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Tolkien and the Machines


Near the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings, we read:

“I am sorry,” he said. “But I felt so queer. And yet it would be a relief in a way not to be bothered with it anymore. It has been growing on my mind lately. Sometimes I have felt it was like an eye looking at me. And I am always wanting to put it on and disappear, don’t you know; or wondering if it is safe, and pulling it out to make sure. I tried locking it up, but I found I couldn’t rest without it in my pocket. I don’t know why. And I don’t seem able to make up my mind.”

Removed from its context, we might assume this describes an attachment to a smartphone or to any of the many devices that have taken over our lives. Instead, what it describes is Bilbo Baggins’ struggle to leave behind his magic ring, which he had promised to pass on, together with all his possessions, to his nephew and heir, Frodo. Bilbo has no problem handing over his large home and all his wealth; he has no difficulty leaving behind a life of comfort and ease to embark on one last adventure; what he cannot do is let go of his ring. We eventually find out that this is no ordinary ring, but the One Ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron himself. The eerie similarity with what many of us have experienced might tempt us to the facile explanation that the ring stands for modern technology, especially if one is aware of Tolkien’s dislike for modern inventions. But Tolkien also disliked allegory and denied that the ring had any allegorical meaning. Instead, he writes: 

You cannot press the One Ring too hard, for it is of course a mythical feature. . . . The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to ‘philosophize’ this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert ‘power’ must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them.1

Tolkien did not philosophize much about the ring, but his explicit reference to the Aristotelian notion of potentiality (or potency) opens a path for us to philosophize and grasp the similarity between Sauron’s magic ring and modern technology. In the classical understanding of act and potency, act is metaphysically and logically prior to potency. It is an Aristotelian axiom that no potency can be actualized except by something already in act. In actualizing certain potencies, other potencies that are further removed are brought closer to us; in actualizing potencies within our reach, remote possibilities become more proximate. For instance, the ability to run a marathon is practically impossible for anyone who does not run regularly. If a person begins training, running one mile a day for a few weeks, two miles a day for a few more, and so on, the possibility of running 26 miles in one go soon becomes real. By actualizing the potency of running one mile, the potency of running two comes within our grasp, and with it, the potency of running three, four, etc. But if a person never gets off the couch and starts running, the possibility of running a marathon will remain as distant as ever; it might in fact become even more remote. In failing to actualize certain potencies, our faculties might atrophy, and we might come to lose the ability to actualize them altogether.

If Sauron’s ring is a mythical treatment of the placing of one’s power in some external object, we can now see how it is an apt image of our relationship with machines and devices.

But what does this all have to do with technology? To answer that, we must first take a step back and consider the difference between tools and machines. We often disregard this difference because we think of it as one of degree, not of kind. We think of machines as nothing more than powerful tools. In a speech at the Munich College of Technology, Romano Guardini addressed this difference.2 He suggests that tools are artifacts that extend, amplify, or redirect human potentialities. A fist can deliver a strong blow, but a hammer can multiply its power. A human potentiality is thus amplified. Guardini then describes a machine as a device whose function is scientifically understood and technically worked out. It can operate from natural forces removed from their normal setting and used at will. A car, for example, is a machine designed using techno-scientific knowledge, built following the precise instructions of engineers. It runs on the burning of gasoline, itself the result of a techno-scientific process whereby the petroleum found in the depths of the earth is extracted, transformed, and transported. And all of this so that we can propel the vehicle forward at will. In the tool, the actual effecting of its purpose originates in the person using it. In the machine, this power has been transferred to the machine itself. Machines only require an operator incidentally: they can be made to run on their own. The person driving the car is controlling it, yes, but it is the car that is effectively doing the moving; the driver is coming along for the ride. In terms of effecting the movement itself, the driver is superfluous, which explains why building self-driving cars seems like a logical thing to do.

Tolkien described the major themes running through his legendarium like this: 

All this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. . . . By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents—or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.3 

“Each new machine means that something we previously mastered with the help of our organic intellectual equipment is now left to a technical construct.”

