28 February 2015

The Hobbit Party - A book that does not feel quite yet finished

Yesterday morning I picked up a copy of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards. Ignatius Press published the book a few weeks ago and I've wanted to read it since I learned of its publication.

From the advertisements I heard for the book, I took it to be something like a political vision extracted from the legendarium of J.R.R. Tolkien that would provide the framework for a new political party based on the running of things in the Shire (which appeals to me greatly), one that might be able to contend with the ideologies and political parties of our present day (none of which greatly appeal to me).

In this hope I was disappointed, but perhaps my expectations were too high (this is often a problem for me). The Professor, after all, did not set out to write a political philosophy at all but rather to put forth, as he wrote, a critique of "Death and the desire for deathlessness" (Tolkien to C. Ouboter, Voorhoeve en Dietrich, April 10, 1958). 

Because of its largely thematic approach to exploring The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (as well as others of Tolkien's works), and possibly because of having two authors, this is a book that does not feel quite yet finished, almost as if it were a collection of essays simply put into a book without a thorough effort to blend them into a unified whole. The themes explored by the authors are varied and far-reaching: government, farming, the common good, power, Big Brother, freedom, evil, just war, greed, capitalism, socialism, distributism, localism, and, of course, death (to name but a few).

All this being said, however, the book is not without merit.

Rather than putting forth a political vision based on Tolkien's thought, Witt and Richards set out to use Tolkien's thought to bolster a political vision that includes small government, individual freedom, a good use of the land, and the principle of subsidiarity, a task at which they are successful. In this endeavor, and given the current political situation in the United States of America that has been unfolding now for more than a decade, particularly in the form of ever-increasing regulation of seemingly every aspect of life, the book is both timely and needed. Perhaps most remarkable of all, their arguments never descend into partisan attacks but remain at an elevated level so as to set forth a world view with which to make principled - not partisan - political decisions.

In their reflections on the power of the ring and the force it exerts on those who desire it (on everyone, that is, except Tom Bambadil), Witt and Richards rightly conclude,
The lesson is old and oft forgotten: even well-intentioned leaders are tempted to annex to themselves more and more power in their efforts to fight evil and improve the lot of their people. In such cases, the potential for good lies in plain sight, while the danger of unchecked power seems distant, abstract, and quite manageable. What distinguishes the wise leaders of The Lord of the Rings is their ability to see past this illusion (73).
While acknowledging that "there is no unique form of government that will ensure" a freedom properly to a civilized people (103), Witt and Richards propose a few aspects of such a freedom gained from a thoughtful reading of Tolkien:
  • "A free and therefore lawful society, at a minimum, will never force a person to choose among alternatives all of which commit him to some intrinsic evil, such as violating the rights and dignity of himself or another" (102).
  • "People in a free society will have broad freedoms in the market" (102).
  • "...a richly free society allows its people to pursue freedom for excellence; it encourages rather than discourages them to pursue their own calling and passion" (102-103).
  • "We know empirically that a free economy, of all the options, best coordinates the gifts and needs of a diverse population" (103).
The authors are right to note what others frequently miss, that Tolkien's "thought taken as a whole is quite pluralistic" (155), but that Tolkien still "beat the drum of small government when the rest of the world was running headlong into arms [sic - there are other similar errors throughout the book] of Big Brother" (154).

Were I editing The Hobbit Party, I would have taken the authors' Epilogue and made it the Forward. Doing so would have given a fuller sense of purpose and direction to the text of the book.

In their Epilogue, Witt and Richards suggest that what Tolkien called the work of "reenchantment" begins
...by rejecting not just an ideology but a subtle process, long at work among Western democracies, that leads by slow degrees from a free Shire to a place where creative energy and opportunity give way before the twin opiates of false equality and an all-embracing administrative bureaucracy (187).
This is a good summary of the overall argument of The Hobbit Party, but to put it even more succinctly, the authors are right to assert that "what [Tolkien] consistently opposed was democracy put in the service of socialism and the tyranny of the majority, and he tended to fear the worst in such matters" (189). There is every reason to have the same fear regarding the current situation in the U.S. - and elsewhere - today.

At the same time, though, if I were editing The Hobbit Party, I would take the Foreword by James V. Schall, S.J. and make it the Epilogue.

In his Foreword, Father Schall rightly suggests that "the reading of Tolkien at any adult age makes you young again. But it also makes you wonder if you are wise, with the kind of wisdom we find in Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and the forces of good that populate Gondor and the Shire" (9). Such a statement, turned into a question, would be a good end to The Hobbit Party and an excellent way to motivate the reader to ask himself if he also has the political wisdom of Tolkien.

Yet, as I said earlier, this is a book that does feel quite yet finished. Although Witt and Richards do not create a new political party - the Hobbit Party - the political thought they highlight in their book could well lead to the creation of such a party, a political party based on the freedom inherent in the dignity of the human person. Let us hope the book will soon be completed.

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