The Poetic Edda collects Old Norse poems about the gods and heroes of pre-Christian Germanic mythology. Most of its content is narrative, but it is interspersed, much like the Biblical Old Testament, with wisdom literature, the sayings of the wise. The ethics of seafaring raiders and herders of the far north make for as strange and suggestive reading as the proverbs of ancient Middle Eastern chieftains, familiar in what is universally human and alien in what falls on the other side of the Cross.
As translator Jackson Crawford writes in his introduction, “unlike modern moral standards, which tend to be utilitarian and altruistic (Does a given action benefit someone without harming someone else?), the Norse moral code was based on gaining and maintaining honor, and avoiding shame” in a culture “in which the main social unit was not the individual but the family.” The Hávamál says:
Friends should provide their friends
with weapons and clothing;
this kind of generosity shows.
Generous mutual giving
is the key
to lifelong friendship.
Be a friend
to your friend,
and repay each gift with a gift.
repay treachery with treachery.
Be a friend
to your friend
and also to his friend,
but never be a friend
to the enemy
of your friend.
It was a hard world, a wild one, where a man’s word was his bond and he would kill for his brother, one where, as it was to the south, A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.
The rule of law has been an experiment in overcoming this part of human nature, binding families together and isolating the individual to suppress rivalry and clarify status so as to make a collective stronger. In Rome it made citizens out of rival gentes and it conquered the known world. In England, transfigured by the revelation of Christ, it made an alliance of nobles, of tribal chiefs, of fathers, into a constitutional order, and then ruled the waves. In the United States, for some time, it made a people out of the exiles of nations, inheriting and extending that long tradition from sea to shining sea. The West was won when the West was no longer wild, but channeled that wildness into the power of law, of building great things. “Equal Justice Under Law” stands carved in the facade of the Supreme Court.
Today, though, every day we see more clearly that equal justice is not so equal, that like the public square the law’s rule always assumed previous commitments, prior solidarity, before it could be said to be a dispassionate, disinterested facilitator of civic life. Recall John Adams, who said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Moral and religious meant something specific in 1798; people was capitalized for a reason, too.
The exceptional moment in which the law could be something shared, rather than a weapon fought over, has clearly ended. Perhaps it never existed in deed, but now it is not even aspired to in word. District attorneys decline to prosecute, laws are left unenforced. Trespassing must be made into insurrection and coup, and riots into protests. With the advent of identity politics no longer do we speak of law even in misguided utopian terms, as seeking to be a kind of secular church, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. The law does not protect all; instead, it hems in and entraps some, and is executed at the whims of those who can wield it.
With the rejection of the dream of Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “I stand for straight Americanism unconditioned and unqualified, and I stand against every form of hyphenated Americanism,” those who would be Americans still must learn from hyphenation. The integration of waves of Irish and Italian immigrants, for example, was the long ordeal of overcoming clannishness, asserting the rule of law over the nepotism and familial ties of those who had not had the common law, with crime becoming organized with time, self-dealing channeled into the machines. They were to make good, go legit; the cities were to be cleaned up. No longer, it seems.
The law-abiding, “normal” middle-class American, for whom ethnic ancestry is a nice part of holidays and who feels proud on the Fourth of July, will need to keep his friends and family close in the days to come. As inflation and global unrest and corruption become more inescapably part of American life, it will become time not just to buy American, but to buy from the guy you know, to keep it in town, in the neighborhood, in the family, in the church.
Of course, Christ’s church remains called to a public witness. But in a post-Christian America we return to something like the position of the fathers in Rome’s empire. The ethic that comes after the rejection of the gospel, when the humility of Christ is divorced from his kingship and his Godhead and wielded as a weapon, the ethic that comes after law, when the family is under assault on all sides, is one like that of the northmen of old. Stand by your brother and by your word, be a friend to your friend, and a neighbor to your neighbor. Who is my neighbor? Who is my brother? In Christ, they are many.
Believers are a people among the peoples again, now, and so presented anew with the chance to conquer an empire as they did before, baptizing them who hear the call, them and their whole households. In a time of unrest, “Neither was there any among them that lacked,” Acts tells us, for provision was made unto every man according as he had need. We, like the poets of the Edda, know how the story ends, not with Ragnarok but victory. “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”
about the author
Micah Meadowcroft is managing editor of The American Conservative. He is also a 2021-22 Robert Novak journalism fellow for the Fund for American Studies. Before joining TAC he served as White House Liaison at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and assisted in speechwriting there. He holds an MA in social science from the University of Chicago, where he wrote on political theory. Previously, he worked as associate editor of the Washington Free Beacon. This is his second stint at TAC, as not so long ago he was an editorial assistant for the magazine. His BA is in history from Hillsdale College, where he also minored in journalism. Micah hails from the Pacific Northwest, and like Odysseus hopes to return home someday after long exile in the East.