In ages past, wisdom and virtue were often gained by reading and contemplating mythical tales and metaphorical stories. From Aesop’s fables to the Bhagavad Gita, people throughout history have patiently sought for nuggets of enlightenment locked away within the allegorical teachings of sages, scholars and mystics.
Well, those days are mostly gone. Here in the 21st century we rarely have time to contemplate myths and allegories in order to unlock their universal, transcendental meanings. We need the bottom line … now, please! What, exactly, should we deduce from spiritual parables and philosophical writings as we try to go about our lives in a decent, ethical way?
This “hurry up and find enlightenment” mentality has given rise to a particular brand of teaching encapsulated in the catch phrase, “What would so-and-so do?” We don’t need to contemplate lengthy sermons or legends, we can simply imagine how someone wiser, more virtuous or more patient than ourselves would react. Of course, the most famous of these approaches is, “What would Jesus do?” — a catchy slogan that helps cut through the mysticism and get right to the meat of New Testament teachings.
There are plenty of other similar no-nonsense doctrines. “What would Thomas Jefferson do?” helps get to the bottom of political questions. “What would Buddha do?” provides a distinctly practical approach to Zen philosophy. “What would Ghandi do?” gives us opportunity to consider the nature of nonviolent protest. There are even doctrines (both humorous and semi-serious) that focus this inquiry on pop culture figures: “What would MacGyver do?” “What would Buffy the Vampire Slayer do?” and “What would Brian Boitano do?”
So, as we debate whether the Code of Chivalry has (or should have) any practical application in the modern world, there’s one question that seems to have been overlooked:
That may sound silly, irreverent or even naïve, but the character of King Arthur (pictured above in the 14th century manuscript Romance of the Saint Graal) stands atop a body of literature that rivals nearly any other mythical or spiritual canon in human history. And, despite the erroneous perception that King Arthur stories are “kid’s stuff,” Arthurian literature is filled with rich metaphors regarding the nature of ethics, honor and humanity. Embodying ideals of bravery, courtesy and loyalty, Arthur is perhaps the most influential secular role model in Western philosophy.
What could we learn about virtue, honor and leadership if we looked to the founder of the Round Table as an example of practical and chivalrous action in the modern world?
Let’s face it, talk about responsibility or honor today and the first topic that comes up is “business ethics,” so it’s logical to want to see what King Arthur can teach us about conducting business in a respectable manner. Business is, by definition, a competitive endeavor, and the purpose of competition is to “get ahead.” If given the chance to prosper by devious, ruthless or deceptive means, what would King Arthur do?
Early in Arthur’s life, he had to go to battle with the Emperor of Rome (an incident that’s left out of most King Arthur stories these days). Rome had imposed an unfair tax on the British people, and Arthur and his knights stood up against Roman oppression. Arthur’s army was so successful that, in the end, all of Rome was defenseless and at his mercy. Then, despite the opportunity to achieve a huge profit by plundering Rome, Arthur told his army to pack their things and prepare to return to England. Recognizing that he accomplished his goal, Arthur told his knights, “Enough is as good as a feast,” indicating that greed is not an effective leadership strategy.1
Of course, Arthur wasn’t doing this just to be nice or gallant; he realized that his team had worked hard and needed rest, and that he needed time to assess and fortify the new boundaries of his kingdom. The lesson Arthur teaches us is that a leader must always remain focused on the goals of the organization, and that profit for profit’s sake is not a healthy desire for a leader in any field. Given the opportunity to gain by mercilessness and ruthlessness, King Arthur shows us that the chivalrous leader will take the course of restraint, moderation and integrity.
Here’s another situation where questions arise regarding ethical behavior: revenge and retribution. “Talking smack” about defeated rivals has become so commonplace it’s practically expected. (How ironic that derisive “taunts” are actually programmed into many of today’s video games! If you’re going to verbally denigrate your adversary, shouldn’t you be creative enough to come up with your own language?) If given a chance to humiliate an opponent after defeating them in business or in a game, what would King Arthur do?
Arthur became king when he pulled a magic sword out of a stone — but not everyone was thrilled to learn of the emergence of this boy-king. Many knights who thought they deserved the throne of England more than Arthur declared war, and England was plunged in to chaos. Arthur had to fight many hard battles to cement his claim to the crown, and those battles left a bitter taste in the mouths of everyone involved. One of the most contentious of those rivals was a mighty warrior named Pellinore. (Yes, the same Pellinore who is portrayed as a sweet, comical old man in more recent stories.)
Although Pellinore was defeated by Arthur, he was not happy about it. Yet when Pellinore came to Camelot, Arthur didn’t force his old rival to grovel in submission or jibe at him with nasty insults. Instead, Arthur offered Pellinore the greatest honor he could think of: a seat at the Round Table. When Pellinore wondered whether this offer might be a trick, Arthur assured him, “This is your place, sir. No one deserves it more.”2
When faced with rivalry or contention, King Arthur always chose a path that would bring people together rather than driving them apart. That was the purpose of the Round Table. Arthur’s example shows that an effective leader values consensus above conflict, and always seeks reconciliation rather than promoting ongoing rivalry.
Sometimes ethical issues come up in association with circumstances we want to avoid or promises we don’t want to keep. You’ve got to admit to making a costly mistake or follow through on a commitment to help a friend when a more exciting offer comes along — it’s only natural to try to find a way to wiggle out of uncomfortable or boring situations like these. When facing the awkward dilemma of “biting the bullet” or telling a white lie, what would King Arthur do?
In this case, Arthur might well take his cue from one of his premier knights, Sir Gawain, who once had to choose between being true to his wife, an old, ugly woman named Ragnell, or having an affair with a lovely young maiden who he found in his bedchamber one evening. After much agonizing over questions of morality and fidelity, Gawain chose to be true to Ragnell. Upon making his choice, Gawain suddenly discovered that his old, horrid wife was, in fact, one of the magical Ladies of the Lake, who had been sent to test him. Gawain’s honesty transformed Ragnell from an “old hag” into a beautiful maiden, and the two lived in “acclaim and rejoicing,” or so the story goes.
Arthur commented upon the wonderful allegory provided by Gawain, “From it I draw this significance: As that poor, ugly beldame appeared unto the eyes of Sir Gawain, so doth a man’s duty sometimes appear to him to be ugly … But when he shall have wedded himself unto that duty so that he hath made it one with him as a bridegroom maketh himself one with his bride, then doth that duty become of a sudden very beautiful.”3
Although we’re frequently led to believe that personal gratification should be the goal in life, King Arthur reminds us that trust and faithfulness carry a value far above the mere satisfaction of personal desires. Arthur shows us that a good leader, role model or friend never breaks a promise lightly.
At the risk of oversimplifying the metaphorical depth of the legends of the Round Table, living by the credo “What would King Arthur do?” gives us pause to consider how the Code of Chivalry can help us navigate and resolve the moral and ethical dilemmas we all face at work, at play, in school or in our relationships. King Arthur is a legendary figure famous for engendering harmony in the face of chaos, for embodying duty in the face of vanity and demonstrating graciousness in the face of hostility — we could learn a lot from his example.
With such an attitude in mind, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could go far wrong by thinking of their own dilemmas, problems and tribulations as quests from the days of the Round Table, and trying to find the right path by asking, “What would King Arthur do?”