Lance Mannion made an interesting argument a couple of years back that most of us, at heart, are hobbits: “Most people don’t want lives full of adventure and achievement and the acquisition of treasure. They want to stay at home in the Shire. They want lives full of comfort and contentment, in the company of family and friends.”
Mannion’s argument is that this is a mixed bag. Hobbits are at peace with themselves and their lives; they don’t chase the next promotion, they don’t fret they’re not climbing the ladder of success fast enough, they don’t build their self-image around lording it over others. On the other hand, “contentment can be hard hard to distinguish from complacency. Being satisfied with one’s self is not the same as being self-satisfied, and the latter is much more common.” And a lot of times, it takes the restless, unsatisfied people to get stuff done.
I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But there’s also a lot of truth to George Orwell’s observation about Hitler having “grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life … Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”
As with Mannion’s view, this is true of some people, not all. And it can be true of the same person at different times. Lots of people performed heroically in WW II, for instance, but when it was done the citizen-soldiers turned around, went home and settled into normal, everyday life. Some entrepreneurs have a nostalgic fondness for the days when they had to struggle and count pennies to keep the company afloat. After 9/11, when I went to make my regular blood donation, the Red Cross office was absolutely packed. I’d never seen so many people queued up and ready to give. I’m sure, even so, that they’d have preferred 9/11 not happen and we could live our lives without a global war on anything.
I think a healthy country should be able to find a balance between the two views. Life shouldn’t be a struggle for existence, but it should have options for struggle and challenge and danger for those who want it. As Raymond Massey says in Things to Come, “Our revolution didn’t abolish danger or death, it simply made danger and death worthwhile!” Struggle (to write a novel, to bring peace to the Middle East, to save species from extinction, to invent AI) is worthwhile when we choose it. A country that gives us that choice, where we can be hobbits if we choose, heroes if we prefer, is doing it right.
And in some ways, hobbit-hood can be a launching pad for struggle. People who have to fight to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table may never get the chance to tap their full talents or abilities. If people can find good jobs and not worry about the basics, that can free them up to wonder, “Hmm, what next?”
A number of people don’t see it that way. Pundit William Bennett has wondered why we don’t raise more courageous heroes like the Donner Party; apparently a world where few people need to survive by cannibalism loses some of its charm for him. Businessman Pete Peterson thinks we should end Social Security so people can’t spend the last decades of life not working.
Warhawk Donald Kagan was horrified the death of the USSR led to a “happy international situation … haracterized by the spread of democracy, free trade, and peace. Fellow hawk Irving Kristol (also at the link) was equally upset that post-USSR America wasn’t establishing itself as the new imperial power, shaping the world to its will. Several pundits celebrated 9/11 for putting an end to peace and prosperity: now America would have get out there and give them an exciting war to enjoy! Okay, that’s not how they phrased it, but that’s what their laments feel like, especially as none of them were lining up to enlist. Peterson and Bennett are likewise wealthy men who show no signs of giving up their own comfort and privilege to live a life of character-building hardship. As Orwell once said, those who talk like this never fight; tough rhetoric is their substitute for fighting.
As Mannion says, a world with nothing but hobbits would grind to a stuffy halt. But there’s something to be said if more people have the hobbit option available.
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