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The so-called Boromir Option raises the question as to whether it is ever permissible to use evil means in pursuit of a good end…

In a recent essay for the Imaginative Conservative I wrote about what I called the Mercutio Option, based on the character in Romeo & Juliet who cursed both the warring factions in Verona, the Capulets and the Montagues, suggesting that, like Shakespeare’s character, we should refuse to choose between the twin evils of radical Islam and radical relativism. The essay elicited a response from some people suggesting that we had to choose sides, and that we needed to choose the anti-Islamic side, even suggesting that we should condone, or at least not condemn, acts of terrorism if they are carried out against Muslims. This set me thinking about another option that we are being tempted to take, and that is the Boromir option.

Anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings or has seen the movies will know Boromir but, for those who haven’t, I will explain very briefly who he was, his role in the story, and how his choice is applicable to the situation we find ourselves in today.

Boromir, more than any other character in the story, can be said to be an Everyman figure. He is the character who represents us, both literally and figuratively. He is the only man in the Fellowship of the Ring, which consists of four hobbits, a king, a wizard, a dwarf, an elf, and one solitary man. He is selected to represent the race of men, as Legolas represents the elves and Gimli the dwarfs. He is our representative, flying the flag of humanity, so to speak, in the war against the Enemy. This is significant because it is Boromir who betrays the Fellowship when he tries to take the Ring from Frodo. Boromir is the miserable loser, signifying a weakness in him but also, by extension, a weakness in humanity as a whole; a weakness in us.  This weakness, which seems to go to the very heart of who we are as human beings, is the temptation and the tendency to use evil means in pursuit of a good cause.

And let’s not forget that Boromir’s cause is indeed a noble one. He seeks to take the Ring from Frodo so that he can use its power to defend his country and people from being overthrown by the Dark Lord, Sauron, who is a demon, and his army of devilish orcs. For Boromir, the Ring is not something evil that needs to be destroyed but something powerful that needs to be used against the enemy. It is not a curse but a gift. It would be foolish not to use it.

Isn’t this a reasonable enough position to hold? If our own country was threatened by an army of orcs led by a demon, wouldn’t we be tempted to use every weapon at our disposal to defend our homes, our families and our people? Is Boromir the wise one, and Gandalf and the rest merely dumb?

The problem is that the willingness to use evil means in pursuit of a good end will lead to the corruption of the will of those using the evil means. If Boromir had succeeded in taking the Ring by force from Frodo (theft), thereby betraying the Fellowship (treachery), and had used the evil power of the Ring to defeat Sauron, would his “success” really be a success? Wouldn’t the Ring, the power of evil, have won? If the civilization of Gondor had defeated evil with evil would it not itself be under the power of the Ring? Would it not become evil? If Gondor triumphs over Mordor and becomes an evil empire in doing so, has Gondor really won – or has it lost? If the good civilization for which Boromir fights becomes a corrupt power-wielding empire, the good civilization has ceased to be. It has been destroyed. Indeed, it has been destroyed as surely as if Sauron and his hordes had won. It would have been better for Minas Tirith to fall in a blaze of heroic glory, with its soldiers laying down their lives for their friends and families, fighting against the devil, than to have laid down all such thoughts of heroism in service to the devil himself, accepting the devil’s bargain and the corruption it brings. The wise know this. And indeed Boromir knows it himself, once the madness has passed, laying down his life for this friends and confessing his sins to Aragorn moments before his death.

The alternative to the Boromir Option is the Faramir Option. It is Boromir’s brother, Faramir, who proclaims that he would not pick up the Ring if he saw it lying at the side of the road, and it is Faramir who says that he would not snare even an orc with a falsehood. Faramir would not use evil means to defeat the darkest of enemies. The option he chooses is the path of sanctity, knowing that sanctity and sanity are synonymous, whereas the Boromir Option leads only to the badness that leads to madness. The Faramir Option leads to heaven – and makes the world a better place at the same time.

No, I will not be supporting hedonistic heathens, who have no god, when they drive trucks into Muslims, who have a false god, any more than I will support Muslims when they drive trucks into hedonistic heathens. I hope, like the Good Samaritan, I will have the grace to help my hedonistic neighbor if I find him injured at the side of the road, the victim of an assault, perhaps, by his Muslim enemy; I hope, like that same Samaritan, I will be virtuous enough to help my Muslim neighbor if I find him injured at the side of the road, the victim, perhaps, of an assault by my hedonistic neighbor. As for the Ring, if I ever see that lying at the side of the road, I hope, by the grace of God, that I will always take the Faramir Option and leave it in the gutter where it belongs.

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12 replies to this post
  1. The most evil words in the English language might be, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few egg.” Possibly, “In order to win, you have to sacrifice a pawn now and then.”

    Both imply that some humans are expendable.

    To say otherwise is to receive accusations of naiveté from “realists”.

  2. A nit: The author mistakes in characterizing Boromir as the only man: Aragorn (labeled “a king” in a list otherwise constituted of races) is of course also of the race of men. It is these two men together that round out Tolkien’s idea of man, not Boromir alone.

    • I do not recall the author of this post saying that Boromir was the “only man.” He said he was “every man.” That phrase has a very specific meaning.

      • “He is the only man in the Fellowship of the Ring…”

        Actually, the author did say Boromir is the only man (see quote above). It is the third sentence in the third paragraph. The author also described Boromir as a “Everyman” figure earlier in the same paragraph.

  3. I have a question regarding…

    “it is Faramir who says that he would not snare even an orc with a falsehood. ”

    What does our Catholic Church teach about spying in a just war? Or false impersonation, such as was done in the Planned Parenthood undercover videos? I think those people are heroes, by the way. But still, I’m wondering what the teaching is, and how to understand Faramir here. I’m hoping Mr. Pearce is willing to respond, though I’m sure he’s quite busy.

