On Franchise & Frankness
It is nothing new to lament the retreat of the old virtues and ideals in the West. What’s perhaps more subtle, or at least less discussed, than the decline of these in our lives is their decline in our language. In so many instances, vigorous virtues and ideals become confused, indistinct, or outright unimpressive in modern usage.
Take chivalry: the old code of martial ethos and manly excellence gets replaced by a disposition toward polite gestures. Being chivalrous in common parlance is no longer about embodying prowess, courtesy, honor, generosity, loyalty, and faith; instead it’s mostly about opening doors or standing when a lady enters a room. Chivalry is reduced to just one of its components and in the process becomes a good deal lamer.
Take prudence: the art of making good things happen through sound decisions becomes mere utilitarian calculation, usually of a cowardly or risk-averse sort. Take chastity: the self-mastery of one’s most powerful desires becomes mere prudery or repression. Take love/charity: this great animating force of manly conduct becomes a vague niceness and non-judgmentalism. And so on.
This is a big deal. Why would anyone care to strive for something that isn’t even that attractive, as the reduced and modern versions of these virtues and ideals are? Why aim to be chivalrous when chivalry—understood as a series of polite gestures—is a bit lame? Our Enemy can thus undermine us by undermining our language. He takes away any aspiration toward moral excellence and replaces it with a tendency to shrug our shoulders and say, “Meh.”
I aim to write about all of these in due time. Today I want to focus on franchise.
Ancient Nobility and Modern Comforts
In contemporary English the word franchise has come to mean a gift-basket of particularly modern things—the right to vote, a business authorized to operate under a larger one, a series of movies, or a professional sports team. In centuries past, it meant something grander, a virtue sometimes translated as honor. The word comes from the Old French for “freedom, exemption; right, privilege.” Medieval nobles were often free from regular obligations like taxes—the requirements on them being of a higher sort, calling them to fight for the realm and live by the code of noblesse oblige. Franchise was the quality that free and noble men possessed, and the word was often used, tellingly, to describe that virtue enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the Fall.
Franchise is tied to frankness. A man can be frank—open, honest, outspoken—when he is his own man, when he is free and need not worry about telling others what they want to hear. Here again nobility is key: a man can speak his mind when he has his own estate. Not just a quality of the heart, frankness is also tied to a tribal identity. In being frank you exhibit the characteristics of that band of Germanic conquerers, the Franks. Membership in this victorious tribe had its benefits, especially when among the people you’d conquered.
(For a great story about what it means to be frank, read The Song of Roland. Better yet, listen to a good audiobook performance. One of the most shocking and refreshing qualities of the song is its complete lack of irony. If anything, it is aggressively anti-irony. Frank men don’t indulge in that particularly modern and weak habit of saying one thing and intending another.)
That contrast between the older sense of franchise and the newer should speak volumes about the nature of life then and life now—freedom, nobility, and truthfulness versus liberal democracy, commercialism, and entertainment. It’s almost as if that modern stuff is our comfy democratic recompense for having surrendered any pretenses to nobility and freedom.
This older sense of franchise is a beautiful virtue for us to strive to recover in our own lives. When we are our own men, descended from a line of conquerers, not beholden to others, not required to say what they want or expect to hear—then we are men of franchise. And then we speak frankly. This will demand prudence, of course: a man ought not announce needless observations to the detriment of others. Just because it’s true doesn’t mean it needs to be said at this very moment. But when a thing does need to be said, the frank man will say it plainly and boldly, even if saying it brings consequences. He is noble enough to live and and speak and die as a free man.