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America and the Chivalric

Intellection and Honor: Playing the Game

A talk delivered to the Department of English and Philosophy, United States Military Academy, West Point, in 1988


I want to consider briefly here certain aspects of the idea of honor.

Obviously I am now at one of the prime centers where the concept is embodied; where it is lived. I feel privileged to be here, and anything that I have to say on this matter is likely to fall under the heading of carrying coals to Newcastle, or teaching one’s grandmother to suck eggs.

But when one respects certain values, one likes to think (at least I do) that they can hold up under more or less “advanced” intellectual critiques—particularly if one feels the pressure of Kant’s dictum, “So act that you can will that your maxim could become a universal law, regardless of the end.” (1)

I’m particularly interested here in the bearing of chivalric values on intellectual-academic ones.


I was recently reading for the first time some selections from Schlegel’s Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (ca. 1810) and came upon the following intriguing passage:

Since Christianity was not satisfied with certain external acts, as was the polytheism of the ancient word, but involved the whole inner man with his slightest impulses, the feeling of moral independence sought refuge in the sphere of honor; equivalent to a worldly moral philosophy next to the religious one, which often asserted itself in contradiction to the latter but nevertheless was still related to it to the extent that it never calculated the consequences, rather unconditionally sanctioned principles of action as dogma exalted above all examination by carping criticism. (2)

It is an interesting formulation—a zone of freedom and value independent of a totalizing intellectual system, and whose values cannot be simply subsumed under one. The honor-governed self can say, in a principled fashion, “This is me, these are my values, stay out of my head. Thus far and no further.”

I was reminded of the splendid oath of fealty of the Aragonese nobles: “We who are as good as you swear to you, who are no better than we, to accept you as our King and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our estates and laws; and if not, no.” (3)

I like the idea of that kind of free space, and that vision of power relationships.


But of course there’s been a good deal of “carping criticism” over the centuries with respect to chivalric values.

Honor, in conventional Christian terms, makes for violence and disorder, except when brought into line with Church-approved violences, as in the Crusades and subsequent holy wars. (Holy wars have been in general the least chivalrous of wars. In The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche calls priests “the most evil enemies”.) (4)

In more rationalistic terms, honor puts one out of touch with the real world, locks one into rigid postures, makes one persist in untenable courses because of one’s obsession with one’s image.

And it looks especially outmoded when viewed through post-modernist eyes, alert to fictions and masks, and intent on the real power struggles that they conceal.


In a recent article, a spokesman for Deconstructionism argues that deconstructing a text is “a symbolic action which endorses the free integration in open and equal congress of all persons. Deconstructors are, in at least one of their major tendencies, radical egalitarians, radical democrats.”

And he discerns in Derrida, and the Derridean idea of free-play, a Utopian yearning after a carnivalesque dance of fully liberated energies.

“Derrida’s Romantic Wager,” as he tells us, “is that this full unbinding will energize without debasing us, or, as one contemporary Romantic writer [Norman Mailer] puts it, ‘that man would prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself’.” (5)


Viewed from such a perspective, lines that one refuses to cross or allow others to cross, and rules which cannot be broken are, of course, deeply divisive. They also involve archaic ideas of more or less permanent selves.

There is a large difference between the “self” that is simply a point of intersection of multiple codes that operate willy-nilly and exist to be “read,” and the self that is conscious of certain codes and principles and endeavors to live by them—is bound by them.

Such as the hero of one of Donald Hamilton’s excellent Westerns who remarks, “I have no deaths on my conscience. Yet the fact is that there are some things one cannot allow to be done to oneself, civilization or no civilization, without resistance or retaliation of some kind—not without losing part of one’s manhood; not without feeling ashamed and incomplete for the rest of one’s life”. (6)


And the idea of honor has been remarkably durable, popping up in unexpected places, such as the exchange in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon between Old Bolshevik Rubashov and the White Russian officer in the next cell:

No. 402 tapped quickly and precisely [on the wall] : HONOUR IS TO LIVE AND DIE FOR ONE’S BELIEF.

Rubashov answered just as quickly: HONOUR IS TO BE USEFUL WITHOUT VANITY. (7)

I am interested in how well the idea stands up with respect to the game-rules that we play under as academics. Are we, in our concern with truth and our sense of the heinousness, the dishonorableness, of lying, falsification, plagiarism, a bit archaic, a bit—or more than a bit—unphilosophical?


A writer I find particularly reassuring here, and shall principally focus on, is Borges, in so many ways the grand master of post-modernist games and game-moves, the creator of such disquieting fictions as the minor Symbolist poet Pierre Menard, engaged in writing in the early twentieth-century a Don Quixote that would be word for word the same as Cervantes’ novel of that name but a different work, and more interesting.

