A gentleman is out of place at Yale: If he holds a door for a lady, he risks offending her independent sensibilities. If he does anything more — pays for her meals, offers her his coat, walks her to her next engagement, declines to spit or to swear in her presence — he may have a very unhappy lady on his hands. After all, such chivalry implicitly assumes a dependence, delicacy and purity unique to women. What is a gentleman to do?
In practice, the answer depends on the purpose of the behavior. In one case, he who wishes to avoid offense abandons chivalry in general. Though chivalry is sometimes appreciated, the offense it can cause makes its application a risky business. The abandonment of chivalry is a matter of reducing relational risk. But this approach is problematic: Abandoning the standard of chivalry leaves little to check the fulfillment of inappropriate desires. Observe the high frequency of barely consensual one-night stands that lead to great regret later on.
In another case, he who wishes to maintain a traditional standard risks offense by insisting on chivalry. Adherence to standards — a certain formality — can duplicate the context under which relationships have flourished in the past. What is more, the traditional standard acts as a check upon the fulfillment of inappropriate desires. But this approach is also problematic: Chivalry is understood by many to be based upon a conception women as inferior to men. It is commonly problematic that following the dicates of chivalry limits potential friendships or relationships.
In a final case, he who hopes to please all plays the difficult game of remembering the preferences of all. This is the most charitable approach because it involves the modifying oneself for the benefit of another. Further, occasional chivalry without offense seems to be the best of both worlds. But this approach is the least practical: It provides no guidance for action with strangers or acquaintances and requires consistent and often awkward inquiry. Additionally, inconsistent application casts doubt upon the conception or effectiveness of chivalry as a standard.
It is clear, therefore, that our society is in a strange position with regard to chivalry. We can neither accept nor reject it wholesale, and attempts to adopt it halfway are neither successful in practice nor satisfying in theory. To further understand chivalry, one must look at its origin.
Chivalry developed to address a particular problem in society: the problem of power. The society of the high Middle Ages through early modern Europe was hierarchical and highly structured. Little social mobility meant that those in authority could act with impunity. The same was true for the stronger and the smarter because of the absence of broad legal structures.
But the cultural elite, which mostly consisted of the clergy, rejected the vision of a world where might makes right and those in authority hold indiscriminate license. Instead, they developed with a moral imagination a vision of the world that valued submission, loyalty, duty and honor. It is true that the vision reinforced the hierarchical system, but it also demanded a limitation of the exercise of power. Chivalry, then, was the social code that, like a ship protecting its cargo from the sea, protected a moral vision from corruption by the unrestrained desire for power.
It is interesting to note that chivalry thus conceived was not a code applied solely to relationships between men and women. Rather, chivalry was applied to any relationship of unequal power — lord to vassal, husband to wife, bishop to parish priest. But chivalry thus conceived would not persist.
The Enlightenment philosophers of the 18th century challenged the social structure of early modern Europe. In particular, they rejected the hierarchical structures that limited the freedom of individuals. Indeed, these philosophers constituted a cultural elite that developed a new vision of the world, of greater liberty, equality and fraternity. But the ship of chivalry was an impediment to the new vision, for it reflected a vision that reinforced the hierarchical structure of its society. In the French revolution and the onset of modernity, then, the ship was sunk, collateral damage in the formation of the new world order. What is called chivalry today is in fact the flotsam of that ancient vessel.
Peter Johnston is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.