Boromir, or, Everyday Cursed Swords

Updated: Oct 27, 2018

There are some tools that are never good, that cannot be used for good, or at least not for long, and which ultimately corrupt and negate the good efforts of the wielder.

'As you wish. I care not,' said Boromir. 'Yet may I not even speak of it? For you seem ever to think only of its power in the hands of the Enemy: of its evil uses not of its good. The world is changing, you say. Minas Tirith will fall, if the Ring lasts. But why? Certainly, if the Ring were with the Enemy. But why, if it were with us?'
'Were you not at the Council?' answered Frodo. 'Because we cannot use it, and what is done with it turns to evil.'
(J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)

It was while listening to an episode of the Waking Up podcast with Sam Harris that my thoughts turned to The One Ring, the tiny artifact at the centre of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You don’t need to know LOTR to follow this piece; you also don’t need to know who Harris or his guest Jonathan Haidt are to follow it, since I’ll tell you the fragment of their conversation that served as the inspiration.

There is a point in the conversation where Haidt suggests a general blanket policy to not fire anybody in response to an internet mob. Doing so, he suggests, only shows the mob that their tactic is appropriate, and creates more mobs. He offers that an internet mob should in fact trigger the opposite decision: A moratorium on doing anything. He suggests that nothing be done about the position of the person in question, at least not until the hype has died down.

Harris responds by acknowledging the wisdom of that rule in some instances, but offers a separate situation in which, he seems to believe, a firing should have happened in response to an internet mob. His argument seems to be that, because he agrees with what this particular mob is saying, that the mob tactic is okay in this particular instance.

I think this points to something archetypal, expressed through images like The One Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The One Ring to Rule Them All, it is made quite clear, cannot be used for good. Even Gandalf, a powerful and clearly “good” wizard, will not dare to try it, since its power is too great and dangerous. The archetype can be described as saying something like this: There are some tools that are never good, that cannot be used for good, or at least not for long, and which ultimately corrupt and negate the good efforts of the wielder. A related example from Norse mythology is the cursed sword Tyrfang, which kills a man every time it is drawn, and which eventually leads to the death of the hero who holds it.

It seems that Haidt thinks that the internet mob is a bit of a “cursed sword”, that cannot be safely used even by well-meaning people--and of course, it is mostly well-meaning people who make up such mobs. In this metaphor, Haidt is the Gandalf to Harris’ Boromir.

Boromir’s perspective, I think, is one we can all identify with to some degree. Boromir is the one who sees the wrong that someone else does, and thinks he could do it better if only he were in the same position. Boromir thinks he sees farther, and therefore thinks he would not be prey to the follies and temptations that would undo others. He is also the unintentional hypocrite; the one who will criticize someone else’s behaviour but finds himself doing exactly the same thing when the situation arises. The ring does corrupt Boromir, and in fact it does so more quickly than anybody else. Considered as an archetype or metaphor, this suggests that the ring (symbol) always corrupts Boromir (perspective). Boromir is, symbolically, the perspective that thinks it can master the evil that nobody else can, and in trying is enthralled to it.

Boromir is in the argument of every young (or old) so-called “communist” who says that communism is ethical in principle, but that it’s just been implemented wrong so far. “If everybody understood this idea they way that I do”--or more perniciously, “If it were me who held the reins of power,” the inner Boromir says, “then it would work out.”

Tolkien writes Boromir as a human being. Not an elf, not a dwarf, not an ent, but one of us. I see something symbolic and pointedly ironic there, which is that to be Boromir in one’s own life is to forget about one’s own essential human nature. The Ring itself makes those who wear it invisible; symbolically they erase their humanity. All of us who are reading this are human beings, which in part means that we are eminently fallible. There is no person who can be entrusted with the absolute reins of power; there is no person who can be trusted with the ring. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, it is said, and I would say that holds true regardless of the person’s good intentions. It is also said that good intentions pave the road to hell.

And the Gandalf perspective? Well, he won’t touch the ring. He knows of its power, and knows that it is inherently cursed. He has learned from history, and the mistakes of others. He is not interested in the ends justifying the means, because he also knows that “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.” This means that even Gandalf, in his vast and ageless wisdom, doesn’t know so much that he could trust himself to shape the world. A corollary of that is that, in his vast and ageless wisdom, he knows just enough to know that even he should not wield such power. One might read in this the idea that there is no amount of knowledge or wisdom that justifies absolute power. He maintains his integrity by refusing the ring. That is part of what makes him good.

We can learn from Gandalf, but we are more likely to identify with the other human being in the series, Aragorn. Aragorn’s example is as instructive, and perhaps more resonant since he is a direct foil for Boromir: Refusing the ring is part of what allows him to be King. It’s what makes him good enough to be King.

What are the one rings and cursed swords of our era? One may indeed be the internet mob. I implied earlier that I think communism is one. Perhaps the tool of denouncing fellow citizens is one. Many would say that nuclear weapons, torture, or political assassination fall into this category; many would argue that they are options in certain situations. Convicting someone of a crime without a fair trial may be another. Biological weaponry seems to be broadly agreed upon. Maybe an ad hominem attack in a discussion constitutes a cursed sword.

I think that, as our culture polarizes itself more intensely with no end yet in sight, individuals would do well to consider and identify their own “cursed swords”--actions or arguments that seem effective in the moment, but are known to bear negative results. We can consult our own experience with this, as well, since some of them are surely individual. I know, for instance, that if I wield the very tempting sword of writing with a too-authoritative voice, I convince myself that I know and understand a hell of a lot more than I do. Most of the time I’m just thinking on paper, and so I have to make sure to ground those times in acknowledgement of my own subjectivity, as I am doing now.

Boromir is, among other things, a reminder that human beings are fallible. He reminds us that, while good intentions can be important, they are not enough to avoid paving the road to hell. One must also develop the knowledge and skill that are necessary to effectively implement these intentions. Humility and receptivity, too, are needed to hear and understand when they are going wrong. And with good intention, knowledge, skill, humility, and receptivity, I daresay one is powerful enough to have no need of a magic ring.