the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











Origin of the word

The steward, or “keeper of the hall”, was the official in a medieval household responsible for its management. Under the feudal system, it was the lord who had all of the legal authority. The steward had only a delegation of that authority, and a mandate to administer the estate. His stewardship of the estate was all-inclusive, from the broadest policies to the most trivial details. For the estate to function properly, the steward needed to hold himself accountable for all that took place in the household. He might delegate; but he would maintain an interest in all happenings, make it his business to know all of the operational details, and know when to intervene and when to concentrate on other matters. He would need to gather information, both from reports by the staff and from actual inspection of the estate. He would need to ensure that the staff was properly trained, and would understand their tasks as much as possible, to the point of being the primary instructor for all household tasks. It was, of course, an enormous responsibility. But the best steward would be the one who felt the responsibility on the deepest level, who identified with the role and carried it out with devoted industry.

The analogy goes only so far. There is no person to whom the stewards of the universe owe fealty; their only liege is the stewardship itself, and above all, the truth. There is a power in the system to which all are subject, not by choice, but by nature ― the law of necessity. But this is not an object of reverence; it must be respected and understood, but never treated as anything more than necessity.

The steward of the universe does not have subordinate servants; all those it works with are fellow stewards, partners, equal servants of truth and stewardship. What arrangements the stewards make in their daily lives are not at issue. In the end, all participate in the stewardship out of personal conviction, and all hold themselves accountable, as the ultimate judges of their own behavior.


J.R.R. Tolkien ― the primary citation

The first speaker is Denethor, whose official title is Steward of Gondor, a hereditary office originally belonging to the chief lieutenant of the king, and whose holder has been the lord of Gondor since the last king died childless. The second is Gandalf, a wandering wizard without official authority.

‘Pride would be folly that disdained help and counsel at need; but you deal out such gifts according to your own designs. Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.’

‘Unless the king should come again?’ said Gandalf. ‘Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for. But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?’

― ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book V, Chapter 1.

J.R.R. Tolkien

‘I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself.’
― Aragorn, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book V, Chapter 2.

‘Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.’
― Gandalf, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book V, Chapter 9.

‘We must walk open-eyed into that trap, with courage, but small hope for ourselves. For, my lords, it may well prove that we ourselves shall perish utterly in a black battle far from the living lands; so that even if Barad-dûr be thrown down, we shall not live to see a new age. But this, I deem, is our duty. And better so than to perish nonetheless ― as we surely shall, if we sit here ― and know as we die that no new age shall be.’
― Gandalf, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book V, Chapter 9.

‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange.... How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ ‘As he has ever judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’
― ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book III, Chapter 2.

When therefore Earth was yet young and full of flame Melkor coveted it, and he said to the other Valar: ‘This shall be my own kingdom; and I name it unto myself!’ But Manwë was the brother of Melkor in the mind of Ilúvatar, and he was the chief instrument of the second theme that Ilúvatar had raised up against the discord of Melkor; and he called unto himself many spirits both greater and less, and they came down into the fields of Arda and aided Manwë, lest Melkor should hinder the fulfilment of their labour for ever, and Earth should wither ere it flowerered. And Manwë said unto Melkor: ‘This kingdom thou shalt not take for thine own, wrongfully, for many others have laboured here no less than thou.’
― ‘Ainulindalë’.

‘Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’ ‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’
― ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book I, Chapter 2.

‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. ‘It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.’
― ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book II, Chapter 2.

‘And it is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.’
― Gandalf, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Book II, Chapter 2.


John Donne

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.


William Nicholson

Arthur: Here we believe that every life is precious, even the lives of strangers. If you must die, die serving something greater than yourself. Better still: live and serve. (Arthur and Lancelot enter the Council Chamber)
The Round Table.
Arthur: Yes. This is where the High Council of Camelot meets. No head, no foot, everyone equal ― even the king.
Lancelot (reading the motto on the Round Table): “In serving each other we become free.”
Arthur: That is the very heart of Camelot. Not these stones, timbers, towers, palaces ― burn them all! and Camelot lives on, because it lives in us. It’s a belief we hold in our hearts.

