One is willing to grant that a chivalrous action is most often connected with a man’s behaviour towards a woman. Edmund Burke, in one of his frequent fits of hyperbole, left us an astounding portrait of chivalry when reflecting on a meeting with Marie Antoinette:
‘I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.’
It is, of course, overblown and ridiculous (even setting aside the contemptible, petulant manner in which Antoinette routinely behaved). What Burke is trying to suggest is that in overthrowing the Ancien Regime, the French Revolution was responsible for and symbolic of the end of chivalry. Of course, this is simply Burke’s conservatism overwhelming his common sense. In spite of this, for a modern audience, Burke has touched something: perhaps the age of chivalry has gone, to be replaced by sophisters, economists, and calculations, and been tarnished by the association with sexism. After all, Burke’s Antoinette was only worthy of defence against insult because of her outward nobility and beauty.
Chivalry is more than this. It is more than the way one should behave towards women, it is more than beauty that should guide it. It was, of course, a code, a rigid set of mores that dictated not only how to behave but how to conduct oneself as a person: in bearing, in self-discipline, in self-improvement. It need not be so unbending, but it seems in some ways a great pity to have lost the wider concept and to synonymise it with gallantry.
Even so, gallantry itself is not to be laughed at. For a gallant action is not, as some would have it, an act of condescension. There is a simple beauty in an elegant gesture; a sacrifice made, a door held open, or a guiding touch. One must admit to a certain pleasure gained in offering such, although one hopes the motivation is more selfless than it may appear. Yet we seem to have become inured to the antiquated ideas of chivalry and gallantry. These acts are not ones of arrogance. Rather, they are a sign of deep respect, of consideration, for another person. So it would seem that at the heart of chivalry is respect; and even that self-respect is pivotal to the chivalrous or gallant action.
Didion, when young and in a fit of pique, wrote that ‘innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself’. In a rather beautiful essay, she realises that these words emerged from a misplaced sense of self-respect. One cannot begin to respect another unless one has respect for oneself: this is scarcely an original thought, but it is one that bears remembrance. Chivalry, even if outdated and outmoded, can only be possible as something that originates from self-respect.
It seems quaint to be told that respect for oneself is the basis for respect for others, especially with the endless and unrelenting self-love that we indulge in. One would argue that the insistent importance on what we own, what we buy, what material possessions we accumulate, is a way of thinking about nothing but oneself. This cannot be mistaken for self-respect. The act of accumulation does not equate to respect; it is an emptiness, a filling up of the lack of self-respect with worldly goods. Perhaps Burke was premature when he said that the age of economists and calculators had come, but he may have been nearer the mark were the words written today.
Do not mistake my meaning: one does not seek to argue that owning or buying products corresponds to a lack of self-respect, nor that one must divest all material items in order to gain self-respect. It is rather that the act of buying cannot replace the act of respect for oneself. The latter must precede the former.
The origins of chivalry lie in cheval, the French for horse, or chevalerie for horsemanship. In many ways this is an apt link: for most, chivalry is a horse that one can dismount when it becomes too onerous. To have self-respect does not imply that one is chivalrous of course. Nor, perhaps, is it entirely possible to remain atop the horse eternally. Yet if self-respect is indispensable (one hopes this may be accepted), chivalry is at least to be desired. Charles Kingsley said: ‘some say that the age of chivalry is past, that the spirit of romance is dead. The age of chivalry is never past, so long as there is a wrong left unredressed on earth.’ Self-respect can only be achieved through struggle; one must understand oneself before respect can grow, and to reach that kind of knowledge is not a universally pleasant experience. Chivalrous action, however, may be seen as extending that self-respect, an act of sharing it, and an act of respect for others. A way, potentially, of redressing the wrongs on the earth.