Jeremy Pierce: December 2010 Archives

Tolkien and Mixed Race

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In a paragraph in my dissertation, I explain a (supposedly) pre-theoretical approach to mixed race that made sense to me when I was a kid. It seemed to me that a helpful way to explain what I would have thought (and what many Americans seem to me to think) is sort of parallel to the way Tolkien speaks of half-elves in his fictional world. In the process, I realized how Tolkien speaks of this is much more complicated than I'd though, and I couldn't in good conscience leave it the way I had initially stated it, so it led to a long clarificatory footnote that I thought a number of the readers of this blog might appreciate for its geekiness.

Here is the sentence in the text of my dissertation that led to this:

I confess that this is how I thought of these matters in my unreflective, supposedly-pretheoretical analysis of things in high school. I would have taken a Barack Obama to be half-black in the same way that I took Elrond in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be half-elf, his daughter Arwen to be three-quarters elf, and her children with Aragorn to be three-eighths elf.

I realized there was a complicating factor, though. Aragorn had an elvish ancestor as well, and I wanted to check to see how far back it was. In the process, I was reminded that Elrond himself wasn't the product of a full elf and a full human, and it led to a much longer and much geekier footnote than I ever expected to be putting into my dissertation, but it's hard to be fair to Tolkien without acknowledging this, and it turns out to illustrate a different phenomenon in how racial classification works in some places outside the U.S. Here is the footnote as it stands now:

Tolkien buffs may quibble here, and they would be right to, for two reasons. (1) Aragorn was the sixteenth in the line of Elros, Elrond's brother, and thus he himself has elvish ancestry, even if minuscule (I believe one over two the thirty-second power). (2) Elrond and Elros themselves weren't exactly half-elves to begin with. Their father was actually half-elf, and their mother was one-fourth human, one-eighth Maia (a kind of lesser angelic-like divinity), and five-eighths elf. That would make Elrond and Elros nine-sixteenths elf, three-eighths human, and one-sixteenth Maia. Arwen's son twenty-five sixty-fourths elf, by these measurements, not the three-eighths that would result if Elrond were literally half elf. But we get the language of half-elves for a number of Tolkien characters with mixed ancestry, regardless of actual percentages. What this suggests is that the culture of Tolkien's world seems to treat someone as half-elf for having any level of mixed ancestry, eschewing a one-drop rule in either direction but insisting on little expression of nuance or gradation among those labeled half-elves. This would presumably operate something like the label 'brown' in some Latin American and Caribbean countries, applying to anyone of mixed heritage regardless of the particular number of ancestors of each race.

This doesn't (at this point) make it into my dissertation, but compare Rowling's terminology in the Harry Potter books. There are two systems of classification, the one that is dominant until Voldemort's rise to power (and presumably again afterward) and the one operating during his reign of terror. In the method of classification that we learn throughout most of the series, someone with a magical parent and a Muggle parent is a half-blood. Harry's mother, Severus Snape, and Voldemort himself are half-bloods. Someone with no magical parentage but who has magic is called a Muggle-born. But in the generation after a half-blood, if the other parent is magical, there is no discussion of being a half-blood. Harry himself is never called a half-blood by anyone in the mainstream of wizarding society. There's no one-drop rule in either direction, but there's a sufficient-drop rule apparently, because once you get to three-fourths magical parentage you're no longer consider partial, and even if you have no magical parentage you're treated as magical in one sense. It's what you can do and not your parentage that makes the difference in terms of the law.

But then there's Voldemort's regime. Muggle-borns are Mudbloods by the pureblood mindset even before Voldemort's return to power, but once he takes control of things they simply become Muggles. They're assumed to have stolen their wands, because they're not magical. Half-bloods (other than Voldemort and Snape) are sometimes called Mudbloods, and Harry (who had a full magical parent and a Muggle-born magical parent) is considered a half-blood, because his mother was a Muggle.

There's something more like the one-drop rule operating here, although not quite. But neither of these systems of classification works out quite like Tolkien's. And keep in mind that elves in Tolkien don't think of humans as corrupting or impure. A half-elf can choose to be mortal or to be an elf in ways that don't involve just legal status. It affects whether they become mortal. Arwen, with much more elf ancestry than human, still could chose to become mortal. There's nothing parallel to that in Rowling's classifications. Perhaps if we had enough evidence for how half-orcs were classified (there are only a couple suggestions in Tolkien that there are such things but no clear cases where it's more than just simple one-human, one-orc parentage). If he treated three-fourths orcs as half-orcs in a case where the human is mixed with something seen as corrupting, we'd have a good test case for whether his principle would expand to other cases of mixing. But I know of nothing in his fictional world that gets any more complex than simple one-one mixing except when it comes to elves (and the one Maia in the line of Elrond).

Christian Carnival CCCLIX

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Welcome to the 359th Christian Carnival. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of blog posts by Christian authors (understood as those who affirm the historic creeds agreed upon by Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox).