Borges, who had distinguished soldiers on both sides of his family, was fascinated all his life with frontier life and chivalric men—soldiers, gauchos, knife-fighting toughs. He was fascinated with courage, with integrity, with commitment—and with their converse, cowardice. Of one of his stories he said later that it was “one I have been retelling, with small variations, ever since. It is the tale of the motiveless, or disinterested duel—of courage for its own sake.” (8)

And he wrote memorably of Lord-Jim-like breaks and self-betrayals, and of the possibility of second chances, circling around the problematic notion that “Any life, no matter how long or complex it may be, is made up essentially of a single moment—the moment in which a man finds out, once and for all, who he is.” (9)


In Borges, as in writers like Conrad and Stephen Crane, one feels the allure of the ideal described in a memorable passage in Kant’s Critique of Judgment:

What is it that, even to the savage, is the object of the greatest admiration? It is a man who is undaunted, who knows no fear, and who therefore does not give way to danger, but sets manfully to work with full deliberation. Even when civilization has reached a high pitch there remains this special reverence for the soldier; only that there is then further required of him that he should also exhibit all the virtues of peace … (10)

But what is involved, in Borgesian terms (terms that may also be ours), in the idea of honourable integrity? And why should a highly civilized, a highly literary, writer have been fascinated for so many years by the idea of the duel, especially the Argentine duel with knives?


What we have in the duel, I suggest, is an example of the recurring turn-of-the-century idea of the epitomizing moment, the moment in which, as when Sydney Carton mounts the scaffold in A Tale of Two Cities, or when Captain Oates walks out into the Antarctic night during Scott’s ill-fated expedition, we see, in Yeats’s words, “Character isolated by a deed/ To engross the present and dominate memory … “ (11) And the duel is a deed requiring an especially focused and concentrated commitment, above all, the duel with knives.

In a knife-fight, such as the unforgettable one between Pruitt and Fatso in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, it is imperative not to pull back once one has committed oneself to the final thrust. And preceding the physical commitment of the body, such as when one of Borges’ gauchos accepts the loss of a hand in order to win a fight, there must be a deeper commitment in which the mind overrides the fears and protests of the body.

In these respects, the duel is a practical demonstration of the narrator’s advice in Borges’ story “The Garden of Forking Paths”—“Whosoever would undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already successful, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” (12)


Moreover, commitment in Borges has its philosophical aspects.

Borges’ fascination with the Kabbalah is well known and figures prominently in a number of his stories. But he was also interested in a very different kind of Jewish intellection, namely that of Spinoza, and he several times singles out for mention Spinoza’s central concept of the conatus, the idea, as Borges puts it, that “all things try to keep on being themselves; a stone wants to be a stone, and the tiger a tiger.” (13)

There is a good deal in Borges about self-realization—about the coming of things to fullness. But what is being celebrated is not mere self-assertion and the domination of others—an activity in which anything goes, and in which (since after all what one is trying to do is win), one is free to change the rules as one goes along. (“Heads I win, tails you lose.”).

For all his interest in fictions and fiction-making, Borges constantly returns to the coercive reality of the physical world, especially the reality of the body, and to the fact that thought ineluctably has consequences in that world. It is not a world in which anything goes because nothing can be known for certain.


Borges was indeed strongly conscious that there can be no ultimately certain, no final knowledge. In some of his best-known fables, such as “The Library of Babel,” with its indefatigable questers for the one magical text whose rightness would immediately disclose itself, and in relation to which all the others would fall into place, he memorably defines the dangers of lusting after a Platonic certitude.

But texts and signs can nevertheless be read correctly or incorrectly in relation to specific situations (Borges loved and wrote detective fiction), and misreadings in this world of the flesh can have disastrous consequences. When in “Death and the Compass” Detective Lönnrot elaborately misconstrues the clues planted by the Buenos Aires gangster Dandy Red Scharlach, it results in his death at the latter’s hands.

Fiction-making can shape reality in other ways, too.

In the story “Theme of the Traitor and Hero,” 19th-century Irish Republicans put into effect an elaborately literary scenario in order to preserve, for the sake of their cause, a leader who has betrayed them, a scenario in which, like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, he himself agrees to play the part written for him, and goes to his death at an assassin’s hand.

And in “The Maker,” the fictions created by Homer after blindness has compelled him to give up the warrior life go on to influence the lives of uncounted hearers and readers, including other warriors.


In other words, the codes in which Borges deals include not only ciphers to be cracked or mysteries to be solved (what is the real story of this man-made labyrinth in which someone died?) but codes of conduct, including the conduct both of honor-bound men of violent action and of writers, artists, and intellectuals.

And honor, a sense of worth, comes for Borges from playing within the rules of whatever game one has chosen to enter, a game of difficulties overcome and closures achieved, whether in the fighting of an honorable duel—a duel in which the combatants are more or less evenly matched—or the completion of a significant work of art. The rules cannot simply be altered as one goes along. The games of honor are games in which failure is possible.

