When Dante sat down to write his great medieval Catholic epic, he had to decide, first, who he would choose as his guide through hell and purgatory. Though most Christian writers faced with such a dilemma would have chosen a Christian saint—perhaps one of the apostles or Augustine or Francis or Aquinas—Dante deliberately chose a pagan poet (Virgil) for his guide. By so doing, Dante asserted his belief—shared by most of the great Catholic writers, up to and including J. R. R. Tolkien and his Anglo-Catholic friend, C. S. Lewis—that the ancient Greeks and Romans, though unable to attain salvation on the basis of their merit alone, were capable of understanding and seeking after virtue. That is to say, though they were fallen and in need of grace, they were not utterly depraved. And for Dante, as for Tolkien and Lewis, it was quite clear what those pre-Christian virtues were. They consisted, at their highest, in four distinct virtues that were referred to collectively as the classical or cardinal virtues: Justice, Temperance (or Self-control), Wisdom (or Prudence), and Courage (or Fortitude). Readers of the Republic will immediately recognize these four virtues as the ones, so Plato argues, that constitute the enlightened soul and that must operate in society if the just state is to survive and thrive. These four virtues—that were known and practiced, if imperfectly, by peoples who lacked the Scriptures but had access to God’s general revelation—were distinguished by Dante and the church from the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope, and Love) which were not known, at least in their fullness, until the Christian revelation. Or, as Lewis explains it succinctly in book III, chapter 2 of Mere Christianity, “The ‘Cardinal’ [virtues] are those which all civilized people recognize; the ‘Theological’ are those which, as a rule, only Christians know about.”
In the first section of this book, I concentrated on the Road and our status as pilgrims on that Road. In the two sections that follow, I will shift my focus to the virtues such pilgrims must possess if they are to endure the dangers along the way and carry out their calling to its proper end. As such, the two sections that follow will be slightly more pragmatic than the first, narrowing the scope to real-life actions and motivations. In the former, we will study closely each of the four classical virtues; in the latter, we will take up the three theological virtues, along with a fourth (friendship) that Tolkien and Lewis raised to a level midway between the classical and the theological. Throughout, we will pay careful attention to how Tolkien and Lewis so revived and reincarnated these eight virtues in their work as to make them relevant again for an age that has in many ways sunk beneath the pagans in its understanding of virtue. As already stated in the introduction, our public schools seem equipped only to teach three “virtues”: tolerance, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. With the help of Tolkien and Lewis, I hope to posit a vision of virtue that is more dynamic, lasting, and flexible.
John 1: 1-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not
We are joined this month by our friend, Dr. Lou Markos, Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. This month Lou will guide us through his masterful book On The Shoulders of Hobbits.
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For the study this month, Lou says
My approach throughout will be simple.In each chapter I take up a single theme (the nature of pilgrimage, facing death, kingship and hierarchy, the virtue of hope, the love that forgives, forbidden fruit) that has been overlooked or dismissed by our age, and then illustrate and embody that theme by making parallel references to one or more episodes from The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or The Silmarillion. I will then develop the theme further by zeroing in on a single passage from one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia that clarifies or complements Tolkien’s message.
Happy reading and blessings for the journey!
Forward to On the Shoulders of Hobbits
Why should I read this book? What is it about?” That’s the question you want a foreword to answer.
Well, this book is about life. Your life. It’s not fantasy, it’s realism. It’s the so-called realistic books that are usually fantasy. When you close the covers of The Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia, you intuitively know that you are not exiting an unreal world and entering a more real one, but exactly the opposite.
The best educational advice for life that I ever heard was my father’s: “Just be sure you don’t get all A’s in your subjects but flunk life.”
We humans are the only beings in the universe who can flunk life, because we have a free choice about what kind of life we will lead and what kind of human beings we will be, good or evil. We make these choices not, like angels, instantly and timelessly, but gradually, in each of our many big and little choices between good and evil throughout the drama that is our lifetime.
How do we become good or evil? When Plato asked in his Meno how human beings become good (virtuous), he suggested four ways: (1) by teaching (“knowledge is virtue”); (2) by practice (forming habits); (3) by nature (i.e., being born virtuous); (4) in some other way (i.e., against nature, by force). Most philosophers—Oriental as well as Western—give one of these four answers: Plato, #1; Confucius, #1 and #2; Aristotle, #2; Rousseau and Lao Tzu, #3; Hobbes and the “Realists,” #4.
All these philosophers are wrong, probably because most of them do not have children. Parents and children know the answer: by example. By having moral heroes.
That’s why reading great literature, next to meeting people, is the single most effective way to learn not to flunk life. Life is a story, and therefore moral education happens first and most powerfully through stories, e.g., through books.
The greatest book of the twentieth century, according to four different polls, is The Lord of the Rings. And the greatest children’s stories ever written are the Chronicles of Narnia (I dogmatically assure you of that!).
On the Shoulders of Hobbits is the logical conclusion from all of the above facts. Read it. It will help you fall in love with these two great works, their heroes, and their values. It will baptize your imagination and fertilize the soil of your soul so that you become the kind of person who doesn’t flunk life.
Louis Markos holds a BA in English and History from Colgate University and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Michigan. He is a Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities and teaches courses on British Romantic and Victorian Poetry and Prose, the Greek and Roman Classics, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien. He is the author of eighteen books, including On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, Apologetics for the Twenty First Century, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics,Lewis Agonistes: How C. S. Lewis can Train us to Wrestle with the Modern and Postmodern World, Atheism on Trial, and The Dreaming Stone and In the Shadow of Troy, children’s novels in which his kids become part of Greek Mythology and the Iliad and Odyssey. He has produced two lecture series on C. S. Lewis and literary theory with The Teaching Company/Great Courses, published 250 book chapters, essays, and reviews, given well over 300 public lectures in some two dozen states as well as Rome, Oxford, and British Columbia, and had his adaptations of The Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides, The Helen of Euripides, and The Electra of Sophocles performed off-Broadway. He is committed to the concept of the Professor as Public Educator and believes that knowledge must not be walled up in the Academy but must be disseminated to all who have ears to hear.
Visit his Amazon author page at amazon.com/author/louismarkos
Louis Markos and Peter Kreeft, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012).