    As for the ring and your last sentence – you shouldn’t leave it in the gutter, it must be destroyed. I’m teasing.

  4. I think my objection to the original piece was that it seemed to address a problem (anti-Islamic terrorism by westerners) that barely exists. And it feeds into the left wing phony narrative that “Islamophobia!” is the real problem, not actual Islamic terrorism.

  5. Hi Mr. Pearce, thank you for sharing these important ideas. “The problem is that the willingness to use evil means in pursuit of a good end will lead to the corruption of the will of those using the evil means” really cuts straight to the heart of the matter, and I think it serves as a concise warning with respect to the hazards of an antinomian mindset.

    While I certainly agree with this idea in principle, I also wonder if there isn’t an inherent level of ambiguity at play. For example, many argue that the use of nuclear weapons on two Japanese cities some decades ago was a wanton and promiscuous act of violence that destroyed the lives of many innocents. There were many factors at play, and it’s not a straight-forward conversation, unfortunately. But in the end, aren’t all weapons with the power to destroy inherently neutral objects? Could it be that the spirit with which a weapon is wielded is what defines that nature of the act as evil? Policeman are authorized to use deadly force, but once in a while they are condemned for crossing lines and abusing that power.

    I think what troubles/puzzles me is the question as to how we decide when an act is evil and when it’s not, and fundamentally, who gets to decide? All in all, it strikes me as a messy and uncertain business. Certainly, many of the masked campus rioters who assault and burn are filled with a spirit of moral certainty and righteous indignation (although I suspect a considerable number of them are just in pursuit of more visceral gratifications). I’ve often wondered about what, if anything, might server to provide a reasonable basis on which one might have a rational discussion with such people, who are so filled with certainty about the moral superiority of their beliefs.

  6. “One may never do evil so that good will result.” The minute you think you might have found an exception to this rule, sprint to your spiritual director, or at the very least, your proper Pastor. For at that very moment your soul is in great peril.

    Or to put it more simply, never means never.

  7. How about the Schrödinger Option, where we put society in a box? That leaves our civilization neither alive nor dead, but in a linear superposition of the two.

    Better yet, how about we stop playing the “[Fill in the Blank] Option” game. Our lives are different from the lives of our ancestors in the way that one baseball game is different from another baseball game; that is, different in the details but alike in the important details. In the past, the problems were the world, the flesh, and the devil; they still are. In the past, people struggled with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life; we still do. In the past, people were told to honor their government as “God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”, but not to put their trust in it; we should do the same. In the past people were told they needed to repent of their sins and pray the rosary — is a pattern starting to emerge?

    • Let us cut to the quick here.

      This ongoing reference to “The (Whatever) Option” business began with Rod Dreher’s silly book, and use of the term is a mere rhetorical peg upon which to hang the cape of an argument.

      [I say it is a silly book, for it is less strenuous argument than a reflection of Mr. Dreher’s tendency to run away from what displeases him. First, it was home in Louisiana, then it was the Methodists, then the Roman Catholics. (He is now lodged with the Eastern Orthodox, and I sincerely pray his soul is resting there.) He ran away from the big city and newspapering. With his book on Dante, he did very well, and his heartfelt essays whether of his family and friends, or of travels in Italy, are wonderful. He is now, with the Benedict Option, advocating everyone else run away from society. He says that’s not what he means, but given his penchant for viewing with alarm every disturbance in the Force, one can draw no other reasonable conclusion.]

      Your remaining point is well taken. There is nothing new under the sun (so far as human nature and the nature of human interaction), technical toys excluded. Our problems of sin are the same as our ancestors. Perhaps we have more venue for sin, given those same tech toys. But the solution is the same as it always has been. That solution is anathema to Moderns, as it means looking at the person in the mirror and saying, “You are wrong, repent.”

      Fortunately, Moderns are slowly beginning to realize that with no real moral authority other than personal desire, the sole argument for any position is brute force. Some of them see the Gods of the Copybook Headings returning (with fire and slaughter.) This is leading some of them back to permanent things, to ancient truths, to Holy Mother Church. Not all. Most are on Broadway, and don’t know how to get off. Some.

      • @David Naas — I know about Dreher’s book, and I agree with your critique. Those are reasons we should not allow him to drive the conversation.

  8. It is not just Boromir who is confronted with the choices the Ring presents, though his crisis occurs in a way that is perhaps the most accessible to the reader or viewer. By the time of the action of the book (3018 of the Third Age of Middle Earth), all the Nazgul have fallen into shadow through their own rings (the nine), the rings of the dwarves have been devoured by dragons or recovered by Sauron (the seven), and the most powerful of the Istari, or Wizards, Saruman, is completely overcome by lust for the One Ring.

    In the pivotal 2nd chapter, “The Shadow of the Past” Gandalf is offered the Ring and has both the wisdom and the humility to refuse it. Elrond makes it plain that he wants no part of it and will not give it safe harbor in Imaldris (Rivendell). When the Company comes to Lorien, Frodo offers Galadriel the One Ring and she passes this test as well. Even Sam has his own moment of truth in the last chapter of the Two Towers, aptly named “The Choices of Master Samwise.”

    Perhaps most curiously, the one creature least tempted by the One Ring, Tom Bombadil, is unable to offer any practical assistance to the rest of Middle Earth; an effective warning that power, in and of itself, is generally not the key to the solution of a moral problem.

    Of all the creatures and peoples of Middle Earth, only Frodo and Sam have the “hobbit-sense” necessary to carry out the impossible mission it is their fate to perform, and it is the simple-minded, doggedly steadfast Sam who is the real hero at the climax on Mount Doom.

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