Many fear chivalry is long since gone and buried in our culture. But, C.S. Lewis believed it is both “practical and vital” and perhaps even obtainable in our modern age.
Lewis starts his argument by explaining what chivalry meant in the middle ages. He gives the example of Lancelot from Malory’s “The Death of King Arthur.” Chivalry makes a “double demand on human nature,” as the chivalrous Lancelot was fierce in battle yet meek in society. In a way, it is a paradox.
This is necessary to understand about chivalry: It is fierce to the nth degree and meek to the nth degree. It is not a compromise between the two.
Ever concerned with practicality, Lewis then goes on to point out the relevance this definition of chivalry has to the modern world. He proceeds to give us examples of “heroism by nature” we see in our modern world: The war hero who would have been deemed unfit for any other place than prison in peace time or the football player who is brilliant on the field and a bully in the school halls. These examples are heroism outside the chivalrous tradition.
Chivalry of old, however, brought the seemingly opposites of meekness and sternness together. It did this out of necessity. “It taught humility and forbearance to the great warrior, because everyone knew by experience how much he needed that lesson. It demanded valor of the urbane and modest man, because everyone knew he was as likely as not to be a milksop.”
When we cannot personify both meekness and sternness, we become societies that excel at one extreme or the other. When these two extreme tendencies try to dwell together, it “weaves the world’s [burial] shroud.”
However, Lewis finds hope in the conduct of WWII soldiers (which he was witnessing while writing this essay). Despite 20 years of peace in Europe after WWI, the younger generation hadn’t succumbed to a meekness-only character, but had, in fact, been able to personify both meekness and sternness in wartime—perhaps even better than their WWI predecessors had.
Here is the crux of Lewis’ message to us today, in our modern world: The maintenance of the chivalry tradition “depends, in part, on knowing that the knightly character is art—not nature. Something that needs to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.”
In conclusion, it is up to us, as members of modern, classless societies, to learn this traditional art of chivalry. The following video puts Lewis’ thoughts on sketch paper in a truly thoughtful way.