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"God, how I hate the 20th century" – On chivalry as a myth and as an ethical virtue

In the feature film “Patton” directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, which won no less than seven Oscars in 1971, a number of key events from the Second World War are recounted: the Tunisian campaign, the Allied invasion of Sicily, D-Day and the Battle of Falaise Pocket. The focus is on the eponymous U.S. General George S. Patton, who is pictured as a sometimes brutal and ruthless, sometimes merely quirky egocentric. How authentically the film portrays the actual personality of the general, who ruled from Bad Tölz in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of World War II and died in Heidelberg following a car accident in December 1945, remains a moot point. But both the film character and the historical figure seem to share at least a certain malaise about their own present. “God, how I hate the 20th century” is perhaps the most striking comment made by the protagonist in the film. Patton has two opponents: on the one hand Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the German Wehrmacht at the war level, on the other hand in particular Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery – but on a different level, namely in the imagination of war as such. Montgomery fights for the good cause against Nazi Germany, Patton fights for his actions to rank among the great deeds of history’s greatest commanders – starting with Alexander the Great. Patton’s most massive disappointment in the film is not in a military defeat, but in the news that his opponent Rommel was not even present at a battle Patton won. Somewhat stereotypically juxtaposed: Montgomery wants the successful fight, Patton wants the beautiful fight. The means/ends rationality of the former collides with the aesthetic view of the latter.

Poiesis and praxis

Perhaps apart from in films, this aesthetic or aestheticizing view has become alienating today and, like everything alien, at the same time challenging. It can also become the source of a questionable, idealizing understanding of warriorship and combat as ends in themselves. A revival of historical chivalry is impossible, if only because chivalry was associated with a feudal social order and society that we have overcome with good reasons.1 At the same time, however, this change in perspective points to a fundamental deficit in contemporary ethical thought, which is characterized in a resounding way by means/ends rationality. Our actions are largely based on poiesis or, as Aristotle called it, “productive thinking.” We want to save as many people as possible in the pandemic and consider which measures (means) will achieve this. We want to alleviate global poverty and ask ourselves which steps should be taken to meet this target. We want to pacify a country and question whether the use of military force can contribute to this. We want to conquer an enemy position and ponder which weapons are appropriate to do so. We want to protect our servicemen and women and call for the procurement of armed drones to do so. This “poietic” thinking is not wrong, but a permanent necessity in everyday life. We would rightly object – even ethically object – if someone stated a goal, but then failed to consider sensibly which means were suitable for achieving it in the first place. If a mountain rescuer sets off on a mission without a rope, he is making a practical error that is also a moral failing because he is endangering people. However, the actual ethical consideration moves away from the concrete actions to the goals of the action: Should we save people at all at our own peril?, or: Which people should we save first? It is the future state of the world, if you will, around which the ethical debate revolves. This way of thinking therefore has one decisive drawback: one is never completely with oneself, but always already – in particular – beyond oneself.

Ancient philosophical thought therefore contrasted poiesis with another human form of accomplishment, which Aristotle calls praxis.2 “Praxis” is a human activity that finds meaning entirely in itself. A paradigmatic example for the ancients was dancing. It has no goal beyond itself. Friedrich Schiller, also a classicist, calls “play” the consummation in which man is wholly himself. Others would mention listening to music or contemplating fine art as examples here. Unfortunately, an innate appreciation for such intrinsically valued activities has partially been lost: parents today send their children to listen to music because this is supposed to support cognitive skills, or they take them to the seaside or the mountains with the purpose of creating “happy memories”. The focus is not on the lived moment, but on a future in which one can pass off the memories or cognitive abilities as one’s possessions. Ethical consideration is thus absorbed by an economic rationale, by some sort of asset-enhancing household management. Practice (in the Aristotelian sense), on the other hand, consumes and exhausts.

What do these considerations have to do with chivalry and the ethics of war? The short answer is probably: The duality of “just war theory” and “chivalry” reflects this very duality of poiesis and praxis. It is taken as a foregone conclusion that human action should create justice. Even the biblical mandate to ensure peace is generally modified to demand that this peace, however, must coexist with justice. Violence, on the other hand, is perceived as morally problematic, but can be justified in order to achieve justice. Violence is thus a means to a good end, to peace and justice; it is not an end in itself. However, an important notion is often lost here: conceptually, both peace and justice are extremely complex. There is no such thing as “peace” or “justice,” rather it must be distinguished between their different forms: peace as absence of violence, legal peace, positive peace with mutual goodwill and so on, and also distributive justice, retributive justice, commutative justice, etcetera. These forms of peace and justice – which, after all, are not understood as attitudes but as world states – can conflict with one another. Peace and justice threaten to contradict each other if, for example, it is feared that the (just) sentencing of war criminals will trigger new acts of violence. Should one then opt for punitive justice at the expense of peace?

