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Knighthood and the Warrior Ideal

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December 2007
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It seems that every culture has had its warrior class and its ideals of how warriors should deport themselves. The most famous of these ideals in the West is the chivalric ideal which descended from the ancient Celtic cultures and was tempered by Christian ideas. I consider myself now to be a knight. I have long thought of myself in such terms but only now — at the in my case rather decrepit age of 47 — have I been dubbed a knight by an authority with the traditional power to grant such title.

A Masonic knight is, of course, not the same thing as a feudal knight or even a knighthood given out by the Monarch in Britain or elsewhere as a reward for services rendered to the crown. A Masonic knighthood is a purely chivalric one in the old sense of the term. It calls the knight to service and rewards certain displays of virtue and potential for virtue. It rewards — or acknowledges — that the candidate for knighthood has exhibited the sincere desire to do good and live by the chivalric code.

What does that mean for us in a time when there are few horses and even less shining armor (outside of museums in Europe). Does it mean toting rifles or machine guns or artillery and joining the military services? No. It is quite apart from the profession of soldiering. The Masonic knight pursues chivalry reduced to its fundamentals — virtues and commitments and a sense of duty that may be applied to any field and any sort of conflict.

For example, among the chivalric virtues are to always protect and defend women and children, the poor and vulnerable. To stand up for justice, which is to say that every man (or person) be given his due, no more and no less. To not act as judge and jury, much less executioner, but rather to verbally, and if necessary physically defend against violence or injustice as one sees it.

No one expects a knight to be all-wise. That is what gods are for. Our inner God – that supernal being who calls us to service and is the voice of conscience — must take that duty. One can only do one’s best. Strive to be wiser today than yesterday.

No one expects a knight to always be courageous either, but that is a primary knightly virtue. Across all warrior classes and professions, courage must be paramount; for it is the virtue of being able to act even when one is afraid. Courage does not mean to be without fear. Not at all. If one had no fear, it would take no courage at all to act. So those bumper stickers one sees that say “No Fear” strike me as rather bad. They imply an unwise recklessness and disconnection from the reality of life. Our lives are extremely fragile. Our souls may carry on, but our bodies can be killed in a thousand different ways by a small hole or a sudden shock or a microbe.

In a sense, however, courage does overcome fear. It overcomes its opposite, the vice of cowardice. By trusting in our spiritual immortality we can overcome the fear of death. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel it, but we can overcome it. Such courage does not result in recklessness. The “berserker” of ancient Norse and Celtic tradition was certainly useful for killing lots of people and scaring the opposition silly, but berserkers were not really (and still are not really) virtuous people. Whether using the sword or the pen, or the tongue, the berserker lacks any sense of judgment or proportion, any sense of justice or empathy. Cuchullain had this mental health problem and he is a justly famous warrior in terms of fantastic achievements. But I wonder if the storytellers about Cuchullain meant us to take his story in such simple terms. Maybe they did, but I give the bards a bit more credit for thoughtfulness. I don’t think they were barbarians. The story of Cuchullain read like the model for so many video game heroes — living a life of mass destruction and killing until he is tripped up by fate.

It was the same with Achilles. Amazing superhuman feats, lots of death, which is valued in the heat of battle. Arguably such superheroes are heroes because they save the lives of so many of their friends and comrades. That is a good thing. But at the same time, just killing lots of “enemies” is not simply good. It is still killing and it is still damaging to the soul, the mind, and the person. If the hero-killer goes on to survive the battlefield, he often finds it impossible to return to normal life and is haunted by all the death he has dealt out.

I gather that some men and boys find pleasure in destroying things, especially with explosives. I suppose this appeals to one’s Shadow-complex. The dark side of the inner God. The creator and the destroyer. I like creating things and never (as far as I can recall) have enjoyed destroying anything except perhaps a snowball. I did once light a model spaceship on fire with some friends and film it while melting and smoking, which, at age 15 was sort of cool. I suppose there is a kind of sublime awe in witnessing the decomposition of things, as in a fire. The power in nature to reduce everything to dust and atoms. Still, I would rather witness a fire or volcano than cause one.

And that, for me, is part of the chivalric code of conduct. One doesn’t engage in destruction lightly and should avoid it wherever possible. Even more acutely, one must strive not to derive pleasure from destruction, especially the destruction of the innocent. If another person is charging at you with a gun or sword or spear, then, yes, one is bound to take the extreme action of fighting back, fire with fire, and preserving oneself rather than allowing oneself to be destroyed. The reason for this is not selfishness, but that, as a knight, one is a guardian of others. You are protecting not just yourself but your family, your people, your nation. This courageous act of protection is an act of love, not hate.

