1. The Failure to Modernity: How Power Enslaves Us

In early medieval times, people were very reluctant to burn down forests or change the course of rivers. They believed that everything had been created by God, and therefore shouldn’t be changed. It would be hubris to believe that man could improve God’s creation. There is no greater sin than hubris (as Arachne could experience first hand when she challenged the Greek goddess Athens for a contest in weaving – she won it, but was changed into a spider), and so no canals were built, and no swamps were dried.

But opinions change, and with the rise of science (limited to logic and theology in those centuries around the turn of the millennium) the position of man in the universe changed. Scholars started to interpret the Holy Scripture differently, and proclaimed that it was man’s task to use all his abilities to enhance the standard of living.

The most important way to do this, was science itself. From very early on, craftsmen had been able to come up with tools that could carve through wood and even stone, from cutlery to weaponry. As our knowledge of the ways of the world expanded and became more accurate, technology rose from the ashes of old craftsmanship: there were magnifying glasses and lenses that could show you the stars from up close, there were devices that could measure time, and canons that could destroy walls with one blast.
Technology, deeply rooted in science, became the most important weapon for man in his struggle with his own limitations and nature as a whole.

With this new technology, a new religion arose: the cult of man. From the 17th and especially the 18th century on, western European thought was dominated by the idea that man, with his very unique rational abilities, could not only control nature but enslave it and – a thought that was taboo in the beginning – even enhance it!

English and subsequent French Enlightenment brought us great philosophers, liberalism (the idea of civil rights, of freedom for all and equality between citizens, democracy) and great scientific and technological revolutions and inventions.

Enlightenment culminated in the 19th century industrial revolutions, two to be precise, that swept the country and raised the standard of living while at the same time creating new problems of pollution, ruthless capitalism and extreme poverty.

And according to Horkheimer and Adorno, two 20th century philosophers who examined the so-called ‘faillure of modernity’, that’s where it went wrong.

The industrial revolution has never ceased. From the second half of the 18th century on, we have witnessed innovation upon innovation: from the first steam engine over the industrial spinning wheel and the first industrial ovens all the way to the atom bomb and the computer.

Technology is a train without breaks – once it departs, you can’t get off it, and you can’t stop it unless it hits a brick wall. And we’re about to: our western world is rich beyond measure, but also polluted to no extent, and overcrowded. A ruthless capitalism (that feeds on the gap between the rich north-western hemisphere and the dramatically poor ‘third world’ countries) and pollution are the greatest dangers mankind, and with it the whole planet, ever had to face.

Horkheimer and Adorno claim that modernity has created a monster that has enslaved its master, and in truth: can we imagine a world without television, electrical tin openers, hairdryers, mass production of food and clothes or public transport? We all sympathise with those poor Africans, but are we willing to pay twice as much for our bananas and our coffee just to make sure they get a fair price for their goods? And of course we all care about the environment, but we still create mountains of waste, scribble of paper then toss it out and use too much electricity.

How could it come this far? Because, Horkheimer and Adorno will say, we have became totally dependent on technology. We are the most powerful animals ever to walk this planet, but all our power we owe to technology. Of course technology is our own creation, it sprouts from our own ability to rational thought and science; but that doesn’t mean that we can control it no matter what.

The best example is toxic waste: we were able to create on of the greatest power sources in the form of nuclear energy – but the residue of this process is indestructible.
Such is all technology, and our dependence of it.

2. Three Kinds of Knowledge: A Negative Hierarchy of Wizards

‘White!’ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.’

‘In which case it is no longer white’, said I. ‘And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.’

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord Of the Rings Book 2.II. The Council of Elrond

This quote, where Gandalf describes a part of his argument with Saruman, holds the key to a better understanding of Tolkien’s view on knowledge and wisdom.

The professor mentions it in a very short reply to a request made my an academic to help him in a project concerning his works [Letter #346]: it expresses his deeply-rooted loathing for text analyses that rip a text apart in stead of treating it as a whole.

Throughout the entire trilogy, four very different types of knowledge are described. First and foremost, there’s what one could call common sense. The best example of a character that thrives on this kind of knowledge is Samwise Gamgee; as a matter of fact it’s his down-to-earth sense of what is good and what is not, and the advice his father gave him, that make it possible for the Ring-bearer to achieve his goal.

Tolkien uses this type of knowledge to describe the Hobbits as a people, and uses it in Book 5 to connect it to another type of knowledge, that of lore (when he lets Aragorn chides the healer of the Houses of Healing for not listening to Ioreth’s folk tale).

