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The Pedant

Ignorance is hope

In the fictional cosmos of The Lord of the Rings , John RR Tolkien 's narrative masterpiece published between 1954 and 1955, palantíri are crystal balls made by the Elves of Valinor "in days so distant that time cannot be measured in years" for observe and communicate from a distance. The spheres could connect with each other (there was also a central "server" that controlled them all, the palantír kept in the Dome of Stars, in Osgiliath) and even show events far away in space and time, hence their nickname of "Stones Fortune tellers". Of the many examples made and then lost or destroyed over the centuries, at the time in which the events narrated take place, only three were active, respectively in the service of Sauron , the evil spirit that threatens the free peoples of Middle-earth, the sorcerer Saruman and the human Denethor , superintendent of the kingdom of Gondor. Among the many magical objects that appear in the tale, the palantíri occupy a prominent role in the narrative development. It is precisely after having peered into one of these stones that the wise Saruman allies himself with the Dark Lord and the valiant Denethor gives up fighting against the troops of evil, ending up suicidal.

The palantír is also literally a television. In Quenya, the fictional Elven language of which Tolkien composed a grammar and a vocabulary, palan means "far" (like the Greek τῆλε ) and tír "to look" (like the Latin vīsĭo ). Due to its versatility it can also be similar to the most modern webcams , videophone and other internet applications that allow us to "see far away and transmit thoughts" from distances inaccessible to the senses. Its own presumed divinatory properties anticipate the ambition to predict events by rapidly collecting and analyzing enormous quantities of data made available by computer networks. It is no coincidence that the most important multinational company today specialized in the development of scenarios, "artificial intelligence" and big data bears the name of the elven artifact: Palantir Technologies . The company, which has also developed thanks to substantial CIA funding , has gained a certain notoriety for its contributions to " predictive policing ," the disturbing frontier of predicting and suppressing crimes before they occur.

The three spheres draw an ideal triangle at the top of which is Sauron , the fallen angel deceiving and cruel who took possession of the Stone once kept in Minas Ithil, the Numenorean fortress conquered years earlier by his demonic knights. Sauron becomes the absolute but hidden master of the "network" of palantíri , whose seduction he exploits to manipulate his unsuspecting victims. The ways of this manipulation are represented by the two lower vertices of the triangle, Saruman and Denethor , who for different reasons allow themselves to be ensnared by the visions transmitted by the spheres until they become slaves, in the tragic illusion of obtaining wisdom and power.


The first of the two had been the leader of the sorcerers, a sort of priestly caste friend of the free peoples and dedicated to white magic. Initially wise and pure-hearted, he had come into possession of the Orb of Orthanc and had looked at it more and more often to increase his knowledge. This disordered thirst for information eventually led him to connect with Sauron himself, who bewitched him making him ambitious and evil. The sphere, explains Gandalf ,

he proved, without any doubt, very useful to Saruman; yet evidently it was not enough to make him satisfied. He looked farther and farther into unknown countries, until his gaze rested on Barad-dûr [the fortress of Sauron]. And then he was made succubus! […] It is easy to imagine how quickly Saruman's searching eye was trapped and hypnotized, and how easy it has been since then to persuade him from afar and threaten him when persuasion was not enough. Those who used to bite had been bitten, the hawk dominated by the eagle, the spider trapped in a steel net! [1]

Saruman embodies the intellectual who makes pacts with evil believing himself capable of governing it de intus and exploiting its strength to achieve a greater good accessible only to the wise. Such wisdom, notes Elémire Zolla in the preface to the first Italian edition, is however a "false wisdom of mediator between good and evil, between virtue and vice". When he receives his colleague Gandalf to try to involve him in his projects, the magician's robe is no longer white, but iridescent like the many "rainbows" of today because, Zolla continues, "if white is no longer white, it means that it has disappeared, not that it is confused and infused into its opposite, and whoever breaks something to scrutinize it (analyze the candor to discover other things) has abandoned the path of wisdom ": because the unscrupulousness of embracing every means leads to moral indifferentism, and to there to crime. But let's listen to the details of this program from the voice of the sorcerer:

our hour is near: the world of Men that we must dominate. But we need power, power to order all things according to our will, according to that good that only the Sages know […] A new Power emerges. The old allies and the ancient way of acting would be useless against it. […] This is therefore the choice that is offered to you, to us: to join forces with the Power. It would be a wise thing, Gandalf, a way to hope. Victory is now near, and great rewards will be for those who have helped. With the enlargement of the Power even his trusted friends will grow large; and the Sages, like us, might eventually be able to direct its course, to control it. It would only be a question of waiting, of keeping our thoughts in our hearts, perhaps deploring the evil committed along the way, but applauding the high goal set: Wisdom, Government, Order; all things that we have so far tried in vain to achieve, hindered rather than aided by our weak or lazy friends. It would not be necessary, indeed there would be no real change in our intentions; only in the means to be used. [2]

One of Tolkien 's finest scholars noted that in this sermon

Saruman speaks like a politician. No other character from Middle-earth possesses such an ability to deceive the listener by balancing sentences to hide contradictions and no one else comes up with such empty words as "deploring", "the high goal" and, worse of everything, "true". What is "real change"? [3]

What are, we would ask ourselves today, the "structural reforms", the "revolutions", the "new order" and the other formulas of palingenesis dished out to the peoples by the sorcerers of economics and science? What do they bring under the gaudy envelope of their prosopopoeia? A real promise of development or the omnipotent desires of a handpiece exalted by its presumed ideal superiority? Saruman is also a master of rhetoric. He who was bewitched by the visions bewitches with his voice, with an eloquence so brazen, persuasive and apparently unassailable that he could almost win back the trust of those he had tried to kill. But the rancor and thirst for domination that are hidden under his flattery transpire in the intent to pit the listeners against each other, arousing doubts, competition and envy. Like today's demagogues, he gains the loyalty of all by making sure that no one is loyal to the other; it convinces everyone by convincing each one that his or her neighbor is an obstacle to achieving the "high goal".

To show how deceptive the sorcerer's ambition is, Tolkien resorts to a more effective image than many comments. The fortress in which he installed himself and which should have been the fulcrum and model of Eden promised him by the Stone, in reality looks rather like a squalid and botched hell:

An impregnable and marvelous abode, that Isengard, which had been so beautiful for so long! Great lords had lived there, the keepers of Gondor in the west, and great sages had watched the stars from there. But slowly Saruman had transformed it according to his new purposes, madly believing he was improving it; for all the arts and subtle tricks for which he had denied the ancient wisdom, and which he deluded himself that he had invented for himself, came from Mordor: what he did was nothing, it was merely a small copy, a childish model or a courtesan's lure, of that immense fortress, prison, armory, furnace called Barad-dûr, the Dark Tower, whose enormous power did not fear rivals, mocked the lures and did everything comfortably, calmly and safely as' it was with his pride and his boundless strength. [4]

The lesson is clear: those who presume to derive a good from iniquity by tactically allying themselves with its authors are destined to reproduce that same iniquity in draft, in an equally toxic way but without the candor and heroism of the original.

Some critics have also highlighted the industrial character of Isengard's ugliness. Where once there were gardens now dominates an arid expanse from which rise the miasmas of the forges and laboratories, to feed which Saruman has begun to deforest the surrounding forests frantically. These ravages arouse the indignation of the Ents, the mysterious tree-men of Fangorn who embody the most indomitable and ancestral face of the natural world. Awakened from their long vegetative phase, they will march united against the sorcerer until they defeat him.

The numerous and even shared ecological readings of this nemesis, of a nature destined to revolt against the greed and abortions of the modern demiurge, however, often fail to denounce precisely in techno-scientific bulimia the main instrument of this and other delusions of " to heal the world "with the only knowledge of the world. If the powerful artifacts of the elves reflect a spiritual relationship with creation, an " enchantment " respectful of its mystery, in the smelly contraptions of the sorcerer-technocrat we can instead read the anger of those who, withered the spirit, pursue an entirely material progress and therefore see in the imponderable and irreducible laws to the reason of men an odious obstacle to be liquidated. [5] You can guess the silhouette of the progressive who disfigures the world to improve the world, dominates it to serve it, disgusts it to exalt it. The last frontier of this despotic and violent soteriology is the one predicted by Huxley of the new world and then cleared in the debate and practice of our days: the manipulation of life, the conquest of the abhorred mystery. Transhumanist ante litteram, Saruman also learns from Sauron the monstrous art of crossing orcs with humans to obtain a more resistant and cruel race: the Uruk-hai. The promise of technical salvation of elevating life with machines demands the machinization of life, its ontological zeroing.

