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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Philosophy of History; Part 4: Optimism or Pessimism?



"The Garden at Kelmscott Manor" by Pre-Raphaelite painter Maria Spartali Stillman. (I also recommend David B. Elliot's poignant biography of the artist:  A Pre-Raphaelite Marriage: The Lives of Maria Spartali Stillman & William James Stillman).


This post is a part of the online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien.

A pessimist like Tolkien can be a happy man. Both Tolkien and Lewis, who were traditionalists, conservatives, and pessimists rather than progressives, had an optimistic attitude toward ordinary life. Both lived good lives even in a purely material sense: they were able to enjoy the simple, best things in life, such as walking and weather and conversation with friends. We find the opposite connection on the part of the ideological Left, between their desperately optimistic philosophy of history and their inability to admit or enjoy ordinary, earthly Hobbit-like bourgeois pleasures. Indeed, no word is more despicable in the Marxist vocabulary than “bourgeois”. 

Tolkien´s conservatism was directed towards the pre-modern. We shall later look at how he paradoxically enough also supported a certain kind of anarchism, when it comes to modernity. So he should certainly not be confused with any kind of modern conservatism. If I should compare his strange kind of anarcho-conservatism with another Englishman, it would be Tom Hodgkinson. Back in 1991, bored to tears by his job, 23 year old journalist Tom Hodgkinson lay on his bed and dreamed of starting a magazine called The Idler. He’d found the title in a collection of essays by Dr Johnson, himself a constitutionally indolent man. How to live, that was the question. How to be free in a world of jobs and debt? And curse this alarm clock. Tom was fortunately sacked from his job and started to sign on. He wandered across the road to where his old friend, designer and writer Gavin Pretor-Pinney lived. Gavin was the kind of person who could help Tom to realise this dream. And he did. In August 1993, the pair produced issue one of the Idler. It had the sub-title “literature for loafers”. Dr Johnson was the cover star and there was an interview with magic mushroom guru Terence McKenna. Contributors included a young journalist called Louis Theroux. The magazine has since enjoyed a number of incarnations. In the nineties it was published by the Guardiannewspaper, then by Ebury publishing. Tom published the Idler as an annual collection of essays until 2014, then relaunched the mag in 2016.

The Idler Academy, founded at a festival in 2010, is the Idler’s educational offshoot. It is a school which offers online and real-world courses in the classical liberal arts and practical skills. From 2011 to 2015 Tom ran a small bookshop and café in Notting Hill. The Idler Academy teaches philosophy, astronomy, calligraphy, music, business skills, English grammar, ukulele, public speaking, singing, drawing, self-defence and other subjects. Here you can educate yourself in the ideas of Plato or learn the ukulele, in convivial surroundings with like-minded and interesting people.

Hodgkinson´s book How to Be Idle: A Loafer's Manifest is an antidote to the work-obsessed culture which puts so many obstacles between ourselves and our dreams. Hodgkinson presents us with a laid-back argument for a new contract between routine and chaos, an argument for experiencing life to the full and living in the moment. Ranging across a host of issues that may affect the modern idler – sleep, the world of work, pleasure and hedonism, relationships, bohemian living, revolution – he draws on the writings of such well-known apologists for idleness as Dr Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson and Nietzsche.

Another book by Hodgkinson is called The Freedom Manifesto: How to Free Yourself from Anxiety, Fear, Mortgages, Money, Guilt, Debt, Government, Boredom, Supermarkets, Bills, Melancholy, Pain, Depression, Work, and Waste. Tom Here Hodgkinson shares his delightfully irreverent musings on what true independence means and what it takes to be free. The Freedom Manifesto draws on French existentialists, British punks, beat poets, hippies and yippies, medieval thinkers, and anarchists to provide a new, simple, joyful blueprint for modern living. From growing your own vegetables to canceling your credit cards to reading Jean-Paul Sartre, here are excellent suggestions for nourishing mind, body, and spirit--witty, provocative, sometimes outrageous, yet eminently sage advice for breaking with convention and living an uncluttered, unfettered, and therefore happier, life.

In Business for Bohemians: Live Well, Make Money Hodgkinson combines practical advice with laugh-out-loud anecdote to create a refreshingly candid guidebook for all of us who aspire to a greater degree of freedom in our working lives. Whether you dream of launching your own startup or profiting from your creativity in your spare time, Business for Bohemians will equip you with the tools to turn your talents into a profitable and enjoyable business. Accounting need no longer be a dark art. You will become au fait with business plans and a friend of the spreadsheet. You will discover that laziness can be a virtue. Above all, you will realise that freedom from the nine-to-five life is achievable - and, with Hodgkinson's comforting, pragmatic and extremely funny advice at hand, you might even enjoy yourself along the way. This book is a help for people who want to make a living out of their true calling in life, and thereby turn their work into play and art.

