Saturday, March 26, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism part 2 post 3: Partition, Allotment, and Domain in Greek and Norse Myth

In Part 2, we discussed efforts at a theory of autonomy built on Aristotelian and ecological sources.  In this part, I will tie these together with Norse and Greek myth to flesh them out and develop a fuller theory of freedom.

The main thesis here is that both mythological systems provide for a view of freedom which is domain rather than rights-based.  We are given a lot in life bounded by length and law.  Within that lot we have freedom, but if we step outside, we die.

At one point, I thought that the similarities here were evidence of a common Indo-European framework and while there are some commonalities in the Indo-European world (spinning and fate being closely connected), the overall cosmology is different enough in Indian, Irish, Greek, and Norse systems that these seem not to be genetically related culturally speaking.[1]

Fate in Greek Myth:  Partition, Allotment, and Domain

In his important book, "From Religion to Philosophy," F. M. Cornford embarked on an ambitious project to show the extent to which early Greek philosophers drew from Greek religious models in their basic cosmology.  In order to do so, he embarked on an ambitious analysis of Homer and Hesiod in relation to concepts of fate.

The Greek word for fate, Cornford points out, simply means partition and it exists in relation to a term lachesis, which besides being the name of one of the Fates, is also referred to as a process by which partitions are distributed in Homeric poetry.  Lachesis thus acts as a distributor of pieces of a whole (an example he gives is the use of the term in connection with the domains of the elder gods -- Zeus having domain over the heavens, Poseidon over the seas, and Hades over the underworld). Lachesis is how the gods' kingdoms were distributed.

When one steps out of the allotted domain, one reaches nemesis (which Cornford suggests may be related to nomos or law, and nemeton).  Nemesis thus is the enforcement of the borders of the lot.  Cornford also points out that in some regards, the lot is treated as a debt repaid on death.

The image we get for fate then among the Greeks is not one of predestination but one of a lot in life, loaned by the Fates, and taken back when it is exceeded either in length or limits of action.  Freedom of action and fate are thus nicely woven together in a way we have usually tried to separate them in the West.

Fate in Norse Myth:  Allotment, Primal Debt, and the Spoken Word

The Norse view of fate is often seen as similar enough to the Greek model that people suggest that the Germanic peoples borrowed the idea from the Greeks.  In both cases there are strong formal similarities: three mythological women dispensing fate.  There are also connections to spinning and weaving via etymology.

The Coming of the Norns is worth repeating here in its entirely from Voluspa (with my translation below):

Þaðan koma meyjar,
margs vitandi,
þrjár ór þeim sæ
er und þolli stendr.
Urð hétu eina,
aðra Verðandi,
- skáru á skíði -
Skuld ina þriðju.
Þær lög lögðu,
þær líf kuru
alda börnum,
ørlög seggja. (Eysteinn Björnsson's edition)

Then came maidens
Greatly knowing (i.e. knowing magic)
Three from the well
That under the tree stands
Urdh (Fate) is the name of the first
The next, Verdhandi (Turning/Transforming)

- They carved the staves -
Skuld ('debt') is the third.
They lots alloted
They lives chose
For the sons o men
They uttered primal law. (my translation)

It is worth remembering that the Norns are sometimes portrayed as sorcerers in Scandinavian folklore, and that this interpretation is backed both by fate (ørlög) as spoken, and by the notion that they have great knowledge (also tied to terms for magic in sources like Hrof Kraki's Saga, which also features a sorceress named Skuld for the moral debt of her father).

But the magic/fate connections don't really concern us here.  What does concern us is the etymology of ørlög and related terms in this stanza (Þær lög lögðu).  The word ørlög is a simple compound, ør- meaning primal or primordial and lög meaning lot, law, or layer.  In essence here we have gain an allotment process where the primordial lot has an almost legal aspect to it.  As in the Greek view, the lot is bounded by length and law, and that stepping outside either of these boundaries results in death, as the debt (Skuld) of this lot is returned to the Norns.

Subsidiarity, Domain, and Partition

One key notion in both Greek and Norse notions of life and fate is the concept that one obtains a sort of partition, a lot in which one has domain in one's life.  This lot is not one's body.  It is not one's choices.  Rather it constrains both and it exists in a context of social and primordial law.  But this primordial law is not the same for everyone.  This is somewhat similar to Plato's discussion of the individual in Timaeus (discussed in a previous post in this series) where we have one band of sameness (the fixed stars) and seven bands of difference (the planets).

But partition implies something is partitioned, that we take a whole and split it into ever smaller pieces until we get our individual allotments.

This leads to an alternative to liberalism where freedom emphasizes the -dom suffix, meaning domain or holding.  Social roles, functions, jobs, and the like are domains that we should hold and own, having to a large extent autonomy within them (and yet governed by social and primordial law, duty, and debt).  We are free within our personal domains, and less than free elsewhere.  Moreover in this sense, liberalism, in eroding a place in society for everyone, has eroded real depth of freedom.  We have more breadth but less depth.

End notes:
[1]  When we speak of genetic relations between cultural groups we mean that traits were inherited from a common ancestral culture.  So for example, Spanish and French are genetically related languages, both being daughters of Latin.

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