Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sapolsky on the State of Nature: Hobbes or Rousseau? Why Not Locke?

The question of whether the original state of nature for human beings in foraging bands was a state of war or a state of peace has been a contentious question in the history of political philosophy, beginning with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.  This continues today to be one of the most intensely  debated questions in the social and biological sciences, with some people (such as Richard Wrangham, Azar Gat, and Steven Pinker) adopting the Hobbesian view of the state of nature as a state of war, and others (such as Douglas Fry, Brian Ferguson, and Robert Sussman) adopting the Rousseauian view of the state of nature as a state of peace.  Remarkably, however, these folks never recognize the Lockean alternative--that the state of nature is predominantly a state of peace that easily becomes a state of war--even though they often end up agreeing implicitly with this Lockean view. 

Weighing the evidence and arguments in this debate supports the conclusion that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  I have argued for this assessment in various posts (here, here, and here). 

It is surprising to see how this modern debate repeats the same pattern over and over again.  First, it's assumed that the only choice is between Hobbes and Rousseau.  Then, some people try to argue for the Hobbesian position, and others try to argue for the Rousseauian position.  And yet, eventually most agree that neither extreme position is completely right.  But they cannot recognize the Lockean position as superior to both, because they haven't thought about Locke's argument, or how the evidence gathered by modern scientists might confirm what Locke says.

So, for example, much of the debate over the past 20 years was initiated by Lawrence Keeley in War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (1996).  He frames the debate as a choice between Hobbes and Rousseau (5-32).  And, as the subtitle of his book indicates, he seems to take the side of Hobbes against Rousseau.  But then he concedes that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau got it right: "If Rousseau's primitive golden age is imaginary, Hobbes's perpetual donnybrook is impossible" (178).  And yet he never considers the possibility that the archaeological and anthropological evidence that he surveys in his book could be seen as supporting Locke's position as mostly right.

One can see the same pattern repeated in the debate sparked by Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011).  In a report on this debate in Science, the author says that the debate is rooted in the dispute between Hobbes and Rousseau; and he identifies some scholars as Hobbesians and others as Rousseauians (Andrew Lawler, "The Battle Over Violence," Science 336 [2012]: 829-30).  But then he reports that most scholars agree that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau are completely right.  "They do not argue for a Rousseauian perspective. But that doesn't mean they're ready to embrace a Hobbesian view, either" (830).  The reader is left wondering whether there is some third alternative that is closer to the truth.

I see this pattern again in Robert Sapolsky's new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017).  Sapolsky is a primatologist (particularly, a baboonologist) and neuroscientist at Stanford University, who is famous on the Stanford campus for his popular lecture courses, and also famous around the world for his lectures on YouTube from his course "Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology" that have attracted over a million views.

I first heard him lecture at Stanford in 1988 when I was auditing courses in the Program in Human Biology.  Now, in his new book, we have a massive (790 pages in small print!) magnum opus that brings together much of his thinking from that human behavioral biology course.  The book also has the casual hipster wit that makes his lecturing so engaging for students. 

Sapolsky's book is a comprehensive textbook surveying all of the work over the past forty years--since the publication in 1975 of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology--on the biological bases of social behavior.  Like his teacher Melvin Konner, Sapolsky explains behavior as arising from a complicated interaction of many biological, psychological, and cultural factors, in which every single factor exercises some causal power only in the context of all the other factors.  He is particularly interested in explaining social cooperation (humans at our best) and violent aggression (humans at our worst).

Explaining the deep evolutionary roots of human violence leads him into the debate over whether warfare is rooted in the evolved human nature of our ancient nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors, or whether war is a relatively recent cultural invention that began only a few thousand years ago when human beings moved into sedentary agricultural societies ruled by militaristic states. 

Here he follows the recurrent pattern in this debate that I have just sketched.  He says the debate is "Hobbes-versus-Rousseau" (305-27).  He generally takes the side of the Rousseauians--particularly, Douglas Fry--in criticizing the Hobbesians (Keeley, Pinker, Wrangham, Napoleon Chagnon, and others).  And he tells the story of how a baboon troop that he studied in Kenya experienced a change in their social culture, so that they became less aggressive and more peaceful, less Hobbesian and more Rousseauian, which shows the cultural flexibility emphasized by the Rousseauians.  But then he concedes that neither Hobbes nor Rousseau got it completely right.  "So, Hobbes or Rousseau? Well, a mixture of the two, I say unhelpfully" (325).  He never mentions Locke or considers whether a Lockean account of the state of nature might be best.

In reviewing Sapolsky's book for the New York Times Book Review, Richard Wrangham generally praised the book.  But he also criticized Sapolsky for becoming a "partisan critic" in his account of the Hobbes-versus-Rousseau debate over the evolution of human violence.  Sapolsky's Rousseauian partisanship is subtle in that it depends mostly on his remaining silent about evidence and argumentation that contradict the Rousseauian claims.  For example, he endorses Marshall Sahlins' claim that nomadic  hunter-gatherers were "the original affluent society" (317-18).  But he is silent about the anthropologists who have shown  that Sahlins' argument is not supported by the evidence, which I have indicated in a previous post.

Similarly, Sapolsky relies on the research of Douglas Fry to support the conclusion that nomadic hunter-gatherers have always been peaceful (322).  But Sapolsky is silent about the many criticisms of Fry's reasoning, which I have surveyed in a previous post.  For example, Fry has failed to recognize that many of the modern hunter-gatherer bands that he has identified as peaceful have been surrounded by militarily superior farmers, and so it's hardly surprising that the hunter-gatherers have not gone to war in such circumstances.

Sapolsky says that there is no archaeological evidence for warfare among Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.  There is, however, one recently discovered site in northern Kenya dated at around 10,000 years ago that had the skeletons of 27 people killed in a massacre.  Sapolsky says that this is not evidence for ancient warfare among nomadic hunter-gatherers, because the victims here seem to have been sedentary hunter-gatherers, who were living along the shoreline of Lake Turkana, where there was probably abundant fish and game animals; and so the attackers wanted to steal this "prime beachfront property" (321). 

Sapolsky does not tell the reader that the discoverers of this site could not agree on this.  As I indicated in a previous post, one member of the team accepted the interpretation repeated by Sapolsky--that this is evidence for ancient warfare arising among sedentary hunter-gatherers, who were no longer living a nomadic life.  But another member of the team had a different interpretation.  She said that while there is lots of evidence of warfare "among settled, sedentary communities," the discovery in Nataruk is the first "archaeological record of armed conflict between early nomadic hunter-gather groups."  She suggested that the foragers who were massacred had not established a settlement on the lake, but rather they were a "small traveling band of hunter-gatherers who stopped by a lagoon to hunt or fish."  And so, she seemed to adopt the Hobbesian interpretation of this archaeological discovery as confirming that warfare was prevalent among our earliest foraging ancestors, and thus deeply rooted in our evolved human nature.

