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The Long Defeat

In a society that attempts to condition all, who conditions the conditioners? The result is not the perfection of man, but rather, as C.S. Lewis observed, the abolition of man.

(Image: Stephen Leonardi @stephenleo1982 |

Dr. Samuel Gregg describes in an excellent article at Catholic World Report the growing tendency to make politics into a religion. Why do some people respond so rabidly when they lose elections, or court cases, or popular support? Because their core belief is centered in the “arc of history bending toward progress”. In this view, humanity and society are perfectible, and it is the solemn duty of the enlightened few to perfect it. And when the perfect man sits atop his perfect world, all of the suffering and misery of history (including that inflicted in the process of building utopia) will have been imbued with new meaning, the broken eggs that produced the omelet.

For these people, then, history and society simply must move forward (that is, in the direction they wish), because if they do not it is a great challenge to their faith. Perhaps that arc is not so inevitable if a strong crosswind can blow it off course. Thus any challengers to this ideology are not just people with an opposing viewpoint: they are blasphemers and heretics, and must be subjected to inquisitions and excommunications. Or, in common parlance: the Twitter mob.

This is nothing more than a secular mash-up of a few heresies from the history of Christianity. It’s a kind of Pelagianism that believes God’s grace is unnecessary for man to achieve perfection—all we need is a good example or a road map, and whether that is Jesus or Karl Marx is not particularly important. There is also a hint of Novatianism in there, the idea that there is a select group of “the pure” who are the true believers and who ought to be in charge (thus Novatian declared himself a bishop). Bad ideas, like weeds, keep popping up in new places whenever you think you’ve pulled them all.

For those who do not fall under the spell of these empty promises, who do not place their hope in the realization of a future utopia, a political or cultural defeat does not create an existential crisis. And indeed, for a certain kind, it’s to be expected. This viewpoint assumes, quite reasonably, that a fundamentally fallen world will not be brought to perfection by a fundamentally fallen humanity. Instead, humanity should expect a series of failures.

J.R.R. Tolkien expressed this well in his stories. Borrowing somewhat from the Norse mythos of the “twilight of the gods,” the Elves of Middle-earth fight what they call “the long defeat,” both against the evil forces of Morgoth and Sauron, and against the decay of all things. The immortal elves themselves do not age, but as the world around them does, it wearies them. Thus great elf-lords like Elrond and Galadriel use their power to preserve their havens of timelessness, Rivendell and Lothlorien.

Tolkien wrote in his letters that this was not simply a story convention, but a basic belief of his, derived from his Catholic faith. He wrote:

Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory. (Letters, 255)

This is a crucial point for us to remember. Talk of a long defeat can bring with it an air of inevitability and, with that, a resignation to failure. If we are doomed to lose, then why put up the fight? But this is to misunderstand the meaning of the term. The “long defeat” refers to our own efforts to remake the world. We will never be able to overcome fallen human nature by any program, system, or force, because those structures themselves will be corrupted by the presence of the fallen human beings at the helm. In a society that attempts to condition all, who conditions the conditioners? The result is not the perfection of man, but rather, as C.S. Lewis observed, the abolition of man.

But the long defeat is not an ultimate defeat. This was just as true in Tolkien’s imagined world as it is in our own. The realms of the elves would fall in decadence and decay, and the kingdoms of men would begin to crumble, and the dark armies of Sauron would seem to be unstoppable. Yet they would not give up their resistance, and the peoples of the West would march to the Black Gate itself with little hope of success. And indeed the victory was won, but not through the sword of a man or the axe of a dwarf, but through the self-sacrifice of a hobbit, through love and companionship. It was when all seemed hopeless that the sudden and unexpected turn to the good, the eucatastrophe, took place: the One Ring was destroyed, and Sauron was defeated.

In the great shaking of the earth and the crumbling of the tower of Barad-dur, we are reminded of the earthquake that accompanied Christ’s crucifixion and death, and the rending of the Temple veil in two. Surely Jesus’ laborious trudge up the hill of Golgotha seemed to his followers a long walk of defeat, yet in their darkest moment was found the means of their salvation. Good Friday presaged Easter Sunday. And Easter Sunday foretells the day when man indeed will be perfected, when the horns will sound and the king will return, when heaven and earth will be joined and every tear will be wiped away.

For the Christian, then, a man-made utopia is truly “no place,” and the failure to bring it about is to be expected—and even in a sense desired, as any attempt to perfect man by natural means will necessarily be forced, violent, and totalitarian. Only God who has made man can perfect man. It was the desire of our first parents to grasp at that perfection for themselves that put us on this long road. Defeat in this life, far from threatening our faith, is one of its basic assumptions. As is the conviction that God has already won the victory.

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About Nicholas Senz 27 Articles
Nicholas Senz is Pastoral Associate at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Fishers, IN. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children.


  1. Thanks for this. A few years ago I made LOTR my Lenten reading for its message of hope in the face of the seemingly unrelenting advance of darkness. I may just do that again.

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