December 18, 2003


THE RETURN OF THE KING: TOLKIEN AND THE NEW MEDIEVALISM: The obsession with power, will and hierarchy in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings fuels its dangerous topicality: a vindication and veneration of empire. (K.A. DILDAY, OpenDemocracy)

The relationship between politics and art began to trouble me anew when I walked out of the The Fellowship of the Ring, the first instalment of the Lord of the Ring film trilogy in December 2001. It was just three months since the apocalyptic attacks and New York was still reeling. The tension of worldwide anticipation was palpable, something was coming, but what?

By the time the second part of the saga, The Two Towers was released last year, the invasions had begun and the nascent 21st century had become eerily similar to Middle Earth. Now, The Return of the King opens around the world at the same time that global news media display images of a defeated enemy undergoing public, intimate, physical inspection as a symbol of his complete submission and degradation.

We are living in times when the public rhetoric is medieval. Politicians and pundits invoke the words good and evil casually, as if the age of reason never happened.

You'd be hard pressed to improve on this for an argument of why the medieval understanding of the world is superior to that of the Age of Reason.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 18, 2003 10:19 PM


I've read the quote several times now, but I still can't believe this guy just compared our invations of Afghanistan and Iraq to the Dark Lord's attack on Middle Earth in the LOTR movies.

I must be imagining things.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at December 18, 2003 11:02 PM

I'm sure the movies would have done well anyway but coming out while 9-11 was fresh has definitely invited comparisons between the trilogy and the current world state and perhaps increased interest in the movies. It also may be that the movies allowed people to realize that fighting evil is necessary (even if it requires great sacrifice) which they couldn't say in these pc-times.

Posted by: AWW at December 18, 2003 11:06 PM

So the age of reason somehow made obsolete the concepts of good and evil? I must have missed that memo.

Posted by: PapayaSF at December 18, 2003 11:17 PM

As the author points out, if you put your faith in reason you can't even believe in good and evil.

Posted by: oj at December 18, 2003 11:17 PM

Now that's just weird. I suppose I'd be considered a secular rationalist, but I have absolutely no problem believing in good and evil. I can look around in the world and see both good and evil actions on a daily basis. How can acknowledging the evidence of my senses be in conflict with reason? The entire idea is just bizarre on its face.

I readily grant that large sections of the secular left seem to have lost the ability to differentiate between good and evil, or even to use those concepts as tools of analysis. On the other hand those sections of the left are also (in my opinion) thoroughly irrational, so they don't do much to show a conflict between reason and good/evil either.

Posted by: Kyle Haight at December 18, 2003 11:51 PM

The evidence of your senses is not rational. When you "see" good and evil you see with religious eyes, hardly surprising in so religious a culture. But look at our own Left and at secularized Europe and you see what happens when that vision clears up. There is no more evil, there are just people who are different than you.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 12:04 AM

Kyle, you are absolutely correct. OJ is giving his boilerplate screed that secular Americans are merely freeloading off of the moral capacities of the religious, and are incapable of arriving at the same moral determinations relying on their own resources.

OJ, the ideology that cannot recognize the existence of evil is no stranger to religion. The left is not dependent on or primarily driven by atheism, there is a powerful religious element at work on the left, the Religious Left. Religious eyes are human eyes, they are no more discerning of the true nature of things than are secular eyes.

The evidence of our senses is the most rational part of our consciousness, and the closer our ideas conform to it, the more rational they are. It takes truly complex and convoluted thought processes to deny the evidence of our senses. Thought processes that are shared by ideologues of both secular and religious persuasions.

Posted by: Robert D at December 19, 2003 1:43 AM

Certainly there are people who claim reason somehow makes good and evil obsolete, but I don't buy it. They can conflict, but I don't see why they can't coexist.

Posted by: PapayaSF at December 19, 2003 1:48 AM

I'm trying to decide which is the loopier, this ludicrous critique of a brilliant movie, or OJ's follow-up comments.

i'm intrigued to know what OJ means by 'believing in reason'?