Thinkers from the “just war” tradition affirm in a principled way the question of whether violent action can be permitted for just reasons (and with legitimate authority and the right intention). They can draw on a very strong moral intuition in the case of self-defense: if individuals are unjustly attacked, they may (within limits) use force to defend themselves against the attack, or another person may (within limits) forcibly undertake this defense on their behalf. The decisive factor is a normative asymmetry: the individuals defending themselves use force, which can be legitimized, while the individuals who instigate the original aggression are in the wrong.

With regard to war, which is after all political or at least collective force, it is now ethically disputed whether the normative asymmetry in ius ad bellum (i.e. whether there is just cause for using force, for example when entering into war) is also reflected in ius in bello. The position of Michael Walzer and his followers (“traditional just war theory”) is that in the case of two warring parties, there is asymmetry between the parties as a whole, i.e. in the ius ad bellum, but that the individual combatants on both sides face one another on a morally level playing field. Walzer has in mind a situation like the Second World War: although Germany is in the wrong and the U.S. is in the right (ius ad bellum), Patton and Rommel have equal rights and duties in combat (ius in bello). In the more recent discussion of the so-called “revisionist just war theory,” authors (starting with Jeff McMahan and David Rodin) have disputed Walzer’s conception: if Germany is in the wrong, then so is Rommel, and if the United States is in the right, then so is Patton, as long as he adheres to the limits set by legitimate defensive force. Thus, the asymmetry in ius ad bellum corresponds to an asymmetry in ius in bello, and soldiers who fight for the just cause are superior in moral status to those who fight for the unjust cause (and should not actually be fighting at all).3

In the ongoing debates of the past ten or fifteen years, the “revisionist camp” has arguably become increasingly prevalent. It no longer makes sense – especially under the conditions of cosmopolitan individualism – that a soldier can belong to a warring party and, without having the ius ad bellum on his or her side, can use violent means and still fight on an equal moral footing with members of the justly contending party. The asymmetry is too glaring. This is also enshrined in the Bundeswehr’s concept of Innere Führung, which literally means “inner guidance” or “inner leadership,” and is officially translated as “leadership development and civic education”. According to Innere Führung, if you are certain that you will be sent on a mission that cannot be justified, you must not allow yourself to be instrumentalized for it and should resist.

Justice and chivalrous consciousness

In this call to make every soldier think about his or her own deployment lies one of the great moral advantages of revisionist just war theory. To put it succinctly (and somewhat oversimplified): the soldiers of the Wehrmacht ought to have (in fact should have) refused their missions – as Franz Jägerstätter did4 – and thus could have prevented the terrible suffering of the Second World War. This is a lesson rightly learned from the monstrosities of the Second World War. But this ethical approach also brings with it a serious problem: How do you know about the justice or injustice of your cause? Is it even possible to make such a clear distinction here? Since justice is to be accomplished, but injustice must be prevented, one arrives at a dualism that can turn out to be totalitarian and destructive whenever violent means are used. It supports a world view that is often referred to as “Manichean” in the social sciences because it makes a simplistic distinction between good and evil. Exaggeratedly and metaphorically speaking, “fighters of light” and “fighters of darkness” face one another in this conception; there is thus no longer any room for a contest between two equals, as is a characteristic feature of the concept of chivalry.

The concept of chivalry is actually associated with many different ideas, especially character traits. In Gottfried von Strassburg’s “Tristan,” King Mark lists a few at Tristan’s sword ceremony:

Now that your sword has been sanctified,
And you have been made a knight,
Attend to chivalric values
And also to yourself, to who you are.
Your birth into nobility, be mindful of this.
Be humble and be honest,
Be truthful and disciplined.
Be always charitable toward the poor,
Always self-assured toward the rich;
Take care of and respect yourself,
Honor and cherish all women.
Be magnanimous and loyal,
And keep these things always new.5

The first and most important virtue of a knight is self-reflection: “Who you are.” In turn, the first thing that reflecting on oneself brings to light is awareness of one’s own limitations, but at the same time awareness of one’s own dignity. A knight who knows his limits also gives leeway to the other. This is where the other virtues then come into play: kindness, generosity, reliability, and even ensuring a pleasant appearance. A knight who is aware of his dignity considers the consequences of his actions, but is never completely absorbed in a means/ends context.

