Western Civilization, Icelandic Sagas, Social Order (Jim Kalb)

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The recent posts on Vikings and Icelanders reminded me of this lovely essay by Jim Kalb. (Excerpts below; full text at the URL.)

Other stuff by Jim Kalb, fyi: (warning: highly politically incorrect content!) http://www.freespeech.org/antitechnocrat/jk_publications.html http://www.counterrevolution.net http://www.human-rights.f2s.com


"Icelanders had no state to enforce rights and obligations. Men pursued their ends without direct protection or hindrance from any public agency, and were obliged to act themselves to secure their safety and legal rights. The result was neither anarchy nor the tyranny of the strong, but a society that was surprisingly free and equal and more closely knit than our own, ordered by institutions that existed because men found them worth supporting .... The absence of a state...led to a social order concretely based on the importance and character of the individual."




Slightly edited version of the following essay appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of Modern Age. The writer, James Kalb, would be grateful for any comments. The issues the essay raises can be discussed in the Traditionalist Conservatism Forum (http://pub54.ezboard.com/btraditionalistconservatismforum). Your participation is welcome.


The Icelandic Sagas and Social Order

The relation among individual, society and state is a confused one in our time. Is the individual everything and society nothing, or the other way around? Why should one care about the other? Can the state treat the whole social world as the theater for its meddling? If not, what are the limits? Such questions are inescapable and unanswerable in a society like our own, that has no coherent understanding of human life and is dominated by impersonal institutions and abstract relationships that have no hold on our sense of what we are.

The history of the libertarian farmers' republic that was medieval Iceland, and the vivid picture of that society presented in the Icelandic sagas, gives a fresh view of these issues. The similarities and contrasts to our own society are noteworthy. Like America, the Icelandic Commonwealth was a new country, founded in the light of history by European settlers and governed by common consent rather than king and priest. Icelandic political life, like ours, emphasized both law and personal independence. However, the Icelanders had no state to enforce rights and obligations. Men pursued their ends without direct protection or hindrance from any public agency, and were obliged to act themselves to secure their safety and legal rights.

The result was neither anarchy nor the tyranny of the strong, but a society that was surprisingly free and equal and more closely knit than our own, ordered by institutions that existed because men found them worth supporting. Out of domestic and local ties grew the social arrangements felt to be needed, from alliances based on kinship and friendship to a system of assemblies governed by a common code of law. Although far from perfect, the Commonwealth was a generally orderly society, based on private property, loyalty, and individual assertiveness, that worked because those who lived in it made it work. At its moral base were honor, accepted standards of fair dealing, and concrete personal obligations that arose from the necessities of day-to-day life and called for real sacrifices to be made voluntarily.

To be sure, there were special circumstances that helped the Icelanders dispense with the state. The people were unified in religion; when Christian evangelism brought Iceland to the verge of civil war the Icelanders chose an arbitrator who decided that all would convert, and all did. Economic life was simple; the people lived by herding, farming, and fishing, supplemented by occasional expeditions abroad for trade and sometimes raiding. As a settler society without much wealth, Iceland was more egalitarian than other societies of the time or indeed our own. The rich and famous sowed barley and washed linen. Although families differed in wealth and standing, and there were hired servants and (at first) slaves as well as independent farmers, distinctions among free men were informal and depended on character as well as kinship and property. There were no towns or aggressive neighbors, and no ethnic minorities other than Irish slaves who soon assimilated without discernible trace. The population was perhaps fifty thousand, including five thousand farmers with rights of political participation.

Whatever its special features, Iceland was not a primitive backwater unconnected to civilized Europe or our own society. Its political ideals of personal independence and government by consent shared a common ancestry with those of England, another island peopled by Celts and Germanic settlers. Foreign travel helped the Icelanders keep up with the times and maintain their ties to Scandinavian society, which was becoming part of an ever more integrated Christendom. They often went far afield, serving in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople or, after conversion to Christianity, making pilgrimages to Rome. After conversion they also participated in the international learned culture of the time through foreign books and study, and contact with foreign churchmen.

The extraordinary quality of the Icelanders' literary culture is evidenced by their domination of Scandinavian court poetry and their vernacular writings generally. Among those writings are the Islendinga s”gur ("Sagas of Icelanders"), prose narratives set mainly in Iceland that give an admiring but critical introduction to the place and time. Njal's Saga is the longest and greatest of these, but only one of many.[1] The sagas tell with literary skill and realism the stories of individuals, families and local communities in Iceland during the period from the settlements of the late ninth and early tenth centuries until somewhat after the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. Their focus on the lives of particular Icelanders enables them to display the relationship among public, personal, and even spiritual aspects of Icelandic life. The sagas are not histories, and were written long after the events they describe, during a time that included the end of the Commonwealth and loss of independence to Norway in 1262. The social order they depict was real, however, and continued down to the period of composition.

