The Essay That Altered the Course of My Life
On CS Lewis' "The Necessity of Chivalry"
We should take care when using the term “life-changing.” Too many people are overeager to describe books or experiences that way, so that “life-changing” has become almost synonymous with “very good.” Baltasar Gracian had a great line about hyperbole: “It is an important object of attention not to talk in superlatives, so as neither to offend against truth nor to give a mean idea of one's understanding. Exaggeration is a prodigality of the judgment which shows the narrowness of one's knowledge or one's taste.” We should refrain.
But in the case of CS Lewis’ bracing little essay “The Necessity of Chivalry” the truth is that it did alter the course of my life. And so I feel compelled to share it with anyone who may not have encountered it yet.
It is generally a good idea to begin by clarifying one’s terms, especially when dealing with one so confused in the popular mind. I, for one, certainly misunderstood chivalry until I encountered his essay. As far as I knew, chivalry mostly meant a series of polite gestures toward the fairer sex: holding doors open for them, standing when they enter the room, laying your jacket over a puddle so their feet don’t get wet, etc.
But that’s not chivalry at all. That’s just romantic gentlemanliness.
Lewis points in the first lines toward the better, truer, and more invigorating understanding expressed in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur when Sir Ector eulogizes Sir Lancelot: “Thou wert the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou wert the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”
These words capture the “double demand” of the code of the knight. “The knight,” Lewis writes, “is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs.” He is also the type of man who makes a good and courteous guest at dinner: “a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man.”
(Worth adding: contrary to what many people have been led to believe, meekness is not synonymous with weakness. A man is properly described as meek when he is the master of his anger—which implies that he is spirited enough to experience actual anger. The truly meek responds to provocation only when he chooses to do so, rather than being easily goaded in because he couldn’t help it.)
To be clear, the knight is not some “compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.” This makes knightliness a paradox. Ferocity and gentleness don’t naturally go together, and the knight acquires this distinctive character only by the most rigorous formation, training, and effort, always reconciling a difficult tension. He is, in other words, an accomplishment, both of his own and of the tradition that cultivates him.
Chivalry is endangered, Lewis argues, largely because we forget that the knight isn’t simply born that way, nor does he grow on trees. This forgetfulness of the art required goes hand in hand with a forgetfulness that chivalry was a unique contribution of medieval civilization and a true novelty in human history. Achilles, Attila, the heroes of the Norse sagas, and even the Romans had no notion of this paradoxical innovation. They knew of heroism and they worshiped it, but their heroism was of rather brutal. “Such is heroism by nature—heroism outside the chivalrous tradition."
Lewis returns again and again to that word, nature. It is natural that men fall into two categories: the stern and the soft, wolves and sheep. And without some attempt to reconcile these, history naturally becomes “a horribly simple affair” of barbarians overrunning a decadent civilization, becoming civilized themselves, and then in turn getting overrun by hardier barbarians who follow the same cycle. Perhaps our own forgetfulness of the both/and of chivalric possibilities—that a man might be ferocious and gentle—and our reversion to the pre-medieval either/or seem to confirm Lewis point that this was a medieval invention. Perhaps it requires a medieval mind to grasp it.
Chivalry alone, Lewis says, can save us from this never ending cycle and make civilization possible. You can build something real on the broad shoulders of the strong and gentle man. But if the chivalrous alternative falters, "then all talk of lasting happiness or dignity in human society is pure moonshine” and we are doomed to contests between "wolves who do not understand, and sheep who cannot defend, the things which make life desirable.”
There’s much at stake in Lewis’ short essay.
His insights left me not only convinced, but taken aback, even shaken. Why had no one showed me this before? How had this knowledge gotten lost? This analysis instantly turned chivalry from an affectation of outdated manners into a deeply aspirational vision of what a man might become. All my life I’d wanted such a challenge. The ideal electrified me with its stark and demanding simplicity: be a supremely kind and gentle man, and also be a ferocious and dangerous one. That seemed like a code worth dedicating one’s life to.