Letter 52: On Politics

Discussion of the multitude of different ideas expressed by Tolkien in his published letters
Aravar
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Post by Aravar »

Voronwë_the_Faithful wrote:...he is talking about the danger of the depersonalization of government, and the resulting misuse of power. Or rather, he is talking all political policies, from fascism to communism, and everything in
Exactly. It isn't limited to 'nationalism'. Which was the claim that you made which I responded to.

I said:
Aravar wrote:I am not suggesting that State is being used purely in the sense of Welfare State, but rather in the context of the (ab)use of political power.
Where we differ is I think for Tolkien the carrying over of the expansion of the State into peacetime (the wartime expansion was enormous) would have fallen into your 'everything in between'.

I think that is borne out by what Tolkien says (in the preface) would have happened in LOTR had it been a true allegory of the War
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Post by solicitr »

I think I have to agree with Aravar here. Tolkien was indeed a monarchist, and (as stated in the cites above) was not enamored of democracy: *not* because the 'people' aren't assiduous enough in restraining corrupt rulers, but rather because, becoming Rulers themselves, they become corrupted. Democracy means everybody gets to boss other people around, aka '51% of us sez you gotta do this.' Tolkien's view was that democracy inevitably creates Ted Sandyman and his kind, even without a Sharkey.



Remember that to Tolkien Pride was the ultimate sin and Humility the cardinal virtue, and when he points out that democracy leads to universal pride, not humility, these were words of *severe* condemnation. He would certainly have agreed with the sentiment of Lewis' comment, if not its brutality, that 'touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire, but it's damn good for you!'

He was also enough of a medievalist to know that the old kings, however megalomaniac they may have wanted to be, never exacted remotely the sort of control over people's everyday lives that modern States do, even if the Bosses are chosen by universal suffrage. (This anarchistic tendency of his perhaps goes back to a somewaht romantic view of the Saxon 'free men.' One reputed complaint about the (written) Laws of Alfred the Great was 'if you have more laws than a man can remember, you have too many laws!')
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Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

soli, I agree with you (see my comments in the discussion regarding Letter 186). The only argument that I had with Aravar is whether Tolkien was somehow referring to the "welfare state" when he referenced "the State" in this letter. There simply is no evidence to support that suggestion.
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Post by vison »

Exellent post, solictr.

Tolkien's politics, such as they were, were rooted in a misty-eyed view of a past that never existed: and so he tried to create that past.

There is a danger of taking his political views far too seriously, or rather of granting them too much importance. He created what I call a masterpiece of English literature, but he was naive and cynical at once. Then we have to consider his devout Catholicism. The Church is not a democratic institution.

For him and men like him, the old ways and ideals were comforting. Except when they failed, as in WW I. But he doesn't consider "the old ways" as being responsible for the horrors of 20th century Europe, does he?
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Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

No, I don't think he considered the "old ways" as being responsible for the horrors of the 20th century. I think he mostly blamed the "abominable chemists and engineers." To quote again;
The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power int Xerxes' hands, and all ant-communities, that decent fold don't seem to have a chance.
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Post by N.E. Brigand »

solicitr wrote:He would certainly have agreed with the sentiment of Lewis' comment, if not its brutality, that 'touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire, but it's damn good for you!'
Apparently Tolkien himself made that very comment -- Marjorie Burns cites him as using it in his 1965 BBC interview with Denys Gueroult. See her article "King and Hobbit: The Exalted and Lowly in Tolkien's Created Worlds" in The Lord of the Rings 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder. Was he quoting Lewis, then?
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Post by vison »

Voronwë_the_Faithful wrote:No, I don't think he considered the "old ways" as being responsible for the horrors of the 20th century. I think he mostly blamed the "abominable chemists and engineers." To quote again;
The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power int Xerxes' hands, and all ant-communities, that decent fold don't seem to have a chance.
It is remarks such as this that make me glad I stay mostly away from any author's personal ideas. The magnificence of the LOTR cannot be erased by such stuff, thank god.

I am a democrat. Not a Democrat, but a democrat.

If I was to have a "literary" political hero, it would Plantagenet Palliser Duke of Omnium, one of Trollope's great men. A Whig. A Liberal, as they used to be. Rather than sneering at the lower orders, Omnium strove to "raise them". There is an awful classist turn to that idea, as well. But Omnium was never naive and he wasn't cynical, either.

Ah, well. Best if I mosey along. I don't want blood spilled. :D
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Post by solicitr »

Vison, I'm not entirely sure what about the Xerxes comment you find undemocratic (not that T was a democrat, but I don't see it in that quote).
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Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

Yes, that comment simply demonstrates how anti-technology he was, how much he felt that modern-day problems were due to the inexorable advance of "progress".
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Post by solicitr »

I am a democrat. Not a Democrat, but a democrat.
And I am a libertarian. Not a Libertarian, but a libertarian.

Accordingly I believe that democracy is not an end in itself, but merely a means to the proper end, liberty. (Or at least that form of government commonly thought to be least injurious to it). However democracy can be just as tyrannous as any dictator; which is why the Founders wisely instituted a blatantly undemocratic Bill of Rights to be administered by an unelected judiciary.
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Post by vison »

solicitr wrote:
I am a democrat. Not a Democrat, but a democrat.
And I am a libertarian. Not a Libertarian, but a libertarian.