But no matter which interpretation one accepts, this confirms Locke's claim that our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a state of peace that easily became a state of war whenever there was any resource worth fighting over--like a good fishing spot.

Sapolsky seems to agree with this when he says that even purely nomadic hunter-gatherers "are no tie-dyed pacifists," because they often engage in lethal violence (323).  If so, then Sapolsky's account of the state of nature is neither Hobbesian nor Rousseauian but Lockean.

But what about Sapolsky's baboons, who showed, he argued, that even if their evolved nature is Hobbesian, they can develop a social culture that taps into their "inner Rousseau"?  I have written a post on Sapolsky's earlier reports of this in 2004 and 2013.  In his new book, he emphasizes the great "flexibility" and "social plasticity" that this shows in baboon life, which sounds like what Rousseau identified as the "perfectibility" of human ancestors, so that nature put no limits on how far human beings could be transformed by cultural history.

In the earlier reports, however, Sapolsky suggested that baboon "perfectibility" is not unlimited.  The changes brought by cultural history are "within the limits of baboon sociality," and the new culture of Forest Troop did not bring "an unrecognizably different utopia."  There was still a dominance hierarchy.  There was still displacement aggression, although it had been reduced.  And while the rate of reconciliations had increased, the need for reconciliations showed the persistence of conflict.  Sapolsky even indicated that the overall rate of aggressive conflict in Forest Troop was similar to other troops.  So despite the cultural malleability shown here, "there are not infinite amounts of social plasticity in a primate social system."

I have argued that we see three levels of social order in these baboons--baboon nature, baboon culture, and baboon individuals.  The repertoire of social behavior characteristic of a baboon species sets the natural limits of baboon sociality.  This baboon nature constrains but does not determine baboon culture.  And, finally, nature and culture constrain but do not determine individual behavior.

I will be writing more posts on Sapolsky's book.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Is There a Culturally Evolved Prejudice against Atheists as Immoral?

Can we be good without God?  If not, should we fear atheism as promoting immorality?  Is atheism contrary to our evolved natural desire for religious belief? 

I have written about this in a previous post, which includes links to other posts.

Now we have new research by Will Gervais and his colleagues indicating that people around the world have a culturally evolved prejudice against atheists (Gervais et al., "Global Evidence of Extreme Intuitive Moral Prejudice against Atheists," Nature Human Behaviour 1 (2017): 1-5).

Here's the abstract:
"Mounting-evidence supports long-standing claims that religions can extend cooperative networks.  However, religious prosociality may have a strongly parochial component.  Moreover, aspects of religion may promote or exacerbate conflict with those outside a given religious group, promoting regional violence, intergroup conflict, and tacit prejudice against non-believers.  Anti-atheist prejudice--a growing concern in secular societies--affects employment, elections, family life, and broader social inclusion.  Preliminary work in the United States suggests that anti-atheist prejudice stems, in part, from deeply rooted intuitions about religion's putatively necessary role in morality.  However, the cross-cultural prevalence and magnitude--as well as intracultural demographic stability--of such intuitions, as manifested in intuitive associations of immorality with atheists, remain unclear.  Here, we quantify moral distrust of atheists by applying well-tested measures in a large global same (N = 3,256; 13 diverse countries). Consistent with cultural evolutionary theories of religion and morality, people in most--but not all--of these countries viewed extreme moral violations as representative of atheists.  Notably, anti-atheist prejudice was evident even among atheist participants around the world.  The results contrast with recent polls that do not find self-reported moral prejudice against atheists in highly secular countries, and imply that the recent rise in secularism in Western countries has not overwritten intuitive anti-atheist prejudice.  Entrenched moral suspicion of atheists suggests that religion's powerful influence on moral judgments persists, even among non-believers in secular societies."
Their sample was drawn from 13 countries on 5 continents, which included highly secular societies (for  example, Netherlands, Finland, and China) and highly religious societies (for example, United Arab Emirates, Mauritius, and India) with diverse religious histories (including countries with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and secular majorities).

Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, and their colleagues have defended a cultural evolutionary model of religion--arguing that the transition from small foraging bands to large agrarian states required extended cooperation of strangers that was made possible by the emergence of religions with moralistic Big Gods, who enforced social cooperation by rewarding the good and punishing the bad in an afterlife.  People who live in large cities need to have norms enforced among strangers by third party punishment, and God is the ultimate third party punisher.  This most recent research was to test one of the predictions from this theory--that human beings around the world should have an intuitive fear of atheists as immoral.

In this research, participants were asked about this scenario:
"When a man was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing stray cats and other animals in his neighborhood."
"As an adult, the man found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead.  He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighborhoods in his home city.  Their dismembered bodies ae currently buried in his basement."
"Which is more probable?
"1. The man is a teacher.
"2 (a). The man is a teacher and does not believe in any gods.
"2 (b). The man is a teacher and is a religious believer."
Half of the participants were given 2 (a), and the other half were given 2 (b).  They were also given other kinds of questions to distract them from noticing that this was an experiment to test for stereotyping and prejudice.

In asking the participants to judge probability, bias is indicated if they commit the "conjunction fallacy."  The conjunction rule for the qualitative law of probability states that the probability of a conjunction--the probability of 1 and 2--cannot exceed the probability of its constituents--the probability of 1 or 2.   (That so many people commit the conjunction fallacy was seen by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman as an example of the illogical heuristics of the human mind.)  If the participanats cannot see that the man being a teacher is more probable than the conjunction, they are showing an illogical bias--a bias either against atheists or against religious believers.

The results showed a greater prejudice against atheists than against religious believers: there was an overall conjunction error rate probability of 0.58 for atheist targets, but only 0.30 for religious targets.  So, people were roughly twice as likely to view extreme immorality--being a murderous psychopath--as representative of atheists relative to believers.

The most surprising result was that even people who identified themselves as atheists showed this same prejudice against atheists as being inclined to extreme immorality!

There is one anomaly in this research, however, that is left unexplained.  Of the 13 countries represented in this study, Finland and New Zealand do not show any bias against atheists.  For Finland, the atheist error rate is .28, and the religious error rate is .26.  For New Zealand, the atheist error rate is .38, and the religious error rate is .29.  Finland shows no bias, and New Zealand very little.  So what goes here?  Are the people of Finland and New Zealand just better in understanding the logic of probability?  Or are they unusual in being free of the global prejudice against atheists?

So is it really unfair to assume that atheism promotes immorality?  The answer from Gervais and his colleagues is complicated.  On the one hand, their evolutionary theory of moralistic religion as necessary for securing large-scale cooperation beginning with the Neolithic transition to agrarian states assumes that religious belief does support morality.  On the other hand, they say that the intragroup cooperation secured by religious belief also promotes distrust of those outside the group, so that religious believers are thrown into conflict with those who do not share their religious beliefs, as shown by religious persecution and religious wars.

