In recent discussions of Stephen Wolfe’s book The Case for Christian Nationalism (whatever our preferences or misgivings for the word “nationalism” to describe his project), a great deal of ink (or ones and zeros) has been spent on the themes of Wolfe’s critique of Western universality.
“Western man is enamored of his ideology of universality; it is the chief and only ground of his self-regard. His in-group is all people—it is a universal in-group. Everyone is an object of his beneficence. But in perverse fashion he is his own in-group’s out-group. The object of his regard is the non-Westerner at the Westerner’s expense—a bizarre self-denigration rooted in guilt and malaise. Loss and humiliation is the point, however. It is euphoric to him; his own degradation is thrilling. This is his psycho-sexual ethno-masochism, the most pernicious illness of the Western mind…
Repeatedly, in the face of ethnic identity politics, we see Western man retreating to this universality—to the universal values of the Declaration of Independence, for example—not realizing that these values come from the collective experience of a cluster of European nations. In this retreat, he perpetuates the conditions for ethnic identity politics… Since Western values lack universality in reality, equality is never achievable.”
Tomes summarizes a prominent criticism: “whatever Wolfe believes his ethnos to be: this is taking the strategies of CRT and saying “yes, let’s use that for ‘us.’” And Tomes heartily agrees concluding later in the essay: “Such a belief would, of course, involve repudiating, and teaching children to repudiate, any classical form of natural law teaching, as expressed for example in C.S. Lewis’ idea of the Tao in his Abolition of Man.”
However, merely based on the quotations Tomes provides, it is utterly unclear that what they say this summary indicates is in fact what Wolfe is saying. The critique of ideologies of Western universality as the “chief and only ground of his self-regard” need not imply a rejection of all universals or universality. Nor does pointing out “conditions” that perpetuate “ethnic identity politics” imply an embrace of “the strategies of CRT.” In fact, a straightforward reading of these quotations all by themselves suggests that this is almost exactly the opposite of Wolfe’s aim. He’s critiquing what he believes is an underlying tendency that leaves Western peoples susceptible to CRT, not embracing it, much less repudiating “any classical form of natural law teaching.”
Augustine, Lewis, and Tolkien to the Rescue
But since Tomes has appealed to Lewis, to Lewis we shall go, but first St. Augustine. Augustine famously described the fallen state as a condition of “disordered loves” and the path of holiness as a restoration and right ordering of our loves.
In The Four Loves, Lewis cites Rougemont’s maxim that love becomes a demon when it becomes a god. I take Wolfe’s critique of “ideological universality” as the “chief and only ground of his self-regard” as something of this demonic love. It is not coincidental that Lewis cites this maxim as he begins his section on patriotrism and love of country, noting that the modern world has come face to face with this demon and many are tempted to reject patriotism altogether (e.g. “some begin to suspect that it is never anything but a demon”). But Lewis pushes back against this reactionism, pointing to the “love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells” (Four Loves, 23).
But Lewis isn’t describing this love of place and familiarity in opposition to the right kind of love of nation or even of a broader or more (dare I say) universal love of humanity in general:
“It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling [ie. love of place, home, familiarity] could be condemned. As the family offers us the first step beyond self-love, so this offers us the first step beyond family selfishness. Of course it is not pure charity; it involves love of our neighbors in the local, not of our Neighbor [note: capital “N”], in the Dominical, sense. But those who do not love the fellow-villagers or fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far towards loving “Man” whom they have not. All natural affections, including this, can become rivals to spiritual love: but they can also be preparatory imitations of it, training (so to speak) of the spiritual muscles which Grace may later put to a higher service; as women nurse dolls in childhood and later nurse children. There may come an occasion for renouncing this love; pluck out your right eye. But you need to have an eye first: a creature which had none – which had only got so far as a “photo-sensitive” spot – would be very ill employed in meditation on that severe text” (Four Loves, 24).
I take Wolfe to be working with this basic framework, arguing that the rightly ordered love of “Man” and humanity and general is simply not possible or likely apart from beginning with the more rudimentary loves of place, home, family, and familiarity. These particular loves are the training ground for the spiritual muscles of the love that moves beyond them. The values of the West do not spring up spontaneously in every human culture universally, but they are as Wolfe says, the “products of Western experience and thus their particular inheritance.” And this brings us, of course, to J.R.R. Tolkien.
It has been noted by many that the friendship that develops between Gimli and Legolas in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is one of the more striking and moving in modern literature. And it is all the more striking and moving for the fierce and competing loyalties of the dwarf and elf princes. They are notoriously fierce lovers of their own places, their own homes, their own ways, and yet it is arguably that fierce love of their particulars that eventually blossoms into a deep and abiding friendship through the furnace of shared experiences, trials, and adventure.
On top of this fierce love of their own things, Gimli’s family has never quite forgiven what the elves of Mirkwood did to them, imprisoning them briefly, as recorded in The Hobbit, and the elves of Lothlorien have their own historic reasons for wariness of dwarves, forbidding their entry into the land, which the elf Haldir moderates by only requiring the blindfolding Gimli. Of course when Gimli objects, Aragorn insists that the whole Fellowship be blindfolded, Legolas the elf included, to his great chagrin.