If Sauron’s ring is a mythical treatment of the placing of one’s power in some external object, we can now see how it is an apt image of our relationship with machines and devices. Tolkien points out that this placement of one’s power in something else represents a danger to oneself, that the results can be disastrous. How so? With the use of machines and devices, we are forfeiting our dignity as actualizers. Potencies are being actualized by these, not by us. 

Some critics of technology are concerned with the loss of skills that derives from depending on machines, but that is only the surface of the problem. What is happening is that the horizon of our own possibilities becomes restricted, even when these seem to multiply because of our gadgets. We not only lose certain skills, but we lose the capacity for further growth that comes from having those skills and we renounce developing our “inherent powers or talents.” With modern technology, we become passive. Our power, in a certain sense, grows, but this is more an appearance than a reality. Our machines become capable of more, while we become capable of less. And because we can do less, we rely more and more on our devices, becoming increasingly dependent on them, becoming bound to them, becoming restless without them—like Bilbo, or worse yet, Gollum. There is yet another dimension to this passivity. With machines, our relationship to the work being done is divorced from the knowledge of how it is being effected because it is mediated by a scientific knowledge and technical know-how that we might not possess. I can drive a car effectively without knowing how an internal combustion engine (or an electric motor) works. Soon, even knowing how to drive will be unnecessary because the car will drive itself. Guardini put it this way: “Each new machine means that something we previously mastered with the help of our organic intellectual equipment is now left to a technical construct.”4 

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These two forms of passivity put us at a double risk by making us doubly dependent. By the first form of passivity, we make ourselves vulnerable by placing our powers in something external, which, to use Tolkien’s words quoted above, “is thus exposed to capture or destruction,” or simply to malfunction. What can we do when our technology fails if we are no longer capable of doing things ourselves? And because we also lack the knowledge needed to understand how the device works, we are now also dependent on a specialized class of individuals or companies to fix it. We can grant these individuals (or companies) the benefit of the doubt and not assume that they are driven by the “corrupted motive of dominating” that Tolkien had mentioned, but their help will invariably come at a cost—and it won’t be cheap.

Yet I believe the greater issue remains, not in our dependence as such (which is bad enough), but inasmuch as we forfeit our abilities to do things, we limit our own capacity for growth, becoming lesser versions of ourselves. Once again, we can see our situation in Tolkien’s myth: Sauron, one of the most powerful beings in all of Middle Earth, devolves into a mere shadow when his ring is destroyed; Gollum bears no resemblance to the hobbit-like creature that he once was.

If there is an even more important lesson in The Lord of the Rings, it is that we should not give up hope, even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. Tolkien’s critique of the Machine is not intended to have us flee from making things. There is a way of creating that brings out what is best in the world and in us. Tolkien delineates some of its principles in his essay “On Fairy-stories” and in his poem “Mythopoeia.” Tolkien denotes this way of making “sub-creation” because it is not creation in the proper sense, which is reserved for God alone. We, rather, “make still by the law in which we’re made.” Tolkien developed this idea primarily with respect to the art of story-making, but we can see its applicability across all areas of human making. Sub-creation springs from a profound love for reality and the goodness of the things that exist in the world: “a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give.” Because it springs from such love, it does not seek to dominate but to bring to greater perfection: “By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.” By developing the inherent inner powers or talents of things, we help actualize their potencies, regaining our dignity as actualizers and in turn developing our own powers and talents, widening our horizon of growth. By accepting the dignity of actualizers given to us by God, we are freed from the slavery of the ring.

1 From a letter to Rhona Beare found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 296.
2 Romano Guardini, “The Machine and Humanity” in Letters from Lake Como. Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994).
3 From a letter to Milton Waldman found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 168.
4 Guardini in Letters from Lake Como, p. 110.
5 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoiea” in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), p. 87.
6 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Tales” in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), p. 59.