Moreover, they argue that as modern societies become ever more secularized, we can see the religious support for morality as a ladder that can be kicked away once we have climbed to the top.  We can see this in highly secularized societies like Denmark and the Scandinavian countries that are highly cooperative and peaceful, although fervent religious belief has almost completely disappeared.  We can explain this as showing how morality can evolve from natural moral sentiments without any necessity for religious belief in a moralistic God.

And yet their research suggests that even in many highly secularized societies, there is still some bias towards believing that morality requires religious belief; and so cultural evolution away from this might be slow.  Norenzayan has suggested an analogy to the cultural evolution of literacy.  For 99% of human evolutionary history, humans have had oral language, and so learning to speak is naturally easy for them.  But writing is a relatively recent invention, and for most of its history, writing and reading were restricted to a small educated elite.  Only in the past two centuries, has modern education spread literacy to the great majority of human beings around the world.  Similarly, he suggests, religious morality has been central to our cultural evolution for thousands of years, and it is only recently that secular morality has begun to prevail in some societies.  We might expect this evolutionary trend to eventually prevail.

As an example of this evolutionary trend, consider a point that came up in my posts on Tom West's book on the American Founding--the debate over religious tests for holding public offices.  One way for legally enforcing religious morality is to have a religious test for public office.  Originally, all of the state constitutions except for Virginia and New York had such tests.  For example, members of the Pennsylvania state legislature had to swear: "I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked, and I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration."

The argument for religious tests was that religion supports morality.  A speaker at the Massachusetts convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution condemned the "no religious test" clause of the Constitution: he argued that no religious tests "would admit deists, atheists, etc., into the general government; and, people being apt to imitate the examples of the court, these principles would be disseminated, and, of course, a corruption of morals ensue."  So here we see the very prejudice against atheists detected by Gervais and his colleagues.

But why then did the founders at the Constitutional Convention vote unanimously and without any controversy for "no religious tests" in the Constitution?  And why did all of the states with religious tests abolish them during the founding period, thus following the example of the national constitution?

To explain this, West says that Chris Beneke "rightly notes" that in "founding America . . . libertarian principles . . . repeatedly triumphed over local prejudices and discriminatory laws."

So now it seems that the "founding consensus" turned to "libertarian principles" dictating that the legal enforcement of religious belief is not necessary to avoid a corruption of morals.  Is this an example of the cultural evolution towards secularized morality expected by Gervais and Norenzayan?

Do we lose anything in moving from religious morality to secular morality?  West thinks that the American founders thought that something would be lost.  In Kantian language, secular morality is a morality of hypothetical imperatives, while religious morality is a morality of categorical imperatives.  A religious morality allows us to see natural rights as sacred.  A secular morality allows us only to see those natural rights as conducive to the pursuit of happiness.  The sacredness of God-given rights is lost in the move to secularized natural rights as instrumental for human happiness (West, The Political Theory of the American Founding, 95).

Michael Egnor seems to be making the same point in his response (published by the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News") to the debate over Gervais' article. (Egnor is a neurosurgeon who teaches at Stony Brook University.)  Can you be good without God?  Egnor's answer is that you cannot be good if God doesn't exist; but if God does exist, you can be good even if you don't believe God exists.

If God exists, Egnor explains, then as Moral Lawgiver, He can provide the cosmic transcendent standards of good and evil.  And insofar as that Moral Law is a natural law "written in our hearts" (Romans 2:15), atheists can intuitively feel the transcendent weight of that Moral Law, even though they deny the divine source of that Law.

But if God does not exist, as the atheists say, then there can be no such thing as good and evil.  There are only human opinions about what serves human welfare, about what we happen to like.  But what we like or dislike gives us only hypothetical imperatives about what serves the needs of human nature, human culture, and human individuals.  This cannot give us the categorical imperatives woven into the cosmic order by the Moral Lawgiver.

I have defended the hypothetical imperatives of natural goodness here and here.  All natural law reasoning depends on hypothetical imperatives that have a "given/if/then" structure: Given what we know about the nature of human beings and the world in which they live, if we want to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then we ought to adopt a social structure that conforms to human nature in promoting human happiness in society.  So, for example, given what we know about human vulnerability and human propensities to violent aggression, if we want to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity in our society, then we ought to have laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft.  Consequently, the laws against murder, rape, assault, and theft are natural laws.

The biblical theist will say that this natural law has been "written in our hearts" by God.  The atheist will say that this natural law belongs to our evolved human nature.

Although Egnor criticizes the atheist for not recognizing the metaphysical ground of morality in God's command, Egnor seems to concede that as a practical matter, this intellectual mistake does not prevent the atheist from living a morally good life.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Trump and the Political Scientists

Beyond my participation on a panel on Tom West's book on the American founding, my main goal at the convention of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco was to attend as many of the panels on Donald Trump as I could, so that I could hear what the political scientists are saying about his surprising electoral victory and his unusual presidency. 

The fact that most political scientists failed to predict Trump's victory is embarrassing for the profession, and so it's not surprising that there were many panels on Trump that attracted large audiences.  Two of the panels I attended had over 150 people in the audience, which must be at least four or five times the average attendance for panels.

The panels sponsored by the Claremont Institute were generally dominated by right-wing pro-Trump supporters.  The panels sponsored by organized sections of the APSA were generally dominated by left-wing empirical political scientists who were anti-Trump.

There were three kinds of questions raised at these panels.  First, who voted for Trump, and why did they do so?  Second, how did the Trump voters prevail in the election?  Third, if Trump is judged unfit to be President, is there any constitutional means to remove him from office?

To the second question, the obvious answer is the Electoral College.  Despite losing the popular vote, Trump won in the Electoral College.  Why?  Some political scientists suggested that what this shows is that the Electoral College increases the weight of the white voters and voters in rural areas who voted for Trump.  One can argue that this is not what was intended by the framers of the Constitution, who hoped that the Electoral College could prevent the election of demagogues like Trump.  The Constitution says that "Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature therefore may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."  Many state legislatures have chosen to bind the electors to vote for their party's nominee, and the selection of electors is by a "winner-take-all" principle, so that the candidate with the most popular votes in a state wins all of the electors of that state.  This creates a weighting of votes that favored Trump over Clinton.  Clinton lost overwhelmingly in white and rural areas of some key states (like Wisconsin) that led to her defeat in the Electoral College, despite that fact that she led in the popular vote total by almost 3 million votes.

Unless one believes that rural white voters deserve to have their votes weigh more than the votes of urban non-white voters, one has to wonder about how to change this.  One way to do this could be carried out by the state legislatures.  They could legislate that all the Electoral College votes of the state would be allocated to the winner of the national popular vote.  Or they could legislate that the Electoral College votes of the state would be divided up proportionally to the popular vote, so that it would no longer be "winner-take-all."  Another way, of course, would be to amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College.