Accordingly I believe that democracy is not an end in itself, but merely a means to the proper end, liberty. (Or at least that form of government commonly thought to be least injurious to it). However democracy can be just as tyrannous as any dictator; which is why the Founders wisely instituted a blatantly undemocratic Bill of Rights to be administered by an unelected judiciary.
Well, I'm more like you than not, when it's described that way. Odd, that. :D

The comment I was referring to was Tolkien's ". . .'touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire, but it's damn good for you!'" I wasn't careful enough with my quotes! Sorry.
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Post by Voronwë the Faithful »

Ah, that makes more sense. :P Not one of favorite quotes of the old professor either.
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Post by solicitr »

Well, Tolkien was les justifying the squire (I think) than preaching a Pauline humility.
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Post by Aravar »

Voronwë_the_Faithful wrote:soli, I agree with you (see my comments in the discussion regarding Letter 186). The only argument that I had with Aravar is whether Tolkien was somehow referring to the "welfare state" when he referenced "the State" in this letter. There simply is no evidence to support that suggestion.
Look up the only reference to Beveridge in Letters. Tolkien at least knew who he was.
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Post by vison »

solicitr wrote:Well, Tolkien was les justifying the squire (I think) than preaching a Pauline humility.
Just for the fun of seeing a big fire, maybe we should have a thread on St. Paul?
:twisted:

No . . .upon sober second thought, better not. :D
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Post by Aravar »

A discussion I am following on another board reminded me of this quote from the British historian AJP Taylor
AJP Taylor wrote:Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 per cent. of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.
Tolkien would have been well aware of the radical change from this brought about by the First World War.
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Post by Old_Tom_Bombadil »

I just read through this thread for the first time. As often happens as I go through life, a song came to my mind:

Those were the days

Boy the way Glen Miller played,
songs that made the hit parade,
guys like us we had it made,
those were the days,
and you know where you were then,
girls were girls and men were men,
mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again,
didn't need no welfare state
everybody pulled his weight,
gee our old Lasalle ran great,
those were the days!


I am not certain I have any great incite into the politics of men, but I can say that men being what they are, i.e., prone to error and generally doing what is best for themselves as individuals, I don't think there is any perfect political system because men are far from perfect. I will say that I am extremely dubious in regards to the existence of the 'enlightened ruler'.

Sorry to cut this short but I've got to run to a doctor's appointment!
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Post by Old_Tom_Bombadil »

I've had the opportunity to read Letter 52. The first thing that struck me was the tone of the letter. It very much strikes me that Tolkien was angry. Angry that governments conduct these awful wars, and now his 18-year old son has been thrust into it, presumably against his will.

As others have noted, Tolkien's anti-mechanism sentiment comes through strongly:
There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as 'patriotism', may remain a habit! But it won't do any good, if it is not universal.
One supposes that Tolkien wishes to go back to the days of horse and buggy and reading at night by candlelight. Perhaps he would have been happy if we lived like the Amish. What do you suppose that Tolkien found so objectionable to technology? (Besides the marring of the natural environment, of course.) Did he feel that it dehumanized us?

That makes me think of a silly song that Alan Sherman wrote to the tune of 'Imagination' called Automation. In part it goes:

I thought Automation was keen
til you were replaced by a 10-ton machine.
It was that computer that tore us apart, dear,
Automation broke my heart.

There's an RCA 503
standing next to me dear where you used to be.
Doesn't have your smile, doesn't have your shape,
just a bunch of punch cards and light bulbs and tape, dear.

You're a girl who's soft, warm, and sweet
But you're only human and that's obsolete.
I'm not very fond of that 503, dear,
Automation is not for me.


Sure, there are a lot of drawbacks to mechanization, but there are a lot of positives, too. For instance, making a lot of goods available to people who never would have been able to afford them in 'the good ol' days'.

I find the reference to "whiskered men with bombs" most curious. In our own time we had one such person who, as it so happens, was also very much against technology: Ted Kaczynski, aka 'The Unabomber'.
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Post by Passdagas the Brown »

solicitr wrote:I think I have to agree with Aravar here. Tolkien was indeed a monarchist, and (as stated in the cites above) was not enamored of democracy: *not* because the 'people' aren't assiduous enough in restraining corrupt rulers, but rather because, becoming Rulers themselves, they become corrupted. Democracy means everybody gets to boss other people around, aka '51% of us sez you gotta do this.' Tolkien's view was that democracy inevitably creates Ted Sandyman and his kind, even without a Sharkey.



Remember that to Tolkien Pride was the ultimate sin and Humility the cardinal virtue, and when he points out that democracy leads to universal pride, not humility, these were words of *severe* condemnation. He would certainly have agreed with the sentiment of Lewis' comment, if not its brutality, that 'touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire, but it's damn good for you!'

He was also enough of a medievalist to know that the old kings, however megalomaniac they may have wanted to be, never exacted remotely the sort of control over people's everyday lives that modern States do, even if the Bosses are chosen by universal suffrage. (This anarchistic tendency of his perhaps goes back to a somewaht romantic view of the Saxon 'free men.' One reputed complaint about the (written) Laws of Alfred the Great was 'if you have more laws than a man can remember, you have too many laws!')
In that case, it's a shame that Tolkien seemed generally ignorant of those democratic institutions designed to prevent a "tyranny of the majority" via significant protections and rights for minorities, including checks on majoritarianism built into those democratic systems. Indeed, today one of the main criteria for judging a democracy is on how well the minority, whether an ethnic or mere political minority, is treated!

I think had Tolkien been better-versed in modern political systems, he would have likely been more favorably inclined towards certain types of democracies. He may still have remained something of a supporter of benevolent monarchies, but I imagine he may have been less harsh on the democratic polity.
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Re: Letter 52: On Politics

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Non?
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