In the comments on my previous post, someone linked to Steven Dutch’s essay The World’s Most Toxic Value System, in which he discusses the many evils that flow from a complex of values that he labels with the Arabic word “thar” (blood vengeance).
Dutch’s essay is in many ways insightful, and a welcome corrective to the mush-minded notion that all cultures have equally valid ethical claims. But it suffers a bit from the author’s lack of anthropological breadth – while he is commendably clear-eyed about what he has seen, there is much he has not seen that bears on and could be used to improve his thesis.
I think it is particularly instructive to apply Dutch’s criteria to the culture of saga Iceland, which we may take as a literate representative of the pre-Christian Norse and more generally of old tribal Germanic culture. This tradition should be especially interesting to English-speakers, as the Anglo-Saxon version of it was foundational to Anglo-American common law and notions of liberty.
To see what makes the saga Icelanders so interesting in this context, let’s first test them against both Dutch’s criteria for a “thar” culture and the consequences he expects from “thar”:
Extreme importance of personal status and sensitivity to insult. Yes, this is well attested by the sagas.
Acceptance of personal revenge including retaliatory killing. This also. So far, the Icelanders seem to be fitting the “thar” pattern.
Obsessive male dominance. But here we swerve off the track. The sagas are full of strong female characters who are primary actors. Icelandic women were far from subjugated; indeed, they sometimes commanded ships and armed bodies of men, and it is clear that they enjoyed even more equality in custom than they did under formal Icelandic law.
Paranoia over female sexual infidelity. There is barely even a detectable trace of this in the sagas – in fact saga Icelanders seemed less concerned about it than their modern descendants are.
Primacy of family rights over individual rights. No. While honor was a concern of families and blood feuds tended to be among familial lines, rights and obligations definitely attached to individuals in both law and custom. Family authority over individuals was correspondingly weak.
I think it’s also instructive to follow Dutch and apply Ralph Peters’s additional criteria for “loser” cultures, which Dutch correctly notes are strongly correlated with his “thar” complex.
Restrictions on the free flow of information. I believe if you had proposed this to a saga Icelander as a mechanism of cultural control that was even possible, let alone appropriate, he (or she) would have thought you were barmy.
Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure. Absolutely not. One of the most marked traits of saga Icelanders in adverse situations was a sort of stoic responsibility, and a mental toughness about failure that accepted it as a datum and moved on. It is difficult for Americans and Britons to see how exceptional this made the saga Icelanders among preindustrial cultures precisely because we inherited this stance and are ourselves exceptional among modern cultures in exactly the same way.
The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization. This one is interesting. Peters says “Where blood ties rule, you cannot trust the contract, let alone the handshake.” and it is very clear what he is reacting to in the culture of (for example) Arabs and Sicilians. But, while the extended family was the basic unit of social organization in saga Iceland, there was an equally strong ethos of reciprocal individual contract that was basic to law and the chieftainship system. The saga Icelanders were one of the few pre-modern societies in which you could trust a handshake – indeed, blood feuds seem to have ended that way as often as they were resolved by formal legal process.
Domination by a restrictive religion. Early saga Icelanders didn’t have this problem. Later ones did as Christianity became more important. The scale and intensity of intercommunal violence increased accordingly.
A low valuation of education. Again, no. The saga Icelanders clearly respected the sorts of education they had available to them. They had a strong sense of cultural patrimony, and there is direct evidence in the spoken boasts of saga characters that the cultivation of intelligence through media including poetry and board games was considered a desirable trait even in high-status warrior males. Exceptionally for a pre-modern society, even female intelligence was valued: one of the Icelandic praise-names that comes down to us was of an early female settler called “Aud the Deep-Minded”
Low prestige assigned to work. And again, no. Saga Icelanders are famous to us as fighters and explorers, but their economic base was as smallholding farmers. They worked hard and valued hard work.
Now I will note some other respects in which the saga Icelanders (and their Norse and Anglo-Saxon kin) diverged from the “thar” pattern. They didn’t disdain trade or have sharp notions of low-status work to be done only by women, thralls and foreigners. They didn’t suffer from technological stagnation – indeed, the recorded evolution of ships and weapons over the entire Norse cultural complex shows these people to have been flexible, innovative and highly pragmatic in their technological choices.