To the third question, there are three possible answers.   If Trump is clearly unfit--morally and intellectually--to be President, then the Congress could impeach him, or the threat of impeachment could persuade him to resign, or he could be declared (under the 25th Amendment) to be "unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office" by the Vice President and a majority of the Cabinet.  If the Vice President and the Cabinet were to declare Trump unable to fill his office, but Trump disagreed, then a 2/3 vote of each House of Congress would be required to up the judgment of disability.

According to some interpretations of the impeachment power of Congress, the 25th Amendment (ratified in 1967) was unnecessary, because the Congress's impeachment power was intended to allow the Congress to remove a President judged to be unfit to fill the presidential office. 

At the APSA convention, John Yoo made this argument on one of the Claremont panels.  Yoo made the same points that were summarized a few months ago by Greg Weiner in an op-ed article in The New York Times.  According to the Constitution, impeachment applies to "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors."  It has been commonly assumed that "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" means that only criminal acts by the President are impeachable.  And thus, we now have a lot of discussion about whether Trump has committed a criminal "obstruction of justice," for which he could be impeached.  But as Yoo and Weiner have argued, persuasively I think, this mistakenly sees impeachment as a legal judgment rather than a political judgment.  As Hamilton indicated in Federalist Number 65, impeachment applies to offenses "of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they related chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself."  At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Madison explained the purpose of impeachment, saying "that some provision should be made for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the Chief Magistrate."  If the Congress judges Trump unfit to be President, the Congress should impeach him, because his unfitness will inflict a great injury on the American community.

The first question--who voted for Trump and why--elicited a variety of answers at the convention.  Most of the people on the Claremont panels answered with Trump's own rhetorical answer to that question:  the country is divided by a battle between the interests of the Ruling Elites (including Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives) and the interests of The People, and Trump is on the side of The People.  Of course, this is the usual rhetoric of the demagogic populist who contrasts the "people"--the virtuous majority of the community--with powerful elites and minority groups who aggrandize themselves at the expense of the people.

The obvious problem with this simple dichotomy--The Elites versus The People--is that The People is divided between Trump opponents and Trump supporters, and Trump's loss of the popular vote and his unpopularity today indicate that his opponents outnumber his supporters.  When I made this point in the question and answer period for one of the Claremont panels, I did not hear a clear answer.  The only answer I can think of is that the Trump opponents among the People have been fooled into sacrificing their own interests in serving the interests of the Elites and minority groups.

Unlike the Claremont political scientists, the empirical political scientists think that the political sociology and psychology of Trump's supporters cannot be explained with a simple dichotomy of Elites versus the People, because the interests of the People are diverse.  Here is where I see the political sociology and psychology of evolved human nature.  The 20 natural desires include the desires for social status, political rule, and property.  Most of the explanations of Trump's supporters by the empirical political scientists depended on one of those three natural desires.

Carson Holloway presented a paper on how Aristotle's account in the Politics (book 5) of the sources of factional conflict in a regime might explain Trump's appeal.  At the most general level, Aristotle claims, factional conflict arises from disputes over equality and inequality: some people engage in factional conflict because they aim at equality, and they think they have less than they deserve, because others have aggrandized themselves unfairly; and other people engage in factional conflict because they aim at inequality, thinking that they deserve to be above others. 

According to Aristotle, this battle over equality and inequality is commonly over either profit or honor: factional conflict arises when people think they have less wealth or honor than they deserve.  This can be seen in Trump's rhetoric, Holloway observes, in that he criticizes the American Elites for taking more wealth and honor than they deserve, and he promises that he will overturn this unfair inequality by increasing the economic wealth and social status of the People and reducing the unfair privileges of the Elites.

Are the Trump supporters motivated by economic issues?  Are they mostly members of a white working class who are economically disadvantaged?  Trump's rhetoric about creating and protecting jobs for the working class suggests this.  But some of the political scientists doubted that Trumpism can be explained by economic interests.  Most of those who voted for Trump are in the top 50% of Americans in income.  And in average income black Americans are generally much worse off than white Americans.

In her speech in August of 2016, when Hillary Clinton warned against the "Alt-Right" support for Trump, she quoted from the Wall Street Journal as describing the Alternative Right as a movement that “rejects mainstream conservatism, promotes nationalism and views immigration and multiculturalism as threats to white identity.”  Some of the political scientists who study the political psychology of "white identity" present evidence that Trump's appeal depends on "white identity politics."  White Americans who believe that they are threatened by non-white racial and ethnic groups were much more likely to vote for Trump than for Clinton.  For these Trump supporters, the motivation is not interest but identity--their identity as white Americans, who have long been the majority in America, but who now fear becoming the minority as more non-white immigrants enter the country.

Three of the speakers at the convention--John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck--have written a forthcoming book about this--Identity Politics: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America.  They make two general points about how political scientists can explain Trump's appeal, which have been summarized in a couple of articles (here and here).  First, most voters are not ideologues: they don't organize their political beliefs through some coherent political theory such as liberalism, conservatism, or libertarianism.  It should not surprise us, therefore, that Trump could appeal to many republican voters even though he has no consistent commitment to the conservative or libertarian ideas that are thought to characterize the Republican Party.

Their second point is that instead of being motivated by any intellectual ideology, the Trump supporters are indeed motivated by white identity.  This is not the same as white supremacy, because white supremacists are only a small minority of the Trump supporters.  Rather, what moves most of the Trump supporters is a sense that white Americans are losing their dominant status in America--that they are being discriminated against by policies like affirmative action, that they are losing jobs to nonwhites, and that the immigration of nonwhites into America will soon make white Americans a minority.  Through survey research, Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck have shown that while fewer than 5% of white Republicans who think that their racial identity is not important supported Trump, 81% of white Republicans who think their white identity is very important voted for Trump.  Although most of these "white identifiers" are not white supremacists, the Alt-Right can appeal to their sense of white identity.

In some previous posts (here and here), I have argued against the Alt-Right supporters of Trump who appeal to the defense of "ethnic genetic interests" as rooted in human evolution.  I am persuaded that evolved human nature is inclined to tribal thinking, so that we naturally categorize people as us and them, and we naturally favor our group over others.  And while the social conditions of life have often predisposed people to make this in-group/out-group division along racial and ethnic lines, there is no evidence that this predisposition is an innate adaptation of the human mind.  On the contrary, there is lots of evidence that while we are innately inclined to look for cues of coalitional affiliation, the content of those cues depends on social learning; and people in multi-racial and multi-ethnic societies can learn to be cooperative without regard for racial or ethnic boundaries.

Aristotle observed: "Dissimilarity of race is also conducive to factional conflict, until a cooperative spirit develops" (1303a25).  I agree.  Racial differences often divide a country.  But the liberal culture of an open society can promote a multiracial cooperative spirit.