The sagas display both the practical workings and inner significance of Icelandic society, neither romanticizing it excessively nor minimizing its admirable qualities. It was a society of men rather than material conveniences, built on personal loyalties and demanding standards of conduct, that stands in stark contrast to a modern world governed by abstract principles and faceless markets and administrators. The poignancy of the contrast is increased by the reflection that the saga world is in many ways that of the early European societies ancestral to our own, and that today we are rapidly losing touch with the ideals of independence and honor that made those societies what they were.

The sagas deal with the contentions that arise in a stateless society and test its members and institutions. The stories follow a slow and deliberate rhythm of injury, revenge and settlement, set against a background of every-day life and punctuated by litigations, killings and small-scale battles. The conditions of the time limited as well as motivated conflict. Disputes started over a piece of land or precedence at a feast, strategies were planned and carried out in the midst of the ordinary activities of a farmstead, and friends and neighbors helped separate combatants, assess damages, and work out settlements. The evident realism shows the world of the sagas to be very like the actual world of medieval Iceland as the Icelanders experienced it.

The emphasis is on action and its consequences, and on human character. Public conduct is integrated with day-to-day economic and family life; saga heroes keep their feet on the ground and even work the fields. The heroic qualities the Icelanders admired are emphasized: courage, loyalty, generosity, physical prowess, and jealous defense of rights and honor. However, no less attention is paid to quieter virtues such as public spirit and practical wisdom, especially the ability to give good advice. All are treated in accordance with their practical effect and place in human affairs. Characters may stand to a degree for particular virtues and vices, but they are realistically portrayed, sometimes acting well and sometimes badly. Njal's Saga, for example, dramatizes the social and the heroic virtues through its two main characters, the wise and prescient Njal and his heroic friend Gunnar. Both characters are complex, however, and as in other sagas the leading impression is the individualism of a time in which what counted was honor and how a man acted in difficult situations.

..... .....

The matter-of-fact acceptance of violence did not mean that medieval Iceland was more lawless than other societies, any more than the existence of gunfights meant they were a daily occurrence in our own Old West. Armed conflict was an exceptional event even though the security of life and property required a man to stand ready to defend with ax or spear his rights and honor and those of his friends and kin. While the sagas emphasize situations in which accepted standards demanded violent action, they make it clear that the system was remarkably effective in containing bloodshed and composing the disputes that led to it. Assertiveness and sensitivity to points of honor did not lead to interminable feuds or armed conflicts on remotely the scale or destructiveness of wars between states. The very absence of executive government authority made it difficult to organize violence on a large scale. Even during the breakdown of order that led to the loss of Iceland's independence, the total loss of life has been estimated at only 350 over a period of 52 years,[6] a rate of violent death lower than that of big American cities today.

..... .....

The sagas thus present a model of a radically self-governing society, including a sober and generally convincing picture of its people and the operation of their institutions. It was a society whose ruling institutions grew directly out of natural human impulses and customs that arise to express and limit those impulses. Material needs and acquisitiveness gave rise to rules of property, contentiousness and the need to defend one's rights created a code of honor, and the social impulse gave rise to systems of alliance. Finally, the need for a common standard of conduct gave the Icelanders law and a judicial system. Since the responsibility for vindicating those ruling principles fell immediately on those who benefitted from them and on their friends and relatives, every free man had life-and-death public responsibilities. The absence of a state thus led to a social order concretely based on the importance and character of the individual.

While the Commonwealth eliminated one restraint on violence and vice, it exercised the Icelanders in prudence, courage and decision, and on the whole they were better for it. With no public provision of security physical courage was an ordinary necessity. The need for support in disputes led to concern for personal loyalty and the cultivation of the ties between man and man. The need to deter aggressors by drawing lines that could not be transgressed led to a conception of honor as more important than material interests or even life. The resulting willingness to sacrifice everything for points of seemingly minor importance made men sensitive to the rights and concerns of those they might offend; characters in the sagas are acutely aware of the point of view of those with whom they deal, and are willing frankly to admit the moral force of an opponent's position. While armed conflict sometimes led to outrages, it was far more common for standards condemning such things to be observed. Hof (moderation) as well as drengskapr (high-mindedness) were aspirations that powerfully affected conduct.

..... .....

The relevance of the sagas to our own times is that they display with unusual clarity how heroism serves a social function and arises naturally out of the difficulties of ordinary life when the power and responsibility of government are severely limited. A heroic social order is based on the character and integrity of the individual, and requires an extensive sphere of individual responsibility for matters that are important socially. In a confused social order like our own that tends toward radical centralization individuals can have no clear responsibilities, and a lack of heroism is the consequence. In the years ahead that lack is likely to turn to acute need as the growing failure of social institutions throws us more and more on our own resources.