That’s hard, of course. Virtue isn’t easy. To defend yourself or your family against someone else without hatred, or indeed even anger, is hard. I think of the old TV series Kung Fu. That was a great example. Even John Wayne movies often depicted this kind of dispassionate courage. Today’s movies are more likely to depict men acting out of rage and vengeance.

Is that wrong? Yes and no. It is wrong to act vengefully, even if the other person has done a great wrong. However, it is right to justly defend against someone who has done a great wrong. We love those Stephen Segal movies where he takes revenge on the corrupt oil companies in defense of the Inuit peoples of Alaska. That sort of story is a classic hero story. But would it be right for a person to act that way in reality (as distinct from story)? Vigilante justice may seem like the only solution in a corrupt society where the powerful abuse their power so horribly. But vigilante justice undermines the fabric of a just society. The vigilante, by circumventing due process of law, undermines that system. The movies would have us believe that the system is so irrevocably flawed that there is nothing to do but rebel.

As an American, I was raised with a fairly positive attitude toward rebellion and revolution. After all, the American Revolution founded this country. But, sadly, the American Revolution is seldom presented to children clothed in all its horror and death. It is romanticised, its heroes deeds emphasized, and the sufferings of thousands ignored. Successful revolutions are always defended as necessary evils. It is always said that there was no other way to bring about change, except through violence.

But a moment’s consideration will force one to admit that such statements can have no warrant. Time and patience and due process can also change a society. History attests to it. Even though humans lack the virtue of patience and so often give rein to their passions and act rashly and violently. Arguably, some people simply won’t listen to reason and calm discussion of needs. Some will not respect other’s right to freedom. And in such cases, violence is, as they say, “the last resort.” But as Isaac Asimov said through one of his characters in the Foundation Trilogy, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

In other words, we resort to violence when we cannot think of anything else to try and we have run out of ideas. It marks the limits of our intelligence and craft. It marks the limits of our reason and ability to empathize and act diplomatically. Each one of use has only so much of these virtues, and when we reach the limits of our particular supply of them, violence seems like the only option. We, in the United States, are taught from birth that violence is an option, that there are times when it is the only option. Television and movies and even folklore cannot make a good story out of non-violent protest or diplomacy or compromise or patience. Can you imagine a television show whose main theme was patience?

So, we are conditioned for violence and only by cultivating intelligence and other resources to express and put forward our will, can we build a repertoire that permits us to avoid violence and when forced, minimize it. That was the message of Kung Fu. Faced with vicious people who will use violence on the innocent and weak, the true knight must summon his valor to stand up to them, and do so effectively, which often means employing both superior skill in violence and superior reasoning. Usually the hero outwits the bad guys. He doesn’t simply get a bigger gun.

I find the American culture of the gun extremely sad. It saddens me when a man’s biceps are referred to as “big guns” thereby reducing manhood to nothing more than killing machinery. What as sad definition of manhood that is, and how far from the chivalric ideal.

When I place “Sir” before my name, and note two of the several orders of knighthood into which I have been inducted by the Scottish Rite Supreme Council, I do so not to brag or create a pretense of nobility or aspire to old-fashioned noble titles I do not “really” possess. Anyone who is not a Mason will have difficulty understanding that point. It isn’t pretense. The titles remind me, when I sign my name, that I am bound and called to act with chivary, to examine myself, to improve my own virtue, to overcome my vices, and to be courageous and grow in courage each day so that I am able to act to help those in need. To help not with a sword alone, but with a pen, with a word, with a hand, with care, listening, love, and the sacrifice of my self. Not necessarily my own death, but more often simply putting aside my own desires to assist, to teach, even to admonish others with courtesy and respect.

As a druid, this ideal goes even further, for I am pleased to extend it to animals and plants and to Mother Earth herself. To defend, protect, and give help to all beings who may require it, to the best of my strength.

Finally, I will add that this does not mean rashly sacrificing yourself, your health or your life. There must be also a balanced sense of self preservation because if you are a guardian and you die, then there is no guardian to take your place. Someone may be able to step in, but no one can truly replace you as a guardian of your loved ones or as a friend.

So, I sign off,

Sir Owl

Knight Rose Croix & Knight Kadosh

Gratia †Deo† Magister Artis et Doctor Philosophiae

Druid Companion of the O.B.O.D.

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