The Greatness of a Lesser World


Nothing could be more “cozy” than Tolkien’s description of the Shire. Many think the Shire is an idealization of rural England, and, no doubt, it certainly resembles it. Though the English do not seem to live in holes, they, nevertheless do like their gardens. And though the major cities resemble major cities elsewhere, rural villages are like nothing so much as themselves. You cannot blame a man for loving something that is already idyllic. Tolkien’s love of England (and Hobbits), however, went far beyond pleasant gardens and good neighbors. The warmth he felt for such things colored his political thoughts as well (such as they were). And it’s difficult to describe a man’s “political” thoughts when those thoughts were about as anti-political as possible. David Bentley Hart offered a recent essay in First Things that focused on the topic. He quotes from a Tolkien letter to his son:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people . . .

I have been struck through the years by something of the same phenomenon in the thought of Solzhenitsyn. His direct experience of the Soviet State certainly made him less than sanguine about the centralized power of bureaucracies. He wrote and spoke, instead, about the need to return to the model of the Zemtsvos, an institution created under the reforms of Alexander II that disappeared after the Revolution. Zemstvos were a modest form of self-government with local councils and elected groups made up of landowners (both large and small), clergy, urban classes and peasants. These small, local ruling councils were to determine the economic needs of any area. Part of the goal was an “economy of permanence,” rather than an economy of runaway consumption. His principles are strikingly similar to the Distributism favored by a number of Catholic thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton.

What they particularly have in common is the philosophical principle of subsidiarity, which elevates the local and the small. Subsidiarity, a stated teaching of Catholic social dogma, holds that it is always preferable to do a thing as close to its result as possible (my wording). That is, do not make decisions for things any further away than necessary. It is rather “anti-statist,” and certainly anti-bureaucratic.

I am neither a political philosopher nor an economist. But it is very much in my mind that three or four of the Christians whom I most admire in our contemporary age held similar views. I find myself in deep sympathy with them on many levels. In a world whose current turmoil forces careful thinking about many things, it seems natural to me to turn to those whom I must trust.

My sympathies are easily understood. First, I have a deep disdain for abstraction, almost anywhere. Generalities exist only in our minds. We do not experience the “love of man.” We can only love this man, or that woman. Because human beings and their lives are utterly unique, the greater the distance we place between ourselves and those of whom we treat, the less accurate we are. A universal law may sound wonderful in theory (how could anything be more equal than one, single, universal law?). However, the myriad of exceptions that actual reality necessarily generates negates the effectiveness of such a law. Our bitter experience in contemporary times is that the “universal” law tends to negate the actual reality – “negation” being experienced as oppression and confusion.

This is often the problem of modern forms of governance. Tolkien, in his criticisms, clearly had the modern experience in mind. His description of the Scouring of the Shire:

A lot of Men, ruffians mostly, came with great wagons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay. And more came. And before we knew where we were they were planted here and there all over the Shire, and were felling trees and digging and building themselves sheds and houses just as they liked. soon they began lording it around and taking what they wanted.

… Everything except Rules got shorter and shorter…

Those events in Middle Earth find an almost identical echo in CS Lewis’ depiction of the N.I.C.E and its takeover of Bragdon Woods in That Hideous Strength. He pictures an agency, with a wide-ranging mandate, setting about destroying everything human, decent and worth having in the name of some better, greater scheme (later revealed to have been directed from hell itself). Prison sentences without measure, simply because they “only lasted” until the prisoner had “reformed.” In the name of being humane, the most inhuman things were allowed.

These thoughts on the political and economic structures of the world are not alien to theology, much less to Orthodox thought. Though Orthodoxy has never espoused an economic theory, such as distributism, nor codified a philosophical principle, such as subsidiarity, there are, nonetheless, certain aspects of Orthodoxy that show a preference for the small and the local.

Orthodox ecclesiology, complete with the messiness of autocephalous Churches, roughly identified with ethnic or national identities, demonstrates the abiding importance of the local over the universal. This, of course, comes at the price of complete conformity and creates a new set of problems when those local customs emigrate into new settings. Unity is extremely difficult in the presence of diversity and local autonomy (much less, autocephaly). Note this passage from the recent Holy and Great Council in Crete:

In opposition to the levelling and impersonal standardization promoted by globalization, and also to the extremes of nationalism, the Orthodox Church proposes the protection of the identities of peoples and the strengthening of local identity. As an alternative example for the unity of mankind, she proposes the articulated organization of the Church on the basis of the equality of the local Churches.

The habits of modern cultures have become attuned to the generalizations of distant bureaucracies. Our loyalties are attuned to distant sounds rather than local reality. Neighbors are the most likely strangers in our lives, while true strangers become our “friends.” These are the habits of alienation and loneliness: friends whom one only sees in digitalized form, but never touches.

Orthodoxy holds the sacramental encounter with God to be the primary means of salvation. We may make professions of faith in things that seem removed, but this abstracted religious form is ultimately alien to Orthodoxy (and classical Christianity). The Christ Whom we believe in, is none other than the Christ Whom we eat and drink. The physicality of the faith also guards the local nature of the faith. The “two or three who gather together” must gather locally, not just in a chat room.

The Orthodox embodiment of the Church has always emphasized its local character. No single language or culture can be seen as the epitome of Orthodoxy. The absence of Great Councils over many centuries is not a failure or lack of unity. Rather, General Councils are themselves rightly seen as failures, required to meet only by the extreme necessity of dangerously threatening heresies. The adequacy of each local Church (defined as a Church with a governing Synod of Bishops), is able to choose and consecrate its bishops, glorify saints, and arrange for the well-being and good order of its life. Each Church is itself the fullness of the Church, and not merely an inadequate branch.

The globalization of modern life (a new feature within modernity) seems to be largely driven by economic factors that are rapidly replacing political entities. The Great Council observed:

The contemporary ideology of globalization, which is being imposed imperceptibly and expanding rapidly, is already provoking powerful shocks to the economy and to society on a world-wide scale. Its imposition has created new forms of systematic exploitation and social injustice; it has planned the gradual neutralization of the impediments from opposing national, religious, ideological and other traditions and has already led to the weakening or complete reversal of social acquisitions on the pretext of the allegedly necessary readjustment of the global economy, widening thus the gap between rich and poor, undermining the social cohesion of peoples and fanning new fires of global tensions.


As I child, I was small. I enjoyed “delicate” actions (I don’t know how else to describe this). I liked working with care on small things. I found people who were not careful about such things to be “clumsy” and very likely to break the things that mattered to me. It was a childish fear, something that sometimes alienated me from siblings (I’ll say no more). I have something of the same feeling about globalization. Arguments of “prosperity” ignore the delicate disruptions that such large endeavors entail. Aggregate measures of economics never describe the specific disasters in many lives. When a stranger loses his job, it’s a “recession.” When you lose your job, it’s a “depression.” And “recoveries” in the aggregate often do very little to address the depression borne by so many.

Tolkien and Solzhenitsyn (and others) gave great attention to the “littleness” of our lives. Our spiritual lives are surely no less specific. Our salvation is found in the little things, as is the truth of our existence.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” Thorin Oakenshield

“Even the smallest person can change the course of history.” Lady Galadriel

“Please be careful with my toys…you’ll break them.” A certain small child to an older brother.

Howard Huws6/28/2016 1:42 pm
Very true and inspiring.
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