19 March 2017

Tolkien, Liberalism and Modernity

It is not uncommon to hear it suggested that Tolkien's idealised depiction of The Shire reflects the type of society envisioned by Libertarians. They would point to the fact that despite having a mayor and a few officials The Shire is largely self-governing and self-regulated.
Tolkien mentions an unofficial system of patronage in which some of the wealthier hobbits provide for those in need so that no one is truly destitute.

There's a social contract that is not enforced so much by laws as it is by convention or commonly agreed upon custom. There are limits to wealth acquisition, not legislated but commonly understood within a framework of etiquette and a universal sense of decency.
The Shire is isolationist in its cultural proclivities and certainly in terms of trade and commerce. In addition it makes no alliances and certainly cannot be accused of meddling in the affairs of other peoples.
Agrarians, especially of the Libertarian stripe would go even further and argue The Shire represents their ideal. While an agrarian society, there's certainly no explicit mention of The Commons. Property is bought and sold and seems to be respected. The culture has a reverence for nature, simple living and respect for the land.
Of course they would understandably appeal to the 'Scouring of the Shire' narrative wherein the defeated and greatly embittered Saruman and his allies corrupt The Shire through a kind of monopolised industrialisation. One might argue the 'Commons' sensibility comes into play here through Tolkien's clear condemnation of undue and unwarranted covetousness. The land is abused and power consolidated to the harm of others. The episode is strongly coloured in terms of industrialisation and the forces that drive it.
Other Libertarians would certainly be troubled by this portion of the story as they (for the most part) champion industry, technological progress, property and the right and even moral obligation of resource extraction and efficiency in all things. Their oft penned Malthusian apologies for Dickens' Scrooge could certainly be extended to Saruman and his Shire affiliates. And yet as the 'Scouring' episode is clearly portrayed as negative, most Libertarians do not interact with it as they at the same time proclaim Tolkien to be one of their own.
I contend that all these interpretations have fundamentally misunderstood Tolkien's views and motivations.
Tolkien was not a Libertarian. He might have favoured Agrarianism but if so it was not rooted in either libertarian motives nor in some kind of 'pure and simple living'-type narrative either.
Tolkien loathed modernity. His hatred extended not only to the Industrial Revolution and modern technology but to the Enlightenment and certainly to Classical Liberalism. He had no time for the intellectual framework that focused on rights, democratic citizenship or a confidence in man's reason as a foundation to build a better world.
He also hated the Reformation which destroyed the unified Christendom he idealised and which as a consequence produced the Enlightenment and the modern age.
Tolkien's attitude rests in the values of Medieval Roman Catholic Christendom and in particular the Northern European variety of it. By the latter I refer to not only the folk customs but the traditions with regard to society.
The Shire is Middle-Earth's version of Merrie Olde England, the idealised England before the 17th century Civil War. It was an England that the Restoration tried desperately to re-create, the England before the Reformation of Henry VIII, the England before the full effects of Norman civilisation worked to transform it. Tolkien loved old Anglo-Saxon England. Not the England of the Conqueror, but the England of Edward the Confessor and Alfred the Great. He had an affection for the age of Beowulf and the England of the Danelaw, of Bede, Anselm and Augustine of Canterbury.
He believed that something horrible was unleashed with the Protestant Reformation and that our modern world which he viewed as disastrous was its fruit. It is a view that cannot be easily dismissed and yet as Christians we must also reject the Romanism that Tolkien was zealous to project.
This issue was a source of great contention between Tolkien and his friend CS Lewis. While Lewis shared many of Tolkien's views regarding Northern Europe, the Middle Ages and certainly Christendom, Lewis was nevertheless a Protestant, or to put it more specifically an Anglican. He was certainly no friend to the Puritans but nevertheless had no love of Rome. He was therefore a more 'modern' man than Tolkien and his sensibilities tended toward Protestantism and to some degree an embrace of modern ways of thinking. Compared to today's American Evangelicals, Lewis was medieval but compared to Tolkien he was a modern.
Tolkien was hostile to the Renaissance in a way that Lewis (who embraced Southern Classicism) was not. Tolkien saw in the Renaissance the toxic foundation for both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This deep but basic point colours their friendship and ultimately plays no small role in its collapse.
When we consider the values and ideas usually associated with Classical Liberalism, the importance of the individual, a belief in man's rationality and ability to solve problems using his brain and science as well as belief in social authority resting upon consensus, social contract and concepts of rights... well, let's just say you couldn't be more Anti-Liberal than JRR Tolkien.
