Adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: Power and corruption

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar Talks Ego-Centrism
Minds like Fortified Cities
Closing

A scop sings his boasts, just like Beowulf does before Hrothgar.

Image found at http://bit.ly/2jumA3j


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Synopsis

Hrothgar’s still talking about kingship and ruling as he starts to muse on the bigger picture.


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Original

                  Wundor is to secganne
hu mihtig god manna cynne
þurh sidne sefan snyttru bryttað,
eard ond eorlscipe; he ah ealra geweald.
Hwilum he on lufan læteð hworfan
monnes modgeþonc mæran cynnes,
seleð him on eþle eorþan wynne
to healdanne, hleoburh wera,
gedeð him swa gewealdene worolde dælas,
side rice, þæt he his selfa ne mæg
for his unsnyttrum ende geþencean.
(Beowulf ll.1724b-1734)


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Translation

                  “It is a wonder to say,
how mighty God distributes amongst us the depths of wisdom,
land and rank; indeed He wields all power.
At times he lets the minds of men wander
toward dreams of fame to match their kin’s,
gives him a native country and earthly pleasures
to protect and enjoy, a fortified city to control and friends to help;
lets him hold sway over a region of the world,
to rule far and wide. until, that is, unwisely, the man never thinks
of his own end or considers the limit of his life.”
(Beowulf ll.1724b-1734)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar Talks Ego-Centrism

The idea that god controls all is nothing really new. But it is interesting to note that this world view that Hrothgar is speaking from here is the same one that Don Quixote adopts in Cervantes’ famed novel.

Like Hrothgar, Don Quixote is an old man who has done much and risen to local prominence. Unlike Hrothgar (depending on what you think of his character), though, Don Quixote is obsessed with the fantasy stories of his day to the point of recreating them and endangering himself and those around him. It’s a story all about longing so strongly for the idealized stories of yesterday to be real that you lose your mind and start living them.

Hrothgar, I think, still has enough control of his senses for this to not happen (besides, what’s the far off paradisaical time for someone ruling in the early middle ages?).

Yet here we see Hrothgar start to speak as if he’s staring past Beowulf and all of his retainers and those who people his hall. And what is he talking about? Ego. Plain and simple.

Hrothgar’s hypothetical person who’s given all by god and then gets so wrapped up in their privilege and power that they forget it’s all a gift (or at the least, temporary) is ego-tripping hard.

To me this kind of ruler recalls the stories of kings from nearly every culture who paid great sums of money for the development of an elixir that could grant eternal life. They’ve forgotten that, as powerful as they are, they’re still just people. And people die.

Hrothgar’s words, then, aren’t just for those who rule. I think that his words can extend out to any who enjoy privilege but ignore the responsibilities that come with it. One of those being sharing the much more tangible benefits that come with such privilege.

And that’s what keeps Hrothgar’s words relevant. They’re about one of the most poisoning aspects of power: alienation.

As we see on line 1731, Hrothgar’s hypothetical ruler has friends. But this ruler forgets about them, they start to see themselves as separate from those friends and those whom they don’t know directly but may see suffer. At this point in Hrothgar’s little hypothetical situation, this ruler has lost his humanity. And that is the greatest threat of the power of which Hrothgar speaks.

A neat summary of what Hrothgar’s saying here is “power corrupts”. The companion part of a version of this saying is “poetry cleanses”. What do you think is a means to countering power’s corrupting quality? What’s a great way to remind the powerful of their humanity? Leave your thoughts in the comments!



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Minds like Fortified Cities

The “hleo-byrig”1 were the centre of old philosophy
Just as sure as those credited with the thoughts
that after centuries of debate we’ve come to scorn or admire
had “mod-geþancas”2 built like wall and gate.

1hleo-burh: protecting city, fortified city. hleo (covering, refuge, defence, shelter, protection, protector, lord) + burh (a dwelling or dwellings within a fortified enclosure, fort, castle; borough, walled town.) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2mod-geþanc: thought, understanding, mind. mod (heart, mind, spirit, mood, temper; arrogance, pride, power, violence) + ðanc (thought, reflection, sentiment, idea, mind, will, purpose, grace, mercy, favour, pardon, thanks, gratitude, pleasure, satisfaction; reward, recompense)

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar dives deeper as he reflects on life and death.

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One thought on “Adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: Power and corruption

  1. Pingback: Continuing adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: The root of arrogance | A Blogger's Beowulf

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