“WHEN WOMEN COMPLAIN ABOUT THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CHIVALRY, I’m prone to point out that chivalry was a system, one that imposed obligations of behavior on women and girls as well as on men. Likewise, when David Brooks complains that Edward Snowden is an unmediated man, I must note that in the civil society Brooks invokes, Presidents and other leaders were also mediated; they were not merely checked by Congress, courts, etc., but they were also checked by themselves, and a sense of what was proper that went beyond “how much can I get away with now?” Obama, too, is unmediated in that sense. That Brooks couldn’t see beyond his sharply-creased pants to notice that when it was apparent to keen observers even before the 2008 election is not to his credit. If the system of civil society has failed, it is in no small part because its guardians — notably including Brooks — have also failed.” — Prof. Glenn Reynolds, Instapundit.com Jun 11, 2013
To say that I find the norms of chivalry (battlefield conduct) and courtly behavior (behavior befitting a noble at court) persuasive is obvious – look at my name. The Paladins / Paladines of Charlemagne was the idealized role model and cautionary tale for the medieval knight, and the modern fantasy vision of the paladin appeals to a similar code of heroic ethics. Similarly, I admire the civilized norms of the past, as one of the symbols of the greatness of our civilization.
However, I’ve learned to dread appeals to chivalry and civility. The Instapundit keeps on returning to this theme for a reason. There is an implicit arrangement in the rules regarding the courtly chivalrous knight or the respectable, civilized gentleman. There was a mutual acknowledgment of duties and roles. The knight needed a damsel and vice versa. When people exploited these expectations, society turned its glare upon them and branded them as shameful. This gave a powerful incentive to remain within the system, which is strongly absent now.
It is pure madness and entitlement to expect to receive the deferential treatment expected under chivalry or civility when you openly mock the obligations for you to return the favor.
There is another element to this discussion, which is often ignored: the inherent, underlying danger of the knight or the gentleman. The knight had been trained in combat since he was a child, and was equipped with the finest weapons he could afford. On the battlefield, he was an armored juggernaut, killing the enemy with skill and steel. This did not vanish as the armored knight became the gentleman. The rapier’s name came from espada ropera, sword of the robes – the weapon of choice for the noble duelist. A gentleman was willing to risk his life with blades or guns in a duel for honor or in a war for his country and family. The finest Edwardian gentlemen took up their sabers to lead the lads over the top of a World War I trench.
The gentleman is civilized when facing gentlemen, and courteous toward the ladies. However, when facing barbarism, the gentleman destroys it ruthlessly. It is only by good breeding and upbringing that the Wolf is turned into a Sheepdog. The civilized system is an attempt to control and channel this inherent destructive power. A true gentleman is respected by other gentlemen, and feared by his enemies.
If we are going to promote civility and chivalrous conduct, let us have the whole system, and nothing less.Published in