Let’s think about three ways in which technological making can go wrong, using some Ludlumesque naming conventions.
First, there’s the Zuckerberg Imperative: “Move fast and break things” in order to achieve DOMINATION. This is evil by intention: it openly rejects moral responsibility.
Second, there’s the Oppenheimer Principle: which I describe here: “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.” This is not purposefully evil, but it often leads to evil through neglect of moral responsibility.
And third: the Fëanor Temptation.
Many readers of Tolkien’s Silmarillion tend to think that Melkor (effectively the Satan of Tolkien’s legendarium) is the central figure in that collection of myths and tales, but he isn’t. The central figure is an Elf named Fëanor, who makes the Silmarils, the three jewel-like and yet somehow organic objects for which the book is named – because so many of the conflicts that deface Middle-earth (and even places beyond) are brought about by love and desire for the Silmarils.
Let’s approach the significance of Fëanor in a somewhat roundabout way, as Tom Shippey – whom I’m basically stealing my ideas from, straight no chaser – does in his superb book The Road to Middle-Earth. Shippey asks whether the Elves are fallen in the same way that Men, according to Tolkien’s Catholic faith, are. If so:
A natural question is, what was their sin? To keep the pattern consistent, it ought not to be the same as that of Adam and Eve, by tradition Pride, the moment when, as [C. S.] Lewis said, ‘a conscious creature’ became ‘more interested in itself than in God’. In fact the elves seem much more susceptible to a specialised variety of pride not at all present in Paradise Lost, not quite Avarice or ‘possessiveness’ or wanting to own things (as has been suggested), but rather a restless desire to make things which will forever reflect or incarnate their own personality. So Melkor has the desire ‘to bring into Being things of his own’; Aulë, though subjecting himself to Ilúvatar, creates the dwarves without authority; Fëanor forges the Silmarils. One might rewrite Lewis’s phrase to say that in Valinor, as opposed to Eden, the Fall came when conscious creatures became ‘more interested in their own creations than in God’s’. The aspect of humanity which the elves represent most fully – both for good and ill – is the creative one.
Significantly Fëanor learns not from Manwë, nor Ulmo, but from Aulë, the smith of the Valar and the most similar of them to Melkor; Aulë too is responsible for the despatch of Saruman to Middle-earth…; Aulë is the patron of all craftsmen, including ‘those that make not, but seek only for the understanding of what is’ – the philologists, one might say, but also the scopas, the ‘makers’, the fabbri, the poets. Tolkien could not help seeing a part of himself in Fëanor and Saruman, sharing their perhaps licit, perhaps illicit desire to ‘sub-create’. He wrote about his own temptations, and came close to presenting the revolt of the Noldor as a felix culpa, a ‘fortunate sin’, when Manwë accepts that their deeds will live in song, so that ‘beauty not before conceived [shall] be brought into Eä’; fiction, poetry, craftsmanship are seen as carrying their own justification and as all being much the same thing.
And finally, Shippey brings us to the heart of the matter, with a reference to Tolkien’s comment, in one of his prefaces to The Lord of the Rings, that his story is not an allegory of our era but may well have “applicability” to our era:
Love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilisation, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow attached to both. In that view The Silmarillion would have something like the distinctively modern ‘applicability’ of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, for all its archaic setting.
You can see from all this that what I am calling the Fëanor Temptation is closer to the Oppenheimer Principle than to the Zuckerberg Imperative. There is no direct intention to dominate, no thought of controlling or even influencing others. We are told that “Fëanor and the craftsmen of the Noldor worked with delight, foreseeing no end to their labours” – they find their work “technically sweet,” you might say.
But in the making of the Silmarils there was something of greater dignity, a love of something not made by Fëanor or any other of the Children of Iluvatar (i.e. Elves and Men): “For Fëanor, being come to his full might, was filled with a new thought, or it may be that some shadow of foreknowledge came to him of the doom that drew near; and he pondered how the light of the Trees, the glory of the Blessed Realm, might be preserved imperishable.” The desire to make the Silmarils, then, arises from a delight in the light of the Two Trees made by the Valar, the archangelic demiurges of this imagined cosmos.
But is there in Fëanor, perhaps, a certain desire to compete with the Valar? The Valar themselves seem not to have been concerned: “Varda [the Queen, as it were, of the Valar] hallowed the Silmarils, so that thereafter no mortal flesh, nor hands unclean, nor anything of evil will might touch them, but it was scorched and withered; and Mandos foretold that the fates of Arda, earth, sea, and air, lay locked within them.” Yet there is cause for concern in the next sentence: “The heart of Fëanor was fast bound to these things that he himself had made.”
So strong is the hold of the Simlarils over Fëanor that when Melkor offers him shelter for them he is briefly tempted; and though he fiercely rejects Melkor – indeed he is the one who renames Melkor as Morgoth, the Black Enemy; and when Morgoth kills Fëanor’s father we are told that “his father was dearer to him than the Light of Valinor or the peerless works of his hands.” He is no monster; or not for a long time. But when Morgoth steals the Silmarils Fëanor becomes (quite literally, I think) insane with rage, and he and after him his sons are willing to defy the Valar and kill anyone who might stand between them and the recovery of those gems.
They swore an oath which none shall break, and none should take, by the name even of Ilúvatar, calling the Everlasting Dark upon them if they kept it not; and Manwë they named in witness, and Varda, and the hallowed mountain of Taniquetil, vowing to pursue with vengeance and hatred to the ends of the World Vala, Demon, Elf or Man as yet unborn, or any creature, great or small, good or evil, that time should bring forth unto the end of days, whoso should hold or take or keep a Silmaril from their possession.
The gems are good; their making was at least potentially innocent; but afterward arose a lust for owning and controlling that led to great tragedy. Shippey again: the Fall of the Elves occurred “when conscious creatures became ‘more interested in their own creations than in God’s’. The aspect of humanity which the elves represent most fully – both for good and ill – is the creative one.”
And this is why “making” in and of itself is not the answer to our decadent moment. “Love of things, especially artificial things, could be seen as the besetting sin of modern civilisation, and in a way a new one, not quite Avarice and not quite Pride, but somehow attached to both” – and this is the Fëanor Temptation. It is in light of this temptation that I advocate repair, which is a mode of caring for what we have not made, but rather what we have inherited. We will not be saved by the making of artifacts — or from the repair of them, either; but the imperative of repair has these salutary effects: it reminds us of our debt to those who came before us and of the fragility of human constructs.