Gandalf the White!
Against Christian Optimism
I’m back! I’d like to wrap this up in a few more installments. I have the good fortune of some writing up ahead, hopefully a few pieces we might talk about. Happy June, I’m so glad spring is here.
Sometimes the books you read spark each other in interesting and illuminating ways. This is why I make a habit of reading oddly; I do not mean I read “widely” or “selectively”. I do not make a reading plan or track what I read. I do try to read somewhat deliberately in my discipline; once LOTR is done, I hope to reread my way through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. But I like to read simultaneously a novel, and a book of cultural theory or intellectual history or history generally- something nonfiction. My interests are what they are so that limits my choices, but this diversity of reading allows thoughts to germinate and bump up against each other in unexpected ways. This week, it was The Two Towers, Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology (vol. 1), and Justin E.H. Smith’s delightfully titled book on the internet, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning.
First, Justin Smith. Smith’s thesis as I understand it (I am only halfway through the book, so forgive me if you’ve finished it and I am wrong).
Smith locates the optimism of the early internet age in the assumption that we might “calculate” our way toward peace and prosperity. This “Leibnizian optimism” is “the belief that all problems can be resolved simply by clarifying our terms and rationally following the logical consequences of our commitments.” This optimism is philosophical but also practical; one might “calculate” the correct view on the immortality of the soul, to use Smith’s example, or the most expedient diplomatic solution amidst conflict. Such calculations can be applied in order to achieve concrete social goods.
This Leibnizian optimism about the function of human reason and cooperation to yield a set of practical goods is, as Smith writes, the “weaving together” of several ideas; among them, “the conviction that collective, machine-aided labor toward the realization of reason as the governing principle of society will bring about a new era of enlightenment and lasting peace”. Smith seeks to “clarify the nature of the force with which we are contending” in order to articulate the challenges we are up against. For Smith, “the internet” is simply one among several attempts to develop a universal language that would yield the goods of peace and prosperity. (Note, here, as Smith does, that the other attempts at such a universal language, such as Esperanto, Volapuk, and Ido, are now the domain of eccentric enthusiasts and have yielded none of the goods they intended).
But both the attempt to “calculate” our way to social goods, and our attempts to secure a “universal language” in order to do so, have been terrifically flawed. At least one reason why might be that human goods cannot be calculated and achieved in this way; indeed that the attempt to do so misunderstands what a social good is, and more basically, what it means to be a human.
The internet is “anti-human”, Smith concludes-- in this criticism he is not unique. It is not simply that the internet is a tool prone to misuse, like an automatic weapon. It is rather that the internet is a tool that deforms its user through their use of it.
A few examples are necessary at this point.
One of the ways the internet is “anti-human” is the speed and totalizing way it has rendered its use compulsory. Information, banking, communication, and commerce now all happen through a small, digital portal. The “contours of social reality” have been flattened through the compulsory use of this device to achieve any number of human ends; what was intended, as Smith writes, as a “swiss army knife” has become instead a universal experience that pervades reality and our experience of it. Whereas once one would encounter other persons as they attempted to seek information (at the library), to organize their finances (at the bank), and to purchase goods (at a store), now all such transactions become merely transactional, with no persons attached. (Anyone who has attempted to gain “customer service” from such a transaction knows that it is often a robot, and not a person, who is sent to “help”). Smith again: “Whatever your habits and your duties, your public responsibilities and secret desires, they are all concentrated as never before into a single device, a filter, and a portal for the conduct of nearly every kind of human life today” (18).
None of this is new to Smith; but where he gains steam is in his claim that the internet is anti-human because it renders truly human existence impossible. The natural resource of the internet, to his mind, is the human self. In this way the internet does not benefit the person but extracts goods from it. The internet not only threatens our attention but monetizes it, so that “attention” at its best comes merely concentration. Whereas “attention”, like meditation and contemplation, holds the possibility of transforming the soul, concentration merely allows one’s mental habits to be commodified and gamified. In this way attention is not only threatened but significantly altered so that it is not simply uncommon but impossible. When all is advertising, a person becomes merely a set of data points that can be charted, identified, and tracked- and in time, bought and sold. “Human trafficking”, in this way, is more than a crisis of sexual labor but the reality of the human condition, as the personhood of peoples is bought and sold on a marketplace against the knowledge and will of most.
