Nine-hundred years ago, the English historian Henry of Huntingdon wrote down an older Anglo-Saxon story/myth of King Canute who claimed the throne of England in 1016. The story was of appalling arrogance. It resonated in this land where the idea of limited government and human rights was gradually being forged.
King Canute insisted that his throne be taken to the edge of the ocean where he thereupon commanded the tide not to rise. But rise it did, lapping his feet and beginning to swallow the chair. The courtiers rushed him back. The King thereby proclaimed the following: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
King Canute hung up his crown and never wore it again.
Now, that’s some political humility right there. As we all await, day after day, and perhaps in vain, for governors and public health officials to issue apologies for their vicious and destructive lockdowns that have done nothing to control the virus tide, King Canute’s example is an inspiration.
That said, later historians demonstrated that the myth was to serve a slightly more profound purpose. In a slightly better interpretation, the King was fed up with being surrounded by flatterers and courtiers and people who imagined the throne’s power to be greater than that of God’s. The purpose of hauling the throne to the sea was to demonstrate to the court’s hangers-on that they were wrong. There are certain things government cannot do, among which is command nature’s elements, among which we could include a virus.
Thus were the King’s actions extra humble from the beginning. He knew that the sea would rise. He was teaching a lesson to his court which he then hoped to spill out to the kingdom: there are limits to what government can achieve by issuing edicts. A government must bow to nature and nature’s God as the real masters of the universe. Respecting that which you cannot control is the beginning of wisdom, then and now, whether for kings, presidents, prime ministers, or public health officials.
A virus is an individual matter. As the media used to say half a century ago whenever a virus came along, if you get sick, see a doctor. If you are especially vulnerable to being taken down by a virus, isolate yourself. Above all, don’t panic. Let society move forth in calm and normalcy. Let no man imagine himself capable of commanding the tide. This was the way the New York Times reported on 1952, 1957, 1968, 2006, and then things began to change until we got to 2020, when deliberately creating public fear became a tactic for competing in the new age of 24/7 app-based news consumption.
The result: politicians across America and the world, fearing the consequences of telling the truth, dragged their thrones out to the edge of the water and started issuing commands. We couldn’t watch while the briney sea touched their feet but we do have access to astonishing amounts of data and they do look a bit like low and high tide, none of which has anything to do with the mandates, closures, quarantines, travel restrictions, or crowd limits imposed by their powerful hands.
It’s the same in country after country, state after state. No matter when they locked down or opened up, the virus eventually gets there, infects many people, takes down mostly the very elderly and sick, then immune systems incorporate the pathogen, and the virus weakens to the point of being nearly a nonissue. Ebb and flow, like the tides. And the tides care nothing for the power of princes.
I doubt seriously that our arrogant rulers intended to teach the lesson that King Canute taught his subjects. But teach they have, nonetheless. In 2006, the great epidemiologist Donald Henderson warned that if government pursued coercive measures to control a virus, the result would be a “loss of confidence in government to manage the crisis.”
The subjects of King Canute learned the limits of state power. May we as well.
“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”