What Chivalry Is Not

The New York Times has engaged the services of a number of writers to pontificate on the question of whether chivalry can or should be "resuscitated." It would have helped if they had agreed just what it is, this chivalry, that they might want to revive.

In a way it is amusing to see the Times, which has been mocking and undermining chivalry since the mid-19th Century, concerned about the question at all. But you can understand why, seeing the way that leading political figures in New York from the party allegedly on the side of women treat the women in their lives. They can see the ugliness around them, and can dimly remember a fading time when at least some men behaved better. But weren't those men the enemy of all progress?

First, then, let us examine what their various experts think chivalry might be, and why it is not in fact those things. Once we understand what it isn't, I will post separately a definition to explain what it is. Then, perhaps, we can usefully discuss whether it can -- or should -- be revived in Manhattan. It needs no revival here, though of course like every valuable part of civilization it must be constantly replanted and renewed in the young.

1) Emily Esfahani Smith doesn't seem to know just what kind of thing she thinks chivalry is, but she knows that she misses it. Her examples are clear enough, but the remedy is not. She variously says that it has 'kindness at its heart,' but also that 'being good -- being noble -- is at its heart' and that its 'essence is self-sacrifice,' 'whether we name that self-sacrifice chivalry or not.' She gives a nod to Dr. Mansfield's claim that chivalry is a 'manly' virtue, but says women can do it too.

So is chivalry self-sacrifice, in the spirit of kindness and nobility, in a manly way that women can do just as well? No, of course not. For one thing self-sacrifice is practiced by many who are not at all chivalrous: there is nothing of chivalry in the Buddhist monk who begs every day for his supper, yielding everything for enlightenment. Furthermore, there are things a chivalrous man ought not to sacrifice, even in the service of others, such as principles of honor and valor.

2) Brett McKay writes of chivalry as a kind of manliness, but he is writing defensively so he never defines its value. He points out that the Violence Against Women Act is an example of a similar recognition of differences between men and women; he says it need not be about the 'inferiority or lofty superiority' of women; and that one 'need not fail to appreciate strides toward equality' to recognize things like the facts of the Aurora shooting.

Bizarrely, he goes on directly from that example -- Aurora -- to say, "in a gender-neutral modern world, chivalric acts are non-onerous rituals that faintly echo our relationship to each other when all the layers of civilization are stripped away." But if Aurora is an example of chivalrous acts, it was a set of acts of the most onerous kind. They were not ritual acts, either, acts that intended to symbolize something else in a correct way. They were not symbols, but actions.

3) Abigail Collazo would like chivalry to die, because she thinks it is about "it's about viewing women as fragile, delicate creatures who require special treatment." What she wants instead is a standard of courtesy, as well as for men to recognize that women are strong and worthy of respect.

But! "This isn’t to say that women should never be granted special considerations. In a world of vast inequalities between the sexes, women are uniquely affected by..."

Yes, well.

One might be tempted to say that a genuinely strong woman ought not to need for men to think of her in the way she prefers, whether she thinks she prefers being treated as a delicate creature or an indelicate one. But let us meet one of the delicate flowers of whom the men of chivalry dreamed. This is from Norris J. Lacy's translation of the Prose Lancelot, scroll 125. The story is from the 1200s. Lancelot is traveling to a judicial duel he must fight in, when he comes across a tournament in progress. He watches for a while, but takes no part as he soon must fight for his life.
...soon a maiden appeared before Lancelot, and said, "Lord knight, lend me your shield."

"Why, my lady?"

"Because I need it. It is not doing you any good, and I could use it well."

"How would you use it?"

"I would tie it to my horse's tail and have him led inside my stables whenever I wanted, for the love of good knights who watch tournaments and dare not fight in them."
I imagine Ms. Collazo would have liked her ancestors better than she thinks. Her shaming of Lancelot is as effective in driving him to do her will as any feminist writer has ever been in shaming men into some alteration of conduct.

In any case, chivalry is not chiefly or principally about relations between men and women at all. Those ideas fall out of it, but are not the core of it. If you think of it chiefly in those terms, you are mistaken about it and its value.

4) A man named Keith Bernard, whose qualification to write on the question is apparently that he is 'a DJ and music producer,' appears to view chivalry as mere hypocrisy. The only thing wrong with his opinion is his complete ignorance of the subject.

5) Dr. Richard Abels, formerly of the US Naval Academy, is of the opinion that "Medieval chivalry was an aristocratic ethos designed to distinguish the military nobility of Western Europe from those whom they deemed to be their social inferiors." Well, if that is all it was, of course we don't need it any more; we no longer have that social structure to defend.

His opinion strikes me as a strange one for a man who long served an institution at which he might have met some men of chivalry. It is the opinion of a historian from the school that divides humanity into classes and explains history in terms of the struggles between them. He doesn't seem to connect the men he must have known with the ethic, which he says "promotes violence" and "has faded" as a matter of course given changes in social structures. Given what he thinks he's talking about, it's hard to argue the point. Naturally we don't need a system for propping up an aristocracy or some other category of privilege.

But that isn't what, say, Ms. Smith was talking about at all. The quality she was longing for was not one that propped up men in their privilege, but one that kept them from marching around behaving like apes. Reducing chivalry to something like the fashion of wearing powdered wigs -- to show that you could afford one -- is to miss the core of it.

6) Scott Farrell, a man who really does know something about the subject, wants to explain it chiefly in terms of service to others. In this he captures correctly one of the values of chivalry, the value of honor. He goes on to say, "Of course, there’s more to it than this. Chivalry is a complex ethical and philosophical code that includes ideals like honesty, justice, courtesy and enterprise — all of which the world could use a bit more of."

Well, yes, that's true. But it also makes it hard to see just what it is that is wanted. Do we just want the virtues? If we get honesty, justice, courtesy, self-sacrifice and perhaps one or two others like courage, do we also need chivalry? Is it nothing more than the unity of other, independent virtues?

What is it?


Ymar Sakar said...

When every Leftist hangs from a pole at every highway exit, perhaps that might be entertained: this "revival".

Abigail Collazo said...

Grim: thanks for your thoughts on this piece. I would encourage you to read the longer, more comprehensive version of this article at http://www.fem2pt0.com/2012/07/25/chivalry-must-die-on-womens-expectations-and-mens-obligations/.

There, you'll find that I do address the definition of chivalry in the traditional sense, and don't necessarily disagree with you. But to talk about the term chivalry as it was defined centuries ago, versus how it is commonly and widely defined now, seems pointless. What it was in the past - which in no way was even remotely limited to how men treated women - is not how it is commonly defined or spoken of now.

Grim said...

Ms. Collazo:

You are welcome. You may never meet a man less inclined to accept your advice to leave aside the ideas of centuries past than you have here encountered.

There are reasons for this. Some of them are that the older ideas are often better -- and even where and if they are not, truly understanding them provides a firm ground for critiquing our contemporary position. A thoroughgoing critique of the ground of your own society is only possible if you have somewhere else to stand.

In this case, though, there is another reason. If you followed the link with which this piece ends, you may know what it is. The thing I am talking about under its old name is not just ancient, it is in a sense eternal. It is something that can be made new, tomorrow morning, by walking out to the pasture and laying your hand on a horse.

It is a virtue we have lost, in large part because we have lost the horses. But it is there to be had, just as readily today as on any yesterday. We still live in the morning of the world.