Beowulf Was Amazing

[written on kind of a lark as self-parody]

Beowulf ought to be considered as a proto-Objectivist, proto-Kahneman, and pro-individualistic work.

In the first lines of Beowulf, the time period is clearly established: “in days long past”. This sets the stage for the entire piece, representing an ardent longing for the past and the glory of the ancients.

Unlike Christian and modern-day universalizing ideologies, Beowulf makes no pretenses concerning its applicability to timeless themes and diverse audiences. It is insistently and unapologetically focused on a random Scandinavian warlord who went around slaying monsters. And the poem echoes with a certain kind of love, the love of a patriot for his country, his ethnicity, the honor of a good man.

And Beowulf really was a good man. He did not only what he was supposed to, but far above and beyond. He killed Grendel for the sake of kinship, saving the thanes and subjects of his relative’s mead-hall, risking life an limb for the sake of his cousin. He killed Grendel’s mother for his relative again, fulfilling his duty to his kin and country. And near the end of his life, old and frail, he sought to kill a dragon for his people.

You might believe that this is in adherence to altruism. But you would be wrong. Because everything that he did, he did for the sake of his own glory.

At the end of the story, Beowulf lays dead by the dragon’s hand, having created a kingdom for his people. The kingdom has fallen. The cycle, endless, has struck him down: even Beowulf, hero of men, cannot escape death, destroyer of life. Even Beowulf cannot subvert the engine of history, the rise and fall of empire. Even Beowulf, in all his honor, could not prevent pain, could not prevent failure. The wailing of the widow near the end is testament to his eternal failure.

This recognition, that even the strongest must fall and that even the most virtuous shall be punished, that destiny is overbearing, is in one sense fatalistic.

But in another it’s aspirational.

Kahneman says in Thinking, Fast and Slow, that most people don’t recognize the influence of outside factors on outcomes; random chance often determines winners and losers. This sounds suspiciously like Beowulf‘s idea of destiny. Where a Christian-descended moralist would point fingers and place blame and claim justice in the workings of the world, Beowulf recognizes the inherent absence of justice (and simultaneous absence of injustice) of the world itself.

This concept fits the medieval Arab concept of the rise and fall of empires through decadence, but without trying to attribute causes and effects. There is no grand reason that Beowulf died nor is there any reason that the Geats were destined to fall from grace. Beowulf died because he fought a dragon, and it was his time to die. The Geats fell from grace because Beowulf died fighting a dragon. There was no inherent issue that led to the Geatish fall, no particular meaning for history other than the inevitability of destiny. Modern historians would look for inherent issues or inherent contradictions within Beowulf’s regime that caused his fall.

But in Beowulf, it simply is.

This resembles, again, Kahneman’s explanation of regression to the mean – typically countries are not empires and countries will usually return to the mean nothwithstanding exceptional factors.

But what’s really lovely here is the recognition of ambition and honor for the self. The book is a practically Objectivist take on selfishness; Beowulf remains a hero, beloved of the narrative, because of his egotistical pursuit of personal achievement and the subsumation of others beneath him.

Of course, his proto-Objectivist standpoint is limited by his culture, remaining an altruistic slave-morality, focused on concepts like duty and honor. But within the time period, Beowulf is able to maximize his own utility highly efficiently. Its emphasis on duty might be considered to contradict this overall message of individualism; rather, the emotional and interpersonal benefits of fulfilling and valuing duty are inherently proto-Objectivist when combined with the ideal of competition with others without governmental accountability or overbearing regulations.

Similarly, the part where the other men abandon Beowulf, leaving him to fight the dragon alone, clearly demonstrates their inability to act in their own self-interest. It mirrors the explanation that Yudkowsky’s Tom Riddle gives for abandoning heroism: that other people will actively hinder net-positive deeds. Yudkowsky’s beliefs and statements about the duty of heroism, for all people and in defense of all people, are clearly outlined in Beowulf‘s emphasis on individual heroism. In a Yudkowskian paradigm, heroism is constructed as an act of rational self-interest, not in the shallow sense of the self-fulfillment of values, but in the sense that individiual actors should take the action that they would prefer that other similar actors would take in similar situations, while also admitting large power differentials that create heroes, which Yudkowsky sometimes frames as a PC/NPC distinction. Beowulf’s multiple slayings echo Yudkowskian decision theory as well as the recognition of power differentials.

The poem is a thorough repudiation of the anti-individualist currents of modern society, relying on a traditionalist version of Kahneman’s ideas. It also fuses Objectivism with Yudkowsky’s egalitarian humanist construction of heroism.

The only flaw in Beowulf‘s philosophical paradigm is that it ignores the possibility of destroying the cycle- the cycle of rise and fall, the cycle of destiny, the cycle of life and death. Considered from a transhumanist perspective, the story’s conceit of Beowulf’s death at the hand of a dragon as inevitable destiny is tragic.

But the story offers hope- Wiglaf, like Yudkowsky’s Hermione, is perfectly positioned to subvert destiny. And so the story ends on a hopeful note.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s