Life is a River: the Norse meet the Stoics

This week, I attempt to unite the two threads of Norse and Stoic thought and see if something productive comes of it.

1. The River of Life

In the past two posts we’ve seen how the Norse and the Stoics viewed fate, time, and the influence of free will. So, how do we synthesize these two viewpoints? By focusing on free will.

Free will is at the core of both views on fate and time. The most deterministic Stoics claim free will does not extend beyond our gray matter: we can really only control our thoughts, impressions, and how we react to our emotional responses to the external world. This would, at the very least, imply a view of time wherein past, present, and future are already laid out and determined in detail – “written in stone”, as it were. Whereas, among the Norse, the near-future is the only thing that can reasonably be constrained by the actions of the past and the present, and the application of free will in the present (That-Which-Is-Becoming) can help shape how the near- and distant-future take form.

So, what would a Norse Stoic say about all of this?

The present is obviously constrained by the actions of the past since those events are irreversible foundations of the current moment (at the time of this writing, time-travel into the past is not possible, and even if it was, the implications of it are beyond the scope of this particular post). But, the future still remains malleable to a degree, since if one is canny enough they can take steps to shape it (in either the mundane or mystical senses) according to their will – within reason, of course.

This wise use of will puts a new spin on the Stoic analogy of the dog and the cart. Whereas most people will most likely be dragged along by the unfolding of events around them, the wise person (or, “Sage”, in the Stoic sense) is generally aware enough to see different options available to them at any single point in time. Instead of being dragged by the rope around their neck, they can walk with the cart; or, they can hop into the cart and ride in leisure; or, they can summon their will and gnaw through the rope, earning their freedom with determination and skill. But, the Stoics have their point: most people – for one reason or another – have neither the strength nor awareness (of self or of the external environment) needed to either consensually follow along the cart or to break free of it.

But this “wise use of will” must be directed by Reason. It is only by rationally analyzing impressions and information that one can make informed actions; and the better informed those actions are, the more effective they are likely to be. By operating in this way, one can navigate the flows of wyrd to an astonishingly effective degree, usually having better success than not in making manifest the future that they desire.

The best analogy that I can think of to describe this line of thought is to think of Life/Fate as a river. The topography of the river-bed itself is orlög, the primal layers of Fate that shape everything else that comes after (to one degree or another). Wyrd is the river’s current, and we all are like passengers in a boat floating down the river. We cannot change the topography of the river, nor can we fight the current and travel back upstream. We can, however, navigate our way around rocks jutting up from the river-bed or choose to go down tributary branches of the river. But, we must be aware of these rocks and these branches in order to avoid them or choose to travel down them. As well, we must live with the consequences of these choices.

While we are constrained by the fact that we cannot leave the river or change its inherent traits, we do have the ability to choose where we go, what we see and do. We simply have to have the awareness, knowledge, strength, and skill in order to effectively make those choices.



~ by crow365 on December 29, 2010.

2 Responses to “Life is a River: the Norse meet the Stoics”

  1. I like this. it seems to fit nicely with what I think.

    That said, what about external will? Fate, IMO, is about what another being wills for me. If the gods want me to go down the river, why would I not? Though i suppose not all rivers lead someplace the gods care for me to go (and not all people have a path laid out for them … I very well may not, in fact).

    So how do you go about getting this wisdom that lets you decide whether or not the river is your best option? That sounds like the rub.

  2. I would say that the will of external agents (other humans, gods, etc.) would technically be a part of the River itself – perhaps the vortices, rapids, etc., that occasionally pop up during the journey. I would say our actions fall into the same category when talking about others and their journey down the River.

    Wisdom is gained through education. Academic, informal, etc. One of the commonalities of both magic and science is the understanding that knowledge is power: increasing one’s understanding of the world and its inhabitants allows one to act more effectively.

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