The Walking Stick Problem

If you say, as Bacon once did, that knowledge is power, you will find yourself arraigned pretty quickly on charges of wanting to rape the earth. But knowledge is power, and knowledge cannot be applied in this world without exercising authoritative dominion. This axiom needs to be defended and it needs to be defended without appearing to be a mindless defense of strip mining.

For all his virtues, Tolkien has unfortunately contributed to our confusion on this issue.

“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones . . . Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well” ” (The Hobbit, p. 60).

We have this sturdy mythology that makes us assume that elves get everything done by purity of mind, while goblins are down in the forge heating up the metal in order to bang on it. And of course, when we do this we know better, because we do know that elves actually make things. But whenever that fact becomes a little too obvious or a little too apparent, we politely avert our gaze. We ignores it.

The “knowledge is power” adage is equally true when the good guys are doing it. It is true when you are clearing a plot of land to build a cabin, or cutting down a sapling in order to carve a fine walking stick, or shaping a block of stone for a place in the wall of Minas Turret. In the list of things that goblins make, all of them would be capable of noble uses with the exception of the instruments of torture.

But a pickaxe, by definition, is designed to make the dirt move when the dirt didn’t necessarily ask to be moved. To which — I want to maintain — both the elves and the goblins could reply, “Deal with it, dirt. Knowledge is power.” Now the elves are famously fair-spoken and gracious in speech, and so they wouldn’t exactly put it that way. But that does not change the reality of what is happening to the dirt. Someone who knows more than the dirt does is moving it around, usually without permission. That someone is himself a creature, and will ultimately answer to his Creator for his motives in doing whatever it was he was doing. And when that account is ultimately settled, I think it is safe to say the judgment will not be “for making and using a pickaxe.”

Look up from your computer, and look around you. If you are anything like me, you are surrounded by tools, and by the products of tools. And if you tallied them all up to three generations, we are talking about millions of very clever tools. This is true, not because we are orcs, but because we are men.

I suggest that we need to make our theological peace with our tools. We need to stop factoring them out of our discussions. We need to stop treating them as invisible. To treat them that way is simply to set ourselves up for picking an arbitrary date in our technological advancement, and treating everything prior to that date as de facto “not to be considered.” And after that entirely arbitrary “year one,” we have determined we are henceforth going to live a simple life — the Amish with their buggies and Wendell Berry with his typewriter. So fifty years from now are we going to be dealing with a group of the “simple folk” who still use the iPhone 4? Will it be a matter of high spiritual principle? Or perhaps spiritual myopia?

I want to maintain that the central question we must all answer is “what are you building?” and not “what tool is that?”

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valerieab
Member

“Minas Turret”?

Jane
Member

Was Tolkien’s point that they make pickaxes and swords and that is bad, or that it is bad that they are only good at making pickaxes and swords? Because I’m pretty sure his Elves are warriors and city-builders, too, and he doesn’t seem to just paper over that — the Elves do a goodly bit of actual fighting with actual swords right on stage. Still, I take your point — even insofar as he lets the higher beings use tools productively and apparently without shame, there’s that whole “mind of metal” and “cutting down trees is always bad” thing going… Read more »

Tom Brainerd
Guest

Given the various tasks and roles that God, in His completely holy, wise and powerful self, has assigned to the various creatures, the dirt might actually be crying out “Glory to God,” as the pickaxe digs in, each taking its own part in the dominion mandate.

[Of course, thinking that things like dirt and pickaxes are, at some level sentient, that trees *actually* clap their hands, might make me weird…certainly in the eyes of some of my seminary professors.]

Jane
Member

I should flesh out my thought — it is not good if they are only good at making pickaxes and swords, and none of them are ever good at making songs or stories or books of ancient lore or beautiful buildings like Minas Turret© or the city in Rivendell.

