Superhuman Power and Corruption

by Turgon-(V)
October 28, 2009

Articles > Papers > Tolkien > Gollum > Turgon's articles > Superhuman Power and Corruption

     A great number of literary works deal with how supernatural, or more precisely, superhuman power corrupts one. The trend runs from the earliest times (the Gilgamesh epoch) to contemporary works (superheroes of all sorts galore). This issue with the possible advent of transhumanism has become a depressingly real problem, and I wish to illustrate, through the analysis of four well-known pieces of literature, why superhumanity poses a grave danger to remaining moral and rational.

      My earliest example is Gyges from Plato’s Republic. In Book II, we read the story of a shepherd, who, upon obtaining a ring which renders its wearer invisible, seduces the queen of Lydia, murders the king, and seizes power. Plato contemplates that this is a fine example that no man, however just, could resist the temptation of exercising this superhuman power unjustly. This, in my opinion, is because such power would place one above ordinary morals and ethics: human laws are no longer meaningful, therefore one would have to create one’s own morality. This is echoed by Lord Henry, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, when talking about the century needing a “new Hedonism”1 But since humans are inclined to immorality, and do not realise the consequences of their deeds, they invariably turn to evil, and yes, hedonism. Gollum only cares about “nice fishes”2. Jekyll is somewhat an exception: he tries to remedy the evil done by Hyde, but even he doesn’t act out of remorse. Of Gyges we do not know much; but in my opinion it is certain that he did not rue his deeds: he continued to reign for a long while, the first king of a great dynasty.

     The deliberate choice of evil is often coupled with a sound übermensch-complex: Dorian Gray is quite confident in his superiority over his fellow humans (thanks to Lord Henry’s poisonous preaching): “Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. […] I should fancy that crime was to them what art is us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.”3 Lord Henry and Gray set themselves over ordinary men. Gray rues not his sins, or his friends’ deaths: he mourns at first over the decaying of his portrait, and later over the glut of his sins and shames. Jekyll claims to be “apart from ordinary laws”, “sitting beyond the reach of fate”4. Gollum hopes to “grows very strong, stronger than Wraiths. Lord Sméagol? Gollum the Great? […] Most Precious Gollum!”5“Makes eyes bright, fingers tight, yes. Throttle them, precious, Throttle them all, yes!”6

      Though hubris is mostly mentioned in connexion with Dr Faustus, all fallen super-humans are very good examples of it; Jekyll doesn’t even think of regretting any of his sins committed as Hyde: “Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience… And thus his conscience slumbered.” “Hyde would not even be conscious of all that he had lost”7. Dorian Gray, on the surface, seems to try and redeem himself with his “pure” love for Hetty Merdon, but it is a farce only. Sméagol strikes a pact with Gollum to get the Ring, and thus seals their fate. Extraordinary situations require nothing short of extraordinary solutions, laws, and moreover extraordinary men. This fortunate constellation, however, does not exist: superhuman power is “good” only for superhuman beings. Ordinary (i.e., all) humans would think thusly: “If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.”8 The only way to eliminate the “injustice” would be to use superhuman power. A conundrum, certainly. 

      “Injustice” is very important. A typical pretence to use the Power unjustly is to do away with “injustice” – either personal or social. Gollum, tempted by the Ring, murders Déagol because his friend refused to give the Ring to him. Gandalf and Galadriel, too, know that the Ring would tempt them by giving them Power to do good: “Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and desire to do good” 9(Sam) ‘You’d make some folk pay for their dirty work.’ (Galadriel) ‘I would […] That is how it would begin. But it would not stop with that, alas!’10 Dorian Gray feels it unjust that his portrait should remain inviolate and untouched by age while he grows hoary. Jekyll contemplates the advantages of severing one’s evil half from one’s own persona. Gyges simply wishes to be the ruler of his people. Whether these notions are valid or not is irrelevant. Once a motive is established, people will spring into action to bring about their dreams. Inquisitive Gollum spied on others and looked for hidden treasures; Gyges seizes the throne; Jekyll slakes his “undignified” desires; Gray rushes headlong into life’s pleasures and sins. As all would, regardless the means.

