What Chivalry Is

Chivalry is the quality of a man who can tame a horse and ride it to war.

That's all it is. Everything else associated with it is either a precondition for developing this quality, or a consequence of it. The core of the thing is the man and the beast.

What does it take to tame a horse? It takes courage, not recklessness, but that kind of disciplined and developed courage that comes from learning to fear being thrown, and getting on horses again. It takes self-mastery, because the horse is a prey animal that will amplify your fear. You must learn to ride through it, until even you don't really feel the fear in the same way anymore.

It takes gentleness. A horse responds to the slightest touch. You must be sensitive to its movements, its breathing, the language of its body.

What does it take to ride a horse to war? It takes trustworthiness. The horse must believe in you to charge into the smell of blood.

It takes honor. You can't ride alone. You must build relationships with other men like you, who know they can count on you while there is blood in your body. There is your self-sacrifice, even to death.

What does it build in you to do these things? Some of the things have been said. You get the virtues you practice, as Aristotle teaches in the Nicomachean Ethics. You must have some courage to begin, but you will build courage as you do. You must have some self-mastery, but you will become the master of yourself. You must be gentle, and able to understand another very different kind of living being through touch alone. You will become moreso.

The habit of keeping your word is like any other habit. After a while, it becomes part of you. The habit of honor likewise.

Can you do without chivalry? I don't know. Can you do without men like this?


That's what chivalry is, and that's the root of what people come to call an 'ethos' or a 'system.' But it's easy to be fooled by the accidents. What US Special Forces were doing in Afghanistan a decade ago was not different from what Charlemagne's riders were doing in this core way. It is different in other ways, accidental ways, but this is the essence of the thing.

You can see, with a little thought, how the thing we call courtesy grows naturally out of this combination of gentleness and trustworthiness, a habit of honor and a character that masters itself.

The question to ask is not whether you need chivalry, nor even whether or how to revive it where it is lost. The question you should worry about is whether you can do it without the horse. I think you can, but only if you can recapture that essence in other ways. Wherever possible, it is best to start with the horse.


E Hines said...

...can do it without the horse.

Not being a horse person, I'll not argue the optimality of the horse. But it seems to me that most of the qualities you argue for chivalry were present in an effective, well-trained Greek phalanx. And in the Maine Regiment's action at Little Round Top. Not so much, though, in the tercio, where much (most?) of the forward impetus came from the mass of men behind who were not yet facing sharp, pointy things aimed at their guts.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Clearly you can get the martial aspects in other ways. What is less clear is whether you can get the unity of martial virtue and what I'm calling gentleness -- it is really a capacity to sense and understand, and interact with another very different kind of creature.

Working with dogs gives you a similar capacity, but it's still quite different from what you get from working with horses. Dogs aren't prey animals, and they're not bigger than you (an important aspect, especially for the development of courage and self-mastery). It's an encounter with a very different kind of mind, a different order of soul, and a learning to work with it.

So it's not just the unity of courage with self-sacrifice with whatever other independent virtues you might wish to name. It is its own capacity.

That capacity turns out to be valuable in itself, even after you've largely passed any need to train horses or ride them to war. That's what the NYT is starting to feel around -- they've lost these men, and miss them even though they never really liked them to begin with. Men like this do something good for civilization, in just the same way that the horse does something good for the man. (You know the old Will Rogers quote).

We may value this quality for its later and higher expressions, independently of the original need for soldiers on horseback. Can we develop it without training that is both martial and equestrian? That's the harder question, I think. It is a variation of the question Socrates considers in the Laches.

Tom said...

I'm not sure it's possible without the horse. You can get some of it with dogs, but you don't generally trust your life to your dogs; you do with your mount.

I think you can get a certain amount of sensitivity w/ a mechanical mount, like air cav pilots have, but it's not the same as a living thing. The sensitivity doesn't necessarily transfer to living things to create gentleness, and that's the key, I think.

Grim said...

It's a very difficult challenge, and it's one reason for the decline of chivalry in society. It used to be there was a physical need that created it in the characters of a certain number of men. It doesn't have to be everyone: men who have this character are adequately powerful to exert a wide influence.

Even in the 20th century, when cars began to be replace horses and tanks replaced them on the battlefield, the influence carried on through the Western. It's not for no reason that our cowboy stories and movies read so much like medieval romances. The kind of man who can ride a horse down the side of a mountain -- as John Wayne, who did his own stunts, did in Hondo -- has to develop much of the character. It carries through, and widely influenced several generations of Americans who rarely experienced it directly.

There is one reason to be encouraged. Remember that you must have a certain amount of the qualities in you already to do it at all. Thus, even if you've never tried to train a horse to do dangerous things, if you could do it you must already have a certain amount of courage, self-mastery, and gentleness. It's there in you, but in a form that is far from fully developed.

Still, it's something to work with. What is needed is a way of realizing it fully, actualizing it, that is powerful like the old way.

Or else we need a lot more horses, and schools for boys that are built in part around horsemanship. It's a powerful thing for their developing character.

But again, this is half the picture. Half of it comes from the man and the horse; the other half comes from the man and the war. But we seem to have avenues for that half.

Tom said...

I have no objection to schools for boys built partially around horsemanship. I wish I'd been able to go to one.

Tom said...

In thinking about this, some forms of martial arts may bring out similar qualities.

Grim said...

That's the exact problem that begins Plato's Laches, which we discussed at length a few years ago. See here, and follow the links.

Ymar Sakar said...

What would be more interesting to know is when more Southerners are going to follow this guy out into the open.


Staying a Democrat will only be guiltless for so long.

Ymar Sakar said...

Westerners did not influence Americans alone. The post war generation Japanese also held it to a certain high standard.

Any appropriate way to get people to accept trauma and death would be able to be adapted to modern lifestyle once acquired. A horse is not so convenient. Training in something that isn't there all the time, stunts people's growth.

Grim said...

"Staying a Democrat will only be guiltless for so long."

How long? Aristotle's Politics suggests that something like Jeffersonian democracy is the least dangerous form of government. That's a few thousand years of legitimacy.

Your problem is that the Democrats aren't democrats anymore. I wonder how many people remember what Jefferson was about anyway. Or what Robert the Bruce was. Or Socrates himself.