Continuing adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: The root of arrogance

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
The Continuing Story of the Ruler and the Lazy Conscience
Arrogance and Jest in Warfare
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 story of the hypotehtical ruler who’s handed all (thanks to the accident of his birth I’m guessing) continues.


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Original

Wunað he on wiste; no hine wiht dweleð
adl ne yldo, ne him inwit-sorh
on sefan sweorceð, ne gesacu ohwær
ecg-hete eoweð, ac him eal worold
wendeð on willan (he þæt wyrse ne con),
oðþæt him on innan ofer-hygda dæl
weaxeð ond wridað. þonne se weard swefeð,
sawele hyrde; bið se slæp to fæst,
bisgum gebunden, bona swiðe neah,
se þe of flan-bogan fyrenum sceoteð.
(Beowulf ll.1735-1744)


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Translation

“He dwells in prosperity, not at all is he hindered
by sickness or age, neither does his mind go dark
with evil anxieties, nor does enmity bare its blade
to him anywhere, and he goes through all the world
according to his desires. He knows nothing is wrong,
until within him a measure of arrogance grows
and flourishes, when the guard sleeps,
his soul’s shepherd; that sleep is too deep,
weighed down with a diet of worldly cares; the slayer then slinks near,
he who wickedly notches an arrow to his bow* and shoots.”
(Beowulf ll.1735-1744)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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The Continuing Story of the Ruler and the Lazy Conscience

In this continuation of Hrothgar’s story about the ruler who has all and lives in peace, he starts to develop a bit of a psychological theory. Namely, Hrothgar makes the point that too much mindless comfort leads a person’s conscience gets lazy, which leaves them open to arrogance and a sense that they are more than what they actually are. Here the danger that he seemed to be foreshadowing with his perfect situation in last week’s post comes to fruition. And all because god gave this person all that they could want: plenty, friends, power.

So what’s he really saying here? He very easily foists the blame for this perfectly situated person’s fall onto them themselves. But, are they really to blame?

Let’s take a step back here for a second to get a better sense of the philosophy behind this part of Hrothgar’s story.

The person that Hrothgar is talking about in his allegory is supposed to be a ruler. What I take from it then, is the idea that what sets a ruler apart from everyone else isn’t just birth or divine favour, but an inherent ability to handle everything that their position brings or to keep awake to the psychological dangers they face.

After all, in Hrothgar’s story the ruler falls victim to excessive comfort. It’s excessive cares that have lulled their conscience to sleep. In fact, the literal translation of “bið se slæp to fæst,/bisgum gebunden” on lines 1742-1743 is closer to “that sleep was to secure,/bound up with business”, which isn’t quite my “that sleep is too deep,/weighed down with a diet of worldly cares”.

But I think that the relation between a deep sleep after a big meal and the kind of deep sleep that this person’s soul’s guard undergoes are very similar. That guard (the conscience perhaps?) has glutted itself on all the fine things in life and so has let its guard down, leaving the core of the ruler’s being open to attack from arrogance or anxiety or egoism of some kind that leads this ruler down a dark path.

In the end then, is the ruler really to blame?

In Hrothgar’s philosophy (and in some people’s today), this person was merely born where they were born by divine will, in accordance with its plan. But if this ruler to be is the kind of person who is going to get a fat, lazy conscience in such circumstances should they be expected to be able to help it? They have no more control over their nature than they do over where and when they were born.

Or is a lazy conscience supposed to be the inherent state of human nature? Perhaps a “better” ruler would have learned how to avoid getting so indulgent?

But if a person isn’t naturally inclined towards things that are supposed to build “character” or toughen them up, are those faults or just strengths that aren’t in the right social setting? If so, isn’t that kind of twisted for an all powerful deity to inflict such punishment on a select few of their creation, putting them in what seems like the wrong place or time?

Such would seem especially cruel in a cosmology that doesn’t allow for reincarnation and the learning potential that such a situation provides, such as the Christian (and pagan?) context from which Beowulf comes.

But I feel that those questions drift away from Hrothgar’s main point here: don’t let the good life make you soft, either internally or externally. As we’ll see next week, the consequences of doing so are dire.

What do you make of Hrothgar’s story so far? Is he laying blame for his hypothetical ruler’s fall, or is this figure just doing what comes naturally when one isn’t aware of their own power and privilege? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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Arrogance and Jest in Warfare

Is it “ofer-hygd”1 of the flesh that leads to “ecg-hete”2?
Leads the sons and daughters of farmers
to raise sword and shield against the foe,
to hoist “flan-boga”3 and spear against former friends?
Such fighting is like that between brothers,
like that day when Hoðr, laughing,
Drew the godly “flan-boga”3 and mistletoe arrow against Baldr, laughing.
That game ended with “inwit-sorh”4 and weeping,
the shedding of blood and of tears.

1ofer-hygd: pride, conceit, arrogance, highmindedness, haughty, proud. ofer (over, beyond, above, upon, in, across, past) + hygd (mind, thought, reflection, forethought)

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2ecg-hete: sword-hatred, war. ecg (edge, point, weapon, sword, battle-axe) + hete (hate, envy, malice, hostility, persecution, punishment)

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3flan-boga: bow. flan (barb, arrow, javelin, dart) + boga (bow (weapon), arch, arched place, vault, rainbow, folded parchment) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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4inwit-sorh: sorrow. inwit (evil, deceit, wicked, deceitful) + sorg (sorrow, pain, grief, trouble, care, distress, anxiety)

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Closing

Next week, Hrothgar’s story comes to its close and our hypothetical ruler meets their end.

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