What’s the Point of Chivalry Anymore?

James Walpole/ May 18, 2017

II like it when people explain big concepts to me with fun little drawings. I like it better when those explanations are narrated by deep British voices. Make it an explanation by an author like C.S. Lewis, and I’m sold.

I came across this newer C.S. Lewis Doodles video recently while scrolling through my YouTube subscriptions. It opened up a question I thought I had settled for myself: my opinion of chivalry. Hear Lewis make his case for the return of the code of knighthood:

So, what is “chivalry”, anyway? If you watched the video, you will have gotten the nuances of what Lewis means when he uses the word, but this following definition does a good job:

Chivalry, n. the sum of the ideal qualifications of a knight, including courtesy, generosity, valor, and dexterity in arms.

This talk (you can read an abridged version here) was written and broadcast at the height of the battle of Britain, so Lewis’s pro-chivalric perspective had real stakes. And while I don’t accept Lewis’s implications around military action or his illustrations of meekness, I think he makes a case that there is something important behind chivalry. 

Chivalry is a union of paradoxical elements. A kind warrior? A generous leader? These are unusual characters in the grand scheme of history. Lewis sees the unusual union of these opposites in the chivalric knight as vital. The chivalrous person must possess kindness and courtesy (or as Lewis puts it, meekness) as well as courage and aggression:

“The important thing about this ideal is, of course, the double demand it makes on human nature. The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”

Call this “chivalry” and couch it in terms of the chivalric tradition or not, the idea has serious grounding. Chivalry here is not about men and their relation to women or about political ideas, wars, or religion. It’s about integrated personality. Chivalry unifies what you might call “masculine” aggression and creativity and what you might call “feminine” creativity and nurturing. That in turn makes it possible to create a society, grow and nurture it, and then defend it against people who would harm its members.

Virginia Woolf explored a similar concept of integrated personality in A Room of One’s Own. She has a great passage on the “androgyny” of the creative mind, as represented by writers like Shakespeare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. By Woolf’s account, both of these great writers seemed to have combined the best of the feminine and the masculine way of thinking in how they made their art:
“The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two [genders] live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating. If one is a man, still the woman part of his brain must have effect; and a woman also must have intercourse with the man in her….
the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”

In knighthood as well as in creativity, chivalry overthrows false dichotomies. This kind of chivalry even undermines the master/slave dichotomy which has shaped societies, morals, and politics for most of human history. The chivalric person lacks neither the strength to get what they want nor the empathy to accommodate the strength and freedom of others. For the person with this union of supposed opposites, the prospect of being either a slave or a master is laughable.

The alternatives to chivalry are visible everywhere. We have men and women who possess goodness and culture but lack courage. We also have men and women who have aggression and courage but no goodness or culture. As Lewis points out, the decay and destruction of human lives throughout history is in large part due to peoples’ refusal to integrate these two key important parts of their personalities:

“[Chivalry] offers the only possible escape from a world divided between wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.”
Lewis lived in a time when he was caught between totalitarian wolves and philosophically wishy-washy sheep. Are we too far off from that ourselves? We don’t have to look to a grand political scale to find “battles” we need to fight for the things we value, or battles we need to fight to kill dragons and other monsters within ourselves.
We should not aim to be more like knights. Knights in reality were mostly robber barons who didn’t deserve a square foot of their land or a minute of their peasants’ time.
We should not necessarily aim to be “chivalrous” even. There are plenty of muddled concepts and behaviors mixed up with that word.
We should aim to live the kind of human life at which chivalry was a feeble attempt. In other words, we should aim to be integrated, courageous, kind, and fully-realized human beings. We should be the kind of people who could choose evil but choose the good instead.
Or as one commenter put it:
“Don’t be a major jerk, but don’t be a wuss either.”

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James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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