"By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes." We don't seem to have any trouble identifying (by a gut feeling, a thumb feeling, or some other device) evil persons, entities, or events, but it is trickier than it first appears to give a clear explanation of what exactly constitutes evil, where it comes from, and why it is so prevalent if God is both sovereign and good. I'm going to approach the subject from a comfortable distance, considering the philosophical approach to the "problem of evil" by way of a short essay, "Tolkien and the Nature of Evil," by Scott Davison, chapter 8 in The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy (Open Court Pub., 2003). The book has been in my Featured Books queue (left sidebar) for some time now, although it is a short and easy read (hey, I've been busy). I might put up a couple of additional posts from other chapters in the book over the coming week. I'm sure you'll be interested in, for example, "Überhobbits," and "The Bounded Joy of Existentialists and Elves."
The Problem of Evil
Here's a short statement of the philosophical problem of evil: "In the philosophy of religion and theology, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god" (quoting the linked Wikipedia entry). A more in-depth discussion of the issue in the IEP article on the same topic gives the following statement of the problem:
The logical problem of evil is a particular way of spelling out the more general challenge to belief in a perfect God that is posed by the existence of evil and suffering in our world. According to this version of the problem, it is logically impossible for an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good God to co-exist with evil and suffering.
One popular solution to the problem is to make Evil an autonomous force which exists independently. This view goes under the label "Manicheanism" in philosophy and describes "the view that there are two equal and opposite forces in the world, Good and Evil" (p. 100 of the Davison essay). In Middle-Earth, Sauron is the obvious candidate for the metaphysical ground of evil. But even he may not be evil enough to measure up to this demanding task: Elrond opined that "nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so," and Gandalf noted, "Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary" (p. 101). For you hardcore Tolkienistas, I don't think the argument changes if you substitute Morgoth for Sauron. These two surely perpetrated a good deal of evil in Middle-Earth, but they don't solve our philosophical problem. They are merely agents of Evil and rather subordinate ones at that, it seems. They don't really explain the why or how questions.
You might think that Manicheanism maps nicely onto the standard Christian worldview, but in fact the Early Church rejected Manicheanism and made it a heresy. To say that Good and Evil are locked in a cosmic struggle does violence to God's omnipotence, even if one's eschatology stresses that God's will always prevails in the end.
A second solution to the problem of evil is called the Augustinian view. Following Augustine, Evil is a sort of parasite on Good, lurking in its shadow but not able to exist independently. Here's a summary from the Wikipedia article "Problem of Evil" (cited earlier):
[Augustine] maintained that evil was only privatio boni, or a privation of good. An evil thing can only be referred to as a negative form of a good thing, such as discord, injustice, and loss of life or liberty. If a being is not totally pure, evil will fill in any gaps in that being's purity. This is commonly called the Contrast Theodicy — that evil only exists as a "contrast" with good.
In the essay, Davison shows that Tolkien and Middle-Earth actually follow the Augustinian view. To the extent beings are evil, reflecting an absence of goodness, they begin to lose their being or existence. Hence the Ringwraiths (in the narrative) constantly flirt with nothingness and even Sauron himself cannot take bodily form. In fact, his essence, such as it was, seems to have been more tied to the Ring itself than to the fortresses and towers of Mordor. Bilbo was for all those years carrying around not just a ring but a potent slice of Sauron himself, a piece of evil in his pocket, a reified Shadow.
But if evil lacks independent existence, where does it come from? How does it slip in to an otherwise good world? From the wrongful exercise of free will, for which Augustine coined the term "inordinate desire" (p. 103). Love of money, as in "the love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Tim. 6:10) is but one example of this inordinate desire. It's not hard to see this theme emerge in LOTR, where the One Ring invariably energized "inordinate desire." Sam successfully resisted; Boromir didn't. Galadriel successfully resisted; Saruman didn't. This limited but practical view — that there is evil-in-the-world but that we can successfully resist it — seems like a nice thought to take away from Tolkien's depiction of the conflict between good and evil.
Are Mormons Manicheans or Augustinians?
Christianity follows the Augustinian view: Manicheanism is considered a heresy. At least that's the "official" Christian view. I suspect plenty of rank-and-file Christians are Manicheans without even realizing it. How do Mormons and LDS doctrine approach these questions? I think the Mormon view parallels the Christian view: most Mormons happily embrace a Manichean view, but those who look at the question closely tend to retreat in the general directioin of Augustine. I won't head off into that new topic in this post; perhaps readers will post their own take on the LDS view in the comments. I'll close with a couple of ambiguous passages from 2 Nephi. Here's one that sounds Augustinian:
For it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things. If not, ... righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness, nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one .... And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness, there be no happiness. ... And if these things are not, there is no God. And if there is no God, we are not, neither the earth, for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon. Wherefore, all things must have vanished away. (2 Nephi 2:11, 13; punctuation modified)
Now here's a passage that sounds Manichean:
[M]en are free according to the flesh, and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil, [who] seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. ... [C]hoose eternal life ... [and not] eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom. (2 Nephi 2:27-29, punctuation modified)