Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An earlier outlook

Looking back on Western history it's possible to trace the rise of what might be called "modernism" in politics and thought - a set of ideas that would come to dominate philosophy and politics and which has led the West into its current set of difficulties.

But it's also possible to recognise the survival in the West of certain pre-modern ideals; these originated in the Middle Ages and lasted until at least the 1920s. I suspect that some of the previous dynamism of the West can be attributed to these ideals.

So what were they? Well, what we are talking about is a fusion between the aristocratic virtues of the European nobility and Christianity. In Christianity there is an emphasis on service to one's fellow man, including those who are poor or defenceless. And so the strength of the Christian nobleman was aimed at defending the weak (widows, children, the elderly) and also at carrying out the duties and obligations we have in our relationships (fidelity), which included being a protector of church and nation. Faith, loyalty and courage were considered key virtues.

I will reluctantly describe this ethos of the Middle Ages as "chivalry." It's not the best term to use as it is now mostly understood to mean men supplicating to women, which was the least attractive aspect of medieval chivalry.

Chivalry as I have described it remained part of the mix of Western culture over the centuries. For instance, consider the criteria set out by Cecil Rhodes for his Oxford scholarships in 1902:
Founder Cecil Rhodes' criteria were all-encompassing: literary and scholastic attainments; energy to use one's talents to the fullest, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports; truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak; kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship; moral force of character and instincts to lead and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.

Men raised along these lines were not going to be passive, individualistic, liberal weaklings; they were brought up to be strong, dutiful and loyal - and to lead. If the ruling element in society was made up of such men, then it is likely that such a society would flourish.

It is my belief that getting back to this longstanding part of the Western tradition is one of our challenges. However, this has to be done carefully, taking into consideration:

i) what aspects of the tradition were unworthy
ii) why chivalry in its positive form declined
iii) how it can give rise to negative consequences

I don't want to make this post too long, so I'll leave a discussion of these points to a future post.


  1. Chivalry - "men supplicating to women" - originally the sacralisation of women was an antidote to the usual practice of raping and enslaving the enemy's women. I don't really see any sign of it metastasisng into something harmful until at least the late 19th century in Britain & the Anglosphere - Victorian chivalry does start to look excessive. But arguably it remained part of a reasonable social contract until Feminism broke the contract - dumping all prior obligations on women while pocketing the benefits of chivalry as a continued entitlement.

    1. Simon, I can't agree. It's not that medieval chivalry got it entirely wrong, but there was an over the top devotion to other men's wives that comes across as disordered and unbalanced. I'd like to look at this in more detail in a future post.

    2. Mark -- I think this "unbalance" carried in some degree through later centuries in a hypertrophied "platonic" dedication to women; allow me to suggest Baldassare Castiglione's "book of the courtier" as a fitting context for thinking this through.

      Merry Christmas!

  2. Chivalry is based around the idea that manly virtues are prized. However, in the modern environment a kind of passive aggressive non-physical opportunism is prized. That tends to be what helps one get ahead in mass scale capitalistic cultures.

    In Game of Thrones the character Little Finger talks about how when he was young he challenged Ned Stark to a chivalrous duel to win his loves hand. He was weaker and lost badly, and knew he could never win that game. So he started to learn how to politic, backstab, slime, and wormtounge his way to the top. In the modern white collar world that is basically what works. Ned Stark, meanwhile, chivalries his way to a backstab and grave.

    1. Asdf, interesting. I've been thinking a bit about this kind of thing lately - I'll try to expand on it in some posts in coming weeks.

    2. In order for the story to work, Ned Stark has to show a complete lack of common sense, making it rather incredible that his ancestors maintained rule of northern Westeros for thousands of years. Even if First Man culture is incredibly naively honourable, you would think that selective pressure from competition with the Andals would have taught the survivors a more jaundiced view of human nature. The Starks are shown as having a complete lack of consequentialist thinking: "If I do X now, what will happen?" They never ask "Is person Y honourable too? How will they act?" I don't recognise their behaviour as any kind of real-life honour I've ever seen. It's stupidity.

  3. I don't think chivalry ever really became a negative thing. Chivalry was part of a kind of unofficial understanding that while men had certain privileges those privileges meant that they had certain duties. The most important of those duties was to protect women and to defend society (by service in the armed forces). Both duties, as Warren Farrell points out in his excellent book THE MYTH OF MALE POWER, brought with them the very real risk of serious injury or death. One of the reasons for the breakdown in our society is that those duties (and those risks) are no longer acknowledged.

    Part of the reason for this has been the abolition of compulsory military service, which has had (as Alain Delon noted in the interview you were discussing a few days ago) catastrophic consequences. It has taken away from men one of their major roles in the maintenance of a society.