Some of the pro-Trump political scientists on the Claremont panels scorned this idea of America as a multiracial open society, and they did so by appealing to their teacher--Leo Strauss. One of them was Michael Anton, the author of the famous "Flight 93" essay arguing that electing Trump was the only way to avoid the death of America through Clinton's election.  Anton now sits on Trump's National Security Council.  He cited Strauss's letters to Alexandre Kojeve as supporting the Trumpian claim that America must avoid the degrading effects of globalization by asserting its national identity as a closed society.  (Last February, The New York Times published a good article on the Straussian supporters of Trump.)

Similarly, Tom West suggested that protecting American identity might require closing the borders to all but white European immigrants.  As a standard, he quoted from the nation's first naturalization law of 1790, which restricted naturalization to "any alien being a free white person."  In his new book, West claims that "a policy welcoming non-European immigrants would have been rejected by all" during the American founding (267).  At the convention, West appealed to white identity politics by arguing that white Americans were victims of discrimination that favored the interests of minority groups and nonwhite immigrants.

The racial division between Trump voters and Clinton voters holds for both men and women.  At the convention, Jane Junn of the University of Southern California pointed out that the "gender gap" between the Democrats and the Republicans is actually a "racial gap."  Although Democratic presidential candidates usually win the majority of women voters, Republican presidential candidates usually win the majority of white women, which was true for Trump.  And in the case of Trump, white women were voting against a white woman!

Nonetheless, some of those who look to Trump as a defender of American identity seem to define that identity in non-racial terms.  One of the political scientists at the convention explaining Trump's appeal was Katherine Cramer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wrote The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (2016).  In Wisconsin, she sees the supporters of Scott Walker and Trump as an us-versus-them resentment against the political elites, but rather than being based on a racial divide, the largely rural white citizens of northern Wisconsin feel resentful against the urban people in Madison and Milwaukee, who show no respect for rural Wisconsin.  Cramer recorded conversations among 39 groups of people in 27 small communities in northern Wisconsin over five years.  These people complained that Wisconsin's state government was controlled by people in the urban areas who favored their own interests, who used government programs to benefit lazy people, including state government employees who advanced their interests at the expense of the hard-working taxpayers.  These rural citizens were the ones who supported Walker's attack on state employee benefits and his efforts to reduce state government generally.  These were also the rural voters who gave Trump his victory.  (This was true across the nation--Clinton lost the rural vote to Trump by huge margins.  Similarly, the Brexit voting in Great Britain was much stronger in rural areas than in London.)

Cramer argues that while these white Republican voters show some evidence of racism--they refer to the highway dividing northern and southern Wisconsin as the "Mason-Dixon line"--their xenophobic resentment is based mostly not on racial differences but on their "rural consciousness" as set against the urban life of Madison and Milwaukee, where the Democrats are the majority.  Some of Cramer's critics have complained that she does not give a good explanation for the causes of this "rural consciousness," except to say that it has been passed down through families.  Some of the critics have suggested that she should have considered the influence of conservative talk-radio in Wisconsin.

So it seems that although the motivations for the Trump voters were complicated, the general pattern is clear: Trump prevailed through a demagogic rhetoric of populist resentment against arrogant exploitative elites.  The question now is what to do about the consequences of electing to the presidency someone who is unfit to fill the office. 

Remarkably, I did not hear any political scientist defend Trump's fitness for the office.  The only defense for the Trump presidency that I heard was the claim that some of the people appointed by Trump were well qualified to promote policies that would reduce the Administrative State, which is the goal of the Claremont folks.  But even on this point, some of the Trump supporters (for example, Stephen Balch of Texas Tech University) admitted that Trump's bad character might ultimately prove more damaging to American conservatism than anything that Hillary Clinton might have done as President.

So far, the harm that Trump can do has been mitigated by his incompetence.  But even an incompetent narcissistic demagogue can be so dangerous that we might hope for his impeachment, or (more likely) his resignation to avoid impeachment.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

West on the American Founding (7): Zuckert and the Evolutionary State of Nature

West and Zuckert agree that the fundamental idea for the natural rights philosophy of the American founders was the state of nature.  West writes: "The state of nature is the basis of the founders' understanding of politics.  If human beings are born free and equal in a natural state, subject only to the laws of nature, then government is a product of human making to secure the equal natural rights of the citizens" (409).  Zuckert sees the Declaration of Independence structured as a syllogism, in which the second paragraph states the major premises arranged in a temporal sequence corresponding to the history of human political experience, which begins with the pre-political condition in the state of nature, where all men are free and equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights (18-19).  If that is not true, the Declaration's syllogism fails.

Many critics of social contract theory and of the Declaration of Independence have denied the historical reality of this state of nature.  After all, all human beings have been born into societies, subjected to the authority of their parents and others in their society.  Human infants living a solitary life would soon die.

Although this criticism might apply to Rousseau's account of the state of nature as an utterly asocial condition of solitary individuals, it does not apply to Locke's account of the state of nature as human beings living in social bands of hunter-gatherers without formal government or laws but with customary norms of conduct that constitute a law of nature.  For Locke, the historical reality of this state of nature is evident in the life of the American Indians, who lived the sort of hunting-gathering way of life that must have characterized our ancient human ancestors: "In the beginning, all the world was America."

As I have indicated in some other posts, Locke studied the reports of the American Indians living in foraging bands as evidence of how human beings originally lived in a state of nature prior to the turn to agriculture and the establishment of government, and most of what Locke inferred has been confirmed by modern research in evolutionary anthropology. 

Here Locke was following the lead of ancient authors like Lucretius and Dicaearchus, who saw that the first human beings must have lived as hunter-gatherers, which Dicaearchus called "the state of nature."  Although the Declaration of Independence does not use the term "state of nature," the idea is implied in the claim that human beings are naturally equal in their liberty until "governments are instituted among men."

Remarkably, however, Zuckert argues that "the Declaration does not present literal or empirical history, but moral history." "The Declaration is not speaking of some primordial prepolitical condition in which human beings wander the forests 'lonely as a cloud'" (23).  The Declaration's history is actually "mythic history" (145). But then he seems to contradict this when he says that the Declaration is exploring "the primeval human condition, the condition prior to the establishment of government and prior to all humanly established laws and rights" (102).

Moreover, Zuckert recognizes that Jefferson, like Locke, thought that the American Indians showed the historical reality of the state of nature (68-69).  According to Jefferson, the Indians manifest "the circumstance of their having never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government.  Their only controls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling, in every man makes a part of his nature.  An offense against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns" (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XI). 

Jefferson's insight here into the evolution of the moral sense in foraging bands has been confirmed by the evidence gathered and analyzed by evolutionary anthropologists like Christopher Boehm, who see the evolution of morality through indirect reciprocity, or what Locke called "the law of reputation," which has been the subject of a post.

From the evolutionary anthropology of the 18th century Scottish philosophers and historians, Jefferson adopted the "four stages theory" of human evolutionary progress--hunting, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial (see Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, Jan. 30, 1787; Letter to William Ludlow, Sept. 6, 1824; and Ronald Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage, 1976).

