Fun fact: Tolkien’s opus Lord of the Rings was utterly rejected for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961, at least partly because the Swedish translation was abysmal.
In honor of Hobbit Day (September 22), I’m devoting this week’s posts to J.R.R. Tolkien and his worldview and philosophy. While his works have been embraced by a leftist society, the truth is both he and his close friend C.S. Lewis were conservative lions. This was largely due to the atavism shared by both.
Consider this, from Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien:
C. S. Lewis too was a conservative and called progressivism “the vulgarest of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess History what manlier ages belaboured as the strumpet Fortune .
Progressivism is “chronological snobbery”, he wrote, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood (Surprised by Joy, pp. 207—8).”
Progressivism is arrogant, for we know the past far better than we know the future: “We have no notion what stage in the journey we have reached. Are we in Act I or Act V? Are our present diseases those of childhood or senility?… A story is precisely the sort of thing that cannot be understood until you have heard the whole of it” (Christian Reflections, p. 106).
In simpler terms, progressivism ignores the past in favor of moving forward. It is as if we have no anchor in the past, but rather one in the future that is inexorably drawing us forward. It is backward thinking, oddly enough, in that it gets it exactly wrong: we know what happened from the past and can learn from it in order to change the future. Progressivism seeks to eradicate the past from our future by claiming that we can know the future but we cannot truly know the past.
Progressivism permeates the liberal movement today, from literature to politics and everything between. Political progressivism generally rejects the ways of the past as something that was created by old white men who owned slaves or ruled countries or in some other way dominated other people. Progressive religion rejects the hierarchy that has developed over decades or centuries or millenia in favor of promoting things that address the evils its proponents see before their eyes. The literary brother of progressivism, deconstructionism, rejects history and seeks reality in experience alone (which is silly, I think, since history is just collective experience.) Progressives, in short, tend to reject the idea that they are “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Instead, they try to encompass the whole of wisdom inside themselves.
Now, the giants weren’t always right. But history proves – over and over – that listening to her lessons is a valuable way to prevent missteps in the future. While repairing the evil of poverty by giving people money may address this moment’s issue, it does not prevent poverty in the future; only by teaching people self-motivation and self-respect through denying more than the bare basics can you help them overcome poverty themselves.
There is another reason Tolkien looked to history and had little but scorn for the progressive movement. Like many men his age, he’d had a difficult time during World War I; he stated himself that only one of his close friends was still alive in 1918. He saw firsthand the horrors of war exacerbated by technology and inhumanity. After such an experience, it is perhaps reasonable that he rejected the progressive’s hopes that technology and progress would eliminate all human problems in the future, looking instead to the past, a time that was perhaps difficult but that he’d survived, for his inspiration.
(It is particularly interesting to me to note that of the early 20th century speculative fiction writers, those who wrote science fiction tended to be progressives and believed that the future could be shaped into a perfect utopia, whereas those who wrote fantasy and horror looked to the past for their inspiration. Today’s science fiction is largely dominated by military science fiction, which is libertarian in tone, and fantasy is dominated by environmentalism, progressive in tone. The story can be changed.)