Eastphalia, US

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Jante Law

In Norwegian/Danish author Aksel Sandemose's novel En Flygtning Krysser Sitt Spor ("A refugee Crosses His Tracks") takes place in an imaginary small Danish town called Jante, based on Sandemose's hometown Nykøbing Mors. The nature of social competition in the town is called Jante Law, or Jante's Law, and describes how jealousy and spite influences how cooperative and egalitarian societal structures can devolve from helpfulness to conflict.   The laws are:

  1. Thou shalt not believe you are something.  (Du skal ikke tro at du *er* noe.)
  2. Thou shalt not believe that you are as good as us. (Du skal ikke tro at du er like saa meget som *oss*.)
  3. Thou shalt not believe that you are wiser than us. (Du skal ikke tro at du er klokere en *oss*.)
  4. Thou shalt not imagine that you are better than us. (Du skal ikke innbille deg du er bedre enn *oss*.)
  5. Thou shalt not believe that you are more knowledgable than us. (Du skal ikke tro du vet mere enn *oss*.)
  6. Thou shalt not believe that you are more than us.  (Du skal ikke tro du er mere enn *oss*.)
  7. Thou shalt not believe that you are good for something (Du skal ikke tro at *du* duger til noe.)
  8. Thou shalt not laugh at us.  (Du skal ikke le av *oss*.)
  9. Thou shalt not believe that anybody cares about you (Du skal ikke tro at noen bryr seg om *deg*.)
  10. Thou shalt not believe that you can teach us anything. (Du skal ikke tro at du kan lære *oss* noe.)

This degradation from egalitarian to individualistic results from disillusion of the egalitarian nature of the society.   Rather than an "Us" versus "Them" of competing tribes or teams, Jante Law embodies an "Us" versus "Him" idea that egalitarianism only applies to the group, and those who exceed the group's self-defined bell curve are, by definition, a threat to the egalitarian nature of the society.   

 In Herodotus' The Histories, he recounts a story of the Thrasybulus' advice to Periander.   Both were 'tyrants', or non-aristrocrats who had taken power in Greece by coup.  Periander sent a messenger to Thrasybulus to ask for advice on governing his city.  Thrasybulus greeted the messenger while in a field, removing any grain heads that rose higher than the surrounding crop, leaving a level field but at the cost of any grain that exceeded the norm, but giving the messenger no direct answer.  The messenger related the story to Periander, who took Thrasybulus' actions as a clue to 'cut down' those who stood higher than the others and execute the aristocrats and the rich.  A similar story is told of Roman ruler Sextus Tarquinius, who used a similar allusion, cutting off the tops of tall poppies in his garden, to communicate to his son Tarquinius Superbus that to control the citizens of Gabii he must execute the affluent. 

 The stories of Thrasybulus and Tarquinius describe cutting down the prominent as a means of eliminating threats to power;  in Jaunte Law, the ruler is the community, not single powerful king, so Jante Law, too, eliminates the threat that any individual power poses to the rule of the collective. 

Each of the Jante ten commandments also expresses the inverse of the utopian view of a truly egalitarian society.  In each of the Jante laws, the case can be reversed by changing the 'you' to a 'we' to express a egalitarian view:

  1. Thou shalt believe that we are something.
  2. Thou shalt believe that we are as good as you.
  3. Thou shalt believe that we are more knowledgeable than you. 
  4. Thou shalt imagine that we are better than you.
  5. Thou shalt believe that we know more than you.
  6. Thou shalt believe that we are more than you.
  7. Thou shalt believe that we are good for something.
  8. (does not invert well)
  9. Thou shalt believe that you care about us.
  10. Thou shalt believe that we can teach you something.

Individual accomplishment, therefore, regularly breaks truly egalitarian desire for cooperative society.   As is in the Ten Commandments, a rule against is more effective than an encouragement towards, resulting in Jante Law. 

 

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