Only recently did I discover that I am a Hobbit. It had to be explained to me. Yet it followed from my previous political experience, for I was raised to think of myself as a liberal. This meant subscribing to the notion of free enterprise, in the economy and most other things; limited government; defending Western moral and intellectual values; and aggressively pursuing the international fight against Communism in places like Vietnam. This last was a question of decency and honour. My father explained all this to me. My mother more or less agreed, except she told me, sotto voce, the word for that had changed. People who preferred freedom to tyranny were now called “conservatives”; the commies had appropriated the other word. Upon going myself out into the world I discovered that, oddly enough, my mother was right. I was called a “conservative,” and soon gave up arguing that really I was a “liberal,” classical or otherwise.
Actually, some Czech drinking buddies helped me in this. Well do I remember a little pub altercation, in which some American draft dodgers at the next table went on and on about “Nixon” and “war crimes” and so forth. And when we’d had enough of their slogans, we Czechs answered with one of our own. “Bomb Hanoi!” we chanted (though not in the Gregorian manner). Then after some pointless exchange, we added, “Bomb Hanoi!” … Finally the bartender, affecting to be neutral, had us all tossed out.
From my readings in English history (using the term broadly here, to include Scottish, American, South African, Indian, Australian, and more generally “English-speaking” history), I was able to learn that “conservative” wasn’t good enough. “Reactionary” came closer to the mark; perhaps “Tory” was more conventional, so long as “Jacobite” was also understood.
By this time I had got a little religion, and begun to understand that with the loss of religion men became slaves to depravity, and the welfare state, requiring ever more “guvmint” to rule them as moral conscience faded, along with the spirit of personal independence, and the capacity for self-reliance.
The History of Mediaeval Political Theory in the West, by the brothers Carlyle (Alexander J. and Robert W., countless volumes, Edinburgh 1903, &c) was eye-opening in this respect, for it conducted me into a world of political thinking different from, and dramatically superior to, that with which I had been acquainted from Hobbes, forward.
Now, Hobbes was no Hobbit. He was, on the other hand, far more interesting as a political thinker than the Whigs who followed him, largely because he was himself arguing with the Elizabethan, Richard Hooker, and through him, with mediaeval, especially Thomist ideas that had leapt the fence of the Reformation, to survive a few moments on the other side. He was not, like later philosophers of the Enlightenment, chiefly concerned with who should govern — a ridiculous question, as there will always be someone, no matter how he took the throne or what he wishes to be called. Nor, with the closely related Machiavellian question, How to get power and hang on to it? Rather, the background questions for him were the mediaeval ones: How to govern? What is most fundamentally necessary for the common weal? What is to be embodied in a ruler? Hobbes turned mediaeval thinking inside out, but did so in answer to essentially mediaeval questions.
Shakespeare of course comes into this, for while never a formal theoretician, he was by far the greatest and most penetrating political thinker that broad “England” ever produced; and I say this without the least disparagement of the second-greatest, Edmund Burke. But Shakespeare was a fully Catholic, mediaeval thinker. His meditations on “legitimacy” for instance — which extend through all his works, not only the history plays — present the concept from innumerable angles, and in a way neither absolute nor relative, and thus beyond the capacities of the modern mind.
There is what the Chinese would call the “mandate of heaven.” It is unavoidably real, yet it is also as mysterious as Providence and Grace, and cannot be considered apart from those theological realities. The kingship is divinely ordained, but the king himself no more selected, nor compelled to do anything, by the Holy Spirit, than is the pope. For divine intervention is not of that kind. Statecraft partly resembles priestcraft as a calling. As we see most clearly in the two Henry IV plays, anyone can dress up as a king, but the office requires not the fitting of gown and crown, but the amendment of a person (first Henry, then his son Hal). The inheritor must take upon himself the role and solemn, lonely responsibility of kingship; or he must fail to do so, at terrible cost to himself and many others. For men are radically free. Even God respects their freedom. Either they rise to their calling, or drag the office down to their own fallen level, becoming tyrants in the process.
But this is getting too far away from Hobbits.
My own development as a political thinker was tragically stunted by employment as a political pundit. No class of writers knows less about politics than they. In order to write at all in this genre, one must pretend to take seriously an entire political order that is preposterous, peopled by the mentally and emotionally disturbed, and ruled by power-hungry maniacs, until one’s own last mooring is shot. The madness is compounded by complete ignorance of what is going on, since no one not himself up to his ears in the actual exercise of political power can possibly understand what is in play. And, those up to their ears are drowning.