A very broad concept of chivalry applies in literature, encompassing many virtues for everyday life as well. Some of these may have been more fully realized in literary works than in historical reality, and the mythical ideal image of the “noble knight”, or its kitschy counterpart, has itself become the object of ridicule and satire – most artfully, perhaps, in Miguel de Cervantesʼ Don Quixote of La Mancha.6 But that mildness and fidelity, generosity and humility are important ethical virtues (in Aristotle’s sense) can be assumed here. However, as Oxford medieval expert Malcolm Vale points out, much depends on how broadly or how narrowly we conceive the concept of chivalry.7 A narrower concept in terms of military ethics concerns the behavior of the (noble) warrior in the battle itself: chivalry here implies that the bearer of this quality is willing to conduct the fight in such a way that a) he directs dangers away from people not involved in the fight and even toward himself, i.e., to put it in a more modern way, tries to spare civilians even at his own risk, and that b) he recognizes his opponent as his equal, i.e. he observes the rules of battle even when he himself is threatened with defeat.

Neither of these two attitudes fit the notion that “just warriors” help realize justice: whoever wants to realize justice not in the action itself, but as the goal of his action, will – in the sense of the “poietic” means/ends rationality – repeatedly find himself in situations where he has to accept evil for the purpose of realizing the greater good. Sometimes it will therefore be necessary in a war to allow injustice (“collateral damage”) against civilians at individual points in order to achieve the just goal. The principle of action with double effect does not represent a decisive restriction, although it requires at a central point that only the good effect may be intended, because at the same time it allows a teleological weighing of the consequences according to the principle of proportionality. Since self-protection may be necessary for the success of the war, it also takes precedence over protecting uninvolved third parties in cases of doubt. – The second willingness runs into trouble by the mere fact that in the “poietic” model for realizing justice, nothing beyond justice itself is intrinsically valuable – not even the rules of war. Thus, if the rules of war endanger the success of war and thus threaten to thwart the realization of justice, they too must give way to the higher goal.

In particular, the revisionist just war theory has been accused of becoming a model for justifying “total war”. It is certainly not the intention of the proponents of this model to provide a blueprint for total wars, but an unbiased and consistent look at this pattern of justification reveals that the accusation is anything but far-fetched. Systems legitimizing violence can – and this does not only concern the revisionist theory of just war – have both a violence-promoting and violence-inhibiting effect. But revisionism knows no insurmountable internal barriers and can thus be more easily used for unconstrained legitimizations. If we are honest, we quite often think of present-day military operations in precisely this asymmetrical way: “We’re in the right, they’re in the wrong, therefore in case of doubt we may and must protect our servicemen and women more than third parties – and we may exploit any (technological) superiority against our adversaries.” To take a recent example: Probably what pains us most about the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 – a country where Bundeswehr soldiers were engaged for 20 years – is not simply the withdrawal in itself, but the fact that this country has now been abandoned to precisely those people against whom it was – and is still – felt to be morally justified to keep them from power in this country. This is more than understandable: after all, we expect every value commitment to be fully embraced and emotionally consummated. And we want to help those prevail who we, with good reason, believe to be better. Many political theorists have probably long understood a cosmopolitan foreign policy to mean that, through unification, a perhaps rather informal “cosmopolitan” existence could be created in a global political community, with shared fundamental value commitments. However, Martha Nussbaum has shown in her book on cosmopolitanism that it is precisely liberalism that is not allowed to equalize, but continues to require the difference between states as spatial mediators of freedom.8 The problematic form of the cosmopolitan pattern of thought also has, after all, a domestic counterpart, which is put forward in various variants, as in the following examples: “Democracy may also be suspended, in case of doubt, against the enemies of democracy.” Or like this: “Against the despisers of human rights, action need not be taken in conformity with human rights.” Self-commitment is conditioned by circumstances; the higher goal must not be endangered. It is then often referred to as “peace through law”, as if peace itself were only the product of a poiesis that could be produced by technologically-shaped fabrication – analogous to similar empty phrases such as “climate protection through innovation.” Nevertheless, there often remains a sense that humanity does not lie in the enforcement of the humanitarian but, as in the case of military medics or military chaplains, in-between the parties. Military medical personnel may formally belong to one of the conflicting parties, but they are supposed to perform their humanitarian task impartially, i.e. also on injured and wounded opponents. It is not the just cause for war, but an awareness of the equal humanity in every soldier, that should guide the work of the medical service. This suspension of the question of justice in recognizing one’s own and others’ limitations in answering it belongs as much to the field of chivalry as does the renunciation of punishment in the case of captured enemies of war. (Incidentally, even the order of the three ius ad bellum criteria laid down by Thomas Aquinas9, namely auctoritas principis, causa iusta, and intentio recta, can be taken to mean that the definition of just cause is somewhat qualified. The authority, which must be imagined as instituted by God, even includes competence in judging just cause and is, in this sense, superior to it).

