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Related to this question. The Music that Eru and the Ainur made works as fate for the first Ages covering history until the Dominion of Man.

[I]t is said that after the departure of the Valar there was silence, and for an age Ilúvatar sat alone in thought. Then he spoke and said: 'Behold I love the Earth, which shall be a mansion for the Quendi and the Atani! But the Quendi shall be the fairest of all earthly creatures, and they shall have and shall conceive and bring forth more beauty than all my Children; and they shall have the greater bliss in this world. But to the Atani I will give a new gift.' Therefore he willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein; but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else; and of their operation everything should be, in form and deed, completed, and the world fulfilled unto the last and smallest.

The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 1: "Of the Beginning of Days"

I tend to think that all Children of Eru have similar degree of free will and is just how much they change History that differs, but I have seen long discussions on this issue.

Since I'm not very familiar with most posthumous works and with the Letters I'd like to know if there are answers to these questions:

Have Men a greater degree of free will than Elves? To what extent can Men change/shape their lives beyond the Music?

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    Just to let you know 90 days later. This is still in my list of things to answer, I've lost some of my research and have been busy so have struggled to actually formulate and answer. It is in the works though! – Edlothiad Sep 9 '17 at 16:46
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Update

I've moved my old answer to the bottom, as it is less relevant than the update.

As per the comments, an elaboration the idea behind this and how it relates to your question:

As I understand it, Iluvatar granted the gift of death to Men, thus making them different from (immortal) Elves. It's important to consider that mortality is the gift (to Men), not immortality (to Elves). If you ask any (out of universe) human, they would immediately assume that immortality is the gift here, as everyone wants to not die. This is not the case for Tolkien; and I believe this is intentional, so as to stress the importance of life.

Life is considerably more important if it can be taken away by death. It gives meaning to not being dead (yet). A bit more pedantically, something that cannot die cannot really be described to be alive ni the first place, by semantical definition of what "life" is.

Therefore, limiting the lifespan of Men is an intentional goal. It is the method through which Men obtain the virtue to shape their (limited) life.

The text you quoted somewhat refers to this virtue being born from risk:

but they should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, ...

The emphasized part, especially "chances", seems to imply the existence of the possibility that everything can be taken away. "the chances of life" can be argued to be synonymous with "the possibilities of dying".

But why is having a limited lifespan necessary to want to shape your life?

Because you can't put things off. Elves could, if they wanted, take a 2000-year-sabbatical before they do whatever it is they want to do (= shaping their life). But Men are not afforded that luxury. They have limited time, and they must therefore make the most of it.

I'll refer to an out of universe analogy, American Idol (didn't see that coming, did you?)

During the initial selection phase, contestants are limited to one minute. They are given a limited time to show their worth. Why is that?

So that they forgo the unnecessary and get to the point about showcasing their skills. Their limited time ensures that they won't waste everyone's time with a boring setup, and instead skip to the good parts.

I believe the same behavioral manipulation is at play for Men. Having a short lifespan dramatically increases the need to make sure that you do the important things before anything else. Therefore, logically speaking, Men must have a larger desire to quickly (relative to an Elf's lifespan) achieve greatness.


To directly answer your question

I don't think this is a case of free will, as your question assumes. I think this is a matter of stressing the importance of life, the consequence of which is an increased desire to live life to the fullest.

To transcribe my interpretation over the quote you referenced:

Therefore he willed

Therefore he manipulated the system

that the hearts of Men should [seek beyond the world] and should [find no rest] therein

that Men will carry around a [burning] and [incessant] desire
(from the sentence structure, this is implied to be a negative effect)

but they should have a virtue to shape their life,

but that they also carry a passion to truly live their life to the fullest
(due to the but, this is implied to be positive, compared to the earlier negatives)

amid the powers and chances of the world,

in a world where their life could so easily be swept away
(= death)

beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else

which is different from the Music of the Ainur, fate, which inherently makes a person's actions meaningless since everything is predestined already.
("Fate" implies that there is no reason for Elves to want to shape the world, as they consider everything to be set in stone already)


My initial answer

You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

It's a very often recurring pattern where old men are less eager to change their ways than young men. When considering Elves and Men, Elves are the old men, and Men are naive younglings.

Elves are immortal. Therefore, they are considerably wiser than Men, who live short lives and are considerably more naive than Elves. It's a matter of having lived less long, and therefore having learned less life lessons.

The older you are, the less inclined you are to try something new. If you've seen it all before, you've lost your childlike wonder and will act based on past experience, without a need to experiment with new things (as nothing is new to you anymore).

As Elves are considerably older than Men, they should then be less willing to learn new things that contradict their extended life experience.

Elves do not have "less free will", they simply have more life experience and therefore are less likely to run into something they haven't seen a thousand times over.


Note You see a similar thing between Arwen and Elrond. Even though they are both Elves, Arwen is younger than Elrond, and she is more hopeful, optimistic and naive.
Elrond is considerably more insistent that things will be the same as they were before. His opinions are clear: Aragorn is no better than Isildur, Men will remain fallible as always, there is no point to love a mortal man for a limited period of time when you are immortal. Elrond considers the long term, whereas Arwen considers the short term (as do Men, since their lives are limited to a short term compared to that of an Elf)

I think this trait in character isn't inherent to Elves or Men, but rather the age (and expected lifespan) of the person, regardless of race (though race can obviously make a difference as to expected lifespan).

  • " Arwen is younger than Elrond, and she is more hopeful, optimistic and naive." At the time of LotR, Arwen is "only" 2800 years old. How naive can she be? – Yorik Jul 26 '17 at 16:59
  • @Yorik: That's still peanuts to Elrond's 6000 years, give or take. – Flater Jul 26 '17 at 18:27
  • Elrond's age is not relevant. Naive? – Yorik Jul 26 '17 at 18:46
  • @Yorik: I said she is more naive, not that she is above average in naiveté. It should be clear from my answer that I was comparing Elrond and Arwen. – Flater Jul 26 '17 at 20:39
  • @Flater While I appreciate your answer regarding how age would affect Elves I'm looking for an explanation on how the fate of The Music of the Ainur makes free will differ (or not) between Elves and Men. – Ram Jul 26 '17 at 23:05
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Near the end of the second age, Eru removed Valinor from the earth leaving just Middle-earth. By the fourth age, the Quendi had departed Middle-earth leaving the Atani alone to shape their lives "amid the powers and chances of the world". So mankind was the last race with the opportunity to fully exercise free will on the earth.

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Remember that when the rings were distributed, it is implied that nine rings were given to Men because they would be easier to control (http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Rings_of_Power).

This seems to indicate that the will of Men, at least over that of the ring(s), is not as strong as that of Elves.

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    Not really. You can't compare the number of rings given and try to figure out motives. The dwarves were given almost as many and could not be controlled. The elven rings were also different in that they were made by Celebrimbor alone, the only rings that Sauron was not (directly) involved in making. – suchiuomizu Jul 26 '17 at 0:29

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