
greedy, cruel, and selfish lives.*
In Tolkien’s retelling of the story, Gyges becomes the character Gollum, and Tolkien uses
Gollum to make the point that contrary to what many think, power doesn’t bring happiness. The
quest in The Lord of the Rings is not to get something (which is the aim of most quests), but to get
rid of something. The ring of power had to be destroyed because power corrupts! And nothing,
I think, in The Lord of the Rings, makes this point more vividly than the scene at the end when
not even good, noble Frodo can let go of the ring.
If you doubt Lord Acton’s maxim that power corrupts, take a look at our political situation. I
don’t think it’s painting with too broad a brush to say that for every Mr. Smith who goes to
Washington (or to the state capital, or to the city municipal building) and remains untainted by
the experience, there’s a carload of politicians who use the power of their office for selfaggrandizement.
And when we allow these modern-day Gyges/Gollums to get away with their
chicanery, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the ensuing corruption and loss of liberty.
Years ago I read an aphorism by C. C. Colton that said something to the effect: they who desire
power don’t deserve it, and they who deserve it don’t desire it. And therein lies the problem.
There are men capable and qualified of serving as our leaders, but they have no inclination
to do so (which is one reason why they are qualified to do so).
When George III heard that Washington had relinquished command of the Continental
Army and returned to private life—rather than use his position to establish a military dictatorship—
he thought his former enemy the greatest man in the world. Historians say King George
went mad; but he was sane enough to know that true greatness doesn’t grasp power, but uses it
to serve and bless others, and then gives it up.
*(In addition to The Lord of the Rings, the story of Gyges was the basis for the medieval Germanic legend
of the niebelungs, Wagner’s great operatic cycle, The Ring of the Niebelung, and H. G. Wells’ book,
The Invisible Man.)