Arwen B
Guest
Arwen B

thinking that things like dirt and pickaxes are, at some level sentient, that trees *actually* clap their hands,

In the spirit of the question “Is my grandfather’s axe still the same axe when the handle has been replaced twice and the head once?”, and assuming that a pickaxe would gain sentience with time and use, does the replacement of a part retard the development of a tool’s sentience?

carole
Guest
carole

Does the same apply to which tool you are using and masculinity? I see this happening with the men at church: Is a hammer really more masculine than a mouse or keypad…hard work for the family is hard work for the family, right?

Chris
Guest
Chris

i think the issue is, do we want knowledge for the power, or do we want knowledge so we have the power to exercise wisdom and virtue? if the former, the maxim stands. if the latter, then we should avoid its use, as it is not our end.

some avoid the “new” in order to avoid the potential corruption that comes with the power of knowledge. or maybe a reminder to themselves that power corrupts.

jigawatt
Guest
jigawatt

No explicit reference to “Fill the earth and subdue it”? I’m surprised.

Tom Brainerd
Guest

Arwen,

Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t know the answer to your question…but I think that the creation, other than man, is actually much more obedient to its Creator than we are. It resists us because it is told to. So it may be that the rest of the creation has an in-made sentience that is complete as much as necessary.

Also, has not each replacement handle had a history of its own, that it brings along to its given task?

Just thoughts.

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

Sorry, but I find the criticism of Tolkien just a tad unconvincing. Especially when founded on a quote from the early part of The Hobbit (his writing greatly improves as the children’s book progresses). Just a few observations: – the Silmarils – Dwarves’ mithril – rings of power – mighty swords/daggers/bows/so many weapons each possessing an intricate history – song crafting (especially a Hobbit and Elven skill) His entire poem ‘Mythopoeia’ is about sub-creation and the inherited right to create. Creating not being the problem, but _what_ is created and _how_ (and if we perhaps love it too much). His… Read more »

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

To put it more simply, Tolkien was very wise to realize there is an important difference between dominion and domination.

Steve
Guest
Steve

It is not the invention or tool that is the problem but the use thereof. If technology was inherently evil I would not have spent the last 30 years of my life as a patent examiner.

carole
Guest
carole

How does your argument here, relate to that in Amusing Ourselves to Death Isn’t there something to the claim that certain tools/form determine the quality of output? It was my understanding that the Amish use “simpler” forms to avoid too much free time so to speak. Working men don’t fall into sin as easily etc. A typewriter forces the writer to revise and edit more carefully…

carole
Guest
carole

Had I more practice with my old typewriter, perhaps I wouldn’t have fouled up my use of italics!

Luke
Guest
Luke

Interestingly (to me anyway) the Amish doctrine did not begin as (and among many more informed Amish still is not) the idea that “all tech after point X in history is bad.” but rather was, “now that we are a people devoted to wholly to our God and not to the aims of the world, we will not follow it’s fashions or technological aims blindly, but will asses these things with our own theological goals in mind, and reject what would bring us on the trajectory of theirs.” As such, Amish communities don’t exist in technological and cultural stasis, they… Read more »

timothy
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timothy

@Tom Brainerd.

I have similar musings when I am working the soil or laboring.

I also have a notorious soft-spot for tools that have worn out, especially those that have served me well, I feel obligated to treat it with respect and put it to some other use.

cheers.

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

Carole is on to something.
Do certain tools also perhaps make us soft and lazy. Do you really need the riding mower, or even the self propelled ? Our grandfathers weren’t necessarily more virtuous owing to necessity but they also didn’t need gym memberships to avoid obesity.

Dan Glover
Guest

Agreed that the question “what are you building?” is more important than “what tool is that?”, but I’d say at least as important (or more so) as “what?” is “why are you building that?”. Elves, dwarves, orcs, men and hobbits all built cities (villages for hobbits, but you get the point) and forged swords (or in the hobbits case, at least used them). But why did each group do what it did? To what end? It seems to me that this underlies Tolkien’s statement above. He’s saying not so much that everything in the list of things the orcs make… Read more »

bethyada
Member

@carole. An man working in an office to provide for his family is more masculine than one who neglects his family and spends all day in the gym for his own narcissism. But men have more muscle than women because testosterone is coursing in their veins. Muscle is masculine and men should do be doing some things that make them sweat.