Posted by: Brit at December 19, 2003 5:44 AM

First, I think that the author is not comparing us to Mordor, but accepts that we're the armies of the West, making this a metaphor that works for everyone.

Second, rationality, religion, good and evil. Good and evil, in the sense in which OJ uses those phrases, and the way in which Tolkien understands them, are religious concepts. For the religious, "good" and "evil" are not adjectives but nouns: two immortal forces opposed to each other, intermingled with but seperate from humanity. Thus, neither evil nor good are subject to rational explanation, nor can any action we take eradicate either force.

Rationalists, or as I prefer, materialists, cannot believe in two such forces, which are inherently immaterial. They must believe that "evil" is merely descriptive: a particular act is evil. A person who indulges in a series of evil acts may be described himself as evil, just as a person who indulges in too many alcoholic drinks may be described as a drinker. Yet the materialist, looking for some physical (in the broad sense of scientific) explanation, will always look to some factor in the actor's upbringing or some perversion of his physical nature, some explanation for his actions. For the materialist, to seek an explanation is to seek a cure.

An explanation is also, in some measure, an exculpation: if this had not happened, the actor would not have acted evilly. In the last week, for example, I have heard a "scholar" explain how Saddam's brutal upbringing made him the man he was. In other words, evil acts are always a sign of something having gone wrong, and if something went wrong in the past, it can be fixed in the future. If we could only raise everyone in kindness and security, if our scans could only find physical seat of morality, we could stop evil acts from happening.

The religious laugh.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 19, 2003 7:48 AM

"The evidence of our senses is the most rational part of our consciousness, and the closer our ideas conform to it, the more rational they are."

By that standard Aristotle was more rational than Newton and Ptolemy more rational than Copernicus.

Posted by: carl at December 19, 2003 8:13 AM


Not quite. Because the Rationalist/Materialist/etc. dismisses God they have no grounding for morality, so those acts aren't "evil", just different lifestyle choices. After all, who are we to judge.

Posted by: OJ at December 19, 2003 8:21 AM

Materialists can believe inherently evil people exist, just as they can believe inherently good people exist.

For example, I believe you would be good no matter the environment or religion you grew up in.

Equally, Saddam would have been evil, no matter what.

How would a materialiast make the distinction? By yours and his acts. A materialist would almost certainly look to a different place for the explanation than the one you pose. The balance between cooperation and self interest is a human characteristic just like height, and varies across the population. Some people are born tall, some born evil. Same explanation works for both, and materialists need be no more confused about the latter than the former, nor need look to society for explanation, nor government for cure.

Nothing immaterial about that.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 19, 2003 8:30 AM

Robert D:

Human senses often lie, and even if our senses relay, as best they can, what's actually happening, it's very common for the brain to misinterpret those impulses. Also, even if neither of the above happens, we cannot rely on our memory to be completely accurate about what happened, after the fact.
That's why eyewitness testimony, although very powerful, is often mistaken.

Thus, although one should accept sensory perception as one component of reality, the senses are not inherently "rational".


Evil may be an inborn trait in some, but it's clear that many, many evil people, (I would argue the vast majority), are damaged in early childhood, either by environment, or upbringing.
Some overcome such training, but humans really are fundamentally shaped while quite young.

I would distinguish between those who act immorally on occasion, who DO choose to do bad acts, and those who are truly evil, and don't care whom they hurt, as long as they prosper.

We will never be rid of evil, but, if we COULD psychologically evaluate and treat everyone, crime would be greatly reduced.
(Setting aside, for the moment, the question of whose standards would be used for the evaluation, and what methods would be used for treatment).

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at December 19, 2003 8:56 AM


Posted by: David Cohen at December 19, 2003 9:20 AM

Materialism can't coutenance the existence of good or evil for neither is a material quality. Re-read your Lucretius on this one. You can also check out a nice summary here:

As for a religious left, the concept is terrifying because it marries statism to christian pacifism, when it isn't watered down by a toothless puritanism (read: secular protestantism). We would have the Canadian version of the U.S.S.R. It is far closer to theocracy than anything which the religious right has been accused of.

