Liberty and Technocracy: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and an Orthodox Fourth of July

July 4 on the Old Calendar would mark the feast of the Royal Martyrs of Russia, the last Orthodox emperor and his family, slain on the Fourth of July.

That coincidence brings up the meaning of Orthodox ideas of government in relation to what C.S. Lewis decried as modern technocracy, which J.R.R. Tolkien also criticized as the “iron crown” of modern totalitarian states and industrial capitalism.

There are no more Orthodox empires.

So where do we as Orthodox Americans fit in relation to twenty-first-century American democracy, if at all?

In mid-twentieth-century Britain, Lewis and Tolkien, as a traditional Anglican and conservative Catholic respectively, held out a fantasy vision of kingship in line with their vision of Christianity. We see this in Tolkien’s idea of The Return of the King and Lewis’ monarchy of Narnia under the rule of Aslan, a symbol for Christ, son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea.

Narnia, by the end of Lewis’ Chronicles, turned out to be a more real version of earth understood in light of divinity from Aslan’s Country, just as Human and Hobbit realms of Middle-earth were an opportunity for Tolkien to play with ideas of his imaginary “anarcho-monarchism,” a sense of personal kingship based on relationships and not on objectifying bureaucracies, whether corporate or governmental.

In the conclusion of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, he used the term “technocracy” to describe the melding of the worst aspects of communism, fascism, and capitalism in a corporate state: The melding of government and corporate bureaucracy, taking away the dignity of human beings in God’s image, in his view would remove the experience of each of our identities as essentially a mystery of relationship that is not objectifiable.

Of course, Lewis and Tolkien weren’t Orthodox Christians.

But Tolkien was heavily influenced by pre-Scholastic Christian views that were Orthodox, as noted in my essay on “Tolkien’s Cosmic-Christian Ecology” in the collection Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, as well as in my introduction to The Origins of Tolkien’s Middle-earth for Dummies (which, by the way, has a still uncorrected publishing typo of pantheism where it should read panentheism, but that’s another story).

Lewis expressed his admiration for Orthodox Liturgy and spirituality in his visit late in life to the Greek isles. His prime scholarly focus on the Elizabethan Edmund Spenser’s poetry focused on work by an early Anglican writer heavily influenced by Greek patristics, according to the Orthodox scholar Harold Weatherby.

How, if at all, do such Christian ideas get translated into modern Anglo-American political thought?

Not easily, and neither, of course, do Orthodox traditions about empire such as the symphonia between Church and State, or even of community as communion, exemplified for some in the Russian term sobornost.

In the early twentieth century, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov wrote of the Orthodox view of society as a household, emphasizing (more than Western individualistic or libertarian notions of human rights) the centrality to this of human dignity in community–in personal relationships to one another, across generations, spiritually in the Church and cosmos and spiritual realms, and to God.

That overlaps perhaps with modern traditional Catholic emphases in distributivism, such as subsidiarity (decentralization), but also involves Orthodox ideas of harmony between Church and State in empire, as in St. Basil the Great’s Basiliad and philanthropia.

The U.S. Constitution reflected early efforts to combine in America’s framework aspects of democracy (the House of Representatives), aristocracy (the Senate), and monarchy (the President and Commander-in-Chief), as explicated by the early American writer James Fenimore Cooper among others. It also likely was influenced by traditional Iroquois or Haudenosaunee ideas of community, in terms of separation and balance of powers, and federalism.

Tadodaho Sid Hill (spiritual leader of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy today) has noted that one flaw from a traditional Iroquois perspective in the document was its lack of a clear connection between spirituality and government, in other words its principle of “separation of church and state.” Yet the Declaration of Independence referred to “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and to human beings as created equal, while a later founding document, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, referred to the “Nation, under God.” The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibited establishment of religion by Congress yet protected religious rights. Many of the original State constitutions of the U.S. referenced religious establishment or Christian faith. A “soft establishment” of a generic Judeo-Christian civil ethos arguably persisted in America as a whole until around 1950, when court decisions began dismantling it.

All of this doesn’t answer the complex question of where Orthodox Americans end up in terms of a political philosophy today. There are many of us across the whole spectrum of American politics and parties, as there have been since Orthodox communities were first started here. Arguably, Orthodoxy encourages us to focus like the biblical Patriarch Abraham on another country, as Christians not of this world. But in the process our faith can also encourage us to think outside the box, and prayerfully make a contribution to a more civil union.

For example, opposing on grounds of our faith what Lewis called technocracy, we may find ourselves sharing views with some on the American political Right and Left, opposed to over-reaching government and collusion between government and large corporations. We may question how both corporations and government often are treated as equivalent or superior to human persons in modern American law. We might share what is sometimes called a “geo-libertarian” view that natural resources are a gift from God and in that sense a public (though not necessarily governmental) good–a view that unites some libertarians on the Right with more Henry George-style populists or liberals on the Left. We may believe that aspects of life that are more fundamental than the state, such as personhood, should not be redefined governmentally, legally, or economically–whether in terms of abortion or marriage or consumerism or socioeconomic class. What we do to one another, or what we leave undone, we also do or leave undone to Christ.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free. The Liberty Bell bore a quote from Leviticus on its side, to proclaim liberty throughout the land. With all the dire memories of modern totalitarianism entwined with the history of Orthodox Christians in the past century, as English-speaking Orthodox we can appreciate the rejection of technocracy by Lewis and Tolkien in the symbols of their writing, while embracing the Orthodox sense of hierarchy in its original patristic meaning: A network of divine energies in which every person can be touched and transformed directly by God.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.


Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers has a Ph.D. in Medieval English literature from the University of Illinois and M.A. in Early British Studies from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. He teaches English and Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, where he is incoming Chair of the English Department and Associate Professor. His research includes work on nature in early literature, especially in the writings of John Scottus Eriugena, and in modern fantasy and nature writing, drawing in part on Estonian ecosemiotics. He is the author of Strange Beauty: Ecoritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape, editor of Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, and co-editor of Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages, and he is a co-editor of the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. He was baptized into the Orthodox Church in 1999. His wife Olesya is originally from Russia and they have two sons. They are members of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit mission (OCA) in central Pennsylvania, regularly visit Agia Skepi Monastery (GOARCH) nearby, and are also long-distance member-supporters of St. Herman of Alaska Church mission (ROCOR) in northern Virginia. He studies in the Pastoral School of the ROCOR Midwest Diocese and serves on the Steering Committee of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. Formerly he worked as urban affairs writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and Midwest correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. He prays that his unworthy views here are Orthodox and do no harm, but they otherwise are his own.