in Human Nature
do the Golden Age of Classical Greece, the Renaissance and The
Age of Enlightenment have in common? They all believed in the nobility
and potential good of human nature, and humanity reaped incredible
benefits from them.
Confidence in the basic goodness of human nature
forms the foundation of chivalry as well. It is this foundation
that chivalry tries to revive. We start by finding it in ourselves,
responding to it with deep, personal commitment, and then inspiring
it in others through our words and deeds.
Today's world makes this difficult in many ways. It's
not considered "cool" to be virtuous. It's naïve.
It gets you nowhere which means not being virtuous is seen
positively. People see it as antiquated, inappropriate for the times.
They try to translate Chivalry-Now as sexist, despite our
well defined commitment against sexism.
What all this negativity comes down to is a disbelief
in the goodness of human nature. Such a conclusion is easy to understand.
World Wars, genocides, racial prejudice, sexual bias, crime, political
corruption, corporate greed, domestic violence, so on and so forth.
If human nature were as fundamentally depraved as many
would have us believe, we would not see the evil inherent in war
and greed. While it is true that we allow them to proliferate in
our culture, we know, deep inside, that they are wrong. Even when
we cooperate, or fail to condemn them as wrong or evil, or just
close our eyes in willful ignorance, we convince ourselves that
we do not buy into them completely. While this does not extricate
us from blame, the inclination to maintain feelings of separation
and innocence comes from somewhere. The truth is, we know
better. Our own nature tells us what is wrong or unfair.
We have a moral barometer we call conscience.
We live in, and have adjusted to, a world of rampant
cynicism. As individuals, whatever integrity we hold onto contends
with this cynicism on a daily basis. We have to contend with amoral
consumerism, that places materialistic price-tags on everything.
Selfish motives are sought and found everywhere we look, to the
point where unselfishness seems a naïve and certainly impractical
concept. We accept things the way they are, even as we recognize
them as intrinsically wrong. What choice do we have, when it is
so prevailing? When we see it as part of the fabric of our surroundings
from birth? When we are told that it is vital to our economy, and
therefore to our survival even as it eats away at who we
And so we blame other people for being weak, for lacking
true values, for being basically evil and needing to be controlled.
For the most part, we include ourselves, almost as an excuse. We
are, after all, "only human." Whatever sense of moral
order we inherit as a species, what Enlightenment thinkers called
"moral law," seems so amorphous, so easily overwhelmed
by social pressures, as to be meaningless. We turn to more tangible
forces outside ourselves, to the burden of authoritarian law on
one hand, or the capricious freedom of the market, which allows
various forms of greed to contend with one another. In either case,
our integrity is surrendered to outside forces.
Does it have to be this way? Is our moral nature so
corrupt that we cannot rely on it for something better, something
upon which freedom's potential can thrive?
The authoritarian tells us that we can enjoy freedom
within the limits of the law, be it religious or civil. The consumerist
insists that deregulation of the free market maximizes freedom for
everyone, even as it artificially manipulates that freedom every
minute of every day.
In contrast, the natural law of our essential humanity
is more subtle, and seemingly less powerful like a still,
small voice crying out for its due. Our mistake is not trusting
it, which carries all the ramifications of not trusting ourselves.
Conscience is so powerful, so naturally engrained in who we are,
that, to varying degrees, it survives authoritarianism and consumerism.
For some of us, it rejects them entirely in favor of the kind of
freedom in which human nature enjoys a more favorable course.
The world as it is teaches us that people are not to
be trusted. Should that conclusion, which includes each of us, subjectively
and objectively, be acceptable to us as a species? Is it not a capitulation
of our finest assets? Do we not devalue the very human drive for
compassion, rationality, a sense for justice and all the other virtues,
and hand everything over to either market forces or some faceless
oligarchy or tyrant?
The failures of communism and capitalism, when examined
by disinterested eyes, teach us a valuable lesson. We are missing
the mark. Concern for humanity should be more than just the survival
of human beings en mass. It includes preserving the humane qualities
that make people free, good and not exploited by outside forces,
that each unique man and woman thrives on his or her uniqueness
not for the sake of diversity, which can be artificial, but
for the sake of authenticity.
In other words, people are not the enemy. The real
enemy is found in social forces that demean and degrade the best
qualities of humanity, judging us by our possessions rather than
our character, and manipulating freedom into the dull homogeneity
of a domesticated herd.