      A very important distinction has to be made: there are two different kinds of instruments. One, such as Gray’s portrait and Jekyll’s drug, are not by themselves evil: “The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine”11, where it is human perception and will that turns it into a tool for evil; and the other, where the instrument itself is evil. Gyges’s ring cannot be used for good purposes: invisibility has no just uses. The Power of the Ruling Ring does not lie in its granting invisibility: that merely is a side-effect, as it were, of its far more spiritual nature. It gives the spiritual power that one desires: but it can only be used for coërcion, to subdue other wills. Humankind possesses a fascinating skill to turn everything new (and often beautiful) into evil. Indeed, Sauron, for instance, could not invent any new evil which humankind had not come up with one time or another. As Basil Hallward says: “people […] talk of you as something vile and degraded”12, which is, compared to what Dorian Gray is, an understatement.

      Human life consists mainly of trying to negotiate our way amid the cliffs and shoals of ethics and morality, in which we often fail. Superhuman power would only increase our difficulties and thus, the chances of failure: “I have been made to learn that the doom and burthen of our life is bound for ever on man's shoulders, and when the attempt is made to cast it off, it but returns upon us with more unfamiliar and more awful pressure.” 13 Some people would like to believe that sooner or later we would adapt to the new possibilities, but that is not true: Dorian Gray had twenty years, and Gollum four hundred (!). For a human mind, there is almost no difference between four hundred years and an eternity. And, if one falls for hedonism, time becomes meaningless; or, at least, one wishes it to become meaningless.

     “’But surely,  if one lives merely for one’s self, Harry, one pays a terrible price for doing so […] in the consciousness of degradation.”14 This is an omen and a warning for all those who use their Power to evil ends. No-one can escape from his own conscience. Jekyll, Gray, Gollum, all feel it. As time progresses, the clamour of conscience becomes ever louder. Of course, all try to repress it: Jekyll by his questionably good deeds; Gray by opium and his mantra “To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul!”15, Gollum by constantly trying to acquit himself of all his crimes: calling the Ring his “precious”, and demonising his enemies (“nasty” “evil” “cruel” “cross” are frequently used by him). To no avail. One cannot escape his (subconsciously) self-determined fate. It either comes in the form of an avenger (like James Vane), a hideous transformation (Jekyll’s, for instance), or terminal insanity (Gollum). Of Gyges, there is little information: the historical character, Gyges of Lydia, was a conqueror, until he fell in battle (sic!); the ill-fated Croesus was his fifth successor as well. 

     Now, more than ever, we are faced with the danger of transhumanism. Whereas in Victorian times it was considered mostly to be a theoretical issue, in our days it is a very real possibility. One only has to read the ‘Transhumanism’ 16 article on Wikipedia. What pro-Transhumanists do not understand (as did not all my examples, and Faust, and Dr Frankenstein, and countless others), that technological progress is not the same as moral development at all. On the contrary, the twain are most often at variance. To absolutely make sure that no harm will come out of being trans-human, one should oneself be a trans-human. And that is impossible. Also raised are questions concerning free will (which is nicely illustrated by the relationship of Lord Henry and Dorian Gray), meddling in God’s (or gods’) work (Jekyll), social issues (if everyone had a certain Power, there would be no differences between humans. How would society function then?), and biological ones (Gollum’s, Bilbo’s, and the Ringwraiths’ example of the consequences of unnaturally long life), to name a few. To ignore these objections, and say that matters will resolve themselves is hubris and folly. My examples, I hope, served to illustrate this point. 



Stevenson, R.L.: Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, Signet Classic, Harmondsworth, 1987 

Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Penguin Popular Classics, London, 1994 

Plato: The Republic, retrieved on 2009.10.28 from: 

Tolkien, J.R.R.: The Fellowship of the Ring, 1981, London, Unwin Paperbacks 

Tolkien, J.R.R.: The Two Towers, 2002, London, HarperCollinsPublishers