In this connection we recognise the idea of Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers in ancient Greece: when a philosopher wants to discover what something is (for instance, justice), he first has to listen to what common sense has to say about it – because their is a nucleus of truth in what ordinary people pass on from father to son.

Lore can best be described as the collection of cultural, historical and linguistic knowledge a person can assemble. A possible example of a character that is described in terms of lore, is Radagast the Brown. He seems to be at the bottom of the Istari hierarchy, and the only things Tolkien can say about him is that he could speak with birds and beasts – implying that this skill was learned, not innate.

But Treebeard is an example of a lore-bound character as well: he seems stuffed to the brim with verses, songs and little slices of historical knowledge.

This is what an empiricist would call a ‘solid basis of facts’: before you can start your research, you have to get your facts straight. This too is something explicitated in the philosophy of Aristotle, who for his biology relied heavily on research (he listed all the animals that lived on the Greek isles in his days, placing them in categories and describing their discerning traits).

Moving one step further, we reach the crucial stage of wisdom. Here we can take Gandalf the Grey as an example: Tolkien often uses the word ‘wise’ to describe him. He too listens to common sense (remember how in Moria he leads the fellowship past a three-forked crossing by sniffing the air), and is very learned in all kinds of lore: Tolkien uses Gandalf as a story-telling device and provides the reader with necessary background information through his conversations with other characters.

Wisdom is the capacity to critically evaluate, sort, link and use information. It leans heavily on lore, but takes it one step further: it’s one thing knowing what the One Ring is and what kind of person it takes to destroy it; but quite another to actually pick a Ring-bearer (Gandalf’s confiding in Frodo sets the whole thing in motion) or be able to assemble a Fellowship (like Elrond does after the council).

Wisdom is a synthetic kind of knowledge. ‘Synthetic’ means that you use small bits of information to build a larger thought: when Aragorn heals Faramir after his deadly wound, he does so by combining pieces of lore stored in the back of his mind (what is the Black Breath? what is Athelas? the Hands of a King are the Hands of a Healer). The overall result is a suitable treatment.

The opposite of synthetic reasoning is analytical thought – and thus we enter the domain of science. Science uses both forms of thinking, but the analytical level is a very typical trait of this type of knowledge: scientists spend a lot of their time cutting the whole to bits and pieces to understand how it works.

Think, for instance, of anatomy: to understand how the human body works, we have to know what parts it contains. To know how the separate parts work, and how they interact, we must know how they are constructed. In the end, the most important topics in biology and medicine are the cell and the gene.

The character that is described in terms of science is Saruman the White. It is very significant that, though Saruman is presented to us as the leader of the Istari, he is by no means the wisest. When he is replaced by Gandalf the White, he seems to have lost all his powers. In the next paragraph we will look into the rise and fall of Saruman the White, and what Tolkien could have meant with it.

3. The Treason of Isengard: Symbolism and Critique

‘He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, as far as they serve him for the moment.’

~ Treebeard

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord Of the Rings Book 3.V. Treebeard

One of the things that is most easily associated with Saruman is his technology. Scattered throughout the book, we find examples of it: the Uruk-hai, genetic engineering avant la lettre, and the ‘bomb’ at Helm’s Deep are the most impressive ones, but reading the description of Isengard after the flood in 3.IX. Flotsam and Jetsam, we get a good idea of the kind of machinery Saruman had stored in his caverns.

Technology is, as was described above, a natural result of science. As soon as we fully understand how a thing works, we have the habit of trying to control, improve or even imitate it. We can think of dikes (controlling the rivers), dredgers (to improve said rivers by making them deeper and more easily sailable) or canals (an imitation of the real thing).

The technological progress Saruman makes, is completely dedicated to warfare: he has found a way to ‘improve’ the Orcs by making them sun-resistant, he’s created an armour factory beneath Isengard and he uses gunpowder (a substance not unknown to Gandalf) to destroy.

With this one goal in mind, to win the ultimate war, Saruman is turning resources into means. The trees, of old used as firewood, are now slaughtered and no new seeds are planted. Instead of thinking about the consequences of his actions in the long run, he is starting to become obsessed with achieving his short-term goal. He no longer cares for knowledge unless he can put it to his advantage.

Why? Tolkien doesn’t answer that question in the book. In one of his letters he writes that Saruman became impatient, trying to impose his will onto others in order to achieve his (good) goals, but ultimately only wanting to be obeyed. [Letter #181]

The Istari were sent to Middle-earth to aid the Enemies of Sauron in their battle. From that point of view it’s easy to see what want wrong: we never like it when someone tells us we’re wrong, and Saruman probably became frustrated with how nobody would listen to him.

