Chivalry and Virtue

The Western conception of chivalry, originating as a martial code of honour among the warrior elite of Charlemagne, underwent significant development from the early medieval to the high medieval. The classical archetypes of heroism, with its divine heroes such as Herakles, were perhaps a starting point, and certainly reappeared explicitly in the Renaissance. Alexander’s cavalry Companions offer further inspiration, as do the Roman equites. However, the different values of Christianity vis-à-vis Hellenic paganism meant that European chivalry developed beyond simple veneration of strength, courage and honour – although these remained important. In the catechism of Roman Catholicism there are seven virtues which reflect the moderating influence of Christian on Hellenic values. The four cardinal virtues identified and espoused by Plato, and adopted by the Church Fathers, were prudence, justice, temperance and courage. To these, however, were added three ‘theological’ virtues: faith, hope and charity (or love). The idea of a knight as being a warrior for his feudal lord, a defender of his faith and the generous, magnanimous protector of the weak incorporates the cardinal and theological virtues, and therefore exceeds the limited focus of the Hellenic heroic tradition. The evolution of chivalry from martial honour in the 8th century to chivalry as the Christian masculine ideal in the late Middle Ages is indicative of broader developments in Christian theology and western philosophy, as well as historical context such as the Crusades.

Aristotelian thought re-entered the western intellectual tradition in the 12th and 13th centuries with new translations from Arabic and Greek, prompting a re-examination of the wisdom of the ancients. In Christendom, this work was almost exclusively done by monks and the clergy. Thus the reintroduction of Greek philosophy to western philosophy occurred through the paradigm of Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, whom held Aristotle in high esteem, sought to synthesise Aristotelian philosophy with Christianity, and the influence of Aristotle’s ideas, such as the natural law, is clear in Summa Theologica. Importantly, Aristotle’s virtue ethics found a comfortable match in Christian values, the need for good deeds, and the notion of chivalry.

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Odysseus as an exemplar

The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich and capable to do so.”
– Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Homer’s Odyssey is the classic tale of errantry. Set after the Trojan War and The IliadOdyssey is the story of its eponymous character’s adventures as he tries to return home. For ten years Odysseus faces adversity of mythic proportions: being trapped in the Cyclops’ cave; avoiding the monstrous Scylla; being strapped to mast to hear the sirens; being held as a sex-slave by a demi-goddess; a brief sojourn to the underworld. And, of course, being caught up in the schemes of the Olympians at almost every turn. In his fantastic adventures we find the wisdom of the ancients.

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Practical virtue ethics

The last stage of the labouring society, the society of job holders, demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as though individual life had actually been submerged in the over-all life process of the species and the only active decision still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquillised’, functional type of behaviour.
– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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