Hobbit or There and Back Again by Pervandr.
This post is a part of the online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien.
In general cultural terms, Tolkien is certainly a traditionalist, an antiprogressive, and an antimodernist. In political terms, is he also a “conservative” versus a “liberal”?
Kreeft answers yes and no. These two labels change with time, place, culture, and fashion, and he finds it highly unlikely that Tolkien would be more comfortable with the American brand of conservatism, with its tendency to side with big business and the military and to ignore the poor and the environment, than he would with the American brand of liberalism, with its tendency to side with big government and ignore tradition, religion, morality, family, and the sacredness of individual human life. He is more of a European conservative, or old conservative, a Schumacher Small is Beautiful conservative, a Chestertonian distributist. The Hobbits are certainly quintessentially “bourgeois” (the spit word for the Left, as “alcohol” is to pious Muslims). But they are not Babbitts, only peasants.
We could also call Tolkien an anarchist, as well as a monarchist: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophical understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy” (Letters, no. 52, p. 63). There is no indication that he ever departed much from this, and the good societies in his fiction tend to be either minimally governed like The Shire and Bree, or benevolent monarchies like Gondor, Rohan and the Elvish and Dwarvish kingdoms (The Shire and Bree are isolated remnants of the old North Kingdom of Arnor).
He went on in the same letter to express himself more forcibly: "I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights or mind) and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!"
Tolkien did not appear to respect politicians much. He wrote in World War II: "If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang,' it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy." His tales were set in an ancient world before parliamentary democracy had evolved anyway. In December, 1943, while allied propaganda extolled Stalin as kindly "Uncle Joe," Tolkien referred to him at the Teheran conference of allied leaders as "that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin inviting all nations to join a happy family of folks devoted to the abolition of tyranny and intolerance! But I must also admit that in the photographs our little cherub W. S. C." [Winston Churchill] "actually looked the biggest ruffian present. Humph."
Anarchists are not usually patriots – but Tolkien was. And the reason was instinctive. It was because his country was to him not an ideological abstraction but a kind of extension of his concrete family, or at least of his pious mother, who, he wrote, “was a martyr indeed…a mother who killed herself with labour and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith.” (The Chesterton Review, vol. 28, nos. 1 and 2, Feb/May 2002, p. 58.
Clichés about the influence of devout mothers do not begin to describe the force of inheritance like this…Chesterton was fond of quoting Cobbett on England´s loss of medieval Catholicism through the Reformation as resembling one´s discovery of one´s mother´s corpse in a wood…To this extent there is an analogy with Irish Catholic nationalism…Not only had Christ died for you: so had your country…Tolkien writing of his mother´s martyrdom, would have felt much as Irish Catholics had…Tolkien had seen his mother dying for his soul with his own eyes (ibid.).
Tolkien´s political philosophy has a name: distributism. Distributism is an economic ideology that developed in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno. Some Christian Democratic political parties have advocated distributism in their economic policies.
According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right, and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state capitalism), a few individuals (plutocracy), or corporations (corporatocracy). Distributism, therefore, advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership. Co-operative economist Race Mathews argues that such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.
Distributism has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism, which distributists see as equally flawed and exploitative. Thomas Storck argues: "both socialism and capitalism are products of the European Enlightenment and are thus modernizing and anti-traditional forces. Further, some distributists argue that socialism is the logical conclusion of capitalism as capitalism's concentrated powers eventually capture the state, resulting in a form of socialism. In contrast, distributism seeks to subordinate economic activity to human life as a whole, to our spiritual life, our intellectual life, our family life".
Some have seen it more as an aspiration, which has been successfully realised in the short term by commitment to the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity (these being built into financially independent local cooperatives and small family businesses), though proponents also cite such periods as the Middle Ages as examples of the historical long-term viability of distributism. Particularly influential in the development of distributist theory were Catholic authors G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, the Chesterbelloc, two of distributism's earliest and strongest proponents.
The position of distributists when compared to other political philosophies is somewhat paradoxical and complicated. Strongly entrenched in an organic but very English Catholicism, advocating culturally traditionalist and agrarian values, directly challenging the precepts of Whig history—Belloc was nonetheless an MP for the Liberal Party and Chesterton once stated "As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals." This liberalism is different from most modern forms, taking influence from William Cobbett and John Ruskin, who combined elements of radicalism, challenging the establishment position, but from a perspective of renovation, not revolution; seeing themselves as trying to restore the traditional liberties of England and her people which had been taken away from them, amongst other things, since the Industrial Revolution.
