An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 2012 Ciceronian Society Annual Meeting.
The tools we wield – and how we wield them – necessarily shape the ways we think, feel, and live, thereby shaping who we become. Without doubt certain material and perhaps even spiritual benefits are provided by technologically advanced civilization; unfortunately those benefits tend to mask accompanying temptations and perils. Few have been more sensitive to these temptations and perils than English philologist and novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works often directly address the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate technê. Which kinds of crafts and technique can help us perfect our nature? Which kinds mar it? Obviously a full answer to such questions is well beyond this paper, but one thing can be said: Tolkien's narratives suggest that we must seek out wiser, better methods of generating and using power.
This is made clear by the story of Númenor – a story which is, though unfamiliar to the general public, one of the foundational myths upon which Tolkien's famous Lord of the Rings trilogy is built. Throughout Tolkien's work the history of Númenor is alluded to as a symbol of greatness lost. For Tolkien Númenor simultaneously epitomizes both the glory and shame of man – his enduring capacity for achievement and nobility, as well as his perennial appetite for madness and vanity.
In The Silmarillion Númenor is described as having been raised from the sea by the awesome supernatural Powers who are charged with guarding and tending Tolkien's Middle Earth. These immortal beings then hand over the island as a reward to one particularly virtuous clan of men, with a single stipulation: Inhabitants of Númenor are prohibited from sailing too far into the west, where the land of the immortals lies, for too clear a view of that deathless country will afflict mortals with envy and discontent.
For many generations the Númenoreans abide by the rule against sailing West. And they flourish, becoming more admirable and impressive than any mortal race before or since. As gift-givers intrepid Númenorean seafarers and explorers travel the world, bringing the arts, learning, and civilization to primitive peoples. Thanks in large part to the might and wisdom of Númenor, the evil and savage forces of Middle-Earth are driven into hiding.
But after many centuries of splendor the Númenoreans become so godlike that it occurs to some of them to resent their all-too-human mortality. This shift in attitude marks the beginning of the end. Thereafter each passing generation fears death more and more keenly, and as a result Númenor's culture begins to sink into barbaric decadence even as its material power continues to grow. Over time the virtues which have hitherto sustained Númenorean civilization wither away:
They delayed [death] by all means that they could; and they began to build great houses for their dead, while their wise men laboured unceasingly to discover if they might the secret of recalling life, or at the least of the prolonging of Men's days […] those that lived turned the more eagerly to pleasure and revelry, desiring ever more goods and riches [...] their own land seemed to them shrunken, and they had no rest or content therein, and they desired now wealth and dominion in Middle-Earth, since the West was denied.1
Toward weaker peoples the Númenoreans now behave as tyrannical tribute-collectors rather than benefactors.
Yet even at this point in their decline the Númenoreans might conceivably escape disaster, were it not for the deception of Sauron, a demonic being who has long hated and envied the beauty and grandeur of Númenor. Disguising himself as a friendly counselor, Sauron persuades the twenty-fourth and final king of Númenor to try conquering the immortal country and thus immortality itself. The king constructs a massive armada upon which a great army is embarked, and then the king himself leads it westward. Of course the deathless country is off-limits to mortals for a good reason: Man is not fit for it, and by intruding into a place where he does not belong he can only bring disaster upon himself. Shortly after the king of Númenor sets his foot upon the immortal shore, the landscape collapses upon him, burying him alive; at the same time a vast abyss appears in the ocean, drawing down and devouring not only the invasion fleet but also the island nation which launched it. Númenor is destroyed; the attempt to conquer paradise drives men farther away from it than ever.
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy the most prominent echo of the Númenorean age is a kingdom called Gondor, a kingdom founded by a band of Númenorean refugees who, like Virgil's Aeneas, escaped the destruction of their people; hence several of the most important heroes of Lord of the Rings turn out to be of Númenorean descent. These heroes receive their formidable powers via membership in a tradition which links them to thousands of years' worth of knowledge and moral inspiration. Characters such as Aragorn and Faramir and Boromir draw what strength they have not from the spirit of innovation but rather from their active participation in a vast and rich collective memory. Through them Númenor’s greatness endures.
The fall of Númenor, on the other hand, is relived through the career of a corrupt wizard named Saruman, who establishes his headquarters in an ancient abandoned watchtower built centuries before by Númenorean colonists. From this immense, impregnable citadel Saruman ravages the natural world with the same restless and insatiable drive exhibited during Númenor’s final days. In the first book of the Ring trilogy Saruman's nemesis, the good wizard Gandalf, relates an encounter with Saruman, a confrontation whereby the latter has revealed the inner workings of an increasingly twisted mind:
[…] 'I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!" I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colors, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.
“I liked white better,” I said.
