I confess at the start that I had my chance and blew it.
I could have been a soldier, but when I was in my twenties, I saw no use for war. I flat didn’t believe in it. I was, as they said in the day, “full of myself.”
I was full of something, I can tell you that.
So—notwithstanding later training in the martial arts—I may seem a poor candidate to write about the missing element in modern notions of chivalry, but here it is: A chivalrous man is a warrior. If he lacks martial skill, he can’t be chivalrous.
I spoke a couple of years ago to a group of young men who are part of the New York City chapter of Opus Dei, and one of them, European by birth, was perplexed that I insisted upon making martial skill part of the definition of chivalry.
“I believe I’m chivalrous,” he insisted, “but I don’t know how to fight.”
No doubt he had many of the qualities traditionally associated with chivalrous men: honor, generosity, courtesy, and loyalty. He seemed polite—in the original sense of the word: polished. And good for him, too.
“But chivalry is something different,” I said. “It involves all those virtues, but . . . it was and is, first and still, the worldview of fighting men. The word itself originally meant ‘men on horseback.’ When riders appeared on a hill, swords glinting in the sun, the townsfolk might have said nervously: ‘A chivalry approaches.’
“In addition to franchise, largesse, courtoisie, and loyauté those armed men had something else: prouesse.” Prowess. And they weren’t fooling around. They believed there were things worth fighting and dying for, and they were willing and able to fight and die.
Take the sword out of the man’s hand, and he is no longer chivalrous, no matter how virtuous he may otherwise be.
Language evolves, of course. Am I a curmudgeon to insist that the meaning of “chivalry” not be diminished to a point at which it merely describes a man of manners? Perhaps. But if we are to have chivalry in this democratic age, we must re-acquaint men with the danger that is part of it. Elegance alone will not suffice. A debonair man who is not also a man to be reckoned with can’t really be chivalrous. How’s he supposed to stand for justice—which is the heart of chivalry—if he’s cowering behind the curtains? Justice isn’t an opinion about distinctions between good and evil; it’s a life-and-death struggle to see that good triumphs over evil.
But don’t just take my word for it. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines “chivalrous” this way:
1. Characteristic of a medieval knight or man-at-arms; valorous. 2. Of or pertaining to (a knight of) the Age of Chivalry. 3. Pertaining to or characteristic of the ideal knight; gallant, honourable, courteous, disinterested; derog. quixotic.
“Gallantry” and “honor” are interchangeable—as are “gallantry” and “courtesy”—yet each has its own conventional and distinctive meanings as well. We might say that a gallant man is chivalrous (or just) with women, an honorable man is chivalrous in conflict, a courteous man is chivalrous in his community, and a disinterested man is chivalrous towards himself. That it matters to a man that he is gallant, honorable, courteous, and disinterested is what makes him at minimum a gentleman.
That he cares about these things in the twenty-first century is probably what makes him quixotic.
But to be valorous and a man-at-arms—that’s the part everybody leaves out of the picture these days, and I’m convinced that the waning of the gentlemanly ideal, which grew out of chivalry, is directly a consequence of the gentleman’s pacification over the course of some seven centuries.
True, from the medieval knight to the renaissance courtier and on to the gentleman of more recent times, too many martial men seemed to be spoiling for a brawl. Dueling, although it was always uncommon, continued well into the nineteenth century. (Odd, if you think about it, that proponents of assisted suicide aren’t clamoring for a return of the Code Duello.)
I’m not in favor of men standing twenty paces apart pointing pistols at each other, but is it really a sign of the progress of civility that vast numbers of American men can’t be bothered to take up arms in defense of the nation? And, sad to say, this includes plenty of Catholic intellectuals. And Jews. And Protestants. And not just the liberal ones either.
Having vented, I’ll add this: fighting isn’t always about fists and feet and guns and knives. There are warriors whose brains are their most effective weapons. Just don’t tell me that the pen is mightier than the sword. Sometimes, maybe, but not often.