- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

'Is chivalry dead?" I ask my Western civilization students.Chivalry seems to have indeed become irrelevant today, and that is a tragic loss for both men and women. Women refuse to hold men to the standards necessary to achieve the genteel honor that we have lost. Women are disrespected in today's society because we ask for nothing more.
There is probably not a woman alive who, in some part of her heart, would not want to be carried off on horseback by a knight in shining armor, but we are not allowed to admit that anymore. We are taught to declare ourselves equal to men in all respects and in no need of superior treatment.
If only women would realize that chivalry was a way of showing respect and devotion, not condescension, then we would have hope of regaining this lost system of virtue.
The question is how moral educators can bring young men and women to this conclusion and give them the courage to act upon it. Our deliverance from a vulgarized sexuality and forced androgyny will begin only when young men and women begin to contemplate the creation of a new chivalry. In other words, men must begin again to act like men, women like women, and some standards of decency must govern their relations.
Students' initial responses to the question of whether chivalry is dead will mostly concern whether men still open doors for women and whether they should. The teacher might suggest other courtesies that men used to perform that today's adolescents have never seen or heard of, such as standing up for a lady when she walks into the room. This discussion can be of enormous value in teaching young men that the majority of women actually appreciate these vestiges of chivalry.
When women are told that they could create a chivalrous environment by insisting that men stop cursing, if necessary by leaving their company, they show reluctance. Naturally wanting to please, they do not want to spoil the conversation by correcting someone or to be called a bad name upon leaving.
My grandfather, who deplored the modern man's practice of wearing a hat at the table, held women responsible: "In my day a lady would not sit with a man who wore his hat."
Previous ages realized that women are the natural arbiters of manners, and our age must profit from their insights.
In addition to cursing, women will have experienced more threatening forms of indecency. They do not like being whistled at, yelled at, or being made the subject of sexual innuendo. One thing every female runner will complain of is being yelled at by a carload of young men.
"So what's the big deal?" some of my male students will ask. "It's just a way of telling a girl that she's hot. That's why she's running in the first place, isn't it, to be noticed? Sometimes girls yell at guys, too."
Here the young women should be asked why being yelled at bothers them. What they will say is that a woman never knows when yelling might turn into something else, especially when running in a big city, or at night, or even on rural roads.
Chivalry took root, slowly, as the response to one of the gravest crises in the history of the West: the total collapse of civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and again after the collapse of the more precarious Carolingian Empire in the ninth century.
There was no government. There was no police force. Property and persons were utterly at the mercy of very bad men. These men might be called "young," partly because of their age and partly because of their youthful energy and disrespect for any older, established order. Young men on horseback roamed the countryside in huge packs and pillaged whatever semblance of civilization they found: families, churches, farms, markets.
Like all young men, they came around to the idea of finding young women. Having no respect for decency, their method was simple. They just took any women they might come across. They took widows, wives, daughters and nuns from any place they might find them. Young men had no notion of courtship. Their desire for the opposite sex expressed itself in venereal hooliganism. In short, the behavior of young men during the Dark Ages did not differ considerably from that found in the inner-city gangs of today.
The solution to this crisis came through a gradual change in the motives and manners of the armed horsemen. Established men, the church and young ladies themselves combined forces to tame the unruly passions of these violent predators. They did so by effecting a direct exchange of male freedom for duty.
To become true knights, young men had to submit themselves to an elaborate set of regulations known as chivalry that brought them into the social order and established them in marriage to young, beautiful heiresses. To enter the ranks of knighthood, young men had to submit themselves to a thorough regime of ethical training that prepared them for a life of service.
The element of danger and enterprise remained in their lives since they had to protect their land and their ladies. The idea of male honor came into being. It became dishonorable for a strong man to intimidate or injure someone physically weaker than himself.
The ritual par excellence for the display of chivalry became the tournament. No other event allowed the young knight to shine in combat before the eyes of anxious maidens and discerning parents so much as this great pageant of courage and courtesy. The tournament was not simply a game or a sport. The virtues and martial skills developed in the lists prepared young men for encounters against enemies at home and abroad in these lawless times.
The history of chivalry has taught us that the young male can become gentle, provided that he is allowed to do so on his own terms, provided that gentleness does not reflect pusillanimity but allies itself with strength and honor.
Currently, there is a great cultural battle being waged on every street corner, and in every school, and in every family in this country. It is the battle for common decency. On many fronts, the battle is being lost, but the tide has perhaps turned.
The fact that the children of the 1960's generation could even be interested in a theme like chivalry is a great sign of hope. But more than being interested, they must act upon the moral principles of their nature. Just as Churchill said that World War II would be won by the unknown soldier, so the battle for common decency will not be won by one great thinker or statesman or teacher. It will be won by millions of ordinary men and women doing their duties as ordinary men and women.
The return to chivalry requires that every young man exercise his courage in becoming a gentleman and that every young woman exercise her modesty in becoming a lady.
Condensed with permission from "Is Chivalry Dead?" in the August issue of "On Principle," a magazine of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.

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