Technology in Tolkien and Laudato Si


I just discovered and added John Carswell’s ebook “Tolkien’s Requiem” to my Inkling’s collection. What brought me to his site was a headline on If you want to understand Laudato Si better, J.R.R. Tolkien can help…

The excellent article “Laudato Si: Pope Francis’ Tolkienian Encyclical” mirrors much of my thought regarding the encyclical (an initial bit of which can be read here). Particularly, the author’s discussion of technology and man’s relation to nature piqued my interest.

The encyclical is very anthropological, going back to examine who/what man is and the consequent implications for his various relationships with the rest of the cosmos – God, other human beings, and the rest of creation. The inclusion in Laudato Si of sections on technology could be easily just seen as additional fragments of this Pope’s anti-modernist commentary. However, I would argue that discussion of the benefits and dangers of technology goes right to the heart of the human condition because from the garden of eden the temptation to grasp at “being like God” through some tool or technique of our own wielding has been at play.

Pope Francis:

105. There is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself”, an advance in “security, usefulness, welfare and vigour; …an assimilation of new values into the stream of culture”,[83] as if reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”,[84] because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. It is possible that we do not grasp the gravity of the challenges now before us. “The risk is growing day by day that man will not use his power as he should”; in effect, “power is never considered in terms of the responsibility of choice which is inherent in freedom” since its “only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security”.[85] But human beings are not completely autonomous. Our freedom fades when it is handed over to the blind forces of the unconscious, of immediate needs, of self-interest, and of violence. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint. (Laudato Si)

Our internal powers do not necessarily keep pace with the development of  external/Instrumental means. This theme of course runs all through the Tolkienian epic. The point is not that power/magic/technology/industry are simply good or bad, but our hearts are attracted to or entranced by them often for the wrong reasons and the great perhaps invite a graver danger than the simple in wielding such things. Mr Carswell explains:

In a 1953 letter, Tolkien explained that one of the main themes of his Middle-earth works is “the Machine.” By “Machine” he meant the technologies we devise for “making the will more quickly effective.” By contrast, he finds virtue in what he terms “Art,” the “development of the inherent inner powers or talents” of a thing. For Tolkien, legitimate creativity and innovation involves a deep respect for the nature of the thing being developed as opposed to the will to dominate and change its nature. Similarly, Pope Francis says: “Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand. Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us.” Man, through the Machine, has gone from seeing nature as something to be tended, cared for, and developed to seeing it as an object to be dominated and put to maximum use.

Check out the rest of Mr. Carswell’s article and his website here:

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