Today's Western conservatives would have been reckoned liberal infidels in Tolkien's estimation. He was a classic Throne and Altar type conservative.
The Shire must therefore be understood as representative of a romanticised Medievalism, at its core the absolute antithesis of Libertarianism.
For Tolkien, Liberalism, its ideas and values are all part of the modernist rot born of Reformation, the movement that allowed for the individual on the basis of personal reason and conscience to challenge the authority of medieval order. Luther and his ideological offspring had questioned the Pope, the glue which bound the system together, and thus shattered the system that Tolkien believed was godly.
This system included an aristocracy, peasants and clergy. Everyone had their function and their place. To him this order represented a godly symphony, a social harmony that reflected God's order imposed on the Earth. The Shire was only part of Tolkien's vision... the peasant part. They were the happy yokels of the West Country who were near and dear to Tolkien's heart. But Tolkien didn't only resonate with Bilbo Baggins of The Shire. He was just as much represented in the Odinic-Monkish-Doctor-like Gandalf, the saintly elves and noble figures such as Beren and Aragorn. These characters represented ideals and in many ways reflected Tolkien's self image and aspirations.
Though the depictions of the Shire don't dwell on it, the society Tolkien loved had a commons and a manor. The society of medieval Scandinavia allowed for a greater deal of individualism but not as we think of it. Read the old Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer if you would understand a society of lords and retainers, oaths and obligations. It's not the individualism of the modern man. The Scandinavian-Saxon freeholder was not an individual or 'citizen' as it is understood in the liberal tradition.
Tolkien hated industrialisation not because he was a Libertarian or some kind of Confederate-like Agrarian. He disliked it because it was equated with modernism. Its cold and calculated view of the world that commoditised life and people was to him an evil thing.
If you have any doubts one need only to look to the 1930s when Tolkien and Lewis fell into a sharp dispute. One of their friends had gone to Spain and fought on the fascist side with Franco. Lewis was appalled at this. No Communist or Anarchist, Lewis nevertheless found Fascism repugnant and in particular its heavily Roman Catholic manifestation as found in Franco's Spain.
Tolkien on the other hand applauded their friend and openly expressed his support for Franco. Tolkien did not like Hitler. The Fascism of the Third Reich contained other elements and he certainly did not support its genocidal pagan-esque flavour. He was also embittered by their heavy appropriation of Northern myth and legend in their iconography. He felt (rightly) that this would poison the Germanic lore that he loved.
Franco represented exactly the kind of Throne and Altar society that he appreciated. Protestantism was suppressed, its marriages were unrecognised. Lewis did not approve but was perhaps even more offended that his friend did.
It must be said at this point that Tolkien was certainly not a fascist. His affection for Franco was rooted in anti-modernity and Throne and Altar Catholicism. It must also be admitted that Tolkien at one point calls himself something of an anarchist, though he qualifies the term to mean something other than how it has come to be understood. He loathed the state but what is meant by this is not the notion of government or more properly rule, but modern bureaucratic institutions. He believed in monarchical medieval society that allowed the individual man to have his place in that order.
It's a position that frankly no longer exists in the Western socio-political context. Apart from a few recondite monarchists no modern political thinker can claim Tolkien as his own. His views are completely incompatible with any American Constitutional concern or framework.
It's no wonder this is little understood today. There's so much confusion over these issues right now. Within the Christian Right you have narratives regarding the founding of America and yet a great deal of confusion as to what the Founders stood for and what is the source of the ideas within their founding documents.
The further outworkings of American Leftist-Liberalism, the culture wars, Dominionism, the new alliance with Rome and even Islamic terrorism have now driven many in the Christian Right to embrace Throne and Altar and even quasi-Fascist thinking and yet their ideas are expressed using the language, iconography and narratives of Classical Liberalism. It's very confusing and the lies and distortions abound.
The confusion has spread to interpreting Church History, Western history, the Middle Ages and even figures like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings which is at its zenith in popularity is read through modern eyes and many see what they wish rather than what Tolkien meant to project.
I've had my own struggles and I've related them in some of my writings. Once a zealous Magisterial Protestant I had to reckon with my own affinity for Roman Catholic societies like Italy and Ireland versus my general dislike for stifling Protestant societies like England and Germany. The parts of Germany I liked were Roman Catholic and for the most part I far preferred Austria over anything I encountered in Germany. Strange as it may sound to some, for me this created a real dilemma.