'“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
'“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” 2
Whiteness here can be taken for unity, the unity of the cosmos – the ordered whole. Instead of respecting the integrity of Creation, the oversophisticated Saruman is convinced he can first deconstruct the world and then put it back together again in a new and improved form. His is a reductionist, industrial, and liberal outlook, which proves to be both his dark source of strength and his ultimate undoing. By decimating the landscape around his fortress Saruman is indeed able to manufacture a huge armament stockpile and outfit a terrible army. Yet because he can only think in crude terms of mass and quantity he continually underestimates and overlooks those beings whose powers are less immediately obvious and measurable than his own: Birds and trees and horses and the provincial folk who live with them. Furthermore, his increasing reliance upon superior technology causes his innate gifts to atrophy; one character speculates that Saruman “has not much grit, much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things”. 3
Saruman's connection to Númenor is not, however, limited to the citadel he lives in. In the second book of the Rings trilogy it is revealed that Saruman's turn towards evil is a result of his ill-advised use of a magical seeing stone. Somewhat like a crystal ball, this seeing stone is in itself a benevolent instrument, one of several such stones dating back to the Númenorean golden age, when they were used by sage Númenorean princes to communicate with one another and observe events from afar. Unfortunately the stones have since then fallen under the sway of the evil Sauron, such that tremendous skill and willpower are required to employ the stone without it consuming one's mind. While it can be used for good by exceptional men such as the hero Aragorn, the seeing stone usually harms its user. Whereas Saruman is lured into Sauron’s service by one stone, yet another seeing stone drives the well-meaning steward of Gondor to despair and finally suicide. (We should note that Tolkein conceived these seeing stones long before there was even a hint of an Internet.)
It is fitting that the Númenor myth fits into Tolkien’s work as an emblem of distant antiquity, given that Tolkein got the Númenorean myth from distant antiquity – for one of the alternative names Tolkien gave to Númenor is Atalantë. He clearly bases Númenor on Atlantis, the first accounts of which are found in Platonic dialogues – Timaeus, and the unfinished Critias. 4
Like Tolkein’s Númenor, Plato’s Atlantis owes its existence to higher powers and is a great maritime empire: Wrought by Poseidon in the waters to the west of the Pillars of Heracles, Atlantis has for its first ruler Atlas, a mortal son of the sea-god. Also like Númenor, Atlantis represents during its heyday an ideal society. During most of its history the riches and might of Atlantis are sanctified, as it were, by a spirit of magnanimity, purity, and piety.
For many generations, as long as the divine nature lasted in them, [the Atlanteans] were obedient to the laws, and well-affectioned towards the god, whose seed they were, for they possessed true and in every way great spirits, uniting gentleness with wisdom in the various chances of life, and in their intercourse with one another. They despised everything but virtue, caring little for their present state of life, and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property, which seemed only a burden to them; neither were they intoxicated by luxury; nor did wealth deprive them of their self-control; but they were sober, and saw clearly that all these goods are increased by virtue and friendship with one another, whereas by too great regard and respect for them, they are lost and friendship with them. 5
As in Tolkien’s Númenor, this idyllic state of affairs does not last forever. According to Plato all seafaring nations are in danger of being corrupted by commerce, and in the end Atlantis is not immune. As the human portion gains the upper hand over the divine portion of the Atlantean soul, hidden decay ensues:
“[T]o him who had an eye to see [the people of Atlantis] grew visibly debased, for they were losing the fairest of their precious gifts; but to those who had no eye to see the true happiness, they appeared glorious and blessed at the very time when they were full of avarice and unrighteous power”. 6
Per Plato human goods like prosperity and success are ultimately dependent upon the divine nature – that is, upon the virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and courage. Disaster follows from focusing on fruits to the exclusion of the tree which produces them. After a rash attempt to expand its great dominion even further, Atlantis is defeated – and then destroyed during a series of earthquakes and floods.
This destruction follows naturally from Plato’s cosmological vision as expressed in Timaeus: If, as we are told, the universe itself is the artifice of a Divine Craftsman, then “human behavior must be founded on cosmic order, which is dependent upon divine intention.” 7 That is, the cosmic order itself provides a model for mortal technê. Of course knowing how to apply this model is easier said than done, which is why both Plato and Tolkien believed power could be responsibly wielded only after a long and arduous apprenticeship in virtue. Those who possess the insight and self-control needed for just rule are as rare as those who can be trusted to handle a seeing stone.
We might therefore reconsider the doctrine, epitomized by Henry Ford, that every man should have access to every innovation. Perhaps those of us critical of technology’s effects on human life should consider the possibility that the fault lies not always in technology per se but in the utter lack of discrimination regarding who uses it and how. It should give us pause that ordinary Americans now wield powers comparable to those of a wizard, powers for which they are neither morally nor intellectually prepared. It may be that the wanton use of such powers is precisely why so many concur with Saruman’s view that one best understands the world by breaking it.
1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 274 - 275.
2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 272.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 172.
4. Tolkien's interest in Atlantis and development of the legend into the story of Númenor has been examined at some length by Dallas Baptist University's Philip Mitchell, “Tolkien & The Atlantis Myth,” Dr. Philip Irving Mitchell, Director of Honors Program at Dallas Baptist, accessed June 27, 2012, http://www3.dbu.edu/mitchell/numenoratlantis.htm
5. Benjamin Jowett, trans., The Dialogues of Plato (New York, New York: Random House, 1937), 84.
7. Gerard Naddaf, “The Atlantis Myth: An Introduction To Plato’s Later Philosophy of History.” Phoenix 48 (1994): 196.