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The qualities that I would love most of all to see in all our students could not be better described than by Edmund Burke’s account of the chivalric demeanor: “that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom”…

unbought graceAs a part of their studies in Humanities 302 each year, the juniors at Wyoming Catholic encounter the thought of Edmund Burke, the great English opponent of abstraction and radicalism in politics. Burke’s spirited arguments in Reflections on the Revolution in France have given American conservatives strong intellectual and moral foundations, despite the fact that our own political situation differs greatly from Burke’s. For example, Burke takes great pains to deny the assertion that the English somehow choose or elect their own kings. The very idea fills him with dudgeon.

Burke’s arguments on inheritance are extremely important to anyone who takes tradition seriously, but I always find myself most moved by the extraordinary eloquence of his outrage at the treatment of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Attacked and captured at Versailles in October of 1789, the royal family was accompanied back into Paris “amidst the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women.”

Remembering Marie’s youth, when she was “glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendor, and joy,” Burke cannot imagine how noble, ancient France could countenance her dishonor. “I thought 10,000 swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.” What follows is one of the greatest passages of lament in the English language: “But the age of chivalry is gone. — That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that 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.”

Burke saw the same leveling spirit of democratic envy in France that Alexis de Tocqueville would find in America some four decades later—the toxic result of too much insistence on equality. The problem is what this insistence does to the very idea of service to a someone in a superior role, especially an inherited one. “The unbought grace of life,” he says, “the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage while it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.”

The qualities that I would love most of all to see in all our students could not be better described than by Burke’s account of the chivalric demeanor, which suggests a parallel (in a different register) to the proper attitudes of worship. I never respond to the imagery of slavery with respect to God, but I do to “generous loyalty,” “proud submission,” “dignified obedience,” and “subordination of the heart.” These phrases speak of an “exalted freedom”—exalted and proud because of the nature of God, to whom one freely and gladly offers this obedience. The same would hold true of obedience to a genuine king, as Shakespeare shows us with the superb Kent, who with “generous loyalty” goes into disguise and serves King Lear even after the willful old king banishes him.

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others have used their fiction to revive the idea of this natural and spiritual authority that does not allow us the hubris of having “elected” it in the way we elect a representative or a president. One of the characters in Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength, for example, comes into the presence of Elwin Ransom (the main character in the first two volumes of Lewis’s Space Trilogy) and has a completely unexpected reaction. As a child, she had admired kings, especially Solomon, but not since then. Now, in Ransom’s presence, “For the first time in all those years she tasted the word King itself with all linked associations of battle, marriage, priesthood, mercy, and power.”

Lewis writes in a tradition that certainly owes a great deal to Burke, but political nostalgia for monarchy is hardly the point for most of us. Rather, it is the intuition of what man is when he is most fully realized in the image and likeness of God. At Wyoming Catholic College, our aim is the restoration of grandeur and grace—why not call it chivalry?—to the moral imagination.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (March 2018). 

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