West quotes a remark by John Adams that West takes as expressing a "view shared by all the founders" (103):
"Men, in their primitive conditions, however savage, were undoubtedly gregarious; and they continue to be social, not only in every stage of civilization, but in every possible situation in which they can be placed.  As nature intended them for society, she has furnished them with passions, appetites, and propensities, as well as a variety of faculties, calculated both for their individual enjoyment, and to render them useful to each other in their social connections.  There is none among them more essential or remarkable, then the passion for distinction. A desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows, is one of the earliest, as well as keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man" (Discourses on Davila, II).
The natural sociality of human beings, even in the primitive state of nature without government, and the evolution of a natural moral law from the natural social concern for praise and blame have been corroborated by modern research in evolutionary anthropology.

West argues that the American founders did not see the state of nature as something found only in the distant primeval past, because they thought it was an ever present reality.  So, for example, when the Americans declared their independence from Great Britain, they momentarily entered the state of nature until they instituted a new government over them.  Moreover, in affirming the natural right to revolution, the Americans understood that people could enter the state of nature at any time in the future when they might judge that their government was not securing their natural rights, and that they must invoke their natural right to alter or abolish their government, and institute new government that might seem to them most likely to effect their safety and happiness by securing their natural rights.

I agree with this, but I also believe that Locke was correct in thinking that the only way to explain how these natural rights are really natural for human beings is to see how they express the primordial human nature shaped in the original state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Friday, August 25, 2017

West on the American Founding (6): Zuckert and the Amalgam Thesis

Thomas West recognizes that his account of the American founding as based on the theory of natural rights resembles Michael Zuckert's interpretation of the founding as establishing a "natural rights republic" (Zuckert 1996).  And yet West insists that he rejects Zuckert's "amalgam thesis"--the idea that while the theory of natural rights is the primary element in the political thought of the founding, the tradition of natural rights thinking is combined with other traditions--such as civic republicanism, Protestant Christianity, British constitutionalism, and perhaps others--that are in tension with the tradition of natural rights. 

In recent decades, West observes, this idea of the political thought of the founding as mixture of different and sometimes conflicting intellectual traditions has become the predominant scholarly consensus, which Zuckert shares with scholars like William Galston, Thomas Pangle, and Paul Rahe.  But West complains that this makes the founders appear to be confused or incoherent in their thinking.  Against this, he proposes to explain the natural rights theory of the founders as a theoretically coherent understanding of politics without any tension or contradictions.

Nonetheless, a careful reading and comparison of West's and Zuckert's books will show, I think, that West's explicit rejection of Zuckert's "amalgam thesis" is contradicted by West's implicit acceptance of Zuckert's argument.  Although this might seem to be a trivial scholarly quibble, it points to some of the fundamental questions about the American political regime and about the theory of natural rights as applied to that regime.

Zuckert explains:
". . . what made America was the way these four elements--Old Whig constitutionalism, political religion, republicanism, and the natural rights philosophy--come together.  The amalgamation that occurred in America was unique in the world, and led America to a unique path of political development and to a particularly tense existence as these four different and, in some dimensions, incompatible elements fell in and out of harmony with each other.  In that amalgam, however, the four elements did not all enjoy an equal status; the natural rights philosophy remains America's deepest and so far most abiding commitment, and the others could enter the amalgam only so far as they were compatible, or could be made so, with natural rights.  The truly remarkable thing is the demonstrated capacity of the natural rights philosophy to assimilate the other three and hold them all together in a coherent if not always easily subsisting whole" (Zuckert 1996, 95).
West quotes some of this language--"tense existence . . . incompatible elements"--as suggesting that the political thought of the founders was an incoherent mixture of contradictory elements; and against that idea, West claims that he can show that the natural rights philosophy of the founders was fully coherent and free from any tense contradictions (West 2017, 46).

But notice that Zuckert sees this American amalgam of different elements as rendered coherent by the preeminence of natural rights as the ruling element, so that the other elements can enter the amalgam only in so far as they can be made compatible with natural rights.  Thus, Zuckert can describe this as "an amalgamation in which the natural rights commitment has remained senior partner but has brought into its political orbit English Whig historical commitments, Protestant political theology, and premodern political republicanism" (240-41).

West seems to agree with this, because he says that the success of the American Revolution required a combination of natural rights thinking with the "distinctive ethnic character, religion, and legal heritage" of America, and to that extent, he concedes, "the amalgam thesis is correct: natural rights are not enough."  But just as Zuckert speaks of natural rights as the "senior partner" in the amalgam, West speaks of natural rights as taking the "leading role" (West 2017, 52). 

So here West and Zuckert agree on the amalgam thesis: that the political thought of the founding was a mixture of historical, religious, and political traditions, but that the natural rights philosophy was the preeminent element in that mixture, so that all the other elements had to be somehow assimilated into that natural rights thinking.

West also recognizes, at least implicitly, some of the same "tension" that Zuckert sees between natural rights thinking and some of the other elements of the American amalgam.  For example, Zuckert shows how the Lockeanization of New England Puritan thought required the rejection of the Puritan theocracy that prevailed in the colonial period.  Similarly, West shows how the theory of natural rights required moving away from the governmental enforcement of Mosaic theocracy towards a separation of church and state, so that "government is no longer in the business of defining the one true religion," and "individuals are free to live their lives independently of religious faith" (407).  The tension between Protestant Christian theocracy and Lockean religious toleration was softened if not overcome by deciding that Roger Williams was right that Protestant Christianity required a "wall of separation" between "spiritual things" and "civil things."


West, Thomas G. 2017. The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zuckert, Michael. 1996. The Natural Rights Republic: Studies in the Foundation of the American Political Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"The Lord of the Rings" Films Refute Tolkien's Anti-Modernity

"He disliked the modern world."  So said Christopher Tolkien about his father. 

Tolkien's disgust with the modern world began in his childhood.  From the age of 4 to 8 (1896 to 1900), Tolkien lived with his widowed mother in the hamlet of Sarehole, a mile south of Birmingham, England.  This rural English village had a rustic life unlike the industrialized life of Birmingham.  Later in life, Tolkien said that he remembered those four years as his time living in the Shire, when he became a young Hobbit.

His mother converted to Catholicism, despite the fierce opposition of her family, who ostracized her.  He then became a child convert at 8, and for his whole life he was a devout traditionalist Catholic, with a love for the Middle Ages and a scorn for the modern world shaped by the Protestant Reformation, which had turned away from the only True Church.