Posted by: DW at December 19, 2003 9:36 AM


That ignores the evil that each of us does. Evil is part of our birthright. Our challenge is to minimize it.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 10:06 AM


A ruler tells us who's tall. What measure tells us who's evil? Especially when you believe that everyone is entitled to define "morality" themself.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 10:10 AM

You choose your morality--you adhere to one particular version of religion and its morality at the expense of all others.

Either you made that choice based on what is on offer, or you abdicated that choice to circumstances of birth. But either way, at the end of the day you have chosen which morality is acceptable to you.

Put all the God gloss on it you want, you are fundamentally doing the same thing a materialist does.

Evil is as evil does.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at December 19, 2003 11:54 AM


Not at all- I blindly accept the morality of the civilization and of our fathers, which has served us well for thouysands of years. You do too, more or less, you're just unable to accept the fact.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 12:09 PM

Wow, looks like I kicked over a can of worms. A few quick hits in response.

1) I didn't say that the evidence of my senses was rational. I said that *acknowledging* the evidence of my senses was rational. There's a difference. It's subtle, but significant.

2) David is half right. I don't believe in good and evil as independent or reified forces acting independent of chosen human actions. So if that's the definition you're using for the terms then you're right: there's no rational reason to believe in such a thing. David is wrong, however, when he ignores free will as a possible source of evil actions. Sometimes people simply choose to do evil things. That's inherent in the possession of free will as such, and (IMHO) is the grain of truth inside the notion of original sin. It's because people always have the capacity to choose evil that evil cannot be erradicated from life.

3) Simply asserting that without God there is no basis for morality does not make it so. That, at root, is the point at issue. Orrin thinks it's true. I disagree.

4) I don't see how religion relieves the individual of the necessity of judgement at some level. There are a lot of religions to choose from. Many of them espouse divergent moral viewpoints, or lay down different rules governing proper moral behavior. You can blindly accept the religion handed down to you by your ancestors, but that's still a choice and carries with it an implicit judgement.

Posted by: Kyle Haight at December 19, 2003 2:12 PM

Kyle -- Without G-d there is no free will.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 19, 2003 2:30 PM

Oh, here we go again. I'd still like to see a definition of "will" (free or otherwise) that makes sense in a materialistic context. I'm not sure you can - though we're all intuitively convinced of it - and without that how can we even discuss good or evil?

Posted by: Mike Earl at December 19, 2003 3:38 PM


Bonus points for honest materialist/rationalism.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 3:54 PM


Believing the evidence of your senses is irrational, but it is the point from which rationalism necessarily begins--its fatal flaw.

Posted by: oj at December 19, 2003 3:56 PM


What divergeant moral viewpoints do the main religions espouse? What different rules do they lay down concerning proper moral behaviour?

Posted by: Peter B at December 19, 2003 11:23 PM

"the medieval understanding of the world is superior to that of the Age of Reason."

Much to the same point is Inventing the Middle Ages: The Lives, Works, and Ideas of the Great Medievalists of the Twentieth Century by Norman F. Cantor

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at December 20, 2003 12:37 AM

"Not at all- I blindly accept the morality of the civilization and of our fathers, which has served us well for thouysands of years. You do too, more or less, you're just unable to accept the fact."

OJ, it hasn't been the same morality for thousands of years. Neither has it served us well in all of those thousands of years.

Posted by: Robert D at December 20, 2003 2:46 PM

"Kyle -- Without G-d there is no free will."

How is there free will with God? What is the crux of this argument? We either posess this attribute or we do not. It is like saying "Without God, there is no red hair". Does red hair exist? How does the answer depend on the answer to the god question?

Posted by: Robert D at December 20, 2003 2:53 PM

"Thus, although one should accept sensory perception as one component of reality, the senses are not inherently "rational"."

Agreed. What I meant to say is that we are at our most rational when we allow the output of our thought processes to be tested and adjusted by the evidence of our senses. Sense perceptions are not always accurate, but we can identify and measure the sources of error in in our sensory processes and adjust accordingly, as a shooter applies windage to his aim.

Posted by: Robert D at December 20, 2003 3:01 PM