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The paradox of individualism and social embeddedness

There’s a fascinating paradox in the Norse view of the self. On the one hand, Norse culture was strikingly individualistic in the sense of placing a very high value on individual accomplishment (although this particular brand of individualism didn’t have much of a place for the “anything goes” tendency within its modern cousin). The Norse went to incredible lengths to be celebrated and remembered on an individual basis as great warriors and heroes – consider the almost-fearless Viking raiders, or the legendary explorers who discovered and settled in such far-flung places as Greenland and even North America. The Old Norse poem Hávamál advises its listeners,

Wealth will pass,
Men will pass,
You too, likewise, will pass.
One thing alone
Will never pass:
The fame of one who has earned it.

And yet, as we’ve seen, the Norse view of the self was actually rather diffuse and fluid. How are we to make sense of this tension?

We’ve seen that the Norse would have rejected our modern view of the self as a monad – something which, in the last analysis, is unique and cleanly distinct from its environment, and whose core characteristics aren’t really separable or transferable to others. (Of course, we do make an exception for the transmission of genes to one’s children, but that’s a purely physical and involuntary process.) Instead, the Norse saw the self as a locus of spirit, will, and perception – that is, more of a strong tendency than an absolute. As such, the self could be readily related to and thought of as a single thing in addition to its various constituent parts and a member of a group.

In other words, the self was defined by its social position and deeds rather than by a detached essence. Even the spiritual parts of the self were social and active entities. As much as the Norse stressed competitive individual success, that success (or failure) occurred within a particular social framework, and was defined in social terms – not as “following one’s passion” or “fulfilling one’s dreams,” but as earning fame.

The paradox of individualism and social embeddedness