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What is Chivalry? (Part 2)

We began last time (part 1) by introducing a positive definition of chivalry, following Kenelm Digby’s Broadstone of Honour. In it he states that chivalry is that “spirit or state of mind which disposes men to heroic and generous actions and keeps them conversant with all that is beautiful and sublime in the intellectual and moral world.” It would be helpful now to contrast chivalry with its opposite, or rather to show what chivalry chiefly opposes. The following quotation from Digby, I think, will demonstrate quite clearly just why the idea of chivalry has fallen on such hard times. In short, the spirit of chivalry stands against much of the wickedness and baseness of our age.

In the first place it seems sufficiently clear that Chivalry is essentially opposed to all dispositions of mind and to all schemes of philosophy which are connected in any degree with the passion for ridicule and that ardour for leveling every intellectual and moral degree, which have so generally prevailed in all ages and nations when the influence of religion has been observed to decline.

Digby identifies a certain spirit of aspersion or, as he calls it, a “passion for ridicule” which is so much bound up with our age, and with nations that are failing. But he also makes it clear that he is not talking about true joviality, jocularity, or good cheer. For the later things are always necessary, especially in dark times.

I do not allude to that kind of eloquence which Cicero ascribed to Caesar, who could Treat of severe subjects with cheerfulness, os that neither a joke was excluded by the greatness of the subject nor yet gravity diminished by the wit.

Rather, Chivalry is particularly opposed to a certain baseness which expresses itself in ridicule and mockery of all that is good, true, and beautiful.  This false spirit of aspersion can be identified in modern man’s peculiar derision of what is called sentimental (lit. “feeling mind”).  Digby explains,

“Man has a great dominion over man,” says a fine modern writer, “and of all the evils which he can inflict upon his fellow-creatures the greatest, perhaps, is to place the phantom of ridicule between generous feelings and the actions which they would inspire. Love, genius, talent, even grief, all these are exposed to the power of irony, and it is impossible to calculate how far the dominion of this spirit may be extended. The admiration of a great object may be laughed away in jest, and he who thinks nothing of importance has the appearance of being above everything. If enthusiasm then does not defend the heart and mind they will permit themselves to be taken hold of on all sides by this aversion to virtue, which unites indolence with gaiety.”

The writer has hit on a peculiar evil of our age, to be sure. And its subtlety only enhances its effectiveness. This spirit of ridicule feigns mastery of its subjects and the world but is itself ignorant of true knowledge and lacking true judgment. This recalls to mind the “ungodly” in Jude’s epistle who “despise authority and blaspheme celestial beings [lit. glorious ones]” (v. 8). We are told that St. Michael the Archangel would never stoop to the level of this passion for ridicule. On the other hand,

Whatever is most awful and sublime, most eminently generous and beautiful, is exposed chiefly to the base influence of the spirit of ridicule.  Were it to prevail there would be nothing left in the world to please the imagination, to exalt the character, or to attract the heart; there would be nothing in the world really worth living for, and, as a great master of logic has well observed, there would be “never a virtue left to laugh out of countenance.” It should never be forgotten that it was with this spirit that Julian the Apostate attacked religion, using not open force as Diocletian had done, which was indeed by this time out of the question, but ridicule and all manner of traitorous arts and reproaches. And thus also in later times the most insidious attempt of the adversaries of the Catholic Church has been to render her contemptible by representing her as responsible for a system incompatible with all higher intellectual accomplishment.

It should be clear by now that this power for ridicule is indeed an evil passion and one that can be directed precisely against all those things which are most noble, sincere, beautiful, and holy. Indeed, it takes St. Paul’s exhortation and makes a mockery of it, turning it upside-down: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4.8).

It cannot be denied that such forces bring ridicule against Christianity, and against the Catholic Church in particular. But it should also be realized that this spirit of derision also has taken special aim at Western-European civilization in general, or Christendom in particular. Yet it was precisely Christendom that produced chivalry, and it was exactly Christendom that chivalry sought to defend.

Yet this ridicule comes from all sides, and all quarters. From both the right and the left, from the east and west.  But perhaps it is this ridicule which helps the faithful Christian to identify his or her place nearer to Christ, who received just such derision and mockery from the world. “He saved others, but he cannot save himself.” Indeed, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” [lit. pursued] (2 Tim. 3:12).

This persecution by-way-of ridicule pursues most intently all that which is transcendent, i.e. good, true, and beautiful: to wit, the things chivalry always seeks to keep and to guard; to tend and to cultivate; like Adam in the garden of Eden. But the serpent-wisdom always attempts its encroachment, spewing aspersions especially upon the innocent and guileless, those most vulnerable, namely the children. Digby continues:

it is important to remark the evil of the principle [or ridicule] itself and its tendency to degrade the youthful mind from the chivalrous dignity of its nature. How is a youth who has been brought up in holy discipline, full of admiration for and confidence in virtue, full of reverence and generosity, to withstand the spirit of ridicule which is incessantly directed by modern writers against all wisdom and goodness… It is not a poetical fancy but an actual fact which may be verified by daily observation that the philosophy which now so generally prevails has a tendency to blast all intellectual and moral youth and to make young men old, old in selfishness, in avarice old, in love of censure old, in suspicion old, in the general want of belief in any virtue old. It makes them, in the loss of all imagination, of all sense of beauty, and of all reverence, and in the contempt of everything but money and power, like old men who have not escaped the degrading influence of a decayed and world-worn nature.

This is a sad inditement against the worldliness of our age. In our times goodness, truth, and beauty are left to die in the streets, mocked merely for their resemblance and witness to God himself. And for this reason children today are intentionally infected with this cruel attitude, to ridicule all that is lovely and admirable, and to celebrate all that is bawdy, vile, and base. They are encouraged to turn things upside-down and inside-out; to revel in ugliness in order to spite all that is fair.

To be continued…

faded laurels

The Medieval Professor View All

"We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” — C.S. Lewis

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