J.R.R. Tolkien: Catholic and Libertarian

tolkienLibertarianism has often been found congenial to Catholics and other Christians. J.R.R.Tolkien (1892 – 1973) is one such Catholic who incorporated his horror of both war and earthly power into his writing. The Lord of the Rings was published at a time when the threat of total nuclear annihalation was spreading around the world during the 1950’s. Some have speculated that Tolkien’s “ring of power” was a metaphor for the atomic bomb, but Tolkien rejected that interpretation of his epic fantasy: “Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for domination)”  The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Lord Acton–a Catholic like Tolkien–is best known for one memorable phrase: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Lord of the Rings is a parable of corrupting power. Tolkien wrote, “You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: and allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power”  The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

Tolkien himself was essentially libertarian, describing himself as a philosophical anarchist:

“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inaminate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people. […] Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. ” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien.

If not one in a million is fit to rule others, then that would disqualify almost half our federal government alone. If we also disqualify those who want to boss the rest of us around, that pretty well disqualifies the lot of them. In Tolkien’s story, only Frodo, a humble hobbit, was fit to bear the ring of power–not to rule–but only in a quest to destroy its power.  Even strong, virtuous characters such as Gandalf and Galadriel could not trust themsleves to take the ring, for it could never be used, even to do good, lest they “become like the Dark Lord himself.”

In his prologue to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes hobbit society: “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government.’ Families for the most part managed their own affairs. . . . The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor [whose] only duty was to preside at banquets.” The Shire was kept orderly by a dozen or so “Shirriffs” which were “more concerned with the strayings of beasts than of people.” As to monarchy, there had once been a King to whom they attributed “all thier essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were the Rules (as they said), both ancient and just.” At the close of Tolkien’s epic, there was a new and good King, who lived far away and meddled not in Shire business, nor asked any tribute beyond friendship. Such a shame it’s only a story.

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