So. We have seen that saga Icelanders (representing the Norse/Anglo-Saxon/old-Germanic culture complex) had what Dutch considers the central traits of the “thar” complex – notably, (1) touchiness about personal honor and status, (2) institutionalized blood feud, and (3) family-centered social organization. Yet they, like the other Norse and the Anglo-Saxons, evaded the poverty and stagnation that Dutch correctly describes as typical of “thar” cultures; they got better.
In fact, they got so much better that their memetic descendants in the modern Anglosphere evolved the wealthiest and most forward-looking cultures in human history. Here’s a telling fact about that continuity: England and the U.S. kept the Norse/old-Germanic pattern of agricultural land use – individual family farms on their own land – long after continental Germans, Frisians, and Dutch adopted village-centered agriculture with complicated collective-ownership structures. (This is interesting not least because it tells us that genetics and “race” are probably not important causes here.)
So, what is this evidence trying to tell us?
I think one lesson is that Dutch has mistaken essence for accident. There is a very real pathology that he’s pointing at – having lived in Italy I can certify, for example, that his comparison of Northern with Southern Italians is both telling and correct. But I think the high incidence of blood feud and personal violence in these sick cultures is a consequence of the pathology, not its actual cause. Dutch’s “thar” is thus a mislabeling, there is something deeper in play.
If we compare Arabs, Sicilians, or Albanians to saga Norse, a couple of psychological differences stand out. One is impulse control. The Norse highly valued self-command; it was thought supremely manly to be master of one’s passions, and to seek violent revenge with forethought and methodical planning. In Dutch’s “thar” cultures, on the other hand, men expect to be overwhelmed by their emotions. They have, by Norse and modern Western standards, deficient impulse control – in fact, they tend to consider impulse control effete. Thus, they plan poorly and are brittle and panicky under adversity.
Another marked difference is the level of social trust. I have already noted that saga Iceland appears to have been one of the few pre-modern cultures in which you could generally count on a handshake deal to hold. Honesty and keeping one’s sworn oath were considered bedrock virtues, trade transactions with strangers were normal, and loyalties were readily formed across kin-group lines. These are marks of a high-trust society. Indeed, the most perplexing and fascinating thing about the Norse to modern eyes is how they combined high trust with what to moderns seem shockingly high violence levels.
By contrast, Dutch’s “thar” societies are tragically low-trust. They have the violence, touchiness, and feuding families of the Norse, but the ability of the Norse to cultivate reciprocity across kin-group lines is lacking. It is difficult for modern Westerners to understand how crippling this is. One observable consequence in the 21st-century Arab world is that military command structures have to be organized so that superiors are either of the same clan as inferiors or can apply immediate and overwhelming coercion – otherwise orders will be subverted as often as they are followed.
What I think the example of saga Iceland tells us is that these holes in cultural capital – low trust and low valuation of impulse control – are more fundamental to the “thar” pathology than blood feud and personal vengeance. Low trust and poor impulse control imply blood-feud and revenge, but the Norse show us that the reverse does not seem to be true.
How the subjugation of women and sexual paranoia fit into this – whether as causes or consequences – is less clear to me. It may be as simple as this: if you can’t trust your neighbor to control his impulses to seduce or rape your wife, and you can’t directly coerce him, isolating and controlling your wife may be the only way to keep the peace (and secure her scarce reproductive capacity).
To sum up this level of explanation, blood-feud and honor aren’t the trap. Low trust is the trap; stagnation and endemic blood-feud (“thar”) are the consequence. Exhibit A is the Arab world and the portions of the Mediterranean and Balkans long under Arab dominance (Sicily being a notable example).
Is there a level of explanation below this? I’m not sure, though I’m strongly tempted to believe that population differences in average intelligence are causative. It’s been observed that average IQ in a population varies directly with the latitude of its genetic homeland, and convincingly speculated that this is because colder climates require more cooperative behavior and a more elaborate technological toolkit than warmer ones do. The Norse may have been just bright enough…
It may not even take thousands of miles of latitude to make a noticeable selective difference. Northern Italians think they’re brighter on average than southern Italians, and on the evidence they’re probably not wrong. But guesses about population genetics aren’t really necessary to the main point; Dutch has it slightly wrong, the problem with “thar” is not actually “thar” itself.