The Age of Chivalry is Gone

From Edmund Burke to Richard Weaver, conservatives urged respect for a code of chivalry not because they were simply quaint but because chivalry at its best represented a restraint against the sheer brutalization of human life. Nowadays, that conservatism is itself quaint, replaced by a creed that believes just about anything is justified in a state of perpetual emergency, including torture and detention without trial (and at that, without the formality of a congressional suspension of habeas corpus). Would you find a passage like the one below, from Weaver’s 1958 essay “Up From Liberalism,” in a non-paleo conservative publication today?

[Chivalry] insisted that even in war, when maximum strain is placed upon the passions, man may not become an absolute killer. In war there are some considerations which must not be crowded out by hatred and fear. This is true because even your foe has some rights, and these rights you must respect although your present course has his destruction in view. This may seem to some too paradoxical, but let us consider it in terms of an analogy. Modern wars have tended increasingly to resemble lynching parties. A lynching party acts in the belief that the guilt of the victim is absolute and unqualified, and that the only thing that matters is to put him to death immediately. Any means will do: beating, pistol fire, a tree and a rope. Of course this idea is contrary to that of juridical procedure. The law never takes the view that a man’s guilt is so absolute and so completely known that he is not allowed to say a word in his defense. On the contrary, the most atrocious murderer is given police protection and a trial according to the forms of law, with a chance to state his side of the affair.

Weaver knew to what use government and good, patriotic jingos would put war and rumors of war, too:

…the only way that a rigid, centralized control can be maintained is to keep the people living in a mentality of war. One can do this by filling them with desire of conquest, or one can do it by keeping them fearful of a real or imaginary enemy. Then one has a trump card to play on every occasion. If there is any relaxing or any resentment of controls, one has only to invoke “the national security” to silence opposition and even render it disreputable. We in the United States are living under the second of these policies now. The choice appears to lie between chaos and perpetual preparation for war, and the trouble with preparation for war is that it always issues in war. Here again technology steps in to make the dilemma more cruel, since it causes warfare to be increasingly total and nihilistic, and increasingly beyond the power of civilizing influences to absorb.

Even I sometimes find it hard to remember that conservatism used to be a noble thing, before the Bushes and Ashcrofts and Gonzaleses and their pals in the media turned it into something that Weaver and Burke wouldn’t recognize.


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