― ‘First Knight’

Arthur: You know the law we live by. And where is it written: “Beyond Camelot live lesser people, people too weak to protect themselves; let them die.”?
Malagant: Other people live by other laws, Arthur. Or is the law of Camelot to rule the entire world?
Arthur: There are laws that enslave men, and laws that set them free. Either what we hold to be right and good and true is right and good and true, for all mankind, under God, or we’re just another robber tribe!
Malagant: Your fine words are talking you out of peace and into war.
Arthur: There’s a peace that’s only to be found on the other side of war. If that battle must come, I will fight it.

― ‘First Knight’


Jane Austen

‘There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by manœuvring and finessing, but by vigour and resolution.’ ... ‘He may have as strong a sense of what would be right, as you can have, without being so equal under particular circumstances to act up to it.’ ‘Then, it would not be so strong a sense. If it failed to produce equal exertion, it could not be an equal conviction.’
― from a conversation between Knightley and Emma, ‘Emma’, Volume I, Chapter XVIII

He called it, therefore, his duty to step forward, and endeavour to remedy an evil which had been brought on by himself. ... I fancy, Lizzy, that obstinacy is the real defect of his character after all. He has been accused of many faults at different times; but this is the real one. Nothing was to be done that he did not do himself....
― from a letter by Mrs. Gardiner, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Volume III, Chapter X


Robert Bolt

Thomas More: When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. (He cups his hands.) And if he opens his fingers then ― he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.
Margaret: In any State that was half good, you would be raised up high, not here, for what you’ve done already. It’s not your fault the State’s three-quarters bad. Then if you elect to suffer for it, you elect yourself a hero.
More: That’s very neat. But look now ... If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all ... why then perhaps we must stand fast a little ― even at the risk of being heroes.
― ‘A man for all seasons’


J.K. Rowling

‘So I should be in Slytherin,’ Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. ‘The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it ―’ ‘Put you in Gryffindor,’ said Dumbledore calmly. ‘Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand-picked students. His own very rare gift, Parseltongue ... resourcefulness ... determination .. a certain disregard for rules,’ he added, his moustache quivering again. ‘Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think.’ ‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin ...’ ‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’
― ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’


James L. Brooks

I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this with anybody, so don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the Devil. ... What do you think the Devil’s going to look like? ... Come on. No one’s going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail. Come on, what’s he going to sound like? (growls) No! I’m semi-serious here. ... No, he’ll be attractive, he’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great and God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He’ll just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they’re important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit.
― Aaron Altman, ‘Broadcast News’


Stephen R. Donaldson

“Yet I have always believed that problems should be solved by those who see them ― that when a difficulty presents itself the person who becomes aware of it should answer it instead of trying to pass it to someone else.”
― Myste, ‘Mordant’s Need’, Chapter 15.

“You are injured, my lord Tor,” said the Alend Monarch, “and yet you propose a hard march of three days in order to confront High King Festten and his new cabal of Imagers. Is that wise?”   ...   “I am sincerely unsure that it is wise. King Joyse would never permit me to do such a thing in his place, if he were here to forbid it. But he is not here, and so I determine the nature of my own service to my King. The question is not one of wisdom, my lord. It is one of necessity. I go to fight the High King and his Imagers simply because they must be opposed.”   ...   “Why?” the Alend Monarch demanded suddenly, almost desperately. “Can you deny that King Joyse appears to have gone mad? Can you deny that his purposes and policies have brought you to the verge of destruction? Why do you still serve him?”   ...   “My lord, Master Eremis and his Imagery have cost me my eldest son. In time, the High King will cost me all my family. Such men must be opposed.”
― ‘Mordant’s Need’, Chapter 45.


Aaron Sorkin

You want to claim this land is the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
― Andrew Shepherd, ‘The American President’


John Briley (drawing from Mohandas K. Gandhi)

I praise such courage. I need such courage, because, in this cause, I too am prepared to die. But, my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. Whatever they do to us, we will attack no one, kill no one, but we will not give our fingerprints, not one of us. They will imprison us, they will fine us, they will seize our possessions; but they cannot take away our self-respect if we do not give it to them.   ...   I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow, but we will receive them, and through our pain, we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then, they will have my dead body ... not my obedience.
― Mohandas Gandhi, ‘Gandhi’

Mine manager: These men are contracted laborers. They belong in the mines.
Mohandas Gandhi: You put their comrades in jail. When you free them, they will go back to work.
Mine manager: I’ve warned you.
Mohandas Gandhi: We’ve warned each other.
― ‘Gandhi’


Alfred Tennyson

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are ―
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

― ‘Ulysses’



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