Cynicism becomes most powerful when the cynicism that
we see and hear around us connects with our own self-doubts.
Unless we cultivate the still, small voice of conscience into the
generator of our authentic being, it cannot adequately contend with
a world where everything is marketed to our basest fears and insecurities.
Not only goods are marketed to us in this fashion, but politics
and religion as well. Our parents, teachers and peers, for the most
part, expect us to surrender to a system that defines us as compliant
consumers of both things and ideas. Those who rebel often do so
in the wrong direction, selling their individuality to a counter-culture,
with similar results.
Distrust of self turns cynicism into a reasonable alternative.
We look at the world and see humanity at work, exploiting the weak,
committing genocidal war, and turning a blind eye to ravages of
poverty. We condemn crime, abuse and corruption as human weaknesses,
or even tendencies. Intimately, we experience people who care only
about their own advancement, and materialistically thrive because
of it. These are all human constructs where people are rewarded
for doing the wrong thing. They appeal to our darkest inclinations
despite occasional pangs of conscience. We conclude that human nature
is bad, even though human nature performs this very reasoning. We
are judging the evils of the world by our own higher standards.
When we surrender to authoritarianism or consumerism,
what exactly do we surrender? Our ability to discern right from
wrong in favor of group values? Not completely. We still discern
right and wrong, but to a much more limited extent. For most of
us, conscience remains in some form, no matter how we rein it in.
We merely subjugate it to artificial authorities. Doing so, we end
up distrusting the only thing we can directly trust, our own integrity.
That enslaves us in ways we scarcely comprehend, and performs a
violence to human nature itself.
It is right to detest and combat evil. But does that
mean losing confidence in people, when we, as people,
see what is wrong and choose to fight it? Should we distrust human
nature, when it is in our nature to cultivate virtue in our lives
and in the world around us? The very chivalry that we hold so dear
is a human construct, freely chosen by people of conscience and
In my past career, I have spoken with people who, on
the surface and in their own actions, seem devoid of the virtues
we seek to encourage. Many were poorly educated, and had criminal
pasts. Some were guilty of domestic violence. Others were alcoholic,
or deeply entrenched in the culture of drugs. There were parents
who did not deserve to have children.
Speaking with them one-on-one, it was surprising how
easily they turned around and expressed moral outrage on various
topics that they themselves were guilty of. They knew better. Many
clung to fabricated excuses, or felt that circumstances dictated
their bad behavior. Some expressed regret, while at the same time
acknowledging that they would never change.
The point is that conscience was still part of their
make-up. There was good in them, but it had been beaten down.
Now, I am sure there are people out there who have
no conscience at all, in every level of society. They are the extremes.
They are, for want of a better word, evil, even though they may
not see themselves as such. The point is that they are the exception,
not the rule.
What draws us to chivalry is the longing for virtue
that human nature generates. This longing may be more prevalent
that we think. The tragedy of cynicism is that people really do
want a better world. They want justice and peace and happiness.
What makes them cynical is the empty rhetoric of corrupt politicians,
the conflicting values that consumerism propagates, the obvious
hypocrisy of some prominent religious leaders, and the complicit
complacency of the masses who just accept things the way they are.
Cynicism is a self-defeated recognition of what is
bad by what is good. It leads nowhere, and foments feelings of pessimism.
Chivalry, in contrast, is a self-actualizing response for what is
good. It builds on the very best of human nature.
Today's chivalry will be just another sad, dead-end
street if it fails to project confidence in humanity, an optimism
that people are fundamentally good and can serve as arbiters of
virtue given half a chance. If that is not true, what are we fighting
for? As human beings ourselves, why would we even want to dedicate
our lives to something better? If we deny our brothers and sister
the capacity for good, we deny it in ourselves as well.
Chivalry-Now constantly reminds us that we choose
who we are, what we believe in, what moves us to action. It reminds
us that choices must constantly be made, and that following the
crowd is often the coward's way of imitating life. It holds us accountable
for our decisions, or lack thereof, by subjecting everything we
do and think to the mirror of conscience.
Remember, our distrust of others is related
to our own self-doubts, which we must conquer first. Only
when we believe in ourselves, and are true to ourselves, will we
be able to see the goodness in others.