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

By Bernhard Koch

For the considerations made here, chivalry is understood as a (military) ethical construct in the narrow sense and not as social reality. The starting points are the concepts of poiesis and praxis – purposive action and action for its own sake – which originate in ancient philosophy. Today’s thinking is fundamentally shaped by the former: the focus is on changing (world) conditions for the better by appropriate means. Thinking within the framework of just war can also be assigned to the poietic notion. Violence is not an end in itself, but may be used under certain conditions to “establish” peace and justice.

For all their undeniable merits, such systems legitimizing violence – especially the currently dominant “revisionist just war theory” – always entail the risk that a duality of good and evil is promoted and, paradoxically, that the originally violence-limiting moment is turned into an escalatory one, for instance by exploiting any technological advantage. 

The ethos of chivalry in the sense outlined above limits the risk, among other things through the notion of “fairness”, that there is an unconstrained legitimization of violence due to an unquestioned moral asymmetry. Born out of the spirit of Christianity, it rejects the optimization efforts that have become almost compulsive in a “Godless” present. As a form of self-commitment, it is rooted in a recognition of one’s own creatureliness and the limitedness of all human beings. Even the more recent writings of Judith Butler show some proximity to such thinking in secular form.

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