Don’t miss this excellent interview by Tom Woods of Bradley Birzer, who not only reviews but delves into the lives of important literary figures of the west, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dante, Virgil, Cato, and others while laying out the meaning and importance of myth and mythology. Mythology is definitely not bad, it’s just been corrupted. This is a must-listen. Title of the show is “Mythology, Tolkien, and Liberty.” Author is Bradley J. Birzer.
Excerpts from the show.
First, on Vigil:
So Virgil becomes the guide of Dante and takes him through the nine levels of Hell. They actually have to go through the digestive system of Satan to get out of Hell. And once they do, they find themselves in Purgatory, which is not necessarily a nice place, but it’s so much nicer than Hell that Dante is utterly overwhelmed. But when we get to the shores of Purgatory, the guard there, of all people, perhaps one of the single greatest libertarians who has ever lived or ever will live, is Cato the Younger.
And Cato of course was the last military general to fight against Julius Caesar. He’s defeated, and he commits suicide rather than accept defeat. And yet no matter how much that might go against Catholic belief because of the suicide, Dante places Cato the Younger as the guardian. Here’s this pagan who committed suicide, but he’s the guardian of Purgatory. And that to me tells us a lot about the way Dante is incorporating these people and what he’s trying to do and what he’s trying to say. He’s creating a real wholeness from Adam to the last man.
After Dante and Virgil make it through Purgatory, Virgil kind of fades offstage. We don’t know what happens to him. Dante enters Heaven, knowing it’s Heaven because he hears singing now rather than speech, singing being the highest form of speech according to Dante and most of the medievals. Beatrice, it turns out, whom he’s been in love with forever from afar, is not Beatrice but the Virgin Mary. So he follows the Virgin Mary, and lo and behold it’s not the Virgin Mary; in fact, it is Jesus, and he encounters the Trinity. And that’s the end of the book, the encountering of the Trinity. That’s his “divine comedy,” his divine happiness.
So it’s an absolute must read for every educated person, Tom, as you well know. But it’s not just that. It’s an exciting read. There’s a lot going on it. And I know a lot of our schools only assign the Inferno, but I think that’s a crime. They should not assign the Inferno and leave it there. We don’t send our students to Hell and hope they stay. You have to make it through the Purgatorio and then the Paradiso. And Tom, you maybe be familiar with this, but the best translation by far is Tony Esolen’s translation.
On the influence of Dante’s Inferno, this caught my ear . . .
WOODS: All right, let me ask you this: what does an outsider — what does a Martian learn about Western civilization from reading that?
BIRZER: Oh, well, everything really up to that point. Dante, when he — of course he dies in 1350, but when he’s writing that he’s a Thomist but he’s also deeply liberally educated. He’s very skeptical of politics, and he does everything possible — like I think Saint Paul tried to do in Athens, Dante does everything possible to pull all of Western civilization together into a whole. And this is why his story ends — maybe a little exaggeration, but his story ends — people like Donald Kagan, especially old school historians, will talk about — Daniel Boorstin — will talk about Dante as having, not created, but really explaining that great medieval synthesis that ties together the ancient and the Christian world without much of a break. So Jesus is not seen as a break in the world; he’s seen as a fulfillment in the world.
To me, this is one of the highlights in the discussion
Tolkien, he’s a traditional libertarian. He called himself an anarchist. And what he believed, I think, very importantly, is — and this’ll get your third question — is power corrupts; no question about that. But Tolkien didn’t see democracy as anything to be cherished. Democracy is nothing if everybody can vote on everything. He truly, in an old de Tocquevillean sense, Tolkien believed that democracy was very dangerous, because yes, you get the right to vote, but once you get the right to vote that sphere of politics takes away all that matters in humanity. It takes away what we can do in family, what we can do in church, what we can do in our fraternal societies.
This is just stunning in its insight. I had a colleague while teaching who made the same observation that they don’t like people being friends. And this friend was a staunch democrat.
