tolkienIn Joseph Pearce’s second critique of our work on Tolkien’s political thought, he begins by saying he hardly knows where to start. We would like to suggest, respectfully, that Mr. Pearce start by reading our book, where we develop our arguments at some length.

In his second post, as with the first, he refers to our position as free market libertinism when in our short response and at multiple places in the book and elsewhere we emphasize the importance of political justice for rich and poor alike (the rule of law) as well as a culture of virtue and meditating institutions such as the family and other civic institutions, including charitable ones.

We also take on Ayn Rand and her misguided view that greed is the indispensable core of freedom and human flourishing. In “The Lonely Mountain vs. the Market” chapter, we explore how The Hobbit’s final third shows greed and miserliness all but shutting down trade and human flourishing in the river valley, and how when these vices are displaced by generosity and trust, enterprise and trade expand.

Such arguments and explication are hardly libertinism, free market or otherwise. If we had advocated a libertine view, it is most unlikely Father James Schall would have written the foreword to The Hobbit Party, or that the book would have been endorsed by other conservative Catholic thinkers. In our first reply to Mr. Pearce, in The Hobbit Party, and in our other works we emphasize that freedom cannot endure in a libertine society.

Mr. Pearce also faults us twice for not quoting a passage from The Lord of the Rings where the narrator describes the destruction wrought on the Shire by a heedless industrialism. But we cannot, of course, quote every arresting and pertinent passage in Tolkien. Instead, in the first chapter of our book we describe the mindless environmental destruction of the Shire wrought by Saruman and his gang. In our chapter titled “The Scouring of the Shire,” we quote Treebeard’s description of Saruman as having a “mind of “metal and wheels,” as well as a passage describing the waste and destruction Frodo and his companions encounter on first returning to the Shire near the end of the novel.

We also discuss Tolkien’s distaste for the internal combustion engine and quote at length from a Tolkien letter describing the dismay he felt when he returned to his pastoral childhood home as an adult to find it overrun by a thoughtless urban sprawl. We explore what we refer to as modernity’s will to ugliness and talk about the various positive and negative examples of technological cultures in Middle-Earth. We find the whole issue, and Tolkien’s nuanced literary exploration of it, challenging and fascinating.

In any case, none of this provides evidence that Tolkien would have agreed with Belloc’s policy views, as Mr. Pearce suggests. Industrial blight is not unique to free economies, nor is concern for humane architecture and environmental stewardship unique to Belloc’s distributism.

As for Mr. Pearce identifying Belloc’s policy view with Catholic Social Teaching, we discuss this sort of claim at some length in The Hobbit Party, noting important areas of overlap while also underscoring passages from social encyclicals that insist that any neat one-to-one equation of specific policies with Catholic Social Teaching is mistaken. Suffice it to say, many thoughtful students of Catholic Social Teaching disagree with Mr. Pearce’s equation.

We are grateful to The Imaginative Conservative for hosting this spirited exchange. Mr. Pearce opened the exchange. Perhaps in the spirit of fair play and according to the conventions of debate, we should close it here, with the parties following up any additional discussion in other venues. If not, we are inclined to leave it to our book, and to supportive readers of the book here at The Imaginative Conservative, to respond further.

We have much more to say about Tolkien apart from the issue of his relationship to Belloc and distributism, and we would love to explore one or more of those issues in these pages in the run-up to the release of the final movie in The Hobbit film trilogy. Tolkien’s ideas are much larger than Belloc’s policy views, our agreement with Mr. Pearce is much greater than our disagreement, and it is time to move on.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. I’d like to thank Messrs. Richards and Witt for the courteous and gentlemanly way in which they’ve conducted themselves in this exchange. They are noble and courteous foes who I hope will become friends with whom it is fun to argue but forbidden to quarrel.

  2. It´s not an easy task to try to extract political and economical lessons from a fiction author. As just a reader of both, it´s difficult for me to imagine an antagonism between Tolkien and Belloc. Iit´s true that Tolkien has an emphasis in favor of enviroment and peace (except for self-defense, of course) and against machines. In the other side, Belloc views about WW1 and about technology (not something bad, with a fair distribution of property) were quite diferent. But I see Belloc very far from being a champion in the defence of state coercion for economic purposes.

  3. I feel that Mr Pearce has misread LOTR in the past by saying that Frodo is a Christ figure in Lord Of The Rings, he is not. Many Tolkien fans believe that (like Myself) believe Tom Bomdadil was an incarnation of Iluvatar (Divine Creator of Middle Earth). He neglects Tolkien’s most important work (for Tolkien at least) The Silmarillion by not relating it to the Lord Of The Rings. I would hesitate to use the word “ordered liberty” when referring to Tolkien’s thought. He was no Burkean, he was a Monarchist in the Catholic Sense. I think Tolkien was certainly a distributist of sorts, I would say he was more of a staunch one then Belloc himself. Tolkien had little time for the politics of modernity, he hated the modern world and preferred the medieval one. That is what i disagree with about this conversation.

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