Further adventures in philosophy via Beowulf: The best use of wealth

Synopsis
Original
Translation
Recordings
Hrothgar’s Thoughts on Wealth and Sharing It
The Way to Our Best Futures
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 hypothetical ruler meets his tragic end.


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Original

“þonne bið on hreþre under helm drepen
biteran stræle (him bebeorgan ne con),
wom wundor-bebodum wergan gastes;
þinceð him to lytel þæt he lange heold,
gytsað grom-hydig, nallas on gylp seleð
fædde beagas, ond he þa forð-gesceaft
forgyteð ond forgymeð, þæs þe him ær god sealde,
wuldres waldend, weorð-mynda dæl.
Hit on ende-stæf eft gelimpeð
þæt se lic-homa læne gedreoseð,
fæge gefealleð; fehð oþer to,
se þe unmurnlice madmas dæleþ,
eorles ær-gestreon, egesan ne gymeð.”
(Beowulf ll.1745-1757)


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Translation

“Then that sharp arrow slides beneath his defenses,
it bites into his heart — he knows not to guard himself —
the perverse strange command of the evil spirit then has hold.
He begins to think little of what he had long held;
going forth angry-minded he only covets, for pride he never gives
rings of hammered gold; and what he had been destined for
is forgotten and neglected, what was shown in the Almighty’s past gifts,
God’s glory, all that was made clear in his share of honour.
Afterwards the common end comes to him,
that prince’s transitory body declines,
what is fated to die falls; then another takes what had been his,
one who ungrudgingly shares that former prince’s ancient treasures
among their earls, fearing no retribution.”
(Beowulf ll.1745-1757)


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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}


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Hrothgar’s Thoughts on Wealth and Sharing It

In my reading of this passage the thing that Hrothgar is getting at is that the best use of wealth is to share it.

His hypothetical ruler who had it all gets greedy after their soul (their humanity) is killed by feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. After this murder the ruler turns to the world of things rather than to the world of their fellow people to soothe themselves. However, this leads to a miserly and covetous existence in which the ruler surrounds themselves with things, and then passes away with no fanfare whatever. And, after they’re gone another comes along and doles out what their predecessor had so closely guarded with an open hand, proving that such miserliness only causes pointless suffering.

Ultimately, then, this passage reinforces the Anglo-Saxon value of the wealthy class sharing their wealth. A lesson that’s just as important then as it is today.

And the past, which so many people are quick to call only brutish and cruel, is littered with such sentiments. Just look at Hammurabi’s Code, one of the earliest sets of laws, which stipulated that payment for medical care be related to a person’s wealth. If someone like a king needed a doctor, they would pay full price, but if a non-land owning plebeian needed a doctor, they would get a deep discount.

The values put forth in Beowulf are similar. In practice, they may not lead to a utopia (too many rulers are like Hrothgar’s hypothetical prince), but in theory they are far more progressive than most people would ever credit for something coming out of the middle ages.

After all, the whole driving force behind the Anglo-Saxon ideal of a king who shares out wealth to those who have earned it is merit. It’s a system designed to make wealth more even while also being a system through which there could be some mobility. Though, it does concentrate the power over wealth into a single person, which comes with a host of problems.

I mean, despite Hrothgar’s historical connection, Beowulf is still a piece of fiction, and so this ideal of a magnanimous king, doling out wealth to those who have proven themselves is equally fictitious. Some historical rulers may have come close to doing so, but centralizing power in a single figure all too often results in what happened to Hrothgar’s ideally set up ruler. They are corrupted; if not by power, then they’re corrupted by paranoid ideas or selfishness. The shininess of gold grabs our attention, but sometimes it grabs so much of it that we have none left to share with other people, no matter how those others might strive to get it.

Though, along with poetry, there’s another antidote for power’s corrupting force. And that antidote is in this extract, on line 1753: “common end” (“ende-stæf”). Everyone dies and no one can take their physical wealth with them. But the friendships and connections that people make over their lifetime conquer death and help people’s memory live on long after their bodies have passed away, whether they were finely attired in the smoothest silk or wore the same cotton shirt and blue jeans day after day.

On a related note, in Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World he wrote about the idea that humanity progresses, but is always able to slide back into darkness. History is the story of people, after all.

What do you think about the idea that wealth poses a danger to people’s sense of humanity and compassion? Is it as necessary as Hrothgar’s story suggests to be ever-vigilant when you come into wealth?


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The Way to Our Best Futures

Love should not be a “wundor-bebod”1,
Something that our greed or selfishness make us “grom-hydig”2 toward,
like a dog beaten into brutally barking at each passerby.
Hatred burns the bridges to our best “forð-gesceaft”3,
brings us to our “ende-staef”4 before our “lic-homa”5 runs down, is put in ground.
Love and “weorð-mynd”6 are the best of “aer-gestreon”7 we can wear, then and now.

1wundor-bebod: strange command. wundor (wonder, miracle, marvel, portent, horror, wondrous thing, monster) + bebod (command, injunction, order, decree) [A word that is exclusive to Beowulf.]

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2grom-hydig: hostile, malignant. gram (angry, cruel, fierce) + hygdig (heedful, thoughtful, careful, chaste, modest)

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3forð-gesceaft: future destiny, creature, created being or thing, world. forð (forth, forwards, onwards, further, hence, thence, away, continually, still, continuously, henceforth, thenceforward, simultaneously) + sceaft (created being, creature, origin, creation, construction, existence, dispensation, destiny, fate, condition, nature)

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4ende-staef: end, conclusion. ende (end, conclusion, boundary, border, limit, quarter, direction, part, portion, division, district, region, species, kind, class, death) + staef (staff, stick, rod, pastoral staff, letter, character, writing, document, letters, literature, learning)

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5lic-homa: body, corpse, trunk. lic (body, corpse) + homa (village, hamlet, manor, estate; home, dwelling, house, region, country)

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6weorð-mynd: honour, dignity, glory, mark of distinction. weorð (worth, value, amount, price, purchase-money, ransom; worth, worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank; valued, dear, precious; fit, capable) + mynd (memory, remembrance, memorial, record, act of commemoration, thought, purpose, consciousness, mind, intellect)

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7aer-gestreon: ancient treasure. aer (ere, before that, soon, formerly, beforehand, previously, already, lately, till) + streon (gain, acquisition, property, treasure)

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Closing

Next week Hrothgar makes his allegory relevant to Beowulf.

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