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Tolkien and Plato

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the great Christian neo-Platonists of the twentieth century. With C.S. Lewis and A.E. Taylor, Tolkien was part of a revival of this traditional Christian synthesis with the work of the great Athenian. Tolkien’s works in the realm of imagination helped create an entire genre of literature, modern fantasy novels. His writings continue to cleanse the imaginations of new generations of readers. However, many scholars, especially in departments of English, question whether Plato would have been comfortable with the literary and imaginative character of much of Tolkien’s writings. What was Plato’s attitude toward the realm of imagination? The Republic is usually taken to be especially critical of imagination so our brief examination will focus on this dialogue.

For Plato, imagination is where images of the objects of the visible world reside. Here is the realm for the utterly unreflective imitation of what is visible. The imagination confuses the speculative with the visible objects of nature. Since Plato allows artifacts and manufactured things to be in the higher category one need not put Michelangelo’s “David” in this realm. Instead, one would place any image, like a reflection or a bad piece of “art,” that is the product of no thought. Many scholars believe Plato condemns all art to the lowest level of thought. I agree with Francis Cornford in thinking that Plato is speaking here of thoughtlessness that does not separate the fantastic from the visible. If this is correct, Plato is not placing the arts, as we know them, in the realm of imagination. The hard work of the artist to think about and reflect on the world seems more like science than mere imagination.

Tolkien and his work do not fit in the lower realm. Tolkien’s writings are the product of massive amounts of thought and contain may deep truths. It is the sort of myth-making of which Plato was so fond. Bach may be dealing with an even higher level of intellectual activity. His work seems more like thought in the Platonic sense than imagination. Instead, Plato may be defining “imagination” is a very particular way. For example, there are some people who do not know that television shows are not real. George Reeve, the actor who played Superman, was worried that some fanatic fan would take a shot at him to see the bullet bounce off his chest. There really are people who confuse the lives of the characters they see on television with the actor who plays the role. One need only attend a Star Trek convention to see people who cannot keep in mind that William Shatner is not actually Captain James T. Kirk. Of course, Star Trek itself as a higher art form is mythic and the productive of great creative genius.

However, not all television viewers are astute! Some simply accept what they see on television the same way they accept what they see at the mall. Plato is placing at the lowest level of cognition the sort of “imagination” that is unconstrained by any thought whatsoever. On the other hand, the arts that like his own dialogues create “thought experiments” for the viewer, reader, or user are of a different and higher order. One other point must be made. Wherever he would classify art, Plato believes each person moves from the visible to the invisible. Imagination is a stage in this process and is not an evil thing unless it is never outgrown. The divided line moves from the least to the most real. It moves from the weakest form of opinion to sure understanding. Kindergarten is not bad unless one refuses to leave. No one should be finger painting at forty.

The best known image in all of Plato is the Cave analogy found at the beginning of Book VII. Once read it cannot be forgotten. Allusions to it appear in so many books and movies that it would be impossible to list them all. In fact, the Cave Analogy can be a kind of trap for the unwary reader. The image appears in a particular dialogue to show particular truths to a specific group of people. However, the image is so powerful that it is tempting to view everything Plato ever wrote through it. Students are often tempted to compare it to any other passage of Plato and use it as a Rosetta stone for every difficulty. Many other people only read the Cave Analogy in anthologies. It becomes the entire Republic. This is very dangerous.

By itself, the Cave leads the reader to believe that Plato despised the visible world and science. Plato was surrounded by people who believed the visible world was the only one that mattered. He saw the comparatively greater importance of the divine. To most people the divine seems less important, because it is not immediately visible. Yet it is the divine that makes the visible possible. Compared to the Good nothing seems worth discussing. But Plato does discuss other things for he devotes an entire dialogue to science, the Timaeus. Many of his myths like that in Republic Book X contain important cosmological detail. Plato does not feel the need to convince his reader of the importance of the “real world.” That is easy enough. Plato uses the Cave Analogy to make many points. The world that seems so important is much less important than the divine reality we cannot see. People who have seen the truth often seem less wise than those who not seen it. Men cannot live in the world of the Forms. At best, man leaves the cave and sees the sun. No man ever goes and lives on the Sun. In fact, humans must eventually return to the cave. There they can tell what they have seen.

This difficult duty shows that Plato does not despise the world. He sends the philosopher back to it. He just speaks in a kind of prophetic extreme about the glories of the next world to jar the prisoner of the cave from his complacency. Let me draw attention to one detail that is often overlooked. Plato provides no way for the first man to get out of the Cave. He merely says, “When one was freed from his fetters. . .” (515c) How? It seems unlikely chains would fall off merely by the prisoner recognizing he is wearing them. Every human is in chains. Of course, the theory of recollection says there is forgotten knowledge of the other world that might be remembered by some fortunate man. This does not seem adequate, however. The power of the lies about the shadows would be too all pervasive. The returning memory would be uncertain and the power of the keepers of the prisoners, who create the images on the wall with their puppets and fire, too absolute. The prisoner who began to doubt the sufficiency of the explanations found in the Cave could be quickly silenced. Who shall release the first man? How is it done? This is the great unanswered question of Republic.

Socrates presents his views on education following the insights gained from the Cave Analogy in Book VII and his divided line image in Book VI. Education is offered freely, but is not compulsory. “Nothing taught by force stays in the soul.” (536e) The students are to be sound in body and in mind. Sound bodies will enable them to engage in the hard work of learning at a later age. Young people are to learn all the normal Greek fields of study. At twenty, the best are taught how these fields of study form a unified whole. Socrates warns that the dialectic is not for the immature. The immature use it to become lawless. Having been confused by argument, they rush out and confuse others. Instead, only the best and most mature should be given the tools of the dialectic. They will then be forced to serve others. This is the educational system of the city in words. Real men took this speculation seriously and built the Western educational system around it.

The training of a stereotypical Victorian English gentleman followed this course of study almost exactly. Modern American education still has the remnants of this liberal arts system without any comprehension of the philosophy behind it. Building on the ideas of Republic was not an unreasonable thing to do. How can this be since I have cautioned so often that Plato is building a city of words that is not to be taken as proscriptive? This is schooling in words. I think Plato has no commitment to the details of his educational proposal. At one point Socrates is asked if a course of study should take five or six years, he says, “It doesn’t matter. Make it five.” (539e)

On the other hand, at times in Republic Plato is basing his city in words on certain metaphysical beliefs he does take seriously. These ideas are not just found in Republic. The general principles outlined here in compact form are the same ones we have seen scattered throughout the other dialogues. It seems fair to attribute them as Plato’s own views as a result.

One would use the same rules that one might use in determining what a writer like Tolkien believed from reading Lord of the Rings. No one should conclude from reading Return of the King that Tolkien would have favored an absolute monarchy for Britain based on blood. With care one might attribute certain views in Lord of the Rings to Tolkien and not just think of them as details in his mythic universe. For example, Tolkien had a mixed view of technological advance. He did not accept the common assumption of his time that technological change was always good. In the same way, no one should think Plato wanted to make himself or some other philosopher tyrant of Athens. Tolkien and Plato both use myth in the same way. Each used story telling to spur the human soul to deeper truths. If the myth is not confused with the Truth, then it has served its Platonic function. Plato need not condemn literature and myth-making, indeed he would applaud it. Tolkien is a consistent neo-Platonist.

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