If you have a blog and fit that criterion, and you want to submit a post for next week's carnival, see the submissions info here (but keep in mind that the dates in that post are for the week when I wrote that post).

For some recent Christian Carnivals, please see:

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On to the Carnival...


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"Faith, to hear most people talk about it, and certainly in a religious context, is the permission that people give one another to believe things for bad reasons, and when they have good reasons they immediately rely on the good reasons." -- Sam Harris on NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday a few weeks ago

On one level, this is complete nonsense. My faith is not my giving anyone permission to believe things. If I have faith, that's trust in God, not permission for others to believe things. I'm not sure why Harris thinks it has to do with your attitude toward others' beliefs. No one really believes that, and I would include Harris in that.

But what he's saying reflects a common attitude toward what faith is. Perhaps he's even right that in most contexts the English word turns out to mean something to do with believing things without good reasons (which isn't the same as believing things for bad reasons, I would insist). That's at least how many people have used the term since Kierkegaard's corruption of the concept of faith.

This is not, however, how faith has historically been thought of. Augustine saw it as a kind of knowledge, just not one based in the usual sources. Its grounding comes from God and his role in giving us the faith. Thomas Aquinas distinguished it from knowledge but saw it as equally well-grounded as knowledge, just from a different source. Both of them, in fact, took the Bible to be God's word, and thus they took it to be a reliable source to get the information God wanted to convey. God is, in fact, the most reliable source of any information, and thus believing what God says is a pretty good method to get beliefs. Those who don't accept the Bible as God's word would not accept that conclusion, but what they say follows from accepting that about the Bible. The Bible itself takes faith to be simply trust in God and what God says, and it does not treat faith as some irrational acceptance of things we probably shouldn't believe.

There are plenty of debates about whether religious beliefs can be justified or warranted and how they could be if they can. I certainly have my views on that. But there's a problem before you even get to that point. There seems to be a huge discrepancy between what a lot of religious people mean when they talk about faith and what most people mean when they talk about faith. Several recent Bible translations pick up on this and use only terms of the belief-family and trust-family for the biblical words usually translated into the faith-family of English words. I think there's something to that. But might this not be a fight worth having? Sometimes it's worth giving up a term because of the confusion about what it might mean. Do we want to give up on the faith-family of terms?

We probably don't need the term, but if we give up on it there's at least one unfortunate consequence. People will completely misunderstand much of the tradition, including Bible translations that use it in the traditional way. So I'm not ready to give up on it. It's a bit of work to explain ourselves when we use the term, and it will take work to convince those who are out of touch on this point that they actually need to do that, but it's work worth engaging in, in my view.

Augustine on Free Choice

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Augustine gives an argument (City of God Book V chapter IX, among other places) that I've always had little patience with. Here is R.W. Dyson's translation of the City of God occurrence of it:

Moreover, even if a certain order of causes does exist in the mind of God, it does not follow that nothing is left to the free choice of our will. For our wills are themselves included in the order of the causes which is certain to God and contained within his foreknowledge. For the wills of men are causes of the deeds of men, and so He Who has foreseen the causes of all things cannot have been ignorant of our wills among those causes, since he foresaw them to be the causes of our deeds.

The reason I find such reasoning frustrating is because it comes across as if Augustine is trying to respond to the foreknowledge problem by saying that God foreknows our free choices, and if God knows our free choices, and God can't know something false, then they must be true. So foreknowdge of free choices actually establishes them as free rather than undermining it. The problem with such an argument is that it's question-begging. The opponent of foreknowledge will insist that God can't foreknow a free choice. So the very assumption of the argument is what the argument is trying to prove.

As I re-read the sections of City of God that I taught this semester in Dyson's translation (now that I've finally managed to get a copy), it occurred to me that Augustine might actually be doing something different in this text, something much less problematic. It looks to me as if what he's saying is that, even if there is this order of causes leading up to our wills, that's compatible with our choices being free, and then he gives a reason. The reason is that our wills are the causes of our actions. God's foreseeing of what we choose is God's foreseeing of our causing our actions. It's not God foreseeing our freedom that makes freedom compatible with foreknowledge, as the bad argument above has it. It's that God's foreseeing our freedom is God's foreseeing our own causing of our actions. Such causing is what explains our freedom.

Thus Augustine is making the Stoic point that our choices do happen even if there are causes of them that God can see ahead of time, and it's that they happen as choices that makes them free. Augustine does later distinguish his view from the Stoic position, but at this point he seems to be giving basically the same argument they give for compatibilism about being caused to do something and being free in doing it.

[Completely as an aside, what is going on with Dyson's capitalization in that passage? He capitalizes not just the personal pronoun but even the relative pronoun when it refers to God, but then he leaves even the personal pronoun in lower case in the very net clause. It's almost as bad as some Bible translations when trying to deal with psalms that don't clearly refer to just a messanic figure who thus to a Christian refers to Christ.]



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