Salt Lake City vs. Treebeard’s Eyes: Tolkien and Descartes on Tradition

J.R.R. Tolkien and René Descartes give us two powerful, yet as one might expect, contradictory images of tradition and its relevance for human wisdom. In his Discourse on Method, a work that could justly be characterized as the intellectual charter of the modern era, Descartes contrasts those human enterprises which have the benefit of the planning and oversight of a single, “master craftsman,” with those comparatively haphazard achievements which are the result of many different planners over the course of a long period of time. As Descartes writes,

it occurred to me to consider that there is often not so much perfection in works composed of many pieces and made by the hands of various master craftsmen as there is in those works on which but a single individual has worked. Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. Thus those ancient cities that were once mere villages and in the course of time have become large towns are usually so poorly laid out, compared to those well-ordered places that an engineer traces out on a vacant plain as it suits his fancy… (Discourse on Method, AT 11)

In short: Paris vs. Salt Lake City.

What Descartes is contrasting in his image of these two different kinds of city (the centrally planned vs. the non-planned), of course, are two different and (for him) conflicting ways of looking at the world, one that is rooted (if not “cemented”) in custom, authority, received wisdom, in a word, tradition, and another that is critical, analytical, methodological, inquisitive, exploratory, enlightened, self-conscious, independent, autonomous, in a word, rational.

In opposition to this characterization of the alleged haphazardness and, to that extent, irrationality of “tradition” is Tolkien’s image of Treebeard’s eyes, something I’ve commented on before in connection with the historical character of theology in comparison with philosophy. As Pippen reflects on Treebeard’s eyes in The Two Towers,

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”

Joseph Pearce has suggested that in this extended description of Treebeard’s eyes Tolkien is showing his agreement with Chesterton’s account of “traditionalism,” or what Chesterton described as the “philosophy of the Tree.” As G.K. wrote in one article,

I mean that a tree goes on growing, and therefore goes on changing; but always in the fringes surrounding something unchangeable. The innermost rings of the tree are still the same as when it was a sapling; they have ceased to be seen, but they have not ceased to be\central. When the tree grows a branch at the top, it does not break away from the roots at the bottom; on the contrary, it needs to hold more strongly by its roots the higher it rises with its branches. That is the true image of the vigorous and healthy progress of a man, a city, or a whole species. (Church Socialist Quarterly, January 1909, as quoted in Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration)

To bring the contradiction between Tolkien and Descartes to as sharp a point as possible, we might say that they both see tradition in semi-arborial terms: what Descartes sees as a bewildering, unintelligible, even idiotic network of subterranean (and hence sub-rational) influences and commitments, Tolkien sees as (potentially) a life-giving root system, reaching across time and space to provide society with much needed nourishment, strength, and stability.

3 thoughts on “Salt Lake City vs. Treebeard’s Eyes: Tolkien and Descartes on Tradition

  1. Pingback: Imagination and Desire in Tolkien and Descartes | The Flame Imperishable

  2. Dr. Mac,
    You cast the differences between Renee and JRR into sharp relief. I have a few quibbles.

    1. You contrast city with tree, but perhaps the terms of contrast would better correspond if you contrasted Tolkien’s tree(beard) with Descartes’s tree of philosophy, as depicted in the preface to the Principles of Philosophy (CSM I, 186).

    2. You contrast “custom, authority, received wisdom, in a word, tradition” with “critical, analytical, methodological, inquisitive, exploratory, enlightened, self-conscious, independent, autonomous, in a word, rational.” These words are loaded pay homage to our prejudices. As if Bilbo weren’t “inquisitive, exploratory,” as if there were no method to There And Back Again. As if Descartes never took the observations of sailors regarding meteorological phenomena or the measurements of Pascal regarding mercury as an “authorities.” As if the philosophical compendium didn’t have a “customary” form. And anyone who’s read the Meditations knows Descartes’s “rationality” is deeply imaginative and moves from a critique of our “customary” beliefs (Med 1) to an affirmation of their certitude (Med 6). Descartes both is and is not “independent.” Strider both is and is not “independent.”

    3. The scholastic roots of Cartesian thought has been extensively documented in Gilson, Marion, Roger Ariew, and others. Gaukroger makes a compelling case that Cartesian method and the rhetoric of representation rest on Quintillian’s strategies for audience-conviction. Zbigniew Janowski argues for the pervasive influence of Bacon, and Jean-Pierre Cavaille makes suggests the Baroque tradition of the theater and fable are at work in D’s World. Of course you also have Michael Hanby and others saying that the Mediations are a “secular” version of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. I would point out that Descartes wrote in a number of hallowed literary genres: epistle, meditation, essay, treatise, scholastic compendium, dialogue, morality play.

    Notice that Descartes, despite being a touch anti-social, cultivated a robust theoretical and experimental dialogue in a vast correspondence with many leading scientists of his day, contributing to the development of the empiricist tradition. (On mathematical physics: Beeckman–Descartes–Newton; Astronomy: Galileo + Descartes + others — Newton)

    And Descartes rejected tradition only at the heights of self-promotion. a) the pedigree of the central Cartesian method of analysis is traced back to the ancient Greek geometers (Second Replies) b) La Geometrie opens with an homage to the Greeks, who, admittedly, only went so far . . . c) the Principles of Philosophy are supposed to be a scholastic-style compendium, to replace the standard textbooks in Jesuit institutions.

    In short, Descartes presents himself as a revolutionary only at the height of propagandizing, in the prefaces to Rules, Discourse, and Principles. He can also be read as a reformer.

    Thanks for the Dialogue!

    “If we wish to free ourselves from this tradition in one respect, this does not mean somehow pushing it aside and leaving it behind us. Rather all liberation from something is genuine only when it masters and appropriates whatever it is liberating itself from. Liberation from the tradition is an ever new appropriation of its newly recognized strengths.”
    —Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics

    • Bret,
      Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful reply. You add a lot of valuable testimony, and certainly a more well-rounded perspective on Descartes than I give, but I can’t help but feel you’re missing the forest for the trees. The point is not, after all, that Descartes doesn’t have a poetic or rhetorical bone in his body, or that Descartes owes nothing to the medieval tradition that he turns his back on. The point, rather, is that he does see tradition as a peculiar obstacle to his program of reforming the European mind, and (as for my follow-up post) that he sees the kind of medieval or scholastic imagination that likes to dream up ideal political or cosmic order and harmony as unrealistic and a distraction from the practical business of personal and societal improvement. In sum, Treebeard represents tradition; Descartes in his “Discourse” represents a kind of anti-tradition. Tolkien wants to cultivate something like a medieval imagination; Descartes is opposed to this kind of imagination. And while I agree that what Descartes is doing in Le Monde and Discourse 5 is a kind of “imagination,” it’s not clear to me that Descartes would view it this way. Rather, I think it has more to do with “clear and distinct” ideas, belonging to the realm of conception. And the world he is imagining is, of course, a mechanistic world, one that is antithetical to any kind of metaphysics that would privilege imagination as a way of knowing the world. Lots more to say, but that will have to do for now.
      Thanks again for the push-back.

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