Tuesday, August 15, 2006

King Canute on the spiritual shores

"What is he doing there?”

“He is putting the fire out, your Excellency.”

“Not likely. The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses."

Dostoyevsky - The Possessed

Long ago, England was ruled by a king named Canute. Like many leaders and men of power, Canute was surrounded by people who were always praising him. Every time he walked into a room, the flattery began.

"You are the greatest man that ever lived," one would say.

"O king, there can never be another as mighty as you," another would insist.


The king was a man of sense, and he grew tired of hearing such foolish speeches.

One day he was walking by the seashore, and his officers and courtiers were with him, praising him as usual. Canute decided to teach them a lesson.

"So you say I am the greatest man in the world?" he asked them.

"O king," they cried, "there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!"

"And you say all things obey me?" Canute asked.

"Absolutely!" they said. "The world bows before you, and gives you honor."

"I see," the king answered. "In that case, bring me my chair, and we will go down to the water."

"At once, your majesty!" They scrambled to carry his royal chair over the sands.

"Bring it closer to the sea," Canute called. "Put it right here, right at the water's edge." He sat down and surveyed the ocean before him. "I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?"

His officers were puzzled, but they did not dare say no. "Give the order, O great king, and it will obey," one of then assured him.

"Very well. Sea," cried Canute, "I command you to come no further! Waves, stop your rolling!. Surf, stop your pounding! Do not dare touch my feet!"

He waited a moment, quietly, and a tiny wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.

"How dare you!" Canute shouted. "Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!"

And in answer another wave swept forward and curled around the king's feet. The tide came in, just as it always did. The water rose higher and higher. It came up around the king's chair, and wet not only his feet, but also his robe. His officers stood before him, alarmed, and wondering whether he was not mad.

"Well, my friends," Canute said, "it seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps you have learned something today. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him."

Inspirational Stories

In a sense, some of the greatest changes in the story of man are the effects of Dostoyevsky's fire in the minds of men.

What was the impetus which drove Alexander the Great to not only conquer much of the then known world but radically change the behavior of the conquered? Was it his military skill or the way in which Hellenistic views enflamed the minds of men once entertained? Military might, in my view, only goes so far. It is the ideas which truly conquer a people, or not as the case may be.

Consider the spread of Christianity, which prior to its adoption by Constantine enflamed the minds of adherents sufficiently that many of them were willing to be oppressed in some cases to the point of horrible deaths rather than accept the Emperor or the pagan Gods as God. While some doubt the existence of Christ the person, it is far more difficult to doubt the influence of the story, the myth, in its positive sense, of Christ.

Consider the spread of Islam. Even more astonishing than Alexander's many conquests, given their apparent lack of military prowess before him, Mohammed's followers surprised some of the great leaders of their time with their zeal. Within a century Islamic ideas captivated people stretching from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Indus river. The fire of Islam could not, as Dostoyevsky noted with respect to a different fire, be put out in the material world for it too was burning in the minds of men.

This is not to argue that such fires always lead to positive outcomes as a complete read of The Possessed will attest. What seems clearer to me is that such fires, such passions, once ignited often burn far hotter and far longer than some of the spiritual arsonists might have imagined.

When President Bush at his second inaugural spoke of igniting such a fire: By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well - a fire in the minds of men, I winced recalling the quote from an unnamed Bush team member via Ron Suskind, who spoke of creating reality as they go. Passion for the false has a habit of doubling back before setting out anew. As some of the early spiritual arsonists in the French and Russian Revolutions discovered, sometimes the fire burns so hot that the arsonists themselves are consumed. Perhaps "wildfire" would be a better term.

I agree with President Bush that a fire has been lit in the minds of men, but I don't share his certainty over its ultimate effects. The fire will burn hottest where the tinder is driest or in Christian terms, the seeds will grow best in fertile soil but blow away off rocky ground. Minds opened by oppression are often ready to ignite.

These days as the spiritual arsonists watch the events of the world I get the sense of King Canute standing at the spiritual shore commanding the tide to ebb, only in this case, they have yet to discover the impotence of which King Canute was so sure.

In a sense King Canute represents the effects of such a fire. While the Vikings were able to conquer militarily it was they who ended up leaving their Norse Myths of Valhalla and adopting Christianity. Some fires burn hotter than others, it seems.

Secretary Rice may well be correct that we are witnessing the birth pangs of a new Middle East. But as the old adage goes, be careful what you ask for, you might get it. Almost 1000 years ago the Crusaders gave birth to a new mIddle East, but it was led by Saladin and then Othman, not the Christian Knights. The new new Middle East might not be grow to be an adult Ms. Rice recognizes.