The idea of the autonomous “prince” is modern. The mediaeval idea of hierarchy precluded it. The man at the top was lynchpin for a regime consisting of persons in various ranks of nobility, but in a curiously invertible pyramid, for though each in his place is servant to a master above him, he is also servant to the servants of those below him in station, pledged to their defence. The idea of “public service” survives today, but with a much different flavour. This is because the individual has ceased to be defined as a soul, a “being,” with duties. He has been redefined as a cypher or “function” with “rights.” Where to the old Christian view, rights followed from duties in the same man, to our post-Christian view the arbitrary rights of one man translate to duties for unaccounted others. (My right to a free lunch translates to your duty to pay for it, &c.) In this sense, all modern political thinking is in its nature totalitarian.
At the opposite extreme are the politics of Hobbitry: in its nature mediaeval, or if you will, sane. This I gather from perusing recent works on the political views of J.R.R. Tolkien, principally that of Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards in, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. I must depend on such secondary sources, for I’m afraid I’ve never been able to read Tolkien himself for very long without falling asleep. It follows that gentle reader is more likely to understand what I am saying here, than I am myself.
The Hobbits of the Shire live under a system of Hardly Any Government. Almost everything is decided at the family level, which leaves, on the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, hardly anything else to decide. But it is better than this, owing to qualities in the Hobbits themselves. It appears that they have no understanding whatever of the concept of “fairness,” and no intellectual ability to distinguish redistribution of property from theft and rapine. They see things rather as they are. On the other hand, they have a perfect understanding of self-defence, engaged when they are occupied by liberal do-gooders. The solution to the problems these do-gooders create is thus very simple. Get rid of them. It is a task which everyone can join in.
Saruman, his Orcs, and their contrivances, provide the metaphor to liberal do-gooders and their obsessions with “process” and technology. They proved their value in resisting evil, arguably, once upon a time, until they became evil themselves. They would not understand Christ’s mysterious instruction, “resist ye not evil,” nor the parables in which He shows that “fairness” is of the Devil. They arrive in power with a do-gooder agenda, and in this are typically modern men. They toggle between damnable efficiency, and damnable inefficiency. They care not which, for over time their project is to create such a cat’s cradle of inter-dependencies that all freedom of action expires, and they may feed on human souls unchallengeably. (Whenupon, God destroys them.)
Hobbits lack agendas of any kind, which is what makes them pushovers, when dealing with the guileful. Instead they have customs, such as the meal times for which they are famous (breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper, &c). Their outlook is redemptively mediaeval. But how to protect them from e.g. Saruman and Orcs?
That is where thinking on kingship comes in. My suspicion is that the authors have been led by Tolkien’s whimsy into thinking him more naïve than he was. True enough, Tolkien the man hated democracy, and particularly hated tax collectors. Put more simply, he hated evil. He cannot have failed to understand that his Hobbits were in need of some sort of protection. They were not, however, in need of being changed. As a scholarly mediaevalist, Tolkien would have seen this plainly. I’m not sure Witt and Richards see it.
Mediaeval political thinking is focused on the requirements of kingship. It compasses an idea of men in personal relations with God, and with their neighbours. It is antithetical to various notions of the “divine right of kings,” hatched at the Reformation (then quickly copied from Protestant to Catholic realms); and by analogical extension to the abstract “divine right of the people,” in more recent constitutions. Divine rights belong only to the divine, and kings on the old model did not have “majesty,” only “highness.” (Again, “Your Majesty” was a dangerous innovation, from the late fourteenth century; though as it has since become customary, I let it pass.)
Not everything disappears. The mediaeval understanding survives to the present day, in the role of the pope as living ruler of the Church, and of the papacy as court of last resort. In the traditional understanding, he is no programmatic “politician”: his job is purely defensive. It is to defend the Deposit of Faith — the received doctrine, and the practices which follow from the doctrine — to the death if necessary. Any attempt to change these things — to innovate or pursue any kind of personal agenda — must be condemned. A pope who tried that would become an anti-pope, and all good men would then feel called to depose him (in the most orderly available way).
Similarly, a mediaeval king has the task of defending custom. It isn’t his “right” to change anything, but instead his duty to pass on the kingdom to his successor, unmolested. He is the symbol of unity, of social solidarity, of moral order, of motherhood and apple pie and everything that is “above politics.” When he exceeds his authority, he must be deposed. That is precisely why so much mediaeval political thinking was devoted to explicating the duty of rebellion. It can never be taken lightly, never be required except in the gravest circumstances. It is never a right; it can only be a duty. It is a duty not to overturn, but instead to restore a legitimate order, pleasing to God, that has itself been overturned. And as Shakespeare showed, with transcending genius in dramatic action, God’s favour is both sought and expressed in conclusive acts of Reconciliation.
What then, one might ask, is the legitimate purpose of kingship? On one level it is high and therefore sacramental, a mediation between God and man. But pragmatically or practically it has a related function that anyone should be able to understand. And that is, to protect the Hobbits.