Whither Goeth Chivalry?

Chivalry is dead, Edmund Burke famously declared. Perhaps the news of chivalry’s death was premature — in 1790, Burke was denouncing the arrest of Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution.

But gentlemanly courtesy and honor have become increasingly rare, says Brad Miner, and today the chivalrous man is “ex mille electus,” one in a thousand.

There “have never been many chivalrous men, but they are essential in the life of a society,” says Mr. Miner, author of “The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry.”

The archaic spelling of “compleat” suggests that traditional ideals are long gone. Mr. Miner contends that Americans now live “in a time in which the idea of a gentleman and of chivalry are in retreat.”

Mr. Miner says fathers are partly to blame for the decline of chivalry. Fathers “make clear what the virtues of a gentleman are by example,” he says.

“If you yourself don’t aspire to be a gentleman, you certainly won’t instill that aspiration in your sons,” Mr. Miner says. “It is always easier to take the easy way. That is why, both past and present, you don’t have many men aspiring to be chivalrous.”

Terrence O. Moore, principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colo., shares this concern over the loss of gentlemanly ideals. Young men today — the “sons of Murphy Brown,” he called them in a recent essay — tend to be either “wimps or barbarians,” rather than seeking a “golden mean” of manliness.

Many boys are “disappointed in the culture and sometimes in their parents, for not having taught them the basic ideas of courtesy, gentlemanliness and authentic manliness,” Mr. Moore says.

Mr. Miner says his book was inspired by a scene in the 1997 movie, “Titanic,” As the ship is sinking, philanthropist Benjamin Guggenheim and other male passengers go to the bar dressed in white tie and tails. When one of the ship’s crew urges him to don a life jacket, Guggenheim responds, “No, we are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down as gentlemen.”

That chivalrous gesture, Mr. Miner says, inspired only laughter in a group of young teenage boys sitting behind him in the theater where he saw “Titanic.” Baffled by their response, he says, he began to explore why gentlemanly ideals were no longer respected.

The “compleat gentleman,” Mr. Miner says, exhibits qualities of a lover, a monk and a warrior:

  • As a lover, a gentleman “gives his wife her own way. He respects her as a person, and respects therefore, her decisions as a woman.”
  • As a warrior, a gentleman fights for what is right and stands up for what he believes in. In the Middle Ages, the “warrior code that was emerging, was also the practice of courtly love,” Mr. Miner says.
  • As a monk, a gentleman must embrace learning and have a stoic attitude toward death. Monks live “in the presence of death all the time,” he says, “and so should a compleat gentleman, because it focuses his mind on why things are worth fighting for.”

At the heart of chivalry, Mr. Moore says, is the idea of noblesse oblige — an ethic of service: By placing others first, men learn how to be courteous and respectful.

This is more than a problem for boys, the Colorado educator says: Young women are looking for virtuous, chivalrous men and are discouraged by not finding them.

Feminists have “undermined the idea of traditional manhood” and it is for this reason women must “appeal to the heroic in men,” Mr. Moore says.

Charlotte Hays, senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum, blames “this haglike feminism that has developed” for destroying chivalry by denying differences between men and women.

In order to recover gentlemanly ideals, she says, society must “reject what is generally called feminism — the kind that wants to send women into combat … and recognize that men and women are basically different, and that it is historically the role of the male species to put the lady first.”

Feminists disagree.

The decline in manners is not just about men, says feminist author Naomi Wolf, co-founder of the Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership.

“Young men and young women are not taught to be kind to elderly people, to give up their seat to a pregnant woman, to be as good as their word,” she said. “I don’t see this as feminism causing this decline. I see it as a set of social factors which are degrading the values of young men and young women.”

Ms. Wolf cites such influences as pornography, MTV, reality-TV shows and the fact that “the left insists that education be secular.”

Patricia Williams, feminist and columnist at the left-wing Nation magazine, says society is facing “a decline of manners among both men and women and has nothing to do with gender.”

She says a “kind of nostalgia for the man who believed in civic virtue and the woman who embodied … true womanhood disguises the extent of the many deplorable social problems we have now.”

However, Mr. Miner says, many men use feminist arguments as an excuse for behaving like cads.

“Some men take the claims of feminism in order to reject the idea that men ought to show deference to women. But to a compleat gentleman, none of that matters,” he says.

Chivalry and courtly love were really “a kind of proto-feminist idea that was a force for civilizing men,” says Mr. Miner, saying that medieval women taught men the virtues of civility. “Just as it was in the Middle Ages, so it is now, that men must learn the most important things of all from women.”

Mr. Moore agrees: “If men know they have to prove themselves and that they have to marry the women they have sex with, men will have to become marriageable and manly, rather than just cool and funny,” he says.

The Washington Times, Monday, April 19, 2004.

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