I once posted that I found John Rawls’ argument that it’s unjust to benefit from your natural abilities to be inferior to ideas found in J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings:

More than anything, this kind of attitude reminds me of what Boromir says to Frodo when attempting to take the Ring of Power for himself:

It’s not yours, save by unhappy chance! It could have been mine! It should be mine! Give it to me!

To Tolkien, these are the words of someone whose mind has been corrupted under the influence of a demonic evil. But to Rawls, this is merely what justice requires due to the unfairness of benefitting from your own attributes. As far as I’m concerned, Tolkien has more genuine wisdom to share with the world than Rawls.

Today, I’m going to carry that theme forward, and argue that Tolkien’s fictional writings also showed greater wisdom about foreseeing what the future holds than the writings of the great science writer Isaac Asimov. 

To start, Tyler Cowen recently shared a list of predictions Asimov made in 1981 about what we should expect to see in the coming decades. On that list we find the following:

1985 — World oil production will fall below world needs

1990 — North America will no longer be a reliable source for food export

1995 — The nations of the world will meet (unwillingly) in a Global Congress to tackle seriously the problems of population, food, and energy.

2000 — Under global sponsorship, the construction of solar power stations in orbit about the earth will have begun.

2005 — A mining station will be in operation on the moon.

2010 — World population will have peaked at something like 7 billion.

2015 — The dismantling of the military machines of the world will have made international war impractical.

2020– The flow of energy from solar-power space stations will have begun.  Nuclear fusion stations will be under construction.

2025 — The Global Congress will be recognized as a permanent institution.  The improvement in communications will have developed a world “lingua franca,” which will be taught in schools.

2030 — The use of microcomputers and electronic computers will have revolutionized education, produced a global village, and prepared humanity for the thorough exploration of the solar system and the plans for eventual moves toward the stars.

As I’m sure you will have noticed, dear reader, most of what Asimov predicted wasn’t even close to accurate (though Cowen gives him credit for being close to the mark on two of those points). Now, I’m not writing this to dunk on Asimov because he got his predictions mostly wrong. I’m sure at the time, Asimov could have presented what would have seemed like very compelling arguments in favor of why things would have gone the way he predicted, arguments I doubt I’d have been able to compellingly counter. But as the great philosopher-poet Yogi Berra once said, prediction is hard, especially about the future. I’m not saying I could have made better predictions in his place, either. Nobody can make such grand predictions over such a long timeframe and do it well. The world is simply too complex, and unexpected developments that didn’t feature in and will thus derail your prediction will always unfold. 

And this is what I think is overlooked by extremely intelligent people like Asimov. He was no dummy – in terms of pure brainpower, I doubt I’d hold a candle to him. And I suspect Asimov would also surpass Tolkien on that measure as well. If we resurrected Asimov today and had him review his predictions, I’m sure he would be able to come up with all kinds of ex-post explanations for why things didn’t unfold the way he expected. But the failure to realize in advance that this will be the case is the key failing here. As I’ve written elsewhere, the fact that you couldn’t possibly have known what outcome your actions might bring about is often itself something you could and should have known. And when making grand predictions, the fact that there will be unexpected developments you can’t possibly foresee that will affect how things unfold is also something that you could (and should) have known. 

So where does Tolkien feature in all of this? Well, I think a wiser perspective was shared by Tolkien through the character of Elrond in the first book of his trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. When discussing how to handle the threat of Sauron and the One Ring in Rivendell, the council slowly comes to the surprising realization that the best way forward will depend not on the great feats of mighty warriors like Glorfindel or powerful wizards like Gandalf, but on the simple courage of humble Hobbits. Elrond says to Frodo (and to everyone at the council):

“If I understand aright all that I have heard,” he said, “I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo; and that if you do not find a way, no one will. This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?

It’s that last sentence that really gets at the heart of what I’m talking about here. Elrond recognizes not only that things unfolded in ways that even the wisest could not foresee. More importantly, Elrond also says that the unforeseeability of how things would unfold is itself something that the truly wise would have already understood. And this shows the difference between raw intellect and true wisdom. In terms of sheer brainpower, I’m sure that Asimov would have outclassed Tolkien. But wisdom is about more than mere intelligence – and all too often the hubris that comes with great intelligence undermines the humility necessary for true wisdom. And just as William Buckley once said he’d rather be governed by people selected from a phone book than by the Harvard faculty, I’d rather live in a society guided by the wisdom of Tolkien than the intelligence of Asimov.