Tolkien’s Social Philosophy and Distributism

The following is a summary of Stratford Caldecott’s “Tolkien’s Social Philosophy,” an appendix to his book The Power of the Ring. Interested readers may also want to take a look at Matthew Akers’s article, “Distributism in the Shire.”

  • The social and governmental structure of the Shire was not a mere “agrarian idyll,” as some critics have called it, but the embodiment of what Tolkien took to be a practical social and political ideal.
  • Tolkien wrote that “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy” (Letters 52).
  • Tolkien’s antipathy towards the modern nation state is made clear in his (ironic) statement: “I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights, nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!” Government, he adds, “is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offense to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people.”
  • He refers to the shire as a “half republic half aristocracy” (Letters 183), and vociferously denied being either a socialist (see “The Scouring of the Shire”) or a democrat “only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise [sic] and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power—and then we get and are getting slavery” (Letters 186).
  • Caldecott links Tolkien’s social and political views with the Catholic social theory known as “Distributism” whose most famous proponents were Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton (collectively known as “Chesterbelloc”). The other major popular social Catholic movement at the time was the Catholic Social Guild, which Tolkien would also have greatly sympathized with, though after 1942 it became increasingly aligned with the Labor Party.
  • Distributists, as Caldecott summarizes, “saw the family as the only solid basis for civil society and of any sustainable civilization. They believed in a society of households, and were suspicious of top-down government. Power, they held, should be devolved to the lowest level compatible with a reasonable degree of order (the principle of ‘subsidiarity’). Social order flows form the natural bonds of friendship, cooperation and family loyalty, within the context of a local culture possessing a strong sense of right and wrong. It cannot be imposed by force, and indeed force should never be employed except as a last resort and in self-defense.” The problem with modern Capitalism was that “there were not enough capitalists around: property and wealth had become concentrated in the hands of a few, reducing other people to the status of ‘wage slaves’…” Distributists saw the answer to lie “in the direction of wider ownership (not ‘public ownership’); meaning that measures should be taken to encourage small and family-run businesses, farmers and local retailers, and to defend them against the larger conglomerates. Forcible redistribution of land… was not an option. … One of the most basic of these principles was freedom: the whole point of the philosophy was to foster self-sufficiency, independence, and personal responsibility. The Shire fits neatly into this tradition of social thought… It was a way of life founded on local tradition… one shaped by our ancestors…”

1 thought on “Tolkien’s Social Philosophy and Distributism

  1. Pingback: Sustainable Hobbiton: Found my dream hood | CALEB COY

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