Nevertheless, it was Gandalf who initially urged the friendship of the dwarf and the elf at the Doors of Durin, saying,
“Those were happier days, when there was still close friendship at times between folk of different race, even between Dwarves and Elves.”
“It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned,” said Gimli.
“I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves,” said Legolas.
“I have heard both,” said Gandalf; “and I will not give judgement now. But I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me. I need you both. The doors are shut and hidden, and the sooner we find them the better. Night is at hand!”
Of course the password to the Doors of Durin turns out to be “friend,” and commentators note that this friendship perhaps first begins to kindle in the mines of Moria, and in the blindfolded entry into Lothlorien following. But Lothlorien is the real turning point. Galadriel herself breaks the ice when she first speaks to Gimli, specifically honoring the places that Gimli loves:
“Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-Dum in Elder Days before the fall of the mighty kings beneath the stone.” She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.
He rose clumsily and bowed in dwarf-fashion, saying: “Yet more fair is the living land of Lorien, and the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie in the earth!”
What a striking description: “he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding.” Gimli joins Legolas regularly in exploring Lorien, and by the time they are leaving, they are fast friends. When Gimli leaves Lorien, and he is asked what gift he would receive, he says that merely seeing and hearing Galadriel has been enough. But when pressed, he asks for a single strand of her hair. A new, broader love has stirred in the dwarf’s heart, emerging with a fierce defensiveness of the Lady of the Wood when the Men of the Mark come upon them and cross examine them while on their search for Merry and Pippin.
But it’s important to note that the friendship of Legolas and Gimli never devolves into a “blended” or “universal” love. Rather, while they certainly come to share some particular loves, the basis of their friendship seems to be a deep appreciation for the love that the other has for his particular places, home, ways, and familiarities. Both the dwarf and the elf sing songs recalling the beauty and glory of their homes and histories, of Khazad-dum and Nimrodel, respectively. And in one of the more moving moments between them, in the chapter entitled “The Road to Isengard,” Gimli describes the beauty of the caverns of Helm’s Deep with its translucence – “translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel.” And the elf replies,
“You move me, Gimli,” said Legolas. “I have never heard you speak like this before. Almost you make me regret that I have not seen these caves. Come! Let us make this bargain – if we both return safe out of the perils that await us, we will journey for a while together. You shall visit Fangorn with me, and then I will come with you to see Helm’s Deep.”
“That would not be the way of return that I should choose,” said Gimli. “But I will endure Fangorn, if I have your promise to come back to the caves and share their wonder with me.
Gimli and Legolas promise each other to visit again both the forest of Fangorn and the caves of Helm’s Deep together. But notice that it is not despite their fierce loves and loyalties to their particular places and homes that they have forged a friendship. It is precisely because of those loves of their places and homes that a friendship has emerged and will continue into the future.
Later, after the One Ring is destroyed, they did visit the caves of Helm’s Deep, and it says that Legolas emerged silent and only Gimli could find words fit for the moment, and Tolkien writes: “and never before has a Dwarf claimed a victory over an Elf in a contest of words.”
Much remains to discuss and debate regarding the call for a Christian Nationalism, but perhaps we may at least recognize that the project of Western universality, at least in its postmodern multicultural manifestations has been an abject failure. Love of humanity does not simply arise from nothing. Love of the other, the universal, arises from the love of the particular, the familiar, one’s favorite places and peoples. No doubt these familiar loves and natural affections can become demons when they are elevated to positions they were never intended to occupy, but by the same token (or Tolkien?), without them the love of the other, the foreign, and universal would seem to be impossible. The love of the universal divorced from the right ordering of particulars can turn into its own demon, and in the name of multiculturalism and pluralism, only anxiety and enmity and hatred fills a land.
Wolfe has been quoted as saying, “People of different groups can exercise respect for difference, conduct some routine business with each other, join in inter-ethnic alliances for mutual good, and exercise common humanity (e.g. the Good Samaritan), but they cannot have a life together that goes beyond mutual alliance.” And it very well may be necessary to admit this grim reality, something like the ways of dwarves and elves in Middle Earth, and yet perhaps, the friendship of Gimli and Legolas, suggests that something more is possible, but only forged through the fires of trial and adventure, through the supernatural working of the Spirit, something not to be sentimentally banked on or simplistically presumed upon.
Wolfe’s critique of conservatism on this point also seems accurate: a vague return to the universal principles of the Declaration of Independence is not a radical enough repentance. By itself, it can function as merely another form of ideological multiculturalism. The French Revolution was waged upon universal ideals and the blood and treachery that flowed in the Parisian streets is enough evidence of its vacuity. But the American War for Independence was waged from a love of particular people, customs, places, families, neighborhoods, hills, rivers, and covenants. In the furnace of fighting side by side for our loves, true friendships and loyalties form. That isn’t a “melting pot” per se, but it is a true nation.
It has been pointed out a number of times that conservatism finds itself routinely on the defensive. All we know is what we are against, and so conservatism so often seems to be nothing but a rearguard action, a well-meaning retreat. But a faithful culture war, one that succeeds, one that takes back and occupies the ground of a society will be one that is driven by a host of rightly ordered loves. As Chesterton said, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” And that love behind him is of particular places, friendships, families, streets, and smells.