Sunday 12 June 2011

Is reward 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, we ought to be killing ourselves sooner rather than later; why put it off? - do it while we can still implement our choices for ourselves.

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

1 comment:

George Goerlich said...

The 1976 movie "Logan's Run" takes this modern train to a potential real conclusion: a society set up with even more advanced comfort, where anyone over the age of 30 is euthanized (in a world of limited resources, what is the point of long lives?)