He started to use his knowledge to persuade people to listen to him: in ‘3.X. The Voice of Saruman’ we get a good idea of how Saruman managed to deceive so many people for so long – only few are able to resist his voice.

In his letters, Tolkien corrects the false assumption that Saruman’s voice has hypnotic capacities: Saruman is very persuasive and switches the audiences ability to think rationally off, by giving ‘good’ arguments himself. [Letter #210]

At the same time he used his knowledge to create new devices that could help him control those unwilling to heed to him: his science was turned into technology, even to the extent that the science became subordinate to the tools and devices he was creating.

Out of a desire to do good, Saruman fell to evil. But the tools he used to become a Power were also the devices that led to his downfall.

Just as Horkheimer and Adorno point out that modernity is a train we cannot get out of, Tolkien shows us that Saruman – bereft of his machines and his Uruk-hai – is powerless. The resources he was exploiting, the Trees and their herders, turn against him and destroy his machinery and his little empire.

Unarmed and unmasked, the true power of Saruman is revealed – and it appears that the legendary image of the wise and powerful wizard was based completely on his use of persuasive arguments, his abuse of his position and his heavy reliance on technology.

4. The Culmination of Modernity: The One Ring

The true spirit of Tolkien’s works is best expressed in the role of the One Ring.

Sauron made it, using all his knowledge and all his power, to gain control over all the other Rings – and those who used it. In other words, just like Saruman, he used technology to establish his reign.

But where Saruman relied heavily on his tools and devices, he never completely lost himself in it. Sauron on the other hand bound a great part of his strength – his life-force – to the Ring, leaving him completely vulnerable if ever the Ring were to come into the hands of one who wanted and could destroy it.

Nowhere, in any work of fiction, have I ever found a better illustration of Horkeimer and Adorno’s thesis concerning modernity: modern man does not merely rely heavily on his tools and his comforts – they have become a part of him. When the electricity grid blows, life stops for us. {As is very well depicted in ‘The Trigger Effect’.}

Generally, the One Ring is seen as a symbol of power. Tolkien himself writes that all the Rings of Power had a double aim: to stop decay and preserve those things considered good and beautiful by the bearer; and to enhance the bearer’s capacities – a trait that often leads to malice. [Letter #131]

These are also the aims of modern science and in its wake, technology: to – on the one hand – preserve the world as it is (a paradise for men – this is a false conception that originates during the renaissance) or at the very least influence it so that nature is no longer of great importance; and on the other hand to enhance the abilities of men (we can now see things we weren’t able to see with the bare eye, we can communicate across the globe and we can even fly).

Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida have talked about the intricate bond between knowledge and power. Knowledge is power is a very popular saying, but few understand completely what it means. I think Tolkien, in a very un-philosophical manner, did.

First of all knowledge enables us to understand the world: we can label things, calculate what is normal and what are deviations, and set standards for normality. Those who ‘know’ how things should be are often listened to even though they’re wrong: guru’s are a rather innocent example of this, Hitler is another, more imposing one.

Knowledge becomes even more dangerous and powerful when it is not shared: lies, manipulations, deception, treason – all include the false use or abuse of knowledge. Saruman at the White Council deceives everyone by assuring the others the Ring lies in the river Anduin, while it doesn’t – giving him an unfair advantage which he gladly uses to find it himself.

Finally, the most powerful form of knowledge is technology: those who posses it hold a great power over those who don’t. A mother who tells her son he can’t go on the computer if he doesn’t clean his room uses her claim over technology to influence her son. This may sound like a very innocent thing, but the same motive can be found in the possession of weapons of mass destruction or so-called development aid.

Sauron’s dependence on the Ring is what leads him to ruin, and so will, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, technology render us powerless. The very tools created to reign, are already reigning us – and there is no way to get off the train.

The image Peter Jackson uses in his adaptation of ‘Return Of the King’, of Sauron’s eye caught between the pinnacles of Barad-dûr, looking around in a blind panic but unable to flee from his own downfall is the perfect metaphor for our modern western world.

Unless we are willing and able to rise to the challenge: to resist the temptation of dominance over nature and our fellow man – and destroy the One Ring of technology.
Because if we won’t, it might well be that this world awakes from an ancient old sleep and turns against us – with a hoom-hoom and a power that is truly beyond us.

Article by Figwit