Literature moved from warning about coming modernity, to bemoaning it, toward a fusion with science fiction where writers began visualizing a world outside of modernity. Leading this charge were the Inklings, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
In Tolkien, much of the analysis of modernity concerns itself with a ring of power, which like technology, social influence, wealth, and political totalitarianism, conveys unnatural powers to its wearer, in exchange for gradually stealing their soul.
To a historical analysis, this looks a lot like The Portrait of Dorian Gray or other tales of humans swallowed up by vanity, and the tendency toward hubris that comes with the power they gain that later destroys them:
In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien writes about a mysterious ring that essentially dominates the minds of those who possess it. Many theories have been written about the ring and what it symbolizes, including that it is a metaphor for technology or even language itself. I suggest that Tolkien told us exactly what the ring meant: it is referred to as “the ring of power,” and power is what it wields. We might describe power as meaning the ability to control without a natural parallel, or power for its own sake. This separates the type of power the ring wields, which is a freedom from natural consequences, from the might of a king which involves nurturing what exists and improving its prospects. The ring allows a person to detach from the rules of nature and in secret — because its power hides them from view — doing what they wish for themselves alone.
Power is the ability to control others, to grow civilization and to have wealth and money. By going down this path we enter into an age of things for their own sake: economy for its own sake, military strength for its own sake, control of citizens for that purpose alone. This detaches power from its objects and makes it an isolated commodity that can be sought to fill the void in our souls rather than to create that which might do so. This power represents a fundamental truth of civilization as a managed, directed process: it’s a trap.
Civilization kills populations. Where the reign of kings provides a stable life, civilization inevitably advances for its own sake. Almost no one will be willing to argue against “benefits” to society at large that come from expanding its power. And so people stop pursuing quality of life and start pursuing power itself. They can be wealthier and stronger by expanding civilization and so they do it; they can control nature and others with technology and so they exploit it. Civilization leads people into power at which point they become reckless because the only standard is what pleases other people by telling them what they want to hear. But that, too, is power; the oldest form of power is the nocturnal mob assembled to force a single issue on others and retreat in anonymity before daylight makes the consequences known.
I later expanded this “power for its own sake” to “the power of human reason over nature” in order to fit with the Garden of Eden mythos:
It is a form of hubris, or the idea that human reason is superior to nature and gods/God, and it is like the ring in Tolkien: it corrupts everyone who encounters it.
Other thinkers see it more as technological power than a sense of superiority over the natural order. Bruce Charlton compares the Ring to craft and technology:
Tolkien’s elves are real scientists who are skilled in discovery and take delight in craft, but the results of their researches may be good or evil, depending mainly on their motivation. The greatest elven scientist/ craftsman was Feanor – and he ended-up consumed by pride, possessiveness and hatred; and caused more evil than any other elf.
In Tolkien’s world, science is one of the noblest human endeavors (and remember that Tolkien was himself a professional scientist – a philologist; as well as having many more obviously scientific hobbies such as astronomy and botany) yet he depicts science as fraught with danger because – in so far as it succeeds – it enhances human power over nature – especially power over other humans (note: elves are ‘human’ – albeit very long-lived).
The paradox is exemplified by the One Ring – that when someone gains power through science (through ‘the machine’ as Tolkien terms it) then he himself is diminished – he has (in effect) infused his native vitality into the making of the machine.
Perhaps more following an older literary tradition, however, the One Ring represents human hubris which leads to the notion that we can use technology, politics, popularity, and wealth to substitute for being right and good in the context of the natural order.
In this view, the Ring is human egotism:
The Ring is the state of mind that desires control, as a means of perpetuating oneself beyond mortal life. This corresponds to some concepts from Moby Dick, the Nibelungenlied, and the parable of the Lydian Gyges from The Republic, all of which certainly influenced Tolkien. Perhaps the metaphor of the treasure of the dragon from Beowulf is also on point here.
Some support for the notion of hubris in Moby-Dick comes from the words of Ahab in which he proclaims the superiority of human reason to reality itself:
Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creation. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
Similarly, in The Republic, a magic ring which turns its wearer invisible stands for the moral test that comes with a lack of accountability to nature, namely the ability for one’s deeds to be associated with the person in question. The Ring reveals us:
According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared.
Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men.
In Das Nibelungenlied, the ring serves as a symbol of betrayal, and the invisibility comes from an invisible cloak which grants its wearer the ability to change history:
Making preparations for the journey, Siegfried carefully packed the magic cloak that he had taken from Alberich. Not only did this cloak make its wearer invisible, but it gave him the strength of twelve additional men. Yes, with the aid of this cloak he did win Brunhild for Gunther, but in the end he came to rue this act.
Tolkien borrows another symbol from this, that of immortality, which he wraps into the wring not as a sense of invincibility but “unnatural long life”:
It was well known that Siegfried, having bathed in a dragon’s blood was invincible against all normal weapons. However, it was rumored that in bathing he may have missed one spot, and if an enemy could discover its location, he would have a chance to mortally wound the famous warrior.
This conception of the ring as invisibility and strength blends with the idea that when evils become socially accepted, we stop recognizing them as evil, and dominance of evil follows from tolerance of this state of affairs:
The invisibility conveyed by civilization allows us all to be like Gyges, in that against a backdrop of complex social interactions, individuals each going their own way, and relative anonymity, our actions remain concealed, even if in this case they (mostly) involve only ourselves.
More importantly, it reveals that our tendency is toward evil and, unless checked, we progress to a state of radical evil by taking one wrong step, rationalizing it, compensating with another wrong step, justifying it, and finally ending up fully committed to an unrealistic and harmful path.
Some support for this idea comes from C.S. Lewis, who saw the ring as social approval:
Macintyre quotes from a lecture CS Lewis gave in 1944. “Of all the passions,” said Lewis, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
Let us now revisit the Garden of Eden mythos, which formalizes the notion of human reason being made supreme over nature — which includes Godhead, God, and gods — as the alluring power which brings humans to their doom:
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And there you have it: “ye shall be as gods,” the eternal pursuit of humanity, since that addresses not just our relative powerlessness, but our fear of mortality, and the knowledge that being part-monkey we are not gods, which enrages us for some reason.
In Melville, Plato, the Bible, the Song of the Nibelungs, and J.R.R. Tolkien, we see hubris revealed as the desire to be as gods using technology and social popularity. If anything, this identifies the weakness of humanity that leads us to ruin time and again.
Tags: das nibelungenlied, garden of eden, herman melville, hubris, j.r.r. tolkien, plato, ring of the lydian gyges, the ring