Most critically, for Smith, such “algorithmic” existence evades moral commitment to the other; because there is properly speaking no “other” to whom anything is due. When the world is equally available to you, when each tragedy is as proximate as any other, there is in fact to “neighbor”. Insofar as “neighbor” assumes a proximate knowledge, shared community, set of goods and challenges and so implies specific moral obligations, it is impossible that the “world” might be one’s neighbor. Not only are the resources scarce, but the true knowledge of the conditions and needs of each is lacking. Further, the energy required to exert “neighbor love” on behalf of the world is impossible to muster and maintain. When there is no neighbor, then, there is no love- only constant, defeaning outrage. (This is my theological gloss on Smith).
The algorithms of the internet fade intersubjectivity and the moral commitment one to another. The monetization and gamification of all makes everything potentially profitable and fun, but makes also little worth buying and little actually leisure.
If this seems dismal, that is because it is. The last thing a creature should become is an algorithm.
Now, to Lord of the Rings: Gandalf is back! We were led to believe that he had perished, such was the nature of his fall in Book 1. The traveling crew assumed him dead. But he is back, though his memory must be refreshed regarding what he has missed. “You may still call me Gandalf”, he says- though he is initially unfamiliar with the name. “I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten. I can see many things far off, but many things that are close at hand I cannot see. Tell me of yourselves!”
So Gandalf is caught up on the journey thus far; on the coming back to life of the Ents and Treebeard. There is the sense, in this portion of The Two Towers, of momentum in the forest.
The tone of these chapters is both of impending doom and of a hastening, a greening of the world. It feels like both the dead of winter and the quickening of spring. The darkening of Mordor is spreading, and the effects of this can be seen as Gandalf and his crew scan the horizon. And yet the ents have woken up, and Theoden is woken up, and even the river Isen is woken up, flowing and bubbling in its bed. As nature and its rulers are awoken to the danger at hand, there is a quickening in their souls. Danger never ceases to be danger; nor does the horror of evil cease to be dreadful. And yet as the traveling companions encounter this danger, they become better men. Aroused from their slumber and informed of the task at hand, old warriors take up their swords and shriveled trees rise to their full height. The danger at hand grants the world the virtue that was once theirs, the virtue that they are at risk of losing forever.
Gandalf is the one who alerts the world to this danger. He is making the rounds and alerting everyone to the threats at hand. Sometimes he also clues characters into who they really are in the drama. To Gimli the dwarfs concern that Fangorn/Treebeard was dangerous:
“Dangerous! Cried Gandalf. And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Gloin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous- not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless. But now his long slow wrath is brimming over, and all the forest is filled with it. The coming of the hobbits and the tidings that they brought have spilled it: it will soon be running like a flood; but its tide is turned against Saruman and the axes of Isengard. A thing is about to happen which has not happened since the Elder Days: the Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong.”
The Ents, the dear forgotten keepers of the forest- remember that in previous chapters, the ents were aroused from their years of slumber as they were told of the damage that had been done to their forest, and the impending damage that might yet be done. The ents are not purely good; their sheer power might be used for destruction as much as defense. But an Ent awake has at least the potential to use his power for good. They might make a dent in the destruction if they rise to their full height.
Gandalf then moves to the golden hall and quietly consults with Theoden, filling him in on the danger ahead and the significance of the mission.
“Verily, said Gandalf, now in a loud voice, keen and clear, ‘that way lies our hope, where sits our greatest fear. Doom hangs still on a thread. Yet hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while.”
As I read, I am continually stunned by Gandalf’s tone. He does not give anyone a “pep talk”. He does not flatter his listeners with a story of their inevitable success or promise them that they will be unhurt. He does not promise that the darkness of Mordor will not spread or that the innocence of the Shire will be returned. Darkness may still remain.