But the ghosts of glory excited by the corrupt crystals of the palantír are realized in reverse, in the continuous fall of the man emptied of himself. After losing his mansion-factory and his troops, Saruman will also lose his powers and end up first as a beggar and then at the head of a gang of thieves. Like all traitors he will remain friendless and eventually find death at the hands of his latest companion, that slimy Grima who had served him for years and who therefore hated him more than any enemy, for having been deceived for longer.


Different, but no less tragic, is the fate of the ruler Denethor . He too possessed a palantír ("most closely related to that possessed by Sauron") and had peered into it often, but "it was too large to be subjected to the will of the Dark Power." Moreover, he did not nourish Saruman 's boundless ambition, having as his only desire to restore the kingdom entrusted to him to peace and prosperity: "that everything should be as it was throughout my life". To make him an unwitting accomplice to his triumph, Sauron therefore had to adopt a different strategy that today we would define as the "false synecdoche", on the basis of a happy analysis by Vladimiro Giacchè . [6] Whoever resorts to this artifice, so frequent and central in today's mass communication, brings to the public only a few selected details of an event which, although true in themselves, create a false or even inverse perception of the whole while keeping silent about others and more significant pieces of information. So also Denethor in the sphere

he saw only the things that [Sauron] allowed him to see … The Seer Stones do not lie, and not even the Lord of Barad-dûr can force them to lie. He may perhaps choose what he wants to show weaker minds, or make them misunderstand the meaning of what they see. Yet it cannot be doubted that when Denethor saw that great forces were being prepared and even assembled to go to war against him, he saw nothing but the truth. [7]

Convinced that he was spying on and anticipating the enemy's moves, the Lord of Gondor did not realize that it was the latter who selected his visions in order to enhance the strength and number of Mordor's troops and hide their difficulties. Day after day, the conviction of the futility of fighting grew stronger in the elderly ruler: "the vision of Mordor's enormous power that was repeatedly shown to him fed despair in his heart, to the point of upsetting his mind." [8]

Tolkien describes the psychological effects of this tele-manipulation with a binomial: "pride and despair". The desperation of winning thus induced by occult propaganda does not produce humility and forgiveness, but rather an aristocratic contempt for the efforts of others, a proud retreating into the presumption of knowing more. Denethor pays "dearly for this science, by aging ahead of time." He possesses not only the pessimism of the elderly, but also the surly pride: sour, sarcastic and distrustful, in the midst of a decisive battle he retires to the throne room and from there insults Gandalf who urges him to take command by calling him "Gray Fool" and insinuating bad faith. Now prey to a desecrating cynicism, he defines the future king to whom his lineage will have to return the scepter as "the last of a ragged dynasty". [9]

Among the many weapons of psychological warfare, the demoralization suffered by Denethor is perhaps the most subtle and destructive because it especially affects the incorruptible and the intelligent. At first it draws them into its whirlpool by relying on their hunger for knowledge: here the siren song of newspapers and news sounds that are compulsory at every hour of the day and night on the mobile screen – definitive and faithful incarnations of the Tolkenian palantír on a global scale. The "informed citizen" thus finds himself hostage to the informant, whose corrosive action is exercised not so much in a direct way, that is, giving only space and support to the antagonist's triumphs, but even more by letting indignation spread without filters in its containers , complaints and testimonies of suffering. These messages of defeat, although almost always authentic and sincere, however multiply beyond the normal perception and endurance and mirror the victories of the enemy side, if only for the fact of following the thematic dictate.

