The Catholic Political Philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien
If we worked to emulate the good characters of Tolkien’s works and imbibe his lessons in the politics of this world, our souls would be better and society would flourish.
Br. Noah Sell graduated from The Catholic University with a BA in Theology and Philosophy and is novice at the Washington Oratory of St. Philip Neri.
This past September marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, who converted to Catholicism with his mother when he was eight years old, was raised in the Catholic ethos which he credits as having “nourished me and taught me all the little that I know.”1 This Catholic way of thinking shines through his writing, which he called “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”2
Every page of The Lord of the Rings is animated and informed by Catholic philosophy. One can glean tremendous insights and wisdom from reading his works just as if you were reading Aristotle or St. Augustine. Part of the philosophy found in Tolkien’s works is his politics which are pre-modern and anti-liberal — and can certainly lend itself to postliberalism.
Tolkien articulated the concept of mythopoeia, the idea that the truth can be communicated through mythology and literature just as through rational argument and the sciences, albeit in a different manner. Thus, through Tolkien’s works one can learn about virtue and vice, power and corruption, and good politics and bad.
Tolkien’s world is not too dissimilar from our own. It was created and governed by God, called Eru Ilúvatar in Elvish, who directs events through his providence. He sends his angels, called the Valar, to order the world and aid his children, namely elves and men.
So too, man is the same political creature as he is in our world. Tolkien echoes St. Augustine in portraying the desire for power, libido dominandi, as the root disordered souls and of bad politics. Augustine writes in his City of God that the city of this world is “a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust for domination.”3 The desire to dominate is the desire to follow one’s own will above God’s and prioritize one’s own good over the common good. This is the perennial temptation of man. Each sin is choosing of oneself instead of God and others.
This is most recognizable in the power of the one ring. Tolkien writes, “Sauron’s lust and pride increased, until he knew no bounds, and he determined to make himself master of all things in Middle-earth.”4 Sauron’s will to dominate was poured into the ruling ring, the technological tool with which he sought to secure his desire. Once Sauron had lost the ring and it was possessed by others, they were tempted by the same desires.
When Isildur cut the ring from Sauron’s hand, he kept it instead of destroying it, desiring its power for himself. As a result he became “a man of great pride and vigour,”5 which ultimately betrayed him and resulted in the death of his sons and himself. “Forgive me, and my pride that has brought you to this doom.”6
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Another example is the temptation of Boromir, showing that the desire for power and dominion is not always for evil ends, but is destructive just the same. Boromir desired to take the ring from Frodo to give him “strength in a just cause … Power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner.”7 Despite his good intentions, his desire to dominate rather than to accept the lot he had been given, that of a helper and not the hero, corrupted him.
When Sam is tempted by the ring, he desires to use it to defeat Sauron and reseed the barren terrain of Mordor into a luscious garden. Yet, he resisted the temptation because of “the love of his master” and because “he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden… The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due … his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”8 This is why Tolkien considered Sam “the chief hero”9 of the story: he sought no position of dominion of his own but embraced his role as a servant and did all for the love of his master.
This lesson about the soul and the desire for power applies to politics in the same way. The Children of Ilúvatar are organized into political bodies and their leaders rule as regents of the divine. Thus, the natural law pre-exists any human law which must be in accord with it. Peace, justice, and harmony are achieved when the nations and their rulers act in accord with God, and when they do not, discord and darkness thrive. Therefore, the fate of a political body is tied to following the natural law, true religion, and governing for the common good rather than any private good.
The story of Fëanor and his sons shows what can go wrong when a people follows a lower law to the neglect of a higher. Fëanor ruled the Elves not for their common good but was driven by his own private desire for the Silmarils and the “blasphemous oath of enmity and vengeance”10 he and his sons took against anyone, even Ilúvatar himself, that should prevent them from recovering the Silmarils from Melkor. They honored this oath, an Elven law, over the divine law which ultimately resulted in the splintering and exile of the Elves, Fëanor’s death at the hands of Melkor, and the downfall of his sons at the end of the First Age.
The relationship between the nation and true religion is shown clearly in the fall of Númenor as told in the Silmarillion. The Númenóreans were a race of men, blessed by the Valar and friends with the Elves. They dwelt on an island kingdom, at the center of which was the tallest mountain, Meneltarma, upon which rested the temple of Ilúvatar. The Meneltarma was the most sacred place on the island and central to the government of the nation. The Númenóreans became great sailors and traveled the expanses of the east of Arda and brought their civilization to the other men on the continent.
After many centuries they grew jealous of the immortality of the Elves and discontent with their place in the world. The kings of Númenor forgot Eru Ilúvatar and ceased to climb to his temple. So, their glory faded, and they grew more discontent. Neglecting God, they began to rule for their own benefit; subjugating and looting the other men, seeking to rule all of Middle-earth. So great was their pride that they captured Sauron and brought him to Númenor where he sowed his lies and turned their hearts fully against the Valar and Ilúvatar. Sauron convinced the kings to worship and offer human sacrifice to “Melkor, Lord of All, Giver of Freedom”11 (the Tolkien equivalent to Satan) in order to gain power and freedom.
Tolkien writes “If they were not increased in happiness, yet they grew more strong, and their rich men ever richer,” and the king “grew to the mightiest tyrant that had yet been in the world.”12 Throughout all this, a small, persecuted minority remained loyal to the Valar and worshiped Ilúvatar. The faithful remained in Númenor as long as possible, but once they realized its fate was dire, they appealed to the Valar and fled to Middle-earth.