Gandalf does suggest, however, that each individual character must rise to their full height. Short as a dwarf or shriveled as an elder king, each must show up. This is because something must be done about Mordor, even if loss is inevitable: “Hope there is still, if we can but stand unconquered for a little while”.
I’d like, for a moment to test a thesis. It is a belief I have held for a while. The thesis is that Christian optimism is often a threat to Christian character.
The word optimism was coined alongside the Enlightenment, which prised rationalism and progressive views of the natural world (I am generalizing here- I’ll have a piece out in print this August that will explain more of what I mean). Optimism says that “this is the best of all possible worlds”; that technology delivers progress, that “the arc of history bends toward justice” (this baldfaced lie deserves its own installment, I think).
Whereas Leibnizian optimism led the world to believe that the innovations, particularly of shared language which became computing, would cure social ills, instead what they produced was a diminution of the social.
The view that technology will produce progress is based on this unfounded optimism. It is outsourcing of virtue to a machine that will deliver the human goods desired. The goods named- usually called something like justice, or improved efficiency or outcomes- are thought to be better delivered by technologically aided human activity. The intent is to achieve progress by which society might be improved.
However, as Justin Smith’s book as I summarized above points out, the optimistic view that technology will aid human progress shows itself to rest on faulty assumptions. If technology yields increasing gamification and commodification, what it yielded was not progress, but a deformation of the person.
Contrast this with our wandering hobbits. If there is a spirit of the age around the Hobbits, it is pessimism. I feel like I am repeating myself, nearly every week, when I say- they cannot win! They are outmatched! This is a terrible idea! And they know this.
But they seek to do the thing they cannot do is what is person-forming for them.
How is it that optimism ends up deforming the person, while pessimism turns out to be person forming?
A few theses, before I end this overly-long installment:
1) Optimism is located in a view of the person as perfectible; potentially even infinitely perfectible.
2) Optimism abstracts the conditions of human perfectibility away from the human person, considering outputs and achievements separately from the person who produces them. So a scientific discovery becomes an achievement separate from the diligence and sacrifice of the individual who produced it and the community that formed that person.
3) Optimism assumes that individuals and society can continue to improve. We know, however, even from economic theory that the assumption that improvement will continue at the same rate is simply false; at some point, diminishing returns sets in and the rate of benefits to energy input is significantly reduced, sometimes precipitously. We see this theory demonstrated repeatedly, whether through business or personal fitness. Initial improvements are often substantial; subsequent improvements may take place at a slower rate.
In sum, “Optimism” as it is exhibited culturally is often paired with a view of progress that is based in a technological and not anthropological imaginary. This means that the goods that are sought are abstracted from finitude and sought at a rate that is unsustainable and ignorant of the conditions that humans find themselves in. An optimistic view of Mordor’s success might assume that with “our powers combined” we can defeat the encroaching darkness, with strategy and potency alone. Such a view might erase the likely possibility of defeat, depression, and death that might come. It would require harnessing all the tools of possible victory without the attendant realities of fear, dread, and hopelessness. Do you see what I am suggesting?- whereas optimism in this case would cast itself on a future reality that relied on harnessing only positive capacity, pessimism evaluates the conditions on the ground in conversation with the reality of human frailty.
The imaginary of the Two Towers that Gandalf exhibits resists a naieve optimism. It insists, instead, on hope amidst likely defeat. It insists also that each character step up to the plate with their particular task; trees, elves, dwarves and hobbits, all. Heroic ends will be pursued, but heroes will be made in the process, not machines. To adopt a naieve optimism about the possibility of human progress transforms human agents into robots and machines, as individual outputs in a larger “project” whose success is based on scale and not individual contribution. Optimistic views of progress make no space for small acts of heroism, for defeat, for faithfulness in spite of fear.
Tolkien knew nothing of computers, but he knew a lot about what it took to make a man. In Gandalf’s own words:
“I have spoken words of hope. But only of hope. Hope is not victory. War is upon us and all our friends, a war in which only the use of the Ring could give us surety of victory. It fills me with great sorrow and great fear: for much shall be destroyed and all may be lost.”
And yet the good thing is worth doing. Small things can be good, too. That is a word for our day if I’ve ever heard one.
 Smith, 5.