Old English Pragmatism

Old English Pragmatism

There is a story I’ve been trying to find for a while. I read it when I was doing research on the history of England. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People there is a recounting of the conversion of King Edwin in 627AD. I was reminded of it while reading Reason to Believe, as it extolled the virtues of Emerson and the American romantics. It was implied that the Americans were the first to view truth as socially constructed, situational, and important to survival. Even skipping over the obvious Greek precursors, the Sophists, something was nagging me about the English. Insomniac as usual, I found it last night. It goes like this:

A meeting of the council was held and each one was asked in turn what he thought of this doctrine hitherto unknown to them and this new worship of God which was being proclaimed.

Coifi, the chief of the priests, answered at once, “Notice carefully, King, this doctrine which is now being expounded to us. I frankly admit that, for my part, I have found that religion which we have hitherto held has no virtue nor profit in it. None of your followers has devoted himself more earnestly than I have to the worship of our gods, but nevertheless there are many who receive greater benefits and greater honour from you than I do and are more successful in all their undertakings. If the gods had any more power they would have helped me more readily, seeing that I have always served them with greater zeal. So it follows that if, on examination, these new doctrines which have now been explained to us are found to be better and more effectual, let us accept them at once, without any delay.”

This sounds rather social, situational, and pragmatic to me. And there is a certain anticipation of capitalism as well, in the “What’s in it for me?” factor. Wealth bondage has been with us a long time. But that isn’t the part of the story that stuck with me. It was the description of life which follows that I feel compelled to inscribe here:

Another of the king’s chief men agreed with this advice and with these wise words and then added, “This is how the present life of man on earth, King, appears to me in comparison to the time which is unknown to us. You are sitting feasting with your ealdorman and thegns in winter time, the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging; and a sparrow flies through the hall. It enters at one door and quickly flies through the other. For the few moments it is inside, the storm and wintry tempest cannot touch it, but after the briefest moment of calm, it flits from your sight, out of the wintry storm and into it again. So this life of man appears for just a moment; what follows or indeed what was before, we know not at all. If this new doctrine brings us more certain information, it seems right we should accept it.” (ii 13)

The attitude “whatever works” has been with us a long time, and the Americans certainly didn’t invent it. It seems to me that we’ve been operating on that premise since we lived in caves and mud huts. It seems prudent to dismiss the dogmas of nationalism now that we have strong evidence that people, even outside our national caves, share our appetites and our fears. At least, so it seems to me. GW can’t convince me otherwise. Life is too short for paranioa.

The sparrow leaves the cave all too soon.