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Fallacious Reasoning in Beowulf

Table of contents

    Fallacious Reasoning, an Introduction

    When having a discussion or debate where you are trying to be persuasive, there are two types of reasoning which can be employed, cogent reasoning and fallacious reasoning. Cogent reasoning should satisfy the following conditions: It should employ arguments where the premises of the arguments provide good grounding for the conclusion, the premises of the argument must be acceptable to all parties, and the premises must contain all of the relevant information, not just a portion of the relevant information. Fallacious reasoning, however, is reasoning that is simply not cogent. To compare to the above definition of cogent reasoning, fallacious reasoning does not provide sufficiently good grounds for its conclusion, employs unwarranted, unaccepted, unproven or incorrect premises, and ignores or overlooks relevant information.

    Some definitions of fallacious reasoning include:

    • Appeal to Authority: Sometimes the “experts” don’t have all the facts or can be promoting a special interest, in which case using their statements to prove an argument becomes a fallacy.
    • Begging the Question: Evading the issue by harping on the premise.
    • Double Standard: Judging the arguments or conduct of some to higher standards than what we apply to others.
    • Equivocation: When the definition of a term or expression is changed during the argument.
    • Hasty Conclusion: Those who are convinced by possibly relevant but incomplete evidence in support of a theory are guilty of coming to a hasty conclusion.
    • Inconsistency: Arguing from contradictory premises or to a contradictory conclusion.
    • Poisoning the Well: Using negatively charged language to tear down an argument before arguing against it.
    • Provincialism: Deciding what is true or false on the basis of loyalty.
    • Questionable Analogy (Faulty Comparison): Comparing things when there is not a relevant similarity between the items compared; for example, comparing apples to oranges.
    • Questionable Premise: Arguing from premises that have not been accepted as being true by all parties.
    • Slippery Slope (Domino Theory): Assuming that once a course of action is taken, it will start a certain chain of events.
    • Straw Man: When someone attacks a weakened version of the opponent’s position but not the opponent’s actual position. Also when someone attacks a weaker opponent while ignoring a stronger one.
    • Suppressed Evidence: Failure to apply all known and relevant information to an argument. (Quine, 76)

    Medieval skepticism relies on many of the above methods of fallacious reasoning, as does much of modern analytic philosophy itself. These methods are only discovered on reflection, and often seem very persuasive in heated debate. However, a keen thinker must be aware that his or her opponent may use these methods, and be prepared to see them in the opponent’s argument.

    An Example of Fallacy in Beowulf

    Structurally, Beowulf is divided into three main parts, each one of which centers around Beowulf's confrontation with a particular monster: first Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, then, fifty years later, the dragon. The inventory of traits and behaviors that comprise the code of honor makes up a substantial portion of the cultural material of Beowulf, as situation after situation is introduced to exhibit proper and improper ways to behave. The relationship between King Hrothgar and his warriors, in which Hrothgar gives them treasure and a mead hall in return for their loyalty and bravery, represents the proper relationship between the ring-giver and his thanes in the Anglo-Saxon social scheme.

    Beowulf himself emphasizes the importance of reputation and fame as part of the heroic code, continually boasting of his exploits – in a way that is eminently socially acceptable in his society – and describing fame as a bulwark against death. As we shall see below, the author of the epic poem introduces fallacious, irrelevant distractions to soften the culture clash. Another aspect of the code explored throughout the epic is the propriety of revenge: when an ally is killed, it is more honorable to avenge his death than to mourn it. Beowulf’s author, living at a time of great religious tension in Europe, writes an overtly pagan tale with hints of Christianity in it, as though thrown in for good measure by his editor. The following example from the text of Beowulf shows a fallacious non sequitur, a questionable analogy between the after-death fate of the heroes of Beowulf and the average Christian soul.

    “Sore was the sorrow to Scyldings'-friend, heart-rending misery… … Their practice this, their heathen hope; 'twas Hell they thought of in mood of their mind. Almighty they knew not, Doomsman of Deeds and dreadful Lord, nor Heaven's-Helmet heeded they ever, Wielder-of-Wonder. — Woe for that man who in harm and hatred hales his soul to fiery embraces; — nor favor nor change awaits he ever. But well for him that after death-day may draw to his Lord, and friendship find in the Father's arms!” (end of Section II in the Gunmere translation)

    As the reader can see, above, the author switches from describing the heathen fears of the Scyldings to lauding the promises of Christianity for bliss in the afterlife. If this passage is meant to cement the reader’s identification with the characters in the epic, it falls short at many points. The description of the thanes’ fears for the fate of their souls directly contradicts the reassuring Christian propaganda that follows. It is logically clear to the reader that these men have “haled their soul to fiery embraces,” and are not destined for the cool, cloudy expanses of Heaven, or the embrace of the friendly Christian god.

    Emotionally, however, this outpouring of Christian sentiment softens the blow of the heroes’ fears. If the audience were allowed to think that these brave souls were questing for glory only to have thir immortal selves cast down into the fiery furnace, some readers would hardly have any interest in continuing further. The contradiction in values between the old, pagan warrior code and the new, Christian emphasis on the continuous individual clash during the years in which Beowulf was transcribed from an oral tradition to its written form. This is appropriate to the purpose and tactics of fallacious argument in the following ways: fallacy relies on emotional inuition to succeed. We can see this by re-examining the way that other fallacies operate on the opponent’s reasoning.

    Intuitive Responses to Fallacy

    The above example from Beowulf shows how irrelevant evidence can be thrown at a situation to distract the reader from what is truly going on. If in fact the warriors in the story were Christian, they would indeed “friendship find in the Father’s arms”. However, the fact remains that they are not, and it is only this keen, but fallacious logic that causes us, the audience, to remain undaunted by the certain prospect of Hell that the heroes face. Other examples of emotion or intuition falling prey to fallacy are instances of the Slippery Slope argument. Many people think through an argument and find that it opens the door for an unwanted scenario. Ethicists of a conservative stripe often use this logic against cloning, citing the evidence that science has gone too far with technology in the past, surely whenever scientists are presented with some new, interesting thing to accomplish, they will accomplish it regardless of its impact on the rest of society.

    For example, if human cloning and genetic engineering is legalized, then every rich person will be able to purchase genetically altered versions of “the perfect baby,” made from their own gametes. However, the possibility of this occuring hardly constitutes its logical necessity. Emotionally, our reaction against genetic engineering may have to do with our personal conception of what it means to be truly human. But logically, we cannot disallow an invention merely because it makes unwelcome behaviors possible. We must be brave and trusting enough to disallow the behaviors themselves, and to have a firm argument for why we do so. All types of academic writing you can order at


    • Anonymous. Beowulf, tr. Francis B. Gunmere, 1910, in The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, New York: Norton, 1995
    • Quine, W.V., Elementary Logic. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.

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