While converging with certain elements of traditional Toryism, especially an appreciation of the Middle Ages and organic society, there were several points of significant contention. While many Tories were strongly opposed to reform, the distributists in certain cases saw this not as conserving a legitimate traditional concept of England, but in many cases, entrenching harmful errors and innovations. Belloc was quite explicit in his opposition to Protestantism as a concept and schism from the Catholic Church in general, considering the division of Christendom in the 16th century one of the most harmful events in European history. Elements of Toryism on the other hand were quite intransigent when it came to the Church of England as the established church, some even spurning their original legitimist ultra-royalist principles in regards to James II to uphold it.
Much of Dorothy L. Sayers' writings on social and economic matters has affinity with distributism. She may have been influenced by them, or have come to similar conclusions on her own; as an Anglican, the reasonings she gave are rooted in the theologies of Creation and Incarnation, and thus are slightly different from the Catholic Chesterton and Belloc.
Distributism promotes a society of artisans and culture. This is influenced by an emphasis on small business, promotion of local culture, and favoring of small production over capitalistic mass production. A society of artisans promotes the distributist ideal of the unification of capital, ownership, and production rather than what distributism sees as an alienation of man from work.
This does not, however, suggest that distributism necessarily favors a technological regression to a pre-Industrial Revolution lifestyle, but a more local ownership of factories and other industrial centers. Products such as food and clothing would be preferably returned to local producers and artisans instead of being mass-produced overseas.
Distributism does not favor one political order over another. While some distributists, such as Dorothy Day, have been anarchists, it should be remembered that most Chestertonian distributists are opposed to the mere concept of anarchism. Chesterton thought that Distributism would benefit from the discipline that theoretical analysis imposes, and that distributism is best seen as a widely encompassing concept inside of which any number of interpretations and perspectives can fit. This concept should fit in a political system broadly characterized by widespread ownership of productive property.
C.S. Lewis, who also admired this populist, libertarian philosophy, summed it up in this way:
I believe man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has “the free-born mind.” But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is man who needs, and asks, nothing of the Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology…Who will talk like that when the State is everyone´s schoolmaster and employer? Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few. I know. Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none (Willing Slaves of the Welfare State, in C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection, p. 338).
And that is precisely the problem distributism claims to solve, by maximizing the distribution of private property.
This populism is not egalitarianism, however. Egalitarianism is an ism, an ideology. And every ideology leaves out something. Men differs in talent, so there are natural hierarchies as well as unnatural and oppressive hierarchies. Tolkien is not opposed to hierarchy (“unconstitutional” monarchy) and knows that much of our opposition to it comes from envy. Saruman embodies this and revels it as his deeper motive when he tries to “sell” Gandalf his program of joining with Sauron: “In time, no one will stand higher than ourselves.” (What he really means, of course, is that “no one will stand higher than I.”).
Tolkien´s patriotic populism also embraced an individualistic, or libertarian, tendency at odds with the totalitarianizing tendency of modernity, as did C.S. Lewis: “Two world wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains…We are tamed animals…and should probably starve if we got out of our cage.”
We have on the one hand a desparate need: hunger, sickness and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement?...
Let us not be deceived by phrases about “Man taking charge of his own destiny.” All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it hase done before? (ibid., pp. 342-43).
Or, as Tolkien himself put it, “the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man…is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity” (Letters, no. 52, p. 64).
Tolkien´s myth of the Ring is not an allegory, but it is utterly “applicable”. He says, “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, the other in the purposed domination of the author” (LOTR, p. xvii). Thus we are free to “apply” the concept of the Ring of power to many things and persons in our own age.
Some of these are obvious, by hindsight: Hitler, Stalin, Mao. But as Kreeft says: “if we are astute enough to understand the warning that there is a ‘soft totalitarianism’, a Brave New World as well as a 1984, we will thank Tolkien for the ability to recognize in new forms the same old ‘one Ring to rule them all, one Ring to find them, one Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.’”
