The question now becomes: Is it possible to revive a tradition and build something of lasting value while avoiding anachronism? If so, how? These have become ever more pressing questions since the 19th century, when the rise of modern historiography threatened to turn all fields of study into relativism.
A brief examination of two thinkers’ struggle with this problem will help us grasp it better. The first thinker is Friedrich Nietzsche. By education and training, Nietzsche was a classicist who concentrated on Greek history and literature. However, as he embarked on his professional career, he began to grapple with the problem that would occupy the rest of his troubled life: The modern rationalistic and scientific mind (which he ultimately traced back to Socrates in The Birth of Tragedy) had destroyed any kind of absolute value in the world by eliminating God. But, now that God was out of the picture, what point was there in living? What value could man find in life? What value could Nietzsche find in life? Nietzsche did not think that modern reason could tell man why he should want to live. This is the point of his famous aphorism in The Gay Science, in which the madman runs onto the marketplace in broad daylight holding a lantern, asking the burghers where God is now that they have killed Him. The death of God was not an occasion for joy but a reason for despair—unless man could find another source of value in this life. Nietzsche’s early dilemma, then, was that he had rejected the transcendent God of Christianity, the prior source of all value, as simply a form of “slave morality,” but had not yet found anything with which to replace Him.
Nietzsche’s solution to his dilemma—to be found even in his earlier, less iconoclastic and less stridently atheistic texts—is to make man into a creator of value. This was the Umwertung aller Werte he sought to bring about. The Dionysian ideal of The Birth of Tragedy is an early version of this idea of man as creator of value. In On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, he examines different viewpoints from which to write history, and he finds that the proper viewpoint is from the view of the great man who is capable of creating value. “You can only explain the past by what is highest in the present” (§ 6). “Thus, history is to be written by the man of experience and character. He who has not lived through something greater and nobler than others, will riot be able to explain anything great and noble in the past. The language of the past is always oracular: you will only understand if as builders of the future who know the present” (§ 6). These quotations, of course, can be read as meaning merely that the historian must himself possess a certain greatness of soul in order to understand the past; he must be on the same level as the men he is trying to interpret for the present. However, Nietzsche emphasizes less the traditional moral and intellectual virtues than the nebulous quality of creativeness; virtue is excellence in accord with a recognized standard, whereas creativity consists of creating that standard for oneself. It is in great part a rejection of the study of history.
In Thus Spake Zarathustra, though, Nietzsche takes the concept of the great man who can create values even further. In that book’s prologue, Nietzsche portrays Zarathustra as a mythical figure who during his time of solitude on the mountain has become so full of wisdom that he must now descend to his fellow man and unburden himself of the values he has created. (The idea of a man spending time on a mountain to grow in wisdom is a common trope in myths.) Most tellingly, among the people he meets, he recognizes a kindred spirit in the dying tightrope-walker, in the man who could dance above the abyss—one of Nietzsche’s favorite images of how the great man should live, as opposed to the “last men” Zarathustra meets down below. The tightrope-walker knows that he has nothing solid under his feet (no Grund) but a flimsy wire and through his own virtuosity and daring he turns something pointless like walking between two buildings into a work of art. He mocks death and the ultimate meaninglessness of his own act: his own creativity is the source of value. The myths handed down by the gods have no place in Nietzsche’s thought.
Nietzsche saw the problems created by the death of God and traditional values and by the rise of relativism, but ultimately decided to bury those values even deeper by turning the Dionysian self into the creator of value. History would no longer be a real standard for Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s respect for the Greek tradition, paradoxically, led him to reject tradition as a standard for behavior—the individual would judge history through his own creativity.
Our second thinker would agree with Nietzsche that there must be a standard by which to judge history and tradition, but his own position would be more humble. Rather than looking for the standard within himself, this thinker sought it in the teachings, in the tradition, of the Catholic Church. This second thinker is J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien shared with Nietzsche an intense passion for language and literature, though they worked in different fields. Instead of concentrating in Greek and Latin (which he had already mastered before university), Tolkien chose to dedicate his studies to Old and Middle English as well as several other medieval languages, such as Old Norse and Old Finnish. While he was a historical scholar of the first rank in his chosen field, he was also a tremendously imaginative author. Many of his works arose from his desire to fuse his literature and language studies with his studies of myth. As mentioned yesterday, it was Tolkien’s discussions of myth with C.S. Lewis that led the latter to convert to Christianity. In his incomplete poem The Fall of Arthur (which was only published in 2013), Tolkien tried give these legends a more English feel by adapting the alliterative system of Old English verse. The young Tolkien started on the myths that were published after his death as The Silmarillion as a way of practicing his invented languages. Even in his invented languages, he strove for historical verisimilitude. He developed different dialects of the same language and even extensive histories of each dialect, which he described in the appendices to The Return of the King. In his myths too he strove for historical verisimilitude. In The Lord of the Rings every story has a back story and every song has a legend behind it. In all his works Tolkien intertwines history and myth in every detail. He created a mythical world by means of historical consciousness in such a way that myth and historical consciousness were not in conflict inside that world.
It is this intertwining of myth and history in a common origin that is the essence of tradition for Tolkien. Tolkien depicts the very first act in the creation of Middle Earth, in The Silmarillion, as a series of harmonious melodies springing forth from the mind of the Creator. Soon, however, an evil spirit introduces dissonance into the melodies, which the Creator nevertheless finds a way to incorporate into his own music. The harmonious melodies are the basis of all our traditions; anything we can create is a reflection of this ideal, which, as Niggle finds out (in Leaf by Niggle), can only be realized with the help of God in the next life. However, in this life, in history, the artist must be fundamentally humble. His task is to reclaim the beauty of the original melodies, but his powers are limited: he can only engage in “sub-creation,” to use Tolkien’s term. God creates history; our task in history is to reclaim our principles: the Creator’s harmonies. At the beginning of history stands a myth, and in history we must reclaim this myth.
For Tolkien, then, any tradition—whether in art, literature, language—is a historical means by which we return to our origins. History by itself is not as important. Indeed, Tolkien called this life “a long defeat.” What matters is how we shape our tradition is to lead us to God, the foundation, the Grund, that Nietzsche tried to do without, but neither successfully nor happily.
Tolkien does not give us a blueprint for how to integrate tradition and historical consciousness. There just is no easy way to synthesize historical scholarship with a distinct literary sensibility. It takes a genius like Tolkien to achieve what he did. However, Tolkien did prove in his work that it was possible to use history to re-establish a connection to myth and tradition in the modern world and he showed us what such a synthesis could look like.