We are richer materially than our ancestors, and better informed in many ways, but our lives seem to lack the moral weight theirs had. The governing principles of our society come home to us and make us what we are. We have all been touched by the dream of endless progress in securing comfort and equality through rational organization. That dream has troubling implications. Since it treats virtue as a means to what is pleasant, and prefers social technology to individual effort and sacrifice, it has little use for the difficult virtues. It makes loyalty and personal integrity sentimental values with no serious function, and replaces an understanding of personal moral worth that makes concrete demands on individuals with one that has little content beyond a claim to equal treatment. As a society, we are told that it is our obligation to eliminate the need for virtues such as courage and endurance, and as individuals we are taught to prize above all tolerance, flexibility, and acceptance of change -- in effect, to attend to short-term individual satisfactions and comply with what others have decided for us.

Morals must deal with reality, and the dreams of assured order and comfort that have guided modern society are only dreams. The sagas tell us something important about life that moderns try to ignore. It is becoming clear that the all-provident state will be unable to fulfill its promise because it destroys the conditions of its own success. Hedonism dissolves social cohesion and makes sacrifice for the common good seem irrational. Bureaucratic rule weakens the public spirit that arises from political participation, and so destroys the disinterested support it needs to be effective. Nor can proposals for trimming bureaucracy and improving efficiency, such as increasing the role of markets, save the situation, since they do not affect the root of the problem, the egalitarian hedonism and ultimate state responsibility for individual well-being that undermine personal moral ties and individual responsibility.

Egalitarian hedonism is too abstract to impose concrete limits on either private self-seeking or state power. Unprincipled conduct in public and private life is the consequence. Attempts to dress hedonism in the language of human rights only aggravate its tendency toward abstraction and confer an unwarranted moral dignity on impulse and appetite. Through its very universality the modern conception of rights becomes empty, finding it difficult even to distinguish the rights of man from those of animals. Society thus becomes unable to establish the boundaries needed for its own defense. Plato tells us that a polity that rejects the good, the honorable, and even the commercially sound in favor of the pleasant will slide into anarchy and despotism, unable to maintain the standards required to secure the physical comfort and safety that are its bedrock demand. The appalling tyrannies that have disfigured modern times, as well as current statistics on crime and other social disorders, support his view. For the present the tyrannies have fallen, but in a world of dissolving landmarks what will enable us to resist their return?

The failure of the modern experiment in comprehensive social management shows once again that each of us is a moral agent in an imperfect world, who, subject to chance, makes his own life and must live with the consequences of his acts and the acts of those connected to him. The Icelandic sagas explore that situation in its starkest form. In the years ahead the failure of the all-protective state and growth of public and private lawlessness will bring the harder virtues back into demand. Flexibility, sensitivity, and self-expression can be fundamental moral ideals only in a state that takes all serious responsibility on itself, leaving little to individuals, families, or independent communities. With the collapse of attempts to construct a setting in which those ideals can be central to moral life others will come to the fore.

The sagas demonstrate how more concrete and demanding moral principles such as honor can evolve and become effective socially. Honor is not a sufficient basis for morality, but it is better than love of material comfort and security. It pays far more respect to human nature, and directs men's attention beyond themselves, leaving them open to something higher. We have particular need of it today. Free institutions depend on the dignity of the citizen, but without a conception of individual honor dignity remains a pure abstraction. If it has no special connection to particular men who feel called upon to assert and defend it when it is violated dignity will play no practical role. The loss of honor therefore means the loss of freedom.

The Icelandic Commonwealth stands for freedom and honor-loving aspects of the heritage of the European peoples that have been essential to their greatness, and that we have all but lost. It shows us community based on self-respect and personal loyalty, courage to make decisions and accept the consequences, and endurance to bear what is unavoidable. The whole tendency of life today points away from such things. Without wanting to revive a long-dead world, we can recognize something in them that is part of the moral ecology of any decent society. In their accounts of the Conversion the sagas give an example of moral reform through acceptance of principles that transcend the existing social order. We need to follow that example. By their representation of heroism the sagas can enlarge and strengthen our moral imagination and help us recapture something of what we have lost. We need them for that.

-- Alan Lewis (aelewis@provide.net), June 13, 2001


Experiment: Does HTML embedded in a post survive?
(if the below are "hot links", then the answer is YES)
Other stuff by Jim Kalb, fyi: (warning: highly politically incorrect content!)
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http://www.counterrevolution.n et

-- Alan Lewis (aelewis@provide.net), June 13, 2001.

Whooops! Messed up the above. HERE is the HTML test (should work this time): Other stuff by Jim Kalb, fyi: (warning: highly politically incorrect content!)

http://www.counterrevolution.n et

-- Alan Lewis (aelewis@provide.net), June 13, 2001.

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