Here is probably the greatest challenge that the concept of chivalry offers to our contemporary thinking about the normative aspects of violence: chivalry resists the reduction of our moral consciousness to the point of view of justice. In chivalrous consciousness – if one may express it so sweepingly – a greater breadth of moral thinking is suspended, in particular the distinction between strength and weakness, as expressed, for example, in the protocol “women and children first!” It is not always just to give priority to women and children when rescuing people.

This distinction between strength and weakness always depends, of course, on the context: someone who is strong in relation to one thing is not necessarily so in relation to another. But the fact that strength is not exploited ad infinitum and unearned advantage is relinquished is part of this moral consciousness of dependence and contingency that knows itself to be bound in a more fundamental unity than that which incites violence.10 We still have examples of this in sport, such as when a soccer team kicks the ball into touch because an opponent is injured, or when cyclists wait for a competitor to catch up who has suffered a puncture during a mountain stage in a cycle race. The jousting tournaments of the Middle Ages also seem to represent a kind of sport. This, of course, immediately raises the objection: but sport is play, and war is bitterly serious. On the one hand this is certainly true, but on the other hand many things have become so bitterly serious to us because we no longer have an authority against which we could once again qualify ourselves and our options for power and violence.11

Self-restraint, not self-empowerment

“God, how I hate the 20th century.” General Patton does not invoke God by accident. The twentieth century stands under Nietzsche’s dictum from The Gay Science: “God is dead. God remains dead.” If God is dead, we humans must take matters into our own hands, especially the moral success of our world. In a remarkable lecture, Christian philosopher Robert Spaemann showed that here lie enormous implications for theology – which itself is becoming, in a sense, increasingly “God-less.” In a world that surrenders everything to poiesis – which dreams of biotechnological innovations or human-machine/human-animal hybrids or (supposedly) free choice of gender or age – the awareness of creatureliness that comes with the virtue of gratitude becomes increasingly difficult. Because we can and do constantly question ourselves, we feel constantly threatened internally. Spaemann, however, recalls the life of the early Christians, in which a multiple response was found to “the problem of the inner threat posed by the outer questioning” (relating to the testing of faith):

“First, by the conviction that faith is not compelling knowledge but evidence that owes itself to supernatural grace. [...] The second motive is the conviction that, at the end of times, the evidence of faith will also have facticity on its side, that the faithful will be on the victorious side, and, paradoxically, precisely when they have not been victorious here. This awareness eliminates the weakness from which all hatred springs. It brings inner sovereignty, without which the commandment to love one’s enemies is unfulfillable.”12 Early Christians, according to Spaemann, knew that they did not have to – and could not – bring about the world’s salvation themselves. There is indeed a difference between play – including knights jousting – and the seriousness of life. But to be serious also means not only to focus on oneself and one’s cause, but also to accept others in the awareness that life has been granted to all of us.

Interestingly, this thinking is currently experiencing a (partial) secular renaissance in academia in the recent writings of Judith Butler. In Frames of War, Butler focuses on “grievability”13 and adopts from political liberalism, to which contemporary approaches to just war are mostly committed, the demand for equality, although on the other hand she strongly criticizes subject constitution as a model in liberalism. For Butler, liberalism fails to make clear that there is a fundamental dependence of all human beings on other human beings. She rejects (like Augustine,14 but for different reasons) the normative thesis, so important in just war theory, that self-defense is permitted in principle – and within limits – because it is only a “frame” that determines who or what is viewed as “self”. Butler laments that not every life is considered grievable, even though she concedes that life itself cannot presume to be preserved in any event (for example, according to Butler, unborn foetuses). Thus, the central imperative is that of non-violence, but it is not directed – and not even primarily – at individual people, but at the structures in which people are interdependently linked.

