The Shire and the City Print
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 16 April 2012

Many people today seek what Tolkien called The Shire, the kind of face-to-face communities, close to nature, simple and transparent in activity, that played a central part in Western history until quite recently and continue today in various places around the globe – even, despite large losses, in odd corners of the West.

At the same time, we value what might be called the City, the more extensive human network – now global – that, among other effects, makes our lives more secure and richer in many ways. Even in Tolkien, the Shire is not self-sufficient and much of Lord of the Rings is occupied with the global struggle between good and evil, fought precisely to establish the larger order that will supplement and safeguard places like the Shire.

In several respects, this social situation reflects an intellectual one that has remained unresolved since the eighteenth century. During the Enlightenment, the idea of a universal civilisation arose, primarily in France, in a way that it had not earlier, not the balance between city and shire you see in ancient and medieval thought, but a kind of empire of reason.

The reaction to that hubris of a certain kind of reason, a narrow rationality as we now clearly see, set in early. Romantic notions of Kultur, of small groups and traditional values, initially in Germany, sought to bring something humane back into the world that the allegedly humane universal rationalism had left out.

We’ve gone back and forth from one to the other, at different periods, ever since. It’s demanding to pursue both at once, in the right ways, and therefore it’s a constant temptation to give up on the properly universal or particular to make life easier and simpler. The whole history of recent times could be rewritten with reference to these two temptations.

T. S. Eliot, like Tolkien, knew that there were not only these two dimensions, but a struggle between good and evil going on in both realms, which we would also like to forget: “O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart; for the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” He continued:

If humility and purity be not in the heart, they are not in the home; and if they are not in the home, they are not in the City.

The man who has builded during the day would return to his hearth at nightfall: to be blessed with the gift of silence, and doze before he sleeps.

But we are encompassed with snakes and dogs: therefore some must labour, and others must hold the spears.

Which brings us to a practical point. With the departure of Rick Santorum from the Republican field, the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney will now begin in earnest. I have lived in Washington for thirty years. (What I did to deserve such cruel and unusual punishment, I do not know, but I’m no longer any threat to society and could be released back into the community.) Anyone who has lived long in the Capital – and does not succumb to sheer partisanship – learns to discount the PR that portrays election campaigns as matters of life and death.

But I think this year is different. There are two distinct visions of the future in play. They are not matters on which much compromise is possible. Either America continues on its current course – a path already coming to an ugly end in Europe – or it tries something new based on our old tradition of American liberty.

There’s no simple going back to the practices of a previous age. As Peter Brown argued in this space on Saturday, even those of us who value subsidiarity and markets, and who believe the growth of central governments everywhere are threatening civil and religious liberty and simple humanity, have to create new institutions to assure the survival of the fully human. For the moment, they do not yet exist.

Some Catholics have recently suggested that the Church is starting to turn into something like a political action committee and that we would do better to return to more purely “religious” activity. That may be possible for some Christian bodies and even certain Catholic individuals, but it cannot be the stance of the Catholic Church as a whole.

The Catholic Church believes that it has been called on by God to evangelize the whole world, and part of that mission is to be engaged in every dimension of society – as is appropriate for a universal Church. Politics, properly understood, deals with how we are to live together, and that means ethical questions and, therefore, religion cannot be left out of any well ordered state.    

Some secular observers argue that the Church should mind its own business until it gets its own house in order. This is simply a false proposition. To put it in individual terms, imagine forbidding people from speaking out until they’re perfect themselves. That simply means conscientious, but imperfect people – which is to say, everyone of good will – would never speak or act at all. The “snakes and dogs,” scamps and scalawags, and worse, are quite ready to fill the vacuum so produced.

A real Catholic has no choice but to step into the midst of all these complexities, which is what The Catholic Thing will be doing over the rest of this election year. We will keep the “pure” religious vision very much in the forefront of our thought because it’s the most powerful way in which we offer an alternative to a culture rushing headlong into it knows not what.

The late Catholic novelist Walker Percy wrote that our whole culture is like Wile E. Coyote in the old “Roadrunner” cartoons: he goes flying off a cliff in heedless pursuit and his legs continue to pump frantically, not knowing that there is nothing solid underneath him anymore.

As the American bishops have had to point out lately, Catholics need to be engaged in the public realm, for the freedom and good of the Church, to be sure, now that immediate threats to religious liberty face us. But we must also be active for the good of the public square itself, which lurches from one failed nostrum to another without the kind of stability and wisdom that might bring it order and peace.

We do not ask you often for your help in the work of The Catholic Thing. But we appeal to you to do your part in this crucial year. Our Senior Editor Brad Miner tells me that TCT readership is double what it was last year. We want the number of readers of The Catholic Thing to double again – or even triple – by this time next year. Can you help us by forwarding to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it the names and emails of people who should be reading TCT everyday? We’re starting a new email delivery service shortly.

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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