Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tolkien on Nature: Cultivation vs Coercion

"The modern world meant for [Tolkien] essentially the machine. . . He used ["machine"] very compendiously to mean. . . almost any alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings. The machine means, for him. . . the wrong solution: the attempt to actualize our desires, like our desire to fly. It meant coercion, domination, for him the great enemy. Coercion of other minds and other wills. This is tyranny. But he also saw the characteristic activity of the modern world is the coercion, the tyrannous reformation of the earth, our place." – Christopher Tolkien

These thoughts from Christopher Tolkien on his father's work touch on one of the more fascinating yet tantalizing inchoate strains within J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, that of a philosophy of nature. He draws primarily from a letter Tolkien wrote in the early fifties clarifying the underlying themes of The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and readers are encouraged to seek this enlightening letter of some 10,000 words in the Houghton Mifflin volume, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Let us start by considering Tolkien's broad and unconventional definition of "machine" as "almost an alternative solution to the development of the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings." We must assume he means not simple machines such as levers and wheels but rather complex machines. Simple machines simply balances the loads and direct the energy applied by man. The lever puts his energy where it is most effective, the wheel balances a load so it may be pulled and so forth for simple machines. How do simple tools, "develop the innate and inherent powers and talents of human beings?"

A hammer and chisel develops a man's coordination between his hands and his eyes and develops his visual sense of proportion and the rightness of what he cuts, such as the stone of a sculpture. The same is true for a brush which requires him uniformly to cover a material such as a canvass. Knives and scythes require him to know where and how much and how to cut, such as the stem of a flower. A whip requires him to know where and how and how hard to swing, such as in spurring a horse. Shaping the sheets with the lines on a sailboat requires careful attention to the geometry of the sail and the direction and strength of the wind. Even almost passive simple tools like lenses help man focus his attention on acute details.

All of such simple tools have in common two things. First, they develop a specific, unique individual faculty. Second, the demand a specific, unique, and firsthand knowledge of the materials with which you are working, such as the density of a piece of wood or the strength of a piece of stone.

In contrast machines alienate the user from the material. They do not require the use of cultivating any talents for interacting with nature, only for interacting with the machine. (This may not be quite so true for the inventor of the machine but it certainly is to the disinterested user.) The motor on a boat allows you to sail with disregard for currents and winds. Jackhammers and spinning saws cut without asking him to know how strong it is what he hopes to break. A glider falling gains speed and thus lift by its wings where as a a powered plane forces air across the wings. An unpowered mower requires you to know what you are cutting and thus how fast to go, how hard to push, and how high to set the blades. A powered mower simply cuts down everything in its path.

Machines have in common distancing the user from knowing by his senses what is the nature of the material he disturbs and purports to use and this prevents him from knowing the processes by which to use them. He learns only to use the machine. Complex machines, like the process of skill specialization, of course do liberate man from certain tasks and free him to perform others. They also allow him more liberty to manipulate nature. According to Tolkien's definition, though, despite this gain we see man does lose something.

Notice it is here not only concerned with nature itself but the effect of machines on man. In the Silmarillion, Tolkien, discussing the Ents, the shepherds of the trees, writes that while the Ents will guard the trees, "there will be need of wood." Tolkien is, I think more than is obvious in the Silmarillion which does not seem to revolve around man, concerned also with man and that he harms himself in coercing nature instead of cultivating himself. As his son Christopher points out in the above documentary the One Ring is the machine mythologized. The Ring allows the individual to bypass the means and simply and immediately actualize his will. It is this distance from, or blindness of, the means which, in part, dooms any attempt to use the ring, whether for good or ill.

Yet Tolkien does express disapproval of wantonly changing, "bulldozing" he says, the real world. Yet the theory we just discussed is mostly centered on man. By what principle ought man change his world?

Tolkien contrasts mechanical "re-creation" with artistic "sub-creation." Whereas mechanical re-creation seeks to make without regard for means, that is to say with no limiting principle, artistic sub-creation is content to create a secondary world which does not infringe on the primary world. The world of a symphony or painting reflects some truth of the primary world but does not replace it, moreover it derives its significance from it. Recall that the great jewels, the Silmarils, are not merely works of art but  composed of the light of the Two Trees of Valinor. They are in a sense containers or distillations of the best of nature while they are the unique fruits of their artistic creator. In contrast, philosopher Roger Scruton has observed, "The ugliest of modern art and architecture does not show reality but takes revenge on it." We may conclude then that beauty is the principle by which man's actions as creator and crafter are governed. His highest pursuit is not after the useful, which becomes a tyranny over nature and himself, but "useless" beauty. Man cultivates the beautiful in himself by himself cultivating the beauty of nature.

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1 comment:

  1. Well-put. I've always thought Tolkien's thinking on technology and nature incredibly perceptive. In practice he may have been slightly too extreme, but his theory is entirely sound. Another thinker I've been wrestling with, Paul Claudel, has some very interesting thoughts on nature and the human relations therewith. Like Tolkien, C is a deeply religious Catholic, and his thinking is mediated through the liturgy, Bible, and scholastic philosophy.