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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dangerous Drink - Wisdom of the Vikings Part 7


Better weight
than wisdom
a traveller cannot carry.
A clear head
is good company.
Drink is a dangerous friend.


has too often
been praised by poets.
The longer you drink
the less sense
your mind makes of things.

This is part 7 in an ongoing series (the series starts HERE) bringing together the Hávamál (a collection of Norse wisdom poetry) and the still-evolving rules and mores of the Internet, particularly as they are developing in the realm of social media.

These two poems contain the abundantly clear (yet far to oft' ignored) advice that it is not wise to consume too much alcohol. It may well be worthwhile spending time reiterating this message (and I suspect that "don't drink and tweet" is necessary advice for many) but I want to focus instead on the principle which, I think, made this advice especially important for medieval Icelanders; advice which, I suspect, is nearly as important for those engaging in digital society. 

In the largely anarchic society of medieval Iceland hospitality and courtesy were incredibly important values. In any society where arguments can become feuds which can, in turn, become near civil wars, it is of the utmost importance not to get the ball rolling in the first place. If Sven insults Olaf, and Olaf feels the need to revenge himself on Sven such that he himself has to be put back in place by Sven and his friends, there is no easy way to stop the process once it has begun. So the easiest, and best, answer is to stop really vitriolic personal arguments before they begin.

But this dynamic is necessarily in tension with the need to establish a reputation as a good and powerful individual since being perceived to be dangerous is one of the most effective preventative actions an individual or small community can take to forestall unwanted conflict. The tension between the need to be courteous and the need to appear dangerous, leads to something of a tightrope walk wherein each word, objection, or boast has to be carefully calculated to elicit just the right response from one's company, particularly when that company is not part of your own close-knit community.

Alcohol, for all of its virtues, is not conducive to tightrope walking. I suspect that the deeper point being made in these passages is that drink is something best reserved for moments of celebration and among close friends, where it is safe to be unguarded. It would have been the height of foolishness (and too often was) for a Viking to let her guard down and start boasting and insulting around company which might take offense. 

Get the Havamal on Amazon
So, too, in the age of the internet and social media, we are well advised to remember that publicly made comments are, well, public. That unless we know that our thoughts are going to be restricted to the friends and companions who really love and understand us, we would do well not to let ourselves become "giddy" or "punch drunk" in our reactions and comments. Think to the many and increasing stories of people whose lives and livelihoods have been materially damaged as a result of their unguarded language or comments. In an environment where the crowd, rather than the state, exacts vengeance, it is important not to engage when something (drink for sure but also passion, excitement, anger etc...) might be clouding our judgement.


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