Culture, History, Medieval, Quote of the Day

Chivalry as “Art” Rather Than “Nature”


The medieval ideal brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate towards one another.  It brought them together for that very reason.  It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior because everyone knew by experience how much he usually needed that lesson.  It demanded valour of the urbane and modest man because everyone knew that he was as likely as not to be a milksop.

I can’t help thinking, when I read this passage from C.S. Lewis’s short essay, “The Necessity of Chivalry,” (now published as part of a collection titled Present Concerns), of a few of my favorite war movies, some of which feature heroes of extraordinary bravery and fortitude combined with a sense of “humility and forbearance,” and some of which feature everyday men and women engaging in, however small or local, acts of “valor.”  (The fact that these sorts of movies are my favorites probably explains why I’m not wild about movies which, start to finish, are nothing more than unremitting violent bloodbaths.)  As Lewis puts it:

If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections–those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be “meek in hall”, and those who are “meek in hall” but useless in battle–for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed. When this disassociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair. The ancient history of the Near East is like that. Hardy barbarians swarm down from their highlands and obliterate a civilization. Then they become civilized themselves and go soft. Then a new wave of barbarians comes down and obliterates them.  Then the cycle begins over again.  Modern machinery will not change this cycle; it will only enable the same thing to happen on a larger scale.  Indeed, nothing much else can ever happen if the ‘stern’ and the ‘meek’ fall into two mutually exclusive classes.  And never forget that this is their natural condition.  The man who combines both characters–the knight–is a work not of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas or marble, for its medium.

In my estimation, Lewis’s concept of chivalry is refreshing principally because he frames it not in the narrow terms in which it’s often discussed, those of relations between the sexes and how men treat women–in which Launcelot may not be mentioned without Guinevere in the same breath, and we may not talk about the “knight” without his “lady.”  (I think Lewis is probably smart enough to spot both the snare for a twentieth-century Christian apologist there as well as what I’ll call “the feminist/patriarchy trap,” which is why he refers to it in the first sentence of his essay, apparently dismisses it, and never mentions it again):

The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things–from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat on a train.  But if we want to understand chivalry as an ideal distinct from other ideals–if we want to isolate that particular conception of the man comme if faut which was the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture…

Lewis’s concept of chivalry goes deeper, explores the dichotomy of human nature, and speaks of the complexities of reconciling them into an honorable and knightly whole.  He foreshadows the increasing difficulties of doing just that in the modern world.  And he gives us hope (I think), that if we can only continue/find our way back to doing so, we will not only find ourselves, but we will also treat each other more fairly, justly, and mercifully.  And perhaps we will find that there may be a little bit of chivalry in all of us.

I can’t find the entire essay in print anywhere on the web, but there’s a reading of it here.  It’s only about nine minutes:

What do you think?  Has Lewis hit the nail on the head?  Is he wandering off point?  Or have we, indeed, reached a place where we’ve reverted so far to the “natural” state that the “stern and the ‘meek’ fall into two mutually exclusive classes,” never to be reconciled in our psyches again? (If so, on that last point, I think Lewis thinks it’s the end.)

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