Sunday 12 June 2011

Is reward on earth more dangerous than punishment?


From The Letters of JRR Tolkien - letter number 131 to Milton Waldman, 1951:

The Downfall [of Numenor] is partly the result of an inner weakness in Men - consequent, if you will, upon the first Fall (unrecorded in theses tales), repented but not finally healed.

Reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment!

The Fall is achieved by the cunning of Sauron in exploiting this weakness. Its central theme is (inevitably, I think, in a story of Men) a Ban, or Prohibition.


If it is indeed true that reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment, then this is a truth which has been lost from our culture.

I take it that 'reward on earth' means material goods, worldly pleasures.

If it is true, then we are in big trouble, and have been in big trouble for several generations - since for us there is nothing that is real except 'on earth', and indeed for us there is no such thing as 'reward'.


We don't even think of earthly happiness as a reward because in modern culture we don't believe there is anybody or any-thing to do the rewarding; we don't believe in God, we don't believe that the universe cares about what we do.

We regard happiness as simply the natural state of things.

So, if we personally are not happy at this moment, if anybody is unhappy ever, then this can only be because it is someone's fault.

Since happiness is regarded as spontaneous, unhappy people must have been made unhappy - ultimately by other people.


For our culture the contrast with 'reward on earth' is not reward in heaven (we don't believe in heaven), nor even anything to do with reward (we don't believe in rewards), and certainly not in hell (hell is a wicked joke); but the opposite of reward on earth is simply 'misery on earth'.

Modern culture has no higher value than comfort.


We moderns cling to the comforts of life like the devil-worshipping Numenoreans, but not heroically - our elites are anything-but heroic.

Rather than be deprived of the comforts of life, our elite want the 'right' to be killed quickly and painlessly.

So this is what we have come to! A culture focused upon the process of dying - not death as a state (we don't believe in that), but merely on the process of dying.


Ours is a very different state from Numenorean hubris - who determined to conquer the gods and achieve eternal life (because life for them - on their earthly paradise, with their enhanced powers of mind and body - was such delight).

We have killed the gods, hence rendered each and every life meaningless, purposeless, alienated - so we ask 'nothing more' than that life feels pleasant, right up to its end.


Of course, logically, the modern elite ought to be killing themselves sooner rather than later; why put it off?

Why rely on doctors and clinics to 'put you out of your misery'? - surely people should do it while they can still implement their own choices for themselves.

It could happen, perhaps will happen.


But somehow, at present, we don't yet believe our own nihilism to that extent.

We are lukewarm even in our existential despair!



Mike Kenny said...

Bruce Charlton said...

Well, I disagree - the similarities between old time orthodox religion and PC are superficial - the differences are profound.

This is from the forthcoming book Thought Prison:

PC as a Christian heresy?
Since political correctness has Christian features and comes from Christian historical roots; does this then mean that PC is a Christian heresy? – in the sense that PC is the fault of Christianity, perhaps an inevitable outcome of Christianity?
Well… yes in a way; but actually no, not at all!
Political correctness is indeed post-Christian; but the proper emphasis is on the post, not on the Christian.
It is the fact that PC has rejected the core of Christianity which is of significance; not that PC retains some peripheral, distorted and fragmentary aspects of Christian ethics.
Specifically, it is the rejection of the pre-requisites of Christianity which cause the problem of PC.
Political correctness is fundamentally (not accidentally) hostile to Christianity, basically orientated-against Christianity.
That is, political correctness is hostile to ‘orthodox’ Christianity - Christianity as ideally conceptualized and practiced in most places and over most of the past 2000 years.
PC is not particularly hostile to the modern ‘liberal Christianity’ of mainstream Churches - a worldly Christianity which is liberal first and Christian only insofar as Christianity does not conflict with PC.
Underlying PC there is a nihilistic rejection of reality; and this nihilism was caused when orthodox Christianity was rejected; and nihilism was the means by which orthodox Christianity was rejected.
In order to get rid of Christianity, what was rejected was a whole way of orientating humanity in reality: most of it pagan, some of it monotheistic, a relatively small amount of it being specifically Christian.
So, PC Post-Christianity is not just Post-Christian, but also Post-Monotheist and Post-Pagan. None of these traditional religious perspectives make any kind of sense to PC.
Politically correct post-Christianity rejects (inter alia) the soul, the immaterial realm, life after death, the supernatural (e.g. angels and demons), the actuality of permanent objective reality, the possibility of knowledge of reality, the reality of the transcendental Good (and its components Truth, Beauty and Virtue), the possibility of God or gods, a personal relationship with the divine, the possibility of divine revelation, miracles, prophecy...and so on and on.

Being 'post' all-this-stuff is the very essence of PC - and the aspirations of core political correctness have nothing necessarily to do with the fragmentary and distorted Christian elements currently residual in PC.
(Indeed, any totalitarian ideology such as political correctness - which implicitly aims at the destruction of all human agency – free will – is about as anti-Christian as it is possible to be. It would, if successfully implemented, made Christianity impossible, since belief could never be chosen.)
Put it like this: political correctness is always, purposefully, fundamentally and permanently anti-orthodox-Christian; and only sometimes, accidentally, superficially, fragmentarily and temporarily ‘christian’.