Sunday, December 1, 2013

Chivalry and Charity

Recently my cousin posted a link on facebook to an article about chivalry which sparked a bit of a long comment thread on the subject. There were numerous pro and con arguments, but the only con argument against chivalry that seemed any good to me was the question my cousin had, that if chivalry is simply a matter of courtesy and serving other people, then how is it any different from Christian Charity? It is a just question, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit in the weeks since. Most of this post comes from that thread, but some is the result of those weeks of thought.

First of all, it is important to understand that they are not the same thing. Charity is supernatural, and the culmination of all virtues at their essence. Chivalry is a humanly defined collection of virtues. An analogy would be the difference between “Star” and “the big dipper.” “Star” is a concept which includes all possible aspects of the true essence of star, from the scientific to the poetic, discovered and undiscovered. “Big dipper” on the other hand, is our word for a specific group of stars which bear a certain relationship from our two dimensional view, but which would be meaningless viewed from nearly any other point in three dimensional space. This does not mean that the concept of “big dipper” is useless, especially for someone trying to find polar north without a compass, but if we ever go to another solar system and search the night sky for directions we may find ourselves hopelessly lost.

Chivalry is the same way. It is a human concept with a specific historical origin and evolution. It is also a word for a specific collection of virtues. These virtues differ from one time and place to another, but they historically have always included at least these three: some martial or at least athletic connotation; the idea of scholarly excellence in a general, non-specialized sense; and a certain mannerly and respectful way of treating others, with an emphasis on those in positions of vulnerability.

Chivalry is not about holiness; it is about self-improvement. It will not get you to heaven. (See John Cardinal Newman’s “Idea of a University.”) It may make earth more enjoyable but it will not save your soul. If diligently followed it will make you respectful, athletic, a respectable fighter, interesting, sophisticated, dignified and a great conversationalist (already we are far removed from the idea of chivalry as a portable doorman for highly manicured ladies). These are all good things, and well worth pursuing if you have the time and inclination. However, chivalry will not make you humble or compassionate. It is no guarantee that you will ever learn how to love.

Chivalry is particularly interested in the relation of men and women because of its origin in the middle ages. It originated (according to Brad Miner in “The Compleat Gentleman”) specifically as a means to teach big, rough, tough, skull-crushing, Saracen-gutting, half-barbarian warrior types to regard women as people with rights, rather than merely as property. The element of service to women is an attempt to subdue the aggressive, lawless and particularly masculine to service of order, beauty and peace. Holding doors for women is a somewhat pathetic remnant of that.

Since it is a man-made concept, it must evolve with the times, something that most of the “bringin’ chivalry back!” (BCB) crowd does not realize. A lot of BCB-ers lament the absence of damsels in distress because they feel that distressed damsels are necessary for them to be chivalrous. As long as the damsels get through life steadfastly refusing to be distressed, you can’t blame the boys in cardboard armor for being a little put out. 

 The fact is that somehow or other, women do in fact manage to get through doors, get into and out of cars, and procure food items for themselves, even when men are not around. They seem to do it rather well. Therefore, if holding doors and paying for dates is seen as the measure of what chivalry is, well, thanks but I have better things to do

A more mature chivalry sees women with a critically balance poetry. He sees what is, namely, that women now-a-days are not as exaggeratedly vulnerable and crying out for a rescuer as Sleeping Beauty and his behavior towards them respects that. On the other hand he also recognizes that the vulnerability that the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale symbolizes is not a bad thing. Vulnerability is worth fighting for. It is worthwhile to cherish and value that side of a woman, while recognizing that it is not her only side. She is a fellow shipwrecked passenger, just like I am, and her ability to be vulnerable and beautiful is one of the most powerful strengths she brings to this lonely island. It would be a shame if that were lost because there was no one around to value it.

You see, a truly chivalrous man knows that it is a good thing to treat a lady like a lady, and knows also that a “lady” is not a euphemism for spoiled brat. A true lady is a very dangerous and powerful person indeed. She is not a Disney princess. She is not a tame lioness.

But that is the long way round. At its best, chivalry like all other virtues must first resemble and then finally be drawn into charity if it is not to become obsolete. Charity is better. While chivalry is an exclusive virtue in that some people can develop it and some people cannot, charity requires only that you be willing to know and love the other and be known and loved. It is open to man, woman, child, old person, scholar and day worker, athlete and invalid, fat, skinny, strong, weak, genius or dunce. It is better to be even the littlest of lovers than it is to be the greatest of knights. 

However, in the last year or so I have not thought about practicing chivalry at all. I have gradually been shifting my focus towards striving after charity. This does not mean I think that my previous focus on chivalry is superseded. I think it was valuable and worthwhile, for several reasons. 

Firstly, it was the search for chivalry that brought me to the point where I could recognize that charity is superior. That was the most powerful draw for a man of my personality, and I think it could draw other men just as strongly. That is why I will certainly teach it if I ever have sons, or am in any way in charge of the education of boys.

 Secondly, I do not think that concentrating more on charity will make me less chivalrous. Quite the contrary, I believe it will fulfill and make complete the chivalry that I have been practicing for years, but, alas, have still not mastered.

And thirdly, charity is as individual as people are. Every human's love is different from every other human's love. Chivalry was the most influential part of the raw material, and it imparts a strong flavor or color to the shape that my charity will take, when by God's grace it is full grown.


  1. I can relate about shifting focuses. Sometimes I find myself holding onto one over the other (C.S. Lewis wrote a great chapter on that vice). Then somehow I am reminded, 'both/and.' It's no secret, our Lord is not as much of a harsh, cold God, that we think He is. He is the Perfect Gentleman. I think your post points to the Eucharist because that is where I see chivalry and charity meeting. At the very least, the Eucharist came to mind (right after TOB and masculine descriptions of charity).

    Anyways, enough sharing. Them Catholics are Crazy!
    In the Eucharist,

  2. I've been reading Julian of Norwich "Revelations of Divine Love", and was struck by her descripton of God as "what comforted me most in the vision was that our Lord is so familiar and courteous" This is in line with your current thoughts above....

    1. "The Complete Julian of Norwich" is on my list of books to read during this deployment. I have been intrigued by her for some time, but have never gotten around to reading her actual writings. Thank you for the quote.