And we may even apply the wisdom we have learned from The Lord of the Rings to our own versions of “The Scouring of the Shire”, if any Shire will remain. Political action cannot keep Middle-earth safe for Elves, but it can still keep it safe for Hobbits.
Personally I see the Shire as a place of simple living, something I myself are practicing. We have already seen it promoted in Tom Hodgkinson´s book Brave Old World. In the book he argues that labour-saving devices and easy entertainments alienate us from the joy and freedom that are our birthright. We work long hours to pay for it all; our time trickles away in wage-slavery and self-indulgence, and we forget how to live well. In particular, we forget how to be truly idle, an almost mystical notion for Hodgkinson, and one that he defines mainly in terms of gruelling drudgery. "The simple life is extremely complicated and very hard," he writes. "Toil, endless toil - that is the only way, my idle friends!"
To put this idea to the test, he and his family have moved to a farmhouse in North Devon, where they bake bread, plant vegetables, chop wood, keep bees, make jam and brew what Hodgkinson happily describes as "foul beer". Brave Old World is a primer in these arts, and a meditation on why life has been a dreadful mistake ever since the Reformation brought us paid jobs and the work ethic.
It is no coincidence that Hodgkinson sees idleness as something mystical. Simple living encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one's lifestyle. These may include, for example, reducing one's possessions, generally referred to as minimalism, or increasing self-sufficiency. Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they have rather than want. Although asceticism generally promotes living simply and refraining from luxury and indulgence, not all proponents of simple living are ascetics. Simple living is distinct from those living in forced poverty, as it is a voluntary lifestyle choice.
Adherents may choose simple living for a variety of personal reasons, such as spirituality, health, increase in quality time for family and friends, work–life balance, personal taste, financial sustainability, frugality, or reducing stress. Simple living can also be a reaction to materialism and conspicuous consumption. Some cite socio-political goals aligned with the environmentalist, anti-consumerist or anti-war movements, including conservation, degrowth, social justice, and tax resistance.
I enjoy the concept of idleness. With the words of the great Chinese life-philosopher and idler, Lin Yutang, I call myself an apostle of loafing. Look at what the wisdom of the art of loafing has given us. Chinese literary tradition is rife with the jottings of non-achievers – the cultured vagabond, the scholar recluse, the Taoist wanderer. Already in 500BC, the sage Lao Tzu recommended that one should “never be the first in the world”. Only he who is not wanted by the public can be a carefree individual, runs the Taoist adage. The importance of living is peopled with educated dropouts – for instance poets such as Su Tungpo and Tao Yüanming; Su, who sang about “the clear breeze over the river and the clear moon over the mountains”, and Tao, who sang about “the hen, which rested in the top of a mulberry tree”.
After having followed the Beatwriters´ way of living for a period, then these Chinese kinds of dropouts have become the new great source of inspiration in my life.
Like Lin Yutang I actually see the art of loafing as democratic in its nature. But, as Walt Whitman is pointing out in his Democratic Vistas – it is the ideal of free men and women in the Now, not the ideal of the democratic progress or improvement (today Consumer Capitalism and the growth fanatism of the self-help industry) - just look at Laurence Sterne on his “sensitive journey”, or at Wordsworth and Coleridge, wandering on foot through Europe, with a great sence of beauty in their hearts, but with a very few money.
The philosophical refined pleasure in the art of loafing is something, which costs much less than the lust for luxury. The only thing the pleasure of loafing requires is a creative emptiness, a life enjoyed as it is lived. Play without reason; travel to see nothing; a perfectly useless afternoon spent in a perfectly useless manner – these are the kind of activities that redeem the art of living from the business of living, which also Henry David Thoreau has shown in his Walden, where he describes his life in the woods, retired from the world´s ups and downs.
Look at nature! All nature loafs, while Man alone works for a living!
Today I have retired to Rold Forest, where I participate in the joys of conversation on a moonlit night; to be in the middle of a joyful gathering of happy friends, like in Wang Hsichih´s immortal little essay The Orchid Pavilion.
The Orchid Pavilion Gathering of 353 CE was a cultural and poetic event during the Six Dynasties era, in China. This event itself has a certain inherent and poetic interest in regard to the development of landscape poetry and the philosophical ideas of Chuang-Tze.
