On Chivalry

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A technical mishap last Friday gave rise to a moment in which Ridgeview’s senior boys behaved precisely as one would hope they would if no one were watching. At the last minute, the meeting place for a study hall assembly was changed from the auditorium to a classroom. The boys arrived first and quickly took nearly all of the seats. The girls, arriving moments later, lined up in the back – standing. The boys, unprompted looked around, and one-by-one gave up their seats until almost none remained in their desks and no girl remained standing. The meeting began on time. It is admittedly a small thing and remarkable only because it so infrequently occurs elsewhere in public life.

It was Terrence Moore’s “The Sons of Murphy Brown,” published in the winter 2003 edition of the Claremont Review of Books that first drew my attention to Ridgeview Classical Schools. The essential thesis of that piece was that, “Young men today have both hearts and minds that are in chronic need of cultivation. Specifically, they need to realize what true manhood is, what it is not, and why it has become so difficult in the modern world to achieve the status and stature of the true man.” Ridgeview, through its character education, its literature courses, its moral philosophy discussions, but most of all through its peculiar school culture, has attempted to cultivate men we can be proud of having had a part in rearing. This has admittedly met with mixed results. The first lesson in becoming a man is that you cannot expect to be lectured into it, nor can one read his way to a chivalrous life. Like wisdom, there is a necessary admixture of experience that alone can transform theoretical knowledge into the habits of a gentleman.

Young men deserve two things: to be commended when they do well and to be corrected when they do poorly. Living in a society that places a strong premium on self-esteem has made it more likely that they shall receive the former than the latter. At times we are so lacking in judgment as to appear almost morally insensate, and our boys too often enter adult life upon a confusing cultural morass in which it is difficult to know how one should behave. What results is a curious effect in which both ends of the spectrum – the barbarian and the Little Lord Fauntleroy – have been contracted towards the democratic middle. The last decade has exacerbated the fact that this is not an easy world for a young man to come of age in since girls will not always act like ladies, and will not always behave in a way that demands that they be treated as they deserve. There will always be those who demonstrate so little respect for themselves that one is tempted to withhold all respect from them, and yet we demand our young men, in order to truly be men, to nonetheless respect them.

In justifying this it is easy to demand chivalry, but given its origins, it is difficult to know how it ought to apply to the largely pacific and often apathetic lives of today’s youth. Excised of the Christian ethic, chivalry entailed among other things that men would defend the weak, love their country, be honest, be generous to everyone, and always and everywhere oppose evil and injustice. It also entailed a conception of honor, which like virtue, has fallen either into disuse or ridicule. As James Bowman has written, there is, “in spite of the discrediting that honor has undergone, the basic honor of the savage – bravery for men, chastity for women – is still recognizable beneath the surfaces of the popular culture that has done so much to efface it.” Bowman adds provocatively that, “If you doubt it, try calling a man a wimp or a woman a slut.” It is one of the words that is connected with both of these concepts that we have more trouble with, and which Dr. Moore was wont to make a great deal of, which is manliness. As Harvey Mansfield noted, “the very word manliness seems quaint and obsolete. We are in the process of making the English language gender-neutral, and manliness, the quality of one gender, or rather, of one sex, seems to describe the essence of the enemy we are attacking, the evil we are eradicating.” Both chivalry and honor made sense when part of what men prepared for was war, which was not treated as an exceptional event, but as part of the normal ebb and tide of human history. One sees the same thing holding true among the Japanese conception of bushido. The incredibly eloquent author Inazo Nitobe wrote in 1900 that, “Chivalry is a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom; nor is it a dried-up specimen of an antique virtue preserved in the herbarium of our history. It is still a living object of power and beauty among us; and if it assumes no tangible shape or form, it not the less scents the moral atmosphere, and makes us aware that we are still under its potent spell.” Chivalry, honor, and manliness, whatever cultural challenges have been made to them in the last century, persist in the formation of the ideals we hold for our young men and women.