His mother was forced to move to central Birmingham in a small house overlooking a busy, noisy street with ugly buildings and a view in the distance of smoking factory chimneys.  He later said that his life in Birmingham, dominated by modern mechanization and industrialism, was "dreadful."  The contrast between Sarehole and Birmingham is echoed in the contrast between the Shire and Mordor in The Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings and most of Tolkien's other writing can be read as a criticism of the technological, materialistic, and capitalistic civilization of the modern world, and as expressing a longing for the rustic simplicity and communal life of premodern English villages.  John Clute has described The Lord of the Rings as "a comprehensive counter-myth to the story of the twentieth century," because "what had happened to life in the twentieth century was profoundly inhuman."  Tolkien's counter-myth, Clute claimed, was "a description of a universe that feels right--another reality that the soul requires in this waste-land century."

But is this really true--that life in the twentieth century was profoundly inhuman?  And that a more truly human life would have required a return to the village life of medieval England?

It is easy to understand how the first half of the twentieth century--particularly, the brutality and violence of the two world wars--created a scorn for modernity in people like Tolkien.  But the triumph of modern liberalism in the second half of the century--with growing freedom and prosperity around the world--makes it easier to see moral progress in modern life.  (I have written a series of posts on human progress in November and December of 2016.)

After all, doesn't Tolkien's own life show the moral and intellectual benefits of living in modern liberal societies? 

Tolkien became a professor at Oxford University who was a member of a community of Christian scholars and writers--the Inklings--that included C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.  They met at least twice a week as philosophic friends for conversations about the philosophic, theological, and literary topics that concerned them. 

Every time that I am in Oxford, I go to the Eagle and the Child pub where the Inklings met for beer and conversation every Thursday.  They called it "The Bird and the Baby."

Tolkien helped to convert Lewis to Christianity, but Tolkien was deeply disappointed that Lewis joined the Anglican Church and refused to convert to Catholicism.  Lewis had grown up in the world of Ulster Protestants in Northern Ireland, and Tolkien thought that Lewis never abandoned the anti-Catholic prejudices of the Ulster Protestants.  But since they lived in early twentieth century England, when the modern liberal culture of religious toleration and freedom was beginning to flourish, Tolkien and Lewis could be good friends.  Tolkien said that without Lewis's help and encouragement, he might never have finished writing The Lord of the Rings.   This would not have been possible in a premodern village dominated by the authority of the Catholic Church.

And if the twentieth century was such an inhuman wasteland, how does one explain the popularity of Tolkien's books and the movies based on the books?  His books have had tens of millions of readers, and the movies have had even larger audiences.

The Lord of the Rings movies have become one of the highest-grossing film series in the history of cinema--almost $6 billion.  The average per film is exceeded only by the Harry Potter movies.  So it seems that modern capitalist profit-seeking can support high literary and cinematic art.  Moreover, cinema is an artistic invention of the twentieth century arising from modern technology.

As I suggested in my previous post, the artistry of The Lord of the Rings movies is particularly evident in the music for the movies composed, orchestrated, conducted, and produced by Howard Shore.  One can see this by reading the Wikipedia article on Shore's music for the films, which is based mostly on the magnificent book by Doug Adams, The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (2010).

I believe that a good case can be made that the movies actually improve on Tolkien's books, mostly because of the music, which comes from Shore's careful study of the books and the scripts and his Wagnerian artistry in turning the books into an opera.

One of many examples of this musical deepening of Tolkien's writing is the song that is sung at the end of The Return of the King during the closing credits--"Into the West," which was composed by Annie Lennox and Shore and sung by Lennox.  It won the Academy Award for best song in 2003.

Here are the lyrics:

Into the West

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
The night is falling
You have come to journey's end
Sleep now
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore
Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You're only sleeping
What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home
And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
All Souls pass
Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time
Don't say
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again
And you'll be here in my arms
Just sleeping
And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West

The imagery and some of the phrases here are taken from the last chapter ("The Grey Havens") of Tolkien's Return of the King.  People have debated whether The Lord of the Rings conveys Catholic Christian themes, as Tolkien said it did.  Part of that debate is whether there is any suggestion in the book of immortality in an afterlife.  The last chapter is ambiguous about this.  Frodo is sailing away on a white ship, leaving Sam, Merry, and Pippin behind in the Shire.  One can see some intimation of immortality, but it's unclear, and some readers can infer that the only human life is the mortal life of the people in the Shire.  The song has this same ambiguity, and it conveys it in a way that is deeply moving.  (I have written a series of posts on immortality, in October and November of 2013, and on Heaven and Hell, in April and May of 2010.)

Sunday night, this will conclude the Ravinia Festival's showing of the three movies with live music.  Many of the people in the pavilion and on the lawn will be moved to tears.

The modern world of the twentieth century, and now the twenty-first century, can't be as morally, intellectually, and spiritually impoverished as Tolkien thought it was if we can be moved in such a way by Tolkien's myth of Middle-earth.

Of course, for Augustinian Christians like Tolkien, no matter how good life on Earth might become, living in the "City of Man" must always be unsatisfying, as the soul longs for that fullness of joy--for that ultimate Happy Ending--that can only be found in the "City of God" in Heaven.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Storytelling Instinct in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings"--Christian? Pagan? Wagnerian?

Next week (August 18-20), the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, will have three nights devoted to Peter Jackson's film trilogy of J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  The movies will be projected on large screens, and the Academy Award winning music by Howard Shore will be played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a chorus of singers.  My family and I have pavilion seats for all three nights.  A few years ago, we were at Ravinia for the third movie--The Return of the King.

This will give me a good opportunity to think about the powerful appeal of Tolkien's story, and what this might reveal about storytelling as an evolved instinct of human nature.

In the run up to the year 2000, several major polls asking people "What was the greatest book of the twentieth century?" found that first place went to The Lord of the Rings.  This irritated many literary critics who dismissed Tolkien's fantasy story of Middle Earth as a bad fairytale for children that has become a low form of escapist fantasy for some adults.  And yet many people have found this to be one of the most powerful works of fiction they have ever read.  Jackson's film versions of the book--beginning with the Fellowship of the Ring in 2001--have become some of the most popular films of all time.

So what is it about Tolkien's story that makes it so attractive and so moving for so many people?  Does it show us, as Jonathan Gottschall has argued in The Storytelling Animal, that stories make us human, that storytelling is unique to human beings as part of their evolved nature?  If so, is there something about Tolkien's story that satisfies that storytelling instinct better than most other stories?  Or are the critics correct in dismissing this as a childish fantasy story?

Many Christians have seen The Lord of the Rings as a profoundly Christian book, or more particularly as a profoundly Catholic Christian book.  Tolkien was a devout English Catholic.  And in 1955, one year after the publication of the book, he wrote to the English Jesuit Robert Murray: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.  That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like 'religion,' to cults or practices, in the imaginary world.  The religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

But notice the strange manner in which he speaks here.  "Of course" it is "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," and that is "why" the book has almost no references to religion!  In fact, when the book was first published, many readers were surprised that there were no overt indications of any religious practices or beliefs in Tolkien's fictional world.  Some readers have found Tolkien's "of course" to be an implausible effort by Tolkien to turn this into a Catholic Christian book, even though it is completely silent about religion.

