Guest Column

The one ring and the necessity of separating powers

By Mike Leman
Posted 1/14/21

One of my favorite books is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I recently watched the movie adaptation again, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies. Of course, there are no …

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Guest Column

The one ring and the necessity of separating powers

Posted

One of my favorite books is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I recently watched the movie adaptation again, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies. Of course, there are no hour-long car chases or seemingly unending scenes of immortal heroes and villains throwing each other through buildings — trying to make each other mortal.

In Lord of the Rings, genuine character development takes place. You actually care about what happens to the characters, and both heroes and villains die in the story. More than that, the story helps us to examine the reality of good and evil in our own world.

Unlike many of today’s storytellers, who seem content to show us that all of their characters have some mix of good and evil within them, Tolkien asks a more relevant question: What is the trajectory of the characters? In other words, are the characters growing in virtue or in vice? Are they growing in holiness or becoming more evil? And why?

The ring that Frodo seeks to destroy symbolizes centralized power. We’re all familiar with the saying that “power corrupts.” But Tolkien is not so naïve as to propose a world without authoritative power. As long as evil exists in the world, it needs to be held in check. Authoritative power is necessary.

But too much power, literally at the tip of one’s finger, can even turn a character with good intentions and great virtue into a servant of darkness. Power tempts Frodo’s friends. Wisdom helps them to resist temptation.

Given the political environment today, Tolkien’s own wisdom seems worth revisiting.

The genius of our democratic republic is precisely the fact that it recognizes both the danger and the necessity of power. We must have law and order and a means to enact them. But too much power in one place is a threat, even when it is wielded by those with the best of intentions. Our founders recognized this when they conceived the notion of the separation of powers.

Here is the point upon which I wish to focus: Wisdom alone isn’t enough for Tolkien’s heroes to resist the temptation for consolidated power. They also need willpower and the ability to recognize the goodwill in others. Without these traits, the temptation to take all power into our own hands will overwhelm us, just as it overwhelms Borimir in the story.

There are no shortages of examples whereby Americans across the political spectrum demonstrate both a lack of willpower and an inability to see goodwill in those who disagree with them.

Look at the violence that took place in our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6, or the refusal to cooperate in a peaceful transition of power. Look at the desire to “pack the Supreme Court” or the effort to remove the Electoral College, thereby consolidating power in fewer states. Listen to those who suggest that states like Wyoming shouldn’t have as many senators as California because it doesn’t have as many people.

These efforts all focus on consolidating power. Even with the best of intentions, such efforts will only lead to greater corruption.

Resisting the consolidation of power isn’t easy. Even Tolkien’s characters who successfully resist the ring, only do so with great difficulty. We shouldn’t expect it to be easy for us either. But it will be critical for the survival of our democratic republic.

This is my last point: Let’s not be content with acknowledging there is some mix of vice and virtue in everyone. Like Tolkien, let’s go a little deeper and ask ourselves the most important question: What trajectory is my political engagement leading me toward?

 

(Mike Leman is the legislative liasion and is involved in Catholic social teaching for the Diocese of Cheyenne. He is based in Cheyenne.)

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