How then does one make these concepts work within the contemporary, gender neutral, and almost androgynous culture into which our young men will enter in a ready-or-not fashion? Emily Esfahani Smith wrote an essay in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Let’s Give Chivalry another Chance.” In her essay, she noted the very different reactions of the men who gave up seats in lifeboats when the Titanic sunk in 1912 and the men who shoved women and children out of the way to secure their own lives when the Costa Concordia capsized in 2012. A memorial plaque in Washington, D.C. to the victims of the Titanic disaster reads as follows: “To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic…They gave their lives that women and children might be saved.” Undoubtedly, much has changed in the century separating these two events, but can it truly be said that it has been all unqualified and unremitting progress? What compelled the men aboard the Titanic to behave as they did was certainly a cultural notion of what a man ought to do. To do it, they paid with their lives. It was also thumos, which Plato had discussed at length in the Republic as the bristling snappishness of a dog, but also as “the outstanding feature of the guardians or rulers of the just city that [Plato] constructs.” Mansfield in describing thumos goes on to say that, “A dog defends itself, its master, and its turf; and thumos is a part of the human soul that performs the similar function of defensiveness. As a dog defends its master, so the doggish part of the human soul defends the human ends higher than itself.” For those who understand thumos, along with its connections to manliness, chivalry, and honor, to be at the crux of the battle of the sexes, there seems to be a misunderstanding in that the idyllic masculine qualities are not about instigating competition, but about complementarity; not about inequality, but about preserving one another’s dignity. We respect the chivalric man because of his intolerance for the intolerable, his protection of the weak, for his honesty and generosity, and for his willingness to oppose, by force if need be, all that is evil and unjust.

The noble idea of the gentleman is the civilizing refinement of all of these qualities and cultural ambitions: chivalry, manliness, honor, and thumos. The gentleman, as Philip Mason asserted, “should live with a due sense of his position among his fellows, with some attention to his reputation, to all that is meant by honour, expecting neither more nor less than he deserved. He must have, in other words, some idea of who he is. He must behave with consistency and with a central integrity. Above all, he must fulfill his obligations to those who have obligations to him.” Returning to the original theme, the proper regard a man should have for a woman, which presents itself in a light way by giving up a seat, but in a rather more substantial way in watching how young men treat their dates at a dance, one realizes that being a gentleman is as much as ever about a consideration for another’s reputation. During the Victorian period, this “feeling was so strong that in a military mess it was forbidden to even mention the name of a lady.” It was, in other words, dishonorable to “kiss and tell” because of the reputation one might compromise. There is a quite famous story of this moral taken to extremes when, while on a train ride with his two sons, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle happened to overhear one of his teenage boys comment that a female passenger was ugly. Doyle snapped out of his seat and firmly clouted his son Adrian and chastised him with the words: “Remember this: no woman is ugly. We do not disparage anyone’s looks. Characters, yes; physical defects, never.” Not coincidentally, the epigraph on Doyle’s tombstone reads: “Blade straight / Steel true / Arthur Conan Doyle / Born May 22nd 1859 / Passed On 7th July 1930.” Here, contained within one man, and very nearly within one short story, lie all the qualities we are in danger of losing.

When one considers these qualities and ideals, one realizes the fragility of our civilization. It hangs together by the virtuous acts of individuals rather than the machinations of bureaucrats or so-called political leaders. We should carefully consider the cost of doing without these qualities, and then deliberate upon how easy it is to leave these things untaught. G.K. Chesterton, no great fan of the American South, wrote that, “For the aristocrat of Old Dixie, with all his faults and inconsistencies, did understand what the gentleman of Old Europe generally did not. He did understand the Republican ideal, the notion of the Citizen as it was understood among the noblest of pagans. That combination of ideal democracy with real chivalry was a particular blend for which the world was immeasurably the better; and for the loss of which it is immeasurably the worse. It may never be recovered; but it will certainly be missed.” Indeed, it has been missed terribly in recent decades and one of the books every Ridgeview student reads before graduating draws the conclusions I think most of us eventually do. The book, by C.S. Lewis, is entitled The Abolition of Man. In concluding the first chapter, Lewis writes as follows:

And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

A large and unapologetic aspect of Ridgeview’s mission is to resist falling prey to the defeatism of this tragi-comedy. We want to make these qualities – chivalry, honor, manliness, thumos, and gentlemanliness – possible so that we can depend upon our young men to treat our sisters, daughters, and wives with dignity and respect. We endeavor to teach them these qualities in our curriculum and throughout their lives so that we will not find traitors in our midst, and so that all of our inducements and encouragement to lead a life of self-examination, courage, and virtue will not fall on deaf ears. A young man insisting that a young lady take his seat, or inviting her to dance by gently taking her hand, or visiting with her parents before a date – all of these are small signs of big things, and a part of the reason we are here committed to a vision of a better future for all of our children.

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