The Parable of Three Wizards

Knowledge is a powerful thing; it changes those who acquire it. Freshmen returning home after their first semester in college know this. They arrive with heads full of new ideas which they are eager to share with anyone who will listen. These new ideas can cause tension at home, even with parents who have a college education.

All this increases as the level of education increases. Graduate students look down on undergraduates or are smug that their level of education has now surpassed their parents’. Though I have not climbed that high, I imagine something similar must happen to doctorate students and those who have become tenured faculty.

This is not to say that the experience of the highly educated is illegitimate. They have attained knowledge and a level of reasoning that the vast majority of people will never approach. It is like a person who returns after a long stay in a foreign country. She looks forward to the comfortable familiarity of home, only to discover that things are not quite the same. No one can fully relate to her experience abroad. What she brings with her makes home unfamiliar. In this life there is no way to un-experience things. The real issue for the traveler, as with the academic, is how she relates to those who don’t share her level of schooling.

Contrary to the fears of certain Americans, most members of academia are not concerned with corrupting and liberalizing America’s youth. They are far more interested in debates over arcane topics, obsessing over pet subjects, and calculating the next move in the world of university politics. More than anything, they resemble the wizard Radagast in Lord the Rings. Radagast has great knowledge about plants and animals. However, he plays almost no roll in the story because he is far too obsessed with flora and fauna to be aware of outside events. His lack of awareness actually makes him an unwitting pawn for Saruman.

Saruman is a model of an academic in his ivory black tower taken to the extreme. His greater knowledge, and he really has great knowledge, causes pride and a sense of superiority. Everyone should follow him because he knows better. His contempt for others, such as the lowly hobbits, is clear. I think that this is the great temptation of liberals. Liberals frequently frame their position as the most rational or reasonable one. (In contrast, conservatives emphasize common sense and tradition). Those that disagree with them are, by implication, irrational or backwards. If only people would listen and follow their more rational position, everything would workout. Such a position, though sometimes couched in the language of concern, lacks the the ability to fully enter into the world of others, which is necessary to compassion.

Saruman’s other great evil is the use he makes of knowledge. Knowledge that doesn’t include some sort of moral component is dangerous. The same knowledge that can be used to cure disease can also make biological weapons. Saruman uses his knowledge to destroy nature and increase his own power. Knowledge becomes a tool for dominating those who are less knowledgeable and less powerful. Conservatives and liberals alike are guilty of using knowledge as a tool to gain control over others.

In this analogy, Gandalf represent the right use of knowledge. His power and knowledge is in no way inferior to Saruman. Instead of steeling himself in a great tower, Gandalf puts himself among people, particularly simple folk like hobbits. He takes them as they are. It is by far the most difficult position. I often feel the danger of knowledge driving out love, of reducing things to simple solutions.

At the same time, staying among the simple is the best projection against the arrogance of Saruman. His withdrawal into the tower of Orthanc and its isolation probably hastened the wrong path that he took. In someways, I am better reminded of my short-comings by being among the “simple folk” than the rarefied air of academia. In the process, I gain better self-knowledge.


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