No actual criteria for dealing with violence can be derived from Butler’s previous work on non-violence. Since all these criteria would in turn owe themselves to “framings,” this would also be pointless. Given that we have to accept that violent conflicts are a factual reality, her deliberations are therefore not helpful, and unfortunately these notions and the posits they contain have themselves contributed to much strife and exclusion, and thus also to violence. Nevertheless, they can help to question conventional patterns of thought in two ways: on the one hand, they reveal that certain assertions, such as to say that chivalry in the sense of avoiding great asymmetries of power is wrong, since the righteous could never be satisfied, are themselves based on problematic framings. And on the other hand, Butler’s stance probably betrays, for its part, a certain closeness to a way of thinking that is also subject to the ethos of chivalry – and which is characterized above all by the insight that things could – in a utopian sense – also be quite different. Thinking violence in terms of justice, as with all approaches to legitimation via “just war,” is characterized by thinking in the mode of the necessary. Chivalry, on the other hand (not as a historical but intellectual figure in the sense outlined here), thinks in the mode of the contingent.

1 cf. Ehlers, Joachim (2009): Die Ritter. Geschichte und Kultur. Second edition. Munich, pp. 13−20. There are also country-specific differences in the historical character of chivalry. On the British tradition, see for example, Maurice Keen (1984): Chivalry, New Haven and London.

2 On the importance of this distinction, see also Schockenhoff, Eberhard (2007): Theologie der Freiheit, Freiburg i. Br., pp. 96-99.

3 On the debate between “classical” and “revisionist” just war theory, see Koch, Bernhard (2017): Diskussionen zum Kombattantenstatus in asymmetrischen Konflikten. In: Werkner, Ines-Jacqueline and Ebeling, Klaus (eds.): Handbuch Friedensethik. Wiesbaden, pp.843–854.

4 Jägerstetter is already explicitly acknowledged by McMahan at the beginning of his book (Killing in War: Oxford 2009, p. 136 f.).

5 Gottfried von Strassburg (ca. 1210): Tristan & Isolde. Indianapolis 2020, verses 5023-5036, p. 70. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parsifal receives similar instruction in chivalric virtues from Gurnemanz.

6 The knight becomes a womanizer like James Bond: “... especially when they tell as how yon t'other lady lay among orange trees, in the embraces of her knight, while a duenna half dead with envy and surprise, kept sentry over them ...” (Miguel de Cervantes [1605/1615]: Don Quixote. Translated by T. Smollett. Mineola, N. Y. 2018, p. 261).

7 Vale, Malcolm (2019): Chivalry and the Conduct of Warfare – Illusion and Reality. In: Koch, Bernhard (ed.): Chivalrous Combatants? The Meaning of Military Virtue Past and Present. Baden-Baden, pp. 29−43, p. 35.

8 Nussbaum, Martha (2020): Cosmopolitanism. A noble but flawed ideal. Cambridge/London..

9 Thomas Aquinas (1265-1274): Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 40.

10 cf. Augustine, Letter to Boniface. In: Ausgewählte Briefe (Selected Letters), Volume II. Kempten/Munich 1917, p. 182: “So think first of this, when you arm yourself for battle, that even your bodily strength is a gift of God.”

11 Again, these considerations here are ethical in nature. That the wars of the Middle Ages were also cruel remains, of course, undisputed. See for example, Kortüm, Hans-Henning (2010): Kriege und Krieger. 500−1500. Stuttgart, pp. 204−264.

12 Spaemann, Robert (2001): Der Hass des Sarastro. In: by the same author: Grenzen. Zur ethischen Dimension des Handelns. Stuttgart, pp. 181−193, p. 191. Translation from German.

13 Butler, Judith (2010): Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? Frankfurt/New York.

14 Augustinus: De libero arbitrio – Der freie Wille. Translated by J. Brachtendorf. Paderborn/Munich 2006, pp. 84−91.



Bernhard Koch is Deputy Director of the Institute for Theology and Peace in Hamburg and Adjuct Professor at Albrecht Ludwigs University in Freiburg in Breisgau. He studied philosophy, logic and philosophy of science as well as catholic theology in Munich and Vienna and was a lecturer at the University of Education Weingarten, Goethe University Frankfurt, Helmut Schmidt University of the German Armed Forces and Hamburg University. Since 2012, he has held the position of Co-Teacher Ethics at the ICMM Center of Reference for Education on IHL and Ethics, Zurich.