And he and C.S. Lewis — Lewis has great damning essays of democracy. They basically argue that in a real democracy, and the way democracy will move even if it hasn’t gotten there yet, that friendship will be really illegal at some point, because democracy and its radical demand for equality will not allow for people who have differences to pair off. Lewis in his essay on “The Four Loves” [and study guide in case you’re interested] says there’s probably nothing more that a democracy hates than real friendship, because real friendship by its very essence is an exclusion from the mass of society. It’s basically saying, hey, we don’t like where society’s going, but you and I like each other. Let’s break apart. It’s always — as Lewis says, every friendship is a secessionist movement.
I’d wished I’d been in this guy’s classroom when I was in college or in high school. Boy, would my life have been different.
And not only do I agree with that, but I think that Tolkien was very worried about that. These guys, Tolkien and Lewis, they are old, traditional, Western men, very libertarian in their views on politics. Conservative in their own social views and in their own life, but very, very radical in terms of their own politics. They worried that democracy was really nothing more than conformity. It was a form, a pretty form, a soft form, but it was a form of conformity, and that worried them greatly. Tolkien and Lewis both used to talk about democracy as a mechanized form of politics. It didn’t allow for real diversity.
So I hope that answers you, but Tolkien said quite often that he thought democracy was every bit as dangerous as Stalinism or of Hitlerism; it’s just that democracy was always so kind about it, so in a sense it was more insidious. Rather than having a jackhammer squish our face, we’re being given free milk, free healthcare. But he had a very de Tocquevillean sense about that. And this is an old Magna Carta guy. This is a guy who believes that real liberty comes from individuals within their chosen communities fighting for rights. I mean, Tolkien is nothing if not a pre-Norman AngloSaxon in his views.
Birzer again. Incredible stuff.
That’s one of those interesting aspects about Tolkien, and there’s a British author by the name of John Garth, who I think has really done the best work on Tolkien and World War I. In fact, he just came out with a brand new book on Tolkien leading up to World War I. Tolkien had been — right when World War I started, Tolkien, who had already had a pretty terrible life, frankly — I mean, he made his life good, but his mother had died; his father had died; he was being raised by one of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s priests; a guy named Father Francis Morgan was his legitimate father — or his legal, I should say, adopted father. And that was all good. Tolkien loved it, but he had already lost so many people in his life. He was really what we might call a displaced person, which is amazing thinking about it.
But when World War I starts, Tolkien begins to train in cavalry. And he’s a great horseman. He’s a natural horseman, absolutely. And that’s where, for those of you who’ve read The Lord of the Rings, your audience, that’s where the Riders of Rohan come from. They’re basically Tolkien’s own experience mixed with the American Indians out of James Fenimore Cooper. That was his great influence. But Tolkien, when he actually is sent over to fight, the British military recognizes his amazing communication skills. So no matter how good he is as a horseman, he is much, much better at communication. So he becomes a messenger and a translator in the trenches.
And he does his duty. I mean, this is a guy who, you know, he’s not thrilled with the war, but he volunteered, and he certainly believed that when he was in the war he would do everything possible. He had grown up in poverty, had never been privileged in his life, but he had been educated, got into Oxford. And he was very taken in the war with the lower class guys who had been drafted. And this is where Sam Gamgee comes from. Sam Gamgee is basically Tolkien’s homage to all of those working class Brits who really had no choice but made the best of what they could.
But he hated the war. Tolkien hated it in every way. He lost his two of three closest friends. So imagine, he’s now lost his dad, his mom, his two of three best friends in this war. And he won’t even talk about it. The war — he will not talk about World War I or his experiences in it until 1968, five years before he dies. It’s the first time he will talk about it. And yet it’s all over The Lord of the Rings. The war, the trauma, the heroism, everything. So that war shaped him like it shaped every person of that generation. And Tom, again, I know you know this, so I apologize for speaking to the choir here, but it probably — there’s no one who came out of that war who felt that they deserved to come out of that war. Almost every one of the British soldiers had survivor’s guilt, and that’s, I’m sure, not only did Tolkien not want to talk about it because it was horrible, but he felt terrible that he didn’t die in the war. It’s crazy. What a war. Truly the war that changed all of Western civilization.