The Orchid Pavilion Gathering of 42 literati included Xie An and Sun Chuo and Wang Pin-Chih at the Orchid Pavilion on Mount Kuaiji just south of Kuaiji (present-day Shaoxing in Zhejiang), during the Spring Purification Festival, on the third day of the third month, to compose poems and enjoy huangjiu (yellow wine). The gentlemen had engaged in a drinking contest: rice-wine cups were floated down a small winding creek as the men sat along its banks; whenever a cup stopped, the man closest to the cup was required to empty it and write a poem. This was known as "floating goblets.”
In the end, twenty-six of the participants composed thirty-seven poems.
The Orchid Pavilion Gathering was an example of what´s today called philosophical counseling and cafés.
The Art of Loafing seems to tell something essential about human nature. It is echoed in many cultural connections. It for example reminds about what in ancient Greece was called the symposium, a part of a banquet that took place after the meal, when drinking for pleasure was accompanied by music, dancing, recitals, or conversation. Literary works that describe or take place at a symposium include two Socratic dialogues, Plato's Symposium and Xenophon's Symposium, as well as a number of Greek poems such as the elegies of Theognis of Megara. Symposia are depicted in Greek and Etruscan art that shows similar scenes.
Epicurus (341-270 b.c.) was a Greek philosopher and Life Artist, who contrary to most other Hellenistic philosophers, was Athenian citizen. His place of birth was however on the island Samos by the seaside of Asia Minor, and on this, and on the other, cultural seen, rich islands in the eastern Aegean Sea, Epicurus came in contact with Philosophical traditions, that hardly was alive in Athens; especially the thoughts of the great philosopher of nature, Democritus.
Epicurus left Samos after having stepped his philosophical child-shoes on the island, and established as philosopher on the island
Lesbos. However he
was banished from the island because of his viewpoints. In 307 he travelled to Athens with the mental ballast, that he was Athenian
citizen; this meant that he, contrary to the other philosophical schools, had
the right to own land in
Epicurus established one of two central schools in
It was in constant sharp opposition to the Stoics. I will not go deeper into
the philosophical opposites, just mention, that philosophy of nature was
central in Epicurus, whilst the Stoics had a concept of a god, which in them
was the central. But both are common in the view of philosophy as an art of
The school of Epicurus was called The Garden, and since then the concept ”to cultivate your garden” has in European way of thinking been synonymous with living a life retired from the world´s ups and downs, to give up all ambitions about social status. This is a completely central aspect in my own way of life.
Epicurus had a real garden, a kitchen garden with vegetables, and to that he retired, and lived of own productions. It was an attempt to avoid the bindings of the world, just like the Stoics, but in quite another way. The Stoics were radically extroverted, and went into Athen´s central buildings, where they, among the cloisters, forced themselves speach access to the citizens, whereas Epicurus retired, and avoided all kind of – also political – debate. As he said: “Live in secret!”
In his garden he realized his own life-ideal: together with friends and pupils to live a life in silent peace and joy, in peace to cultivate his garden and his needs, afar from the world´s noise and political quarrel. It was a kind of philosophical commune, which stood open for all sections of population and for both sexes, and where the master with his friends practised, what they taught. The teaching of Epicurus is in other words a way of life, a teaching, which puts undisturbed happiness and refined pleasure up as the supreme good.
The Right to be Lazy is an essay by Cuban-born French revolutionary Marxist Paul Lafargue, written from his London exile in 1880. The essay polemicizes heavily against then-contemporary liberal, conservative, Christian and even socialist ideas of work. Lafargue criticizes these ideas from a Marxist perspective as dogmatic and ultimately false by portraying the degeneration and enslavement of human existence when being subsumed under the primacy of the "right to work", and argues that laziness, combined with human creativity, is an important source of human progress.
He manifests that "When, in our civilized Europe, we would find a trace of the native beauty of man, we must go seek it in the nations where economic prejudices have not yet uprooted the hatred of work...The Greeks in their era of greatness had only contempt for work: their slaves alone were permitted to labor: the free man knew only exercises for the body and mind...The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work, that degradation of the free man, the poets sang of idleness, that gift from the Gods." And so he says "Proletarians, brutalized by the dogma of work, listen to the voice of these philosophers, which has been concealed from you with jealous care: A citizen who gives his labor for money degrades himself to the rank of slaves." (The last sentence a quote from Cicero.). However, Marx himself condemned these ideas.