And this might be the place to remind people of Doug’s review of this book, From the Garden to the City, and perhaps this one: http://dougwilson.wpengine.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/book-of-the-monthaugust.html

carole
Guest
carole

Thanks for the responses to my questions. I was also thinking about how the ease created by tools leads to a lack of gratitude. My mother loves to tell my son how she got an orange and a pair of pajamas for Christmas…but isn’t there something to that? If her family wanted milk, they had to milk the goat and vegetables were from the garden…I believe her when she said they cleaned their plates and were grateful. If a machine and not the man tills the soil, does something happen to our appreciation of its bounty?

Katecho
Member

carole wrote: I was also thinking about how the ease created by tools leads to a lack of gratitude. … If a machine and not the man tills the soil, does something happen to our appreciation of its bounty? I think carole’s point is well made. I know in my own life that I certainly valued things in proportion to the sweat I invested in getting them. Gratitude is more difficult in affluence, when all needs and wants are immediately gratified. There is definitely a danger in our instant culture and our mechanized culture. However, I would expand on this… Read more »

Matthew Paul Abel
Guest
Matthew Paul Abel

I want to maintain that the central question we must all answer is “what are you building?” and not “what tool is that?” So, does this mean that if the product is good, it doesn’t matter what tool we use? All things considered, isn’t there always a good, better and best tool for the job? I would submit the best tool not only produces the best and most “good product”, but produces the least “bad by-product” and causes the least unnecessary damage. And I would submit that the products and byproducts and damage used in such an evaluation would include… Read more »

Matt
Guest
Matt

I suggest that we need to make our theological peace with our tools. Ok, I did it. For all his virtues, Tolkien has unfortunately contributed to our confusion on this issue. Probably more accurate to say that misunderstandings of Tolkien, in the name of reaction against anything that even slightly smells of hippie tree-hugging, has contributed to our confusion. The point about the goblins was not that hammers are bad, but rather that the goblins’ lack of aesthetic sense will not stop them from winning a war. In a way, it’s kind of the opposite of the Confederate line during… Read more »

Brendan
Guest
Brendan

As counterpoints to this article’s conclusion, Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Alan Jacob’s Books & Culture review of Carr’s recent book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.

Benjamin Polge
Guest
Benjamin Polge

@DouglasWilson: not to split hairs, but its “Minas Tirith” Tower of the Guard.

Mark
Guest
Mark

There is no biblical or practical parallel to much of the mythical goop in the Rings fictions. We will never see an army of dishonored dead fighting foreign mercenaries; we will never fight dragons or wraiths; and we will never fight creatures hatched out of the ground. There is never any danger of evil winning forever, and finally defeating that powerful supernatural evil never depends on men.

Frank Golubski
Guest
Frank Golubski

Dan Glover writes: … I’d say at least as important (or more so) as “what?” is “why are you building that?” Elves, dwarves, orcs, men and hobbits all … forged swords (or in the hobbits case, at least used them). But why did each group do what it did? To what end? … We make many tools which may be used for good or evil … at a certain point, some of the tools we make start to (re)make us … we need to think through where the point is at which a particular tool begins to form (or warp)… Read more »

timothy
Guest
timothy

How do we toss the bathwater of gunolotry without throwing out the baby of the biblical value of the defense of life against criminal aggression?

What does Scripture instruct us to do ?

Chesterton used the image of a “balance on a knife’s edge” to describe Christian behavior and ethics in action.

Some examples:

A Christian is/can be
… fully sexual and fully chaste.
…wealthy, but not greedy or covetous, rather, generous
…fully heroic and fully humble
…etc..
to that list, a Christian can be
…well armed, but fully peaceful.

It is the very act of being a Christian that enables God to form us in His image.

Benjamin Polge
Guest
Benjamin Polge

Oh, oops… my bad. I thought you were another victim of auto-incorrect.

Benjamin Polge
Guest
Benjamin Polge

Oh, oops… my bad. I thought you were another victim of auto-incorrect.