Some Christian readers have responded by defending Tolkien's claim that "the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism," by pointing to what Tolkien said in his essay "On Fairy Stories," which can be found online. 

Tolkien sees fairy stories as the highest expression of the innate human capacity for fantasy--the uniquely human capacity for using language to create a "secondary world" of narrative fiction beyond the "primary world" of our ordinary experience.  In creative fantasy, Tolkien claims, we act as "sub-creators."  We are makers of art because we were made in the image and likeness of a Maker.  Our Creator, who created everything from nothing, created us to be sub-creators.   As storytellers, we manifest a storytelling instinct that belongs to us as part of God's Cosmic Story.

Darwinian scientists like Gottschall can explain this human storytelling instinct as the product of a purely natural process of human evolution:  we evolved to tell stories that help us navigate the complex social problems that we face as human beings, just as flight simulators help pilots to anticipate the problems they will face as pilots, and this social intelligence that we gain from stories that simulate social life enhances our chances for survival and reproduction in complex human societies. 

Some people will see this Darwinian story about the origin and function of storytelling as an alternative to Tolkien's Christian story about storytelling as part of our being created in God's image.  The theistic evolutionist, however, will see the Darwinian story and the Christian story as compatible:  the Creator could have used the evolutionary process to create the human storytelling instinct.

According to Tolkien, in "On Fairy Stories," the highest function of fairy-stories is the "Consolation of the Happy Ending"--the joy of deliverance from evil and suffering, a deliverance that comes from the sudden turn to the "good catastrophe," a sudden and miraculous grace that denies the pervasive evidence for universal final defeat.

Tolkien suggests that we might explain this joy that comes from a true fairy-story as "a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth," as "a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world."  The joy of the consolation of the happy ending that comes from a fairy-story might echo the joy that comes from the Christian Story. 

After all, Tolkien claims, "the Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories," because the Gospels give us the most complete "good catastrophe"--the birth and resurrection of Christ and the prophecy of the Second Coming of Christ, so that human beings can be redeemed at the end of history, which gives human beings the deepest joy of knowing that the history of everything has a happy ending.

Tolkien told C. S. Lewis that Christianity was a myth, but a true myth.  What are the signs of a true myth as opposed to a false myth?

Tolkien's Christian readers might say that even though The Lord of the Rings says nothing overtly about religion or Christianity, it can still be a Christian story in so far as it shows "a gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world." 

But that "gleam or echo" of the Christian Story seems very dim to those many readers of The Lord of the Rings who see that Tolkien's story draws much more from the pagan traditions of Nordic Europe and the folklore of fairy-tales than it does from Christian traditions of thought.  Tolkien's world of wizards, elves, dragons, magic, witchcraft, and reincarnation, a world of dark fatalism and death with no prospect of final redemption and immortality, seems very far from a Christian world.  Indeed, many, maybe most, of those readers who think this book is the "greatest book of the twentieth century" are not Christians, and they see no Christian message in the book.  Even many Christian parents don't see this as a good book for teaching Christian lessons to their children.

Moreover, the anti-Christian paganism of this book becomes even more evident as soon as one notices the influence of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle of four operas--The Ring of the Nibelung.  Both Tolkien and Wagner drew deeply from Nordic mythology in their storytelling. 

The Christian scholars of Tolkien have dismissed this idea by quoting his response to the Swedish translator of The Lord of the Rings who suggested parallels between Tolkien's book and Wagner's Ring cycle: "Both rings are round, and there the resemblance ceases."  The Christian scholars can also point to the obvious differences between the men: Wagner was an atheist socialist anarchist, and Tolkien was a Catholic traditionalist monarchist!

But if one lays Tolkein's book next to Wagner's libretto for the Ring cycle, the similarities are striking, as indicated in some articles by Alex Ross, James McGregor, and Stefan Arvidsson.   

"The lord of the ring is the slave of the ring."  Since that line states one of the the fundamental themes of The Lord of the Rings, one might assume that it's a line from the book.  Actually, it's a line from Alberich's curse on the ring in scene four of Wagner's Rhinegold .  Arvidsson observes: "The fundamental idea of a ring endowed with power, a ring that confers power and wealth upon its bearer, while it also entices those who come in contact with it to evil deeds and breaks them down, is not found in the medieval sources. Rather, Tolkien must have borrowed it straight from Wagner."  Moreover, as Arvidsson indicates, the ten steps in Wagner's narrative history of the ring correspond in some manner to Tolkien's narration of the ring.

We know that Tolkien's friend C. S. Lewis was an avid student of Wagner's operas, that Lewis took Tolkien to a London performance of The Valkyrie, and that at one point the two of them set out to write a translation of that opera, the second in the cycle of four Ring operas.

We also know, however, that Tolkien detested what he saw as Adolf Hitler's vicious distortion of Nordic mythology, and that Hitler's appropriation of Nordic mythology as providing a mythic frame for his German racist nationalism was deeply influenced by his experience of Wagner's operas.  So, one possibility, as Arvidsson suggests, is that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings to correct the Wagnerian interpretation of Nordic mythology that shaped the mythic nationalism of Hitler and others.

In 1941, while he was writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote in a letter: "Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge--which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will).  Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."

The Lord of the Rings could be seen as Tolkien's effort to present "that noble northern spirit . . . in its true light" against the evil distortions of Hitler and Wagner.

I have written about the Hitler-Wagner connection in some previous posts (here and here).  I will think more about this in November, when I will see the new production of Wagner's Valkyrie by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is part of Lyric's new production of the entire Ring cycle.

I also want to think about how Wagner's operatic storytelling, which combines music, singing, and theatrical drama, compares with Tolkien's storytelling through language alone.  In "On Fairy Stories," Tolkien argues that storytelling is done best through words alone.

Jackson's movie trilogy--and also his movie version of The Hobbit--turns Tolkien's purely literary work into something like an opera.  This raises the question of whether Jackson's movies are better or worse than Tolkien's books.  Some people--Alex Ross, for example--argue that the movies are better than the books, because Shore's music employs Wagnerian musical artistry that deepens the emotional impact of the storytelling of Tolkien's words.

Shore deliberately composed his music to employ Wagner's operatic techniques in the Ring cycle: Shore's musical score includes over 100 leitmotifs (short musical phrases associated with particular people, places, or ideas) and singing by choir and soloists.  It's the most elaborate musical score in the history of cinema.  That's why the three performances at Ravinia, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, choir, and soloists, will be such a treat.

Shore evokes Wagner at the very end of the trilogy by echoing Wagner's final music closing the Ring.  Doug Adams (in The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films) describes it this way: "After a suite of musical highlights from The Return of the King, the orchestra introduces a new line, a series of lilting arpeggios climbing high over lapping chords.  This is Shore's nod to Richard Wagner's Gotterdammerung, the final opera in his Ring des Nibelungen."