The "denethoriato" subject thus finds himself progressively emptied of all perspective and in order not to wearily repeat what he deems useless or dysfunctional he diverts his critical sense from the objective in order to rationalize the presumed defeat. Painfully deluded into possessing all the pieces of the puzzle (but in reality only those that the Sauron on duty has put on his plate), he therefore turns against his fellow fighters, charging them with ignorance, foolishness, vanity, double ends, until he concludes that after all, "they deserve it." Too whole to give himself to the enemy, he is presumed too shrewd and informed to support his friends. From the top of his high tower he then throws indistinct sarcasms [10] not realizing or not caring about the fact that, as Gandalf warns, "such decisions can only make sure the Enemy's victory". Indeed, the elegant tertiaryism with which he hopes to escape new disappointments can only translate into full cooperation with the aggressor in the given balance of forces: precisely as it was in the initial plans. At the necessary conclusion of his nihilistic parable, Denethor will take his own life by sacrificing himself on the altar of the fathers and will also try to drag the valiant son Faramir with him to the stake, demonstrating how much his withdrawal has instead made him disciplined accomplice and servant of only one. part: the wrong one.


In the events of the elven palantíri , Tolkien hinges a reflection of rare subtlety on the hidden implications of the "information society". Beyond the (not always) obvious observation that the information that should make us critical, aware and independent almost always comes from suppliers who respond precisely to those from whom we would like to emancipate ourselves, the issues raised touch more deeply the relationship between scientia , sapientia and potentia . The Seer Stones transmit raw data, disordered and often corrupted by the malice of those who manipulate them. Their use, is often repeated in the novel, must therefore be reserved only for those who possess the necessary inner discipline in order not to be bewitched by their glare. This distinction between the notion ( scientia ) and the moral capacity above all to sift it and metabolize it ( sapientia ) has been almost completely lost in the civilization born of the enlightened encyclopedic encyclopaedia and arrived at the Babelic bulimia of the internet, statistics and mass media. in a continuous cycle. Today we live submerged by "news" and "data" with the double illusion 1) that from this disintegrated and volatile mass of "raw material" a thought can be structured by accumulation and 2) that it is really "raw material" and not instead of chewing residues, redundant and selected upstream by others. Lacking the time and processing capacity to structure such an inundation of cognitive debris often contradicting each other or even completely meaningless, we necessarily cling to the buoy of an authority that certifies its goodness and "right" interpretation. The dreamed-of emancipation is thus resolved in a fideistic and childish attachment to the breast of the "expert" on duty, in the delegation of thought and free will.

With the telephone palantíri distributed in every pocket and perennially connected to endless databases, the most mammoth accumulation of knowledge in human history has been achieved. What better understanding of reality has come of it? What wisdom, what peace between peoples, what happiness or freedom? What cognitive and mnemonic advantages, being external prostheses? If the banquet of information has grown richer, the mouths have shrunk, the stomachs atrophied.

Even more fallacious is the idea that greater power over one's individual and social life derives from this augmented vision. If power, we repeat, is in case of those who produce the information and not of those who swallow it from the media manger, the two cases narrated suggest that the idea of ​​power rather changes and distorts, that the split between the physical and the imagined field sterilizes the possible in the mind by exalting it ( Saruman ) or mortifying it ( Denethor ) beyond reality. The sorcerer and the regent betray others because they betray themselves first and foremost. In putting distant visions before the experienced thing, they forget their own history and mission, they too become liquid like the chimeras projected by crystals, manipulated by the enemy and absent from themselves.

Today it is ordinary to live protèsi in the representations beyond the sensible domain, realizing also to the letter the Platonic metaphor of the cave. Believing himself to be launched to conquer the secrets of the world, homo connexus allows himself to be invaded and saturated by the ambiguous shadows of the world, leaving them upset in emotions and intentions. His always extroverted mind forgets introspection and proximity: he talks continuously with people kilometers away, taking away time and attention from those around him; he is indignant at what is said or thought in other continents while he thinks and says the most unworthy things; he desires "perfect" lives and places that make his own appear squalid; he follows the debates in the halls of power in real time and closes them in the virtual "squares", feeling the thrill of actually participating in them or, when he then discovers that he is only an unheard spectator, an equally intoxicating anger. His problems are usually distant: the government, the " conspiracy theorists ", the overseas magnates, the left and the right, the "average Italian" (yes, he believes that it really exists, because having watered down the ether one's own individuality cannot recognize it in others).

