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Wednesday
Sep242014

C.S. Lewis: The Necessity of Chivalry

From the book Present Concerns (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986):

The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things - from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train.  But if we want to understand chivalry as a distinct ideal from other ideals - if we want to isolate that particular conception of the man comme il fant  which was the special contribution of the Middle Ages to our culture - we cannot do better than turn to the words addressed to the greatest of all the imaginary knights in Mallory's Morte Darthur.   "Thou wert the meekest man, says Sir Ector to the dead Launcelot.  "Thou were the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest."

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 maidenlike, guest in a hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man.  He is not compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.  When Launcelot heard himself pronounced the best knight in the world, "he wept as he had been a child that had been beaten."

What, you may ask, is the relevance of this ideal to the modern world.  It is terribly relevant.  It may or may not be practicable - the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it - but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die. . . .  (Brute heroism without mercy and gentleness) is heroism by nature - heroism outside of the chivalrous tradition.

The medieval knight brought together two things which have no natural tendency to gravitate toward 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. . . .

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 dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair. . . .  The man who combines both characters - the knight - is not a work of nature but of art; of that art which has human beings, instead of canvas or marble, for its medium.

In the world today there is a "liberal" or "enlightened" tradition which regards the combative side of man's nature as a pure, atavistic evil, and scouts the chivalrous sentiment as part of the "false glamour" of war.  And there is also a neo-heroic tradition which scouts the chivalrous sentiment as a weak sentimentality, which would raise from its grave (its shallow and unquiet grave!) the pre-Christian ferocity of Achilles by a "modern invocation". . . .

(However), there is still life in the tradition which the Middle Ages inaugurated.  But the maintenance of that life depends, in part, on knowing that the knightly character is art not nature - something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.  And this knowledge is specially necessary as we grow more democratic.  In previous centuries the vestiges of chivalry were kept alive by a specialized class, from whom they spread to other classes partly by imitation and partly by coercion.  Now, it seems, the people must either be chivalrous on its own resources, or else choose between the two remaining alternatives of brutality and softness. . . . The ideal embodied in Launcelot is "escapism" is a sense never dreamed of by those who use that word; it 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 sees softness and "milksopiness" in an insufficiently chivalrous man,  but Leon Podles takes it a step further in his book The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, where he complains about the "bridal mysticism" that took hold in the Western Church during the Middle Ages, and how it contributed to a subculture of unmanliness in the Roman Catholic Church.  Podles also documents how the feminization of the church proceeds apace today, and infects nearly all Christian communions, including evangelical and liberal Protestantism

And, alas, the syndrome has infected Anglicanism as well.  It was so bad, apparently, in the Church of England of the 19th-century that F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley began the "muscular Christianity" movement in attempt to counter it.  From the Victorian Web (emphasis mine):

Beginning at mid-century, the broadchurch Anglican F.D. Maurice and his pupil, the Rev. Charles Kingsley, began espousing the virtues of muscular Christianity. Maurice and Kingsley, like many Englishmen, worried that the Anglican Church and Britain were suffering from the evils of industrialization: among others, growing slums, poverty, secularization, and urban decay. Life was a battle, Kingsley argued, and Christians should be at the center, actively employing their "manfulness" and "usefulness" against the evils of industrialization. Kingsley doubted that traditional morality would be able to cope with the effects of industrialization unless the Church reformed itself. He also deplored what many considered to be increasingly suffocating effeminacy within the Anglican Church, and believed that muscular Christian men equipped with a cohesive philosophy consisting equally of athleticism, patriotism, and religion could rescue Church and country from sloth.

I have recently been in an online debate with yet another Anglo-Catholic priest over the issue of muscular Christianity, this time about the right to keep and bear arms and the morality of self-defense.   In defense of his pacifism, be brings forth all manner of exceptions to the non-pacifist rule of Christianity, citing certain mystics and monks who went to their deaths willingly and citing the "other cheek" passages in the same way a liberal Protestant would, i.e., as pacifist proof texts.  He also berates the "macho" mentality of those Americans (he's a European) who defend the right to keep and bear arms and to use them in self-defense or the defense of another.  Of course, he's committing a whopping non-sequitur in arguing from the "other cheek" verses to pacifism, he fails to distinguish between acts of persectution on the one hand and acts of tyrants and criminals against states and persons on the other, and willfully ignores the demonstrable fact that the Christian church has long taken a non-pacifistic stance in the form of the Just War Doctrine.  (Though the Orthodox Churches reject that doctrine like they reject almost all of Augustine's views, their own position isn't significantly different.)  To their credit, there are many modern Anglo-Catholics (most of the American, it would seem) who are anything but "soft" or "milksops", and who would carry weapons and use them if necessary.  I know a few of them. 

Lewis himself was on or near the Anglo-Catholic end of the spectrum, but at least was a chivalrous man: meek in hall AND useful in battle.  (He fought in WWI.)  And his Narnia series defend chivalry to the uttermost, with boys (and girls!) carrying weapons and willing to use them.  Here's hoping that we'll start listening to Lewis and stop listening to the feminized bridal mystics in our midst, and that orthodox Anglicanism will accordingly be able to divest itself of every form of unmanliness. 

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