Venerable Bede’s Sparrow and the allure of nihilism

This morning we will be making a short detour to early medieval philosophy and the venerable Bede. Bede, who was among a handful toi survive the plague that ravaged his monastery, grew up to become not just an era-defining thinker and historian, but also a teacher revered by his students and generations to come.

One thing that sticks out is Bede’s view of the transitory nature of life, and especially the parable of the sparrow – once told to a great king:

“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

Venerable Bede, the parable of the sparrow

A sparrow in brief flight through a warm hall on a winter’s night.

Now, you could find something like this depressing – reminders of the brevity of our life on this Earth have this effect on some – but you can also find it an inspiration to do something meaningful of that time. Bede clearly did the latter – composing the first history of England and building a school that included several famous and influential students. What is it that determines how you read this parable?

The first reading is easy enough to see: if life is but a flicker of the flame, why care? Why do anything at all when we could revert back to nothingness at any moment? If this kind of argument is developed enough it turns into a nihilism that stifles all ambition and ends all projects. The argument here is that if life is limited, it cannot have meaning.

The opposite argument is the reversal of this: it is exactly the limited nature of life that gives it meaning and allows you to create something beautiful of the minutes allotted to you (and yes, they are minutes – too – and sometimes it is good to remember that).

This, second, argument points out that nihilism is just a badly dressed up fear – a fear of not being able to create something lasting and valuable (and I do not mean valuable in the eyes of others, but in the eyes of yourself). Nihilism seems wise because it seems as if it is a reluctance to value anything or even recognize that there exists such a thing as value – but this wisdom is premised on the recognition of value, of belief, of hope.

Wittgenstein noted in the remarkable book On certainty that doubt in itself makes no sense if we do not first believe. We have to understand belief, and know it, before we can doubt. Doubt is dependent on belief – and while he would probably reject any attempt at metaphysics, the same can be said about nihilism – the idea that there are no values is dependent on the realization that the sparrow’s flight through a warm mead’s hall on a wintery night is meaningful.

And so Bede speaks to us through the years, and it is not quite a memento mori, but a reminder to wonder at the world, find in it work that is meaningful for us and take care of each-other in recognition of the brevity we are, perhaps ending our days with the same grace the story tells us Bede did – finishing his work with a reflection on what good and bad he had done, in what has become known as Bede’s death song – in his native Northumbrian:

Fore thaem neidfaerae ‖ naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, ‖ than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae ‖ aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae ‖ godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege ‖ doemid uueorthae.

(Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing.)

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