Although false from the outset, this latter prophecy nevertheless ends up self-fulfilling because remote inspection, reproducing itself identical in every node, makes what is particular and real what is in effigy appear universal. One thing exists if everyone believes it exists. So the viewer is remote controlled: he thinks what he is commanded and makes it come true by thinking it, and of that existence he is confirmed by mirroring himself in the thoughts of others. He believes in the distant things of the minister, the scientist and the television newspaper more than his own and close perceptions, which in order to be aware and far-sighted he hastens to dismiss anecdotes, exceptions, strokes of luck or misfortune. What could be dismissed with a shrug thus becomes the first page and standard of conduct for the peoples. Hence also the technical premise of "global" constructions, the secret to imposing the same things everywhere and to everyone: in the universality of a thought that goes beyond the varieties of lived identities, placing itself above and outside them. Indeed, far away.


Is there a good distance? The heroes of The Lord of the Rings often resort to songs and prophecies handed down from the distant past to interpret the present and prepare for what the future holds. This is also a distance, but of a historical and vertical type, which bears the fruit patiently distilled over the centuries by the generations and the wisest witnesses, thus opposing in all respects the geographical and horizontal distance of the epiphanies of the Stones: there is meditation, here emotion; there structure, here juxtaposition; there clarity, even formal, here ambiguity, deception, confusion. The juxtaposition of the two approaches gives rise to the invitation to seek wisdom in the ancient voices of those who have already lived, elaborated and corrected what seems new to us, rather than letting oneself be swept away by the flashes of the present thing: the wisdom of religions and myths. but also that, albeit of a lower rank, of philosophies and arts. In these treasures there is much, but not everything, therefore it is necessary to allow space for the mystery, the refusal of which would otherwise lead to feverishly compulsive palantíri by adhering to that subspecies of gnosis today in vogue to supervise everything and everyone to cancel the gamble and put Providence in check, so as to dream of omnipotence with material omniscience.

Equally good is the distance underlying the journey that sees the company of the Ring engaged. In the journey, distance becomes experience and is incorporated into the identity of the traveler who becomes the protagonist or at least co-author of distant places, according to an exchange model that is very different from the one-way passivity of the observer from the monitor of an elven or digital palantír (or from the rooms of a resort). For this to happen, however, an identity is needed to be exchanged, which must be cultivated before facing the temptations and sufferings of the journey. As the spheres, travel and knowledge are not for everyone or at least they require a self to be faithful to, a pedagogy that is exercised in the ways recommended by the scholars of all ages (except ours): virtue in things close to oneself, the detachment from the noise of the world and its "actuality". What worse way to start the day than by listening to a press review? And what better way to conduct yourself before a battle than by shamelessly repeating "I don't care, I don't know"? If the withered Denethor shouts to Gandalf that "your hope is nothing but ignorance" then the opposite can only be true, that yes, such ignorance is hope.

  1. JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings , Book Three, Chap. XI.

  2. ibid , Second Book, Chap. II.

  3. Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth , Allen & Unwin, 1984.

  4. JRR Tolkien, op. cit. , Third Book, Chap. VIII.

  5. Patrick Curry interprets the opposite poles of enchanment and magic theorized by Tolkien (the latter being "not an art, but a technique [whose] intent is power in this world, the domination of things and wills") by applying them respectively to creations of the elves and Saruman (JRR Tolkien, Tree and Leaf , Unwin Hyman, 1964; P. Curry, " Magic vs. Enchantement ", in Journal of Contemporary Religion , 14: 3 (1999) 401-412).

  6. V. Giacché, The fake factory , Imprimatur, 2016.

  7. JRR Tolkien, op. cit. , Fifth Book, Chap. IX.

  8. ibid , Fifth Book, Chap. VIII.

  9. ibid .

  10. Although certainly unintentional, Denethor's scornful exhortation to Gandalf sounds prophetic: "Go then, work hard to heal the others!" if one thinks of the sufficiency with which some doctors are now considered "guilty" to seek public support after having treated or prevented potentially fatal conditions and having suffered sanctions.

This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Il Pedante at the URL http://ilpedante.org/post/l-ignoranza-e-speranza on Fri, 01 Jul 2022 16:05:16 PDT.