In Brave Old World: A Month-by-Month Guide to Husbandry, or the Fine Art of Looking After Yourself Hodgkinson takes us on a modern tour of the ancient arts of everyday living: philosophy, husbandry and merriment. Drawing on the wisdom of an eclectic range of thinkers and writers, and, as ever, on Tom's own honestly recounted and frequently imperfect attempts to travel the road to self-sufficiency, Brave Old World charts the progress of a year in pursuit of the pleasures of the past. From January to December, let Tom be your guide to a better, older way of life. So, Tom Hodginson represents the same strange mix of anarchism and conservatism (Anarcho-conservatism), which also Karen Blixen and Tolkien represented; the defend of the pre-modern and ancient as a way to true freedom in the now.

Tolkien was not an optimist by temperament but by conviction. Had he philosophized by feeling rather than faith, he would never have been able to make both halves of this statement, in 1944:

I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery…If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour…But…evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in (Letters, no. 64, p. 76).

Tolkien knows this by faith in the God who joins goodness and power in one being. But he also knows it by philosophical reason, for evil is a parasite on good; being as such is good. Therefore the more evil a thing is, the more it approaches nonbeing. Evil is self-destructive.

Kreeft says:

Whether or not ‘optimism’ is the right word for Tolkien´s temperament, it is the wrong word for his philosophy. The right one is ‘hope’. The chances of history coming out well seem slim. But it happens. And it is precisely because the chances of salvation seem so slim that the victory is very precious – as Tolkien explains in ‘On Fairy-Stories’.

The Eucatastrophe, or Happy Ending, is not only consolation but truth – if the gospel, the “good news”, is not a lie. From the premise that Christianity is true it follows that the far-off glimpse of joy produced by fantasy is a glimpse of truths; that a great eucatastrophic tale like The Lord of the Rings is a gift of divine grace, an opening of the curtain that veils Heaven to earthly eyes, a tiny telepathic contact with the mind of God.

There are at least two great eucatastrophes in The Lord of the Rings. The most dramatic one is at the Crack of Doom. Sam and Frodo are at the end of their road, utterly hopeless and prepared to die. One of Frodo´s fingers has already fallen into the Crack of Doom, surrounded by the Ring and Gollum´s teeth; and the rest of Frodo and Sam area bout to follow when Mount Orodruin erupts. But Frodo has completed his Quest: this is his joy. As for Sam, Frodo´s return from what could be called spiritual death is his joy. Sam sees Frodo “pale and worn, and yet himself again…’Master!’ cried Sam, and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world, for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free” (LOTR, p. 926).

It is not his physical survival afterward that is the eucatastrophe. Had he died, as most epic heroes do (e.g., Arthur and Beowulf), the eucatastrophe would have been unmarred – just as Job would have been happy in the end even if he had not recovered his health, possessions, and family, so long as he saw God. The essential triumph is spiritual.

The joy of both Frodo and Sam is pure and poingnant because of their unselfish love: Sam for Frodo, Frodo for the Shire and all of Middle-earth, which he has saved. They are not “winners”. They are wounded and ready to die, and they have succeeded only by an incredible grace, not by force of mind or body, plans or arms. Frodo, in fact, failed; it was Gollum who completed the impossible task. The nearly miraculous outcome leaves the reader no room for pride or self-righteousness, as many “happy endings” do.

The second eucatastrophe is described more honorifically – in fact, liturgically. As Kreeft says it resembles what we will surely experience in Heaven. This comes just a little later, after the rescue. Here too it is Frodo´s honor that is the source of Sam´s joy:

Gandalf stood before him robed in white…”Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” he said.
   But Sam lay back and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What´s happened to the world?”
   “A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell on his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known. And he burst into tears…
   And then, to Sam´s final and complete satisfaction and pure joy, a minstrel of Gondor stood forth, and knelt, and begged leaveto sing. And behold! He said: “…I will sing to you of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.”
   And when Sam heard that, he laughed aloud for sheer delight, and he stood up and cried, “O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!” And then he wept.
   And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness (LOTR, pp. 930-31, 933).

We are that laughing and weeping host, and Tolkien is our minstrel.

Eucatastrophe, of course, is almost the opposite of “progressivism”. Both are “happy endings”, but the first is sheer grace, while the second is necessity. We are “surprised by joy” in eucatastrophe, while we are surprised by evil and failure if we are “progressives”.

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