It didn't make sense to me and forced me, now decades ago, to wrestle with these issues. Why are these societies the way they are? Why was it that Roman Catholic societies were (to me) more pleasant, more family oriented, traditional, old-fashioned etc...?
It seems obvious now but at the time it proved an enigma.
Coming from the United States it didn't make sense because in our culture it was the serious Protestants who were the conservatives and traditionalists. I always had associated Catholics with Progressive politics, the labour movement and to some degree with industrial society. I was profoundly wrong in some ways and yet as I learned the questions are very complicated. Ultimately I found myself less appreciative of Magisterial Protestantism and what it produced.
I've never (even for a moment) considered looking to Rome though I certainly know some who have, and some who have defected. And in some respects it's not hard to see why. It forced me to dig deeper and at last I came up with some answers.
While I certainly did and still do prefer Roman Catholic societies as opposed to Protestant, I also must admit these would be the worst places to live when the model is allowed to function in an absolute fashion, with full authority and lack of restraint. That's what you got with Franco and Francoist Spain. Though a close Cold War ally to the United States it was not a place I would have wanted to live. I would have ended up spending my life in a jail cell, a coffin or on the run.
Protestant societies are better places to live a pilgrim-dissident life... maybe. Liberalism as un-Christian as it is affords a degree of individual independence and yet you cannot take it for granted. Even in a Protestant society, even within the framework of Liberalism the role of the state can be just as a strong and is often more comprehensive in its pervasiveness and reach. It's certainly more efficient and while it may be nice to have the trains run on time, it can also be suffocating. A little inefficiency and decay is not always a bad thing. Modern industrial society can at times be overpowering and quite immoral in its expectations. And so just as in a Roman Catholic context, we are as Biblically minded Christians called to be dissidents.
I would argue we certainly need to reject Modernism and the varieties of Christian theology it produced.
And while I also must reject Roman Catholicism and the medieval model loved by people like Tolkien, I prefer its fruits.
In fact maybe a case could be made that Liberalism functioning in a Roman Catholic context produces a very happy blend. It may not please fussy bureaucrats and accountants, but I've never given a fig for what those sorts thought about anything anyway. I suppose that's why in the end I continually find myself longing for the beautiful ordered chaos of Italy. Is it inefficient and corrupt? Certainly. But there are different forms of corruption and the efficient bureaucracies of 'Protestant' lands can be ugly and no less immoral.
Proto-Protestants were protestors before the Reformation but as their critics are often keen to point out, they break with the Magisterial Reformation at several key, maybe even existential points. They were decidedly pre-modern, though some did display a degree of individualist rationalism. Others subordinated it properly to Scripture. They are something of a mixed bag. They were largely hostile to the impulses of Scholasticism and the Renaissance though they certainly were not anti-intellectual as some of the Anabaptist groups are today. That sort of thinking was unknown to them. Some fell in with forms of Communalism and even (pardon the anachronism) forms of Anarcho-Socialism.
The pilgrim-dissident mindset put them outside the social order. They were part of an underground and thus in that sense expressed a rebellious individualism and yet not for the same reasons that same phenomenon would appear with the advent of Enlightenment-Liberal thought.
As anti-Sacralists, the Waldensians, figures like Petr Chelcicky, some of the Lollards and a few of the Hussites rejected the Medieval model wholesale.
They're not modern men but they're not the Throne and Altar sorts Tolkien would like either. They're something different, something outside all of these social models.
This is because Biblical Christianity is indeed something else. It's not even a tertium quid. It's not offering another model or a triangulated alternative, but a break. Its social sensibilities are those of the stranger and the pilgrim. It is imperative that we as Bible-minded and focused believers keep this reality clear in our minds. Only then can we avoid being swept away by the false promises and hopes found in any of these models. We must understand what are their strengths, weaknesses and dangers. Even their strengths must be understood as temporary, pragmatic realities.  Though we believe in objective truth these temporary man-contrived models and solutions are not intrinsically virtuous, absolute or transcendent. That will upset people as such an assertion delegitimises their social and theological foundations but I contend they have misunderstood the New Testament and what it teaches about the Kingdom and our life in This (present evil) Age.

Tolkien's writings and thought are indisputably rich and profound. He influenced me as a boy and I still enjoy reflecting on his world. I would heartily recommend his writings and yet I cannot endorse his thought. At best he represents a source of deep contemplation and even wonder but his theology and metaphysics which pervade his work are like a symphony that's a bit out of key. The more you listen, the more you appreciate its melodies, but the errors begin to stand out.