Learning about the chivalric virtues by examining their opposites
Often we can achieve a deeper understanding of something by examining its opposite. Our knowledge of the traditional “Seven Virtues,” for instance, is expanded by our awareness of the contrary “Seven Deadly Sins.”
This exploration-by-opposition also works for the Seven Knightly Virtues, and in my seminars on Chivalry Today, I often ask for volunteers to suggest the opposites of these chivalrous qualities. Apart from the usual antonyms, I’ve gotten some unexpected responses which highlight the complexity of the Code of Chivalry. Perhaps the following list could be considered the Seven Lesser-Known Knightly Sins:
Although the opposite of courage is often thought to be “cowardice” or “weakness,” a better choice is “bravado.” Interestingly, courage and bravado sometimes appear identical, but even the most courageous knight in shining armor knows that conflict is used only as a last resort. A bully, on the other hand, uses blusterous bravado to camouflage aggressive displays of egotism as bravery.
The obvious opposite of justice is “injustice,” but another contrary to this virtue is “opportunism.” While injustice is simply the lack of just deserts, an opportunist is one who pursues justice only when it’s in his or her best interest – which usually means only when it applies to someone else.
While “greed” is frequently seen as the opposite of generosity, another is “frivolousness.” Giving time, energy and money in a generous manner means choosing things that will be beneficial to others, not just squandering resources on needless gifts and wasteful endeavors.
“Cruelty” can certainly be the opposite of mercy, but so can “irresponsibility.” The soothing, healing quality of mercy can only be demonstrated by someone who is willing to take responsibility for the harm that careless actions and degrading words can cause others.
The opposite of faith is “falseness,” but the root of that vice can truly found in “selfishness.” Most lies are told out of self-interest, not out of sheer treachery. In order to be faithful, a knight in shining armor must recognize the harm which a broken promise can cause, and must be willing to make difficult personal sacrifices to honor his or her commitments.
While the true contrary of nobility is “baseness,” (a rather archaic term which conveys a mix of petty, ignorant attitudes) a more contemporary opposite is “vulgarity.” Even someone who has chivalrous motives can hardly be called a knight in shining armor if their language and actions are rude and offensive. A noble attitude demonstrates respect for others through courtesy and graciousness in all situations.
Finally, the opposite of hope is not “despair,” but rather “hate.” Despair can be overcome, but hate is the deliberate and calculated assumption that a person, or a group of people are completely and utterly beyond redemption.
Recognizing the opposites of the Seven Knightly Virtues not only helps us avoid unsavory attitudes and behaviors, but also brings a more thorough understanding of the Code of Chivalry. Which proves that (in keeping with the positive attitude of a knight in shining armor) even the Seven Knightly Sins have a purpose in the world.
- Three Chivalry Lectures – October 14-16 - September 2, 2014
- Conversation With: Dr. Elizabeth Morrison (J. Paul Getty Museum “Chivalry in the Middle Ages”) - July 7, 2014
- Giving Chivalry The Bird - April 30, 2014