In his essay The Abolition of Work, the anarchist Bob Black argues for the abolition of the producer- and consumer-based society, where, Black contends, all of life is devoted to the production and consumption of commodities.
Attacking Marxist state socialism as much as market capitalism, Black argues that the only way for humans to be free is to reclaim their time from jobs and employment, instead turning necessary subsistence tasks into free play done voluntarily – an approach referred to as "ludic". The essay argues that "no-one should ever work", because work – defined as compulsory productive activity enforced by economic or political means – is the source of most of the misery in the world.
Play, in contrast, is not necessarily rule-governed, and is performed voluntarily, in complete freedom, as a gift economy. He points out that hunter-gatherer societies are typified by play, a view he backs up with the work of Marshall Sahlins; he recounts the rise of hierarchal societies, through which work is cumulatively imposed, so that the compulsive work of today would seem incomprehensibly oppressive even to ancients and medieval peasants. He responds to the view that "work," if not simply effort or energy, is necessary to get important but unpleasant tasks done, by claiming that first of all, most important tasks can be rendered ludic, or "salvaged" by being turned into game-like and craft-like activities, and secondly that the vast majority of work does not need doing at all. The latter tasks are unnecessary because they only serve functions of commerce and social control that exist only to maintain the work-system as a whole.
The Right to Useful Unemployment, is a book by the philosopher and Roman Catholic priest, Ivan Illich. Like all revolutionary philosophers, Ivan Illich takes a fresh and searingly critical look at the nature of society, questioning the myth of progress and provoking people into rethinking some of the basic assumptions that underly it. In this postscript to Tools for Conviviality, he calls for the right to useful unemployment: a positive, constructive and even optimistic concept dealing with that activity by which people are useful to themselves and others outside the production of commodities for the market. Unfettered by managing professionals, unmeasured and unmeasurable by economics, these activities truly generate satisfaction, creativity and freedom.
All of the above-mentioned ideas are important in my own philosophy of idleness. Especially the Chinese dropouts and the Epicurean attitude became a central inspiration for my own life, my teaching, my kind of philosophical counseling in Rold Forest. It is a passive way of meditation, a non-acting, receptive receiving, relaxed, enjoying, easy laid-back holyday-like kind of awareness, as when you listen to the birds or the breeze in the trees.
So today I live like a kind of philosophical mendicant friar, in poverty, chastity and obedience to some philosophical principles. I began to ask people the question: What philosophy of life would you choose if money was no object?
As the man who quit money, Daniel Suelo, says: “Wild Nature, outside commercial civilization, runs on gift economy: ´freely give, freely receive.´ Thus it is balanced. Commercial civilization runs on consciousness of credit and debt; thus it is imbalanced. What nation can even balance its own budget or environment? Gift Economy is Faith, Grace, Love - the core message of every religion. The proof is inside you: Wild Nature is your True Nature, crucified by commercial civilization.”
Following this philosophy of gift economy (freely give, freely receive) all my services (including philosophical counseling and cafés) are free of charge. All my articles and books are available in free PDF Versions.
I earn my living from what people give me (the “freely give, freely receive,” philosophy) and what the society can offer in form of social security benefit (which I see in the light of a kind of “Robin Hood-philosophy”). This is sometimes not very popular, but as I have mentioned, sometimes you have to be a kind of spiritual anarchist, a philosophical rebel, if you want to live in accordance with your calling in life. And not so different from how monks and nuns, or artists, always have lived.
Krishnamurti said, that it would be wise to retire in the age of 40 or 45, or even younger. Not in order to enjoy the fruits of what the world can offer, or what you have gathered of wordly things, but retire in order to find yourself, to think and feel deeply, to meditate and discover reality; because then you would actually be able to help the world in quite another way, because you not are identified with it. An insider in society is namely an outsider in relation to life itself, while an outsider in relation to society, is an insider in life itself.
My art of living is an idle philosophy born of an idle life. And if my life raises the suspicion of lolling, then look at my actions. I am trying to help people, and are favouring a person who would react freely and incalculably to external circumstances, pitting their individual liberty against the process of society: the little man eluding the clutches of the traffic warden.
All in all: I want to live like a Hobbit in the Shire.
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