A new look at Middle Earth

The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards
The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards

My mom gave me this book for Christmas, after I made her listen to the Tom Woods Show podcast during our Thanksgiving road trip.  It’s called The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards.  This book was pretty much written exactly for me, because it blends my love of fantasy with my love for economics and libertarian political philosophy.  As a bonus, there’s a bit of theology as well:

Tom Bombadil is, among other things, an exercise in one of the great theological what-ifs–what if God had created a species of flesh and blood, made in his image, but one that never reached for the forbidden fruit, never sinned, never fell?  Would such a person be a naive, insipid figure of innocence? No, because goodness does not require evil to complete it.  Instead, as an intimate friend and steward of the Creator, he would be far more likely to develop something of the verve and fearless authority–the joyful exuberance, the playfulness, and magnanimity–of a Tom Bombadil.

I love this description of Tom Bombadil.  It reminds me of Kierkegaard’s man of faith in Fear and Trembling.

Witt and Richards make the distinction between a hippie-quality of valuing disorder and self, and the Christian quality of hospitality.  I remember discussing the Ancient Greek concept of “Xenia” which is also the quality that Abraham and and Lot expressed when they protected strangers in their homes– those strangers turned out to be angels.  The Christian tradition of putting others needs before self, and Bilbo’s observance of propriety that demands hospitality, are what give Bilbo the strength to overcome his fear, to overcome the instinct for self-preservation.  Thus, he becomes a hero.

This explication clarified for me a discomfort I always had for hippie culture.  I love the music and freedom that hippie culture values, but I always felt a disconnect from the culture.  Witt and Richards identified the cause for my disconnection: it’s self-centeredness, or solipsism (one of my favorite words).  More importantly, a culture that places value on hospitality also places value on welcoming people and ideas who are different.  You can certainly see a lack of openness on many college campuses today.  Check out these draconian speech codes, compiled by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

[This] degraded view of custom and courtesy, far from being merely cosmetic, threatens our capacity to sustain culture and forge authentic connections with other people and peoples.  The loss of courtesy in the older and richer sense of the term signals a growing inability to connect with anyone but our own increasingly limited selves.

In other words, it sounds lovely to be free from schedules and bourgeois obligations, to focus on the intangible benefits of loving people freely.  On the other hand, if you can’t keep a date or are regularly late to meet up with loved ones, you disrespect their time and show love of self, not love of others.

I don’t usually identify myself as a conservative, but Tolkien’s flavor of conservatism, as described in The Hobbit Party, is something with which I can identify.  It’s a devotion to order and custom, specifically courtesy.  Courtesy, on a broader scale, becomes respect for the rule of law, respect for a consistent process.  Rule of law requires all parties to agree to contracts and rules of order so that cooperation can occur.  This book describes the game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum.  Bilbo accidentally asked, “What’s in my pocket?” and Gollum treats it as a riddle in the game, although Bilbo and the author recognize that it isn’t.  You could justify Bilbo’s cheating by saying his life was in danger, that Gollum is evil, so what does it matter if he cheats a bit?  I see this type of reasoning all the time, because I work in politics.  This reasoning values the self over others; it’s dangerous because it is egotistical.  We play by the rules because we recognize that our perspective is not the only perspective.  We play by the rules because we are humble.  It’s for this reason that the CIA should not torture prisoners of war, regardless of who signed which treaties.

3 thoughts on “A new look at Middle Earth

  1. Richard Sennett is a sociologist who has written a lot on how many rules of etiquette and social rituals allow us to be better interact with one another. Because we are behaving in a moderated way, we are more free to interact with other people, since there is no sense of threat between us. I love all of his books, but Fall of Public Man is particularly great


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