The Númenóreans were so evil that “the Valar laid down their government of Arda. But Ilúvatar showed forth his power”13 and Númenor “topples and vanishes for ever with all its glory in the abyss.”14 Thus, through the Númenórean myth, Tolkien shows what St. Augustine labored to explain in his City of God, namely, that the success of a nation depends on its adherence to true religion and the natural law and a nation that neglects and rejects true religion will not be content to adopt no religion, but will inevitably take up false religion which cannot sustain the city. The decadence and decay of Númenor was accompanied by a prioritization of greed and a lust for power in lieu of the common good.
While Tolkien gives us many perilous tales of bad politics, he also depicts good politics in a uniquely Catholic vision with an emphasis on monarchy, subsidiarity, and solidarity. From the beginning, the political bodies of Middle-earth are based on family ties united under patriarchal kingship. The rule of the kings is not absolute, rather they are bound to govern for the common good, in accord with the higher law of Eru Ilúvatar.
In reality, Ilúvatar is the King of Arda, the whole world, and the other kings are merely his vassals. He gives them freedom to rule and govern their own affairs, so long as they follow his law and work with his providential governance. The other kings are meant to rule in the same manner, allowing the lesser political bodies freedom to govern their own affairs, so long as they are in harmony with the rest of the realm. In other words, subsidiarity.
The king’s lesser jurisdictions participate in the governance of the king just as the king participates in the kingship of Eru Ilúvatar. The king can call upon his vassals to aid him or adopt some new policy, but he should only do this out of necessity, any over governance would easily lead to tyranny and discontent. The political bodies are not held together by the power of the central state, rather it operates on a distinction between power and authority.
This distinction is often discussed in relation to the medieval, Catholic conception of politics which heavily influenced Tolkien’s idea of kingship and governance. Authority is the right to say what ought to happen and power is the ability to make it happen. When discussing the Elven High Kingship of Ingwë and its comparison to medieval politics, historian Charles Coulombe writes,
Just as the Holy Roman Emperor and the Ard-Ri were more important for what they were, holders of supreme temporal authority, than for what they actually did, precious little outside their own realms, so too with Ingwë’s [sic]. With a pre-modern people, unused to having every detail of life organised by a central state power, symbol is as or more important than mere “reality.” The Elves were nothing if not pre-modern.15
This ideal is put into practice when Aragorn has reclaimed his throne after the destruction of the ring. Aragorn travels his realms, meeting the inhabitants thereof, and granting them authority under him to govern their lands, each according to their own ways. He grants the Forest of Drúadan to the wild Drúedain, he bestows protection on the Hobbits of the Shire and reestablishes his kingdom of Arnor in the north.
The Shire, and other realms, while under the nominal rule of the king, run themselves mostly independently. In contrast to modern political arrangements where citizens seem to serve their rulers, it is rather the king who serves his realms and has responsibilities towards them. In the case of the Shire it is the duty of the Dúnedain to protect the Hobbits, and in turn the Hobbits owe loyalty and obedience to the king’s authority. Aragorn, just as medieval rulers, has authority over his realms, but not power outside his immediate sphere, and in a paradox, the use of power against his realms would undermine his authority.
To quote St. Philip Neri, who’s spirit helped form Tolkien, “If you wish for obedience, do not give many commands.” The desire to exercise power and domination over the minutiae of his realms would be tyranny, government for some private good rather than the common good. It is not the role of a king to control his subjects, but to be like an orchestra conductor, balancing his jurisdictions and peoples in harmony. The king is there to settle disputes and act as the supreme judge rather than the supreme executive.
The desire for domination outside one’s proper sphere not only disorders the soul, but it tramples the freedom of others, something more important for the common good than the ordering of a society under any political system. This freedom, however, is the Catholic conception of freedom, which is the ability to know and choose the good.
It is freedom for the good, not licentious freedom from constraint. The Hobbits need to be left free as Hobbits to order the Shire according to Hobbit ways and not be molded from the top down by Gondorians. Man is not meant to be dominated by the state because he has rights and duties independent of it and can only attain certain goods when given freedom.
Lastly, politics, the ordering of society, is grander than the state and encompasses the whole of a society’s functions. Tolkien’s views on other things such as nature, technology, and culture therefore inform his politics, but are too wide ranging to cover here. Tolkien’s politics and the wisdom of his writings provide many insights to the contemporary post-liberal especially in evaluating today’s bad politics, dominated by that greed and lust for power Tolkien despised. His writings also give examples of good politics and well-ordered, noble souls. If we worked to emulate the good characters of Tolkien’s works and imbibe his lessons in the politics of this world, our souls would be better and society would flourish.
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Tolkien, J.R.R. “Letter 142.” In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 172.
Augustine of Hippo. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003), 5.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. (William Morrow, 2022), 277.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. (Boston: William Morrow, 1980), 271.
Unfinished Tales, 274.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2021), 398.
The Lord of the Rings, 901.
“Letter 131.” The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 161.
“Letter 131.” 148.
The Silmarillion, 259.
The Silmarillion, 262.
Letter 131, 156.
Coulombe, Charles. “Kingship in the Work of the Inklings.” The Mythopoeic Society, July 26, 1991, http://www.royaltymonarchy.com/opinion/articles/coulombe/inklings.html.