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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Joyful Dignity - The Wisdom of the Vikings Part 8


A King's son should be thoughtful
thorough and silent
brave in battle.
A man should be happy
and in good humor
to his dying day

This is part 8 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.

In any tense—let us say combative—situation, strong emotions can be galling. The classic iteration is the "sore loser" though many of us have been just as irritated by "sore winners" on occasion. In either case, outbursts which are generally contrary to the mood of the community or the environment are not well received. It is people who have enough control over their own displays of emotion who have the upper hand in a competitive, social environment.

Medieval Iceland they rejected kingship in general, though they had a clear memory of the institution, so I would suggest that the "King's son" in this poem is a placeholder for the same social archetype that it serves in our own democratic republican society - the natural, noble leader. So this advice should not be read as restricted to an irrelevant nobility, but as prescriptive advice for anyone who aspires to a leadership position in society. These are qualities—the virtues—one ought to cultivate in the pursuit of that goal. 

This is not going to go well
Within that context, this poem amounts to a recommendation of the virtue of temperance. We don't discuss this virtue much anymore (most people who have encountered the word at all are only familiar with the definition derived from the abolition of alcohol in the early 20th century United States) . In classical understanding, "temperance" amounted roughly to being in control of one's reactions. Emotionally this meant both not making impassioned decisions or proclamations without first considering the consequences and not being utterly devoid of emotion. Its opposites are both dramatic emotionalism on the one hand, and utter stoicism on the other. The temperate person has emotions but is not ruled by them. 

Viking leaders would then be expected to be restrained in the heat of combat (in contrast the berserker), but able to thoroughly engage in the joys of life. This person is not just relate-ably human, but a genuinely pleasant human to be around. 

Neither is this
It strikes me that there isn't really enough of this online, but the advice certainly rings true when we encounter someone who possesses this virtue. Intemperate folks of both varieties abound online. People who react emotionally and immediately, sharing poorly sourced, over-hyped "news stories" without doing their due diligence, and folks who freak out in the comments section and play right into the hands of trolls represent one form of intemperance (and probably the first type to spring to mind); but just as ineffective as social media leaders are contributors who are all bland facts, numbers, and analysis who seem blithely unaware of the humanity and real costs of the information they are trading in. Both of these types are failing to exhibit temperance. 

So what makes a good leader both in medieval Iceland and in contemporary online communities? People who have emotions, but are not slaves to them. We follow and admire the people who are able to project their humanity without losing control of it (or when they do lose control it is for reasons we can empathize with). It is that person in the forums who seems to really care about the issue and is also well informed. The person who posts about important issues and also shares photos of their dog. 

I have posted some examples below. Let me know what you think:

Hank Green of Vlogbrothers (and a whole lot of other stuff)

His brother John Green of Vlogbrothers (these guys are everywhere)

Click HERE for Part 9
Click to get the Hávamál on Amazon

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