With all the nations of the world engaged in power struggles—or cowering behind the protection of their more courageous allies—C.S. Lewis’ essay on “The Necessity of Chivalry” demands our attention.
Yes, the very word “chivalry” reeks of a bygone era that has been superseded and relegated to history books. But those who consider the concept outdated impoverish their lives and quite possibly contribute to the violent spirit of our age.
Warfare is not an abstract concept to the millions—yes, millions—of people who are surrounded by vicious threats every hour. Britain itself was in this position when Lewis penned these words during the Battle of Britain.
As he wrote, three days before Winston Churchill’s most famous speech, Lewis commended those same few to whom so many owed so much. It was 1940, and Germany’s advance had yet to be halted. Ultimate victory in the world conflagration would remain uncertain for years.
It is in this milieu, but not only for this context, that Lewis challenges us to combine the chivalrous values of meekness and ferocity.
Lewis argues that in the chivalrous “knight,” true humility and the capacity for great (but moral) violence are merged. The result is not a schizophrenic warrior, but a noble defender of what is good.
Indeed, even apart from wartime, it is vital that society has heroes to protect sheep from wolves. In a moment I will share with you a brief video featuring an amazing artistic rendering of this essay on chivalry.*
In the essay, Lewis’ examples span Western history. He uses Launcelot as the archetype of the chivalrous man. And he offers the hope and evidence that chivalry is not extinct. A veteran of the previous war, he wrote at the outset of the Second World War:
Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon. Yet with this “sternness” there is much “meekness;” from all I hear, the young pilots in the R.A.F. (to whom we owe our life from hour to hour) are not less, but more, urbane and modest than the 1915 model. (“The Necessity of Chivalry”)
And accordingly, in our own day there are many serving in uniform who exemplify the same virtues. Would, though, that all who bear arms could be described thusly.
Some who are reading these words may regard chivalry as a “sexist” concept. It is not. Certainly no more than courage, strength and virtue could be deemed such. The fact that Lewis’ historical examples of society’s defenders are men simply reflects history.
In the seventy-five years since he wrote, it has become evident that women too can easily embody both meekness and unyielding courage. One need look no further than the ranks of the military and law enforcement to see this borne out.
Chivalry for the Civilian
It would be a tragic mistake to think that chivalry is only required during war. It is a vital, daily necessity of all social life. And the increasing incivility of the world suggests its erosion. (Many attribute this in part to the anonymity of the internet, which allows bullies to savage others anonymously and without mercy.)
This is what Lewis was saying when he described Launcelot as being “not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”
After all, it is not the bland or “lukewarm” person who makes this world a better place. It is upon chivalrous men and women that the majority of the vulnerable must ever rely.
Each of us needs to be willing to examine our own lives for the union of these two traits: courage that does not surrender to what is wrong, and meekness that is gentle, calm and patient with others.
These are the values that we need to promote in our communities, media and schools. Because what we instill in receptive minds is precisely that which will take root. To use more contemporary terms, the “programming” these young minds are subject to will directly influence the behaviors that they “output.”
Let us do all we are capable of, to be, and to raise up, what is chivalrous. After all, despite all of the utopian promises of those who believe humanity is capable of purifying itself, the evidence shows otherwise. As Lewis said,
There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but this seems to have been an exaggeration.
Enjoy this fine presentation of “The Necessity of Chivalry.”
* This video is a creation of CSLewisDoodle, about which I have written before. (Their name may sound quaint, but the expertise with which they visualize Lewis’ words is astounding.)