In the story “The Form of the Sword,” the ironical intellectual Moon who, during the fighting against the Black-and-Tans during the Sinn Fein rebellion of 1919-21, betrays his comrade-in-arms, is overwhelmed by self-disgust—by a sense of the heinousness of his deed as seen through honorable eyes. And subsequently, during his long self-imposed purgatory in South America, he succeeds in redeeming himself (at least in the eyes of the narrator) by internalizing some of the values of honor as he labours back-breakingly, and with no-one to confide in, in his lonely hacienda.


It is significant, moreover, that Moon does work in solitude, just as Pierre Menard, playing rigorously by his own crazy rules with respect to the Don Quixote undertaking, works in solitude.

Borges’ stories are not success stories bur difficulty stories. His characters do things because they feel them to be worth doing, and not because they are seeking, and governed by, the immediate approval of others. His Czech man of letters Jaromir Hladik, granted by a miracle the opportunity to finish his projected masterpiece in his head while facing a Nazi firing squad, labours on at the enterprise and brings it to completion, even though no-one else is ever going to be aware of the fact.

And if Borges’ gauchos, soldiers, outlaws, and slum toughs inhabit subcultures permeated by tales of valour, it is obvious that the deeds of valour that they themselves perform are ones that they see as good in themselves, and not just good because they are theirs. They would admire them just as much if they were performed by others.


So it isn’t really paradoxical that towards the end of his life Borges told an interviewer that he wanted to devote what remained of his time to studying the Old Norse sagas—and Spinoza.

As I said, Borges was well aware of the temptation of the idea of a privileged, a final accession to truth. Each of his numerous parties of searchers in the Library of Babel is convinced that it is about to enter into possession of the truth—that Truth is hovering just a little out of reach. But there is something comic and contemptible about this yearning for a quick fix, a sudden totalizing insight that will guarantee one’s own superiority. And as Borges also points out, the sensed existence of that final truth undercuts and devalues the merely provisional and transitory here-and-now—at times virtually annihilates it, draining away all its worth.

It is a very different kind of relationship to knowledge that one meets in Spinoza. Spinoza’s Ethics is one of the most sublime examples of honorable intellection—the heroic labours of a solitary reasoner concerned to work out in the most scrupulous and inspectable terms, with the possibility of identifiable error displaying itself at every point in his chain of argument and irreparably breaking it—an argument with the highest and most formidable of adversaries.


The Borgesian cluster of attitudes that I’ve described seems to me a sounder form of post-modernism than the one that I spoke of earlier. It is pluralist. It acknowledges that one can never escape from the striving for power. And it honors reason and rational argument.


We are all familiar by now with how totalitarianism, with its certainty that it is in possession of The Truth, devalues the idea of reason and makes it simply, as in Darkness at Noon, a mode of manipulation and entrapment, a mere rhetorical device for controlling the behavior of others whose own arguments, one knows in advance, cannot have any weight because their premises are politically incorrect.

A devaluing of reason seems to me also implicit in the ostensibly ultra-democratic Deconstructionist enterprise as described by the critic I quoted.

Nor, despite the putative vision of an Edenic plenitude and a maximizing of the pleasure principle, is it a benign devaluing. The infant, that paradigm of the pleasure principle in full cry, does not simply desire gratification, it desires dominance—total gratification on demand, a total subservience by others.

Deconstructionism seems to me a dominative enterprise, all the more so when its practitioners can (like Rubashov’s implacable interrogator and unmasker Gletkin) take as axiomatic the political correctness of their own ends.

And in a world in which one is endlessly unmasking the concealed power plays of others, it indeed makes emotional sense to say—whenever one sees a chance of getting away with it—“Heads I win, tails you lose”—and to feel no sense of shame when one is caught doing so.

Hemingway remarked that Gertrude Stein “had discovered a way of writing she could do and be happy every day. She could never fail; nor strike out; nor be knocked out of the box because she made the rules and played under her own rules.” (14)



Truly reasonable argument, on the other hand, takes us back to something very like the ground of the duel.

What counts is what goes on in this discussion, with this colleague or that student.

One cannot, or at least shouldn’t, appeal to “authority” (to this or that eminent critic or philosopher as if that settled anything—“Leavis says …,” “Wittgenstein says …” Nor can one pass from quantity to quality. A legion of academics may praise a work and that work can still be bad.

And honorable argument is rule-governed. It’s not just free-play, a struggle of competing egos in which one is entitled to do anything that one can get away with. Entailed in genuine arguing, as in honor-governed physical action, is risk-taking and the possibility of losing—of having to acknowledge that one’s assumptions were wrong or one’s arguments inconsistent with each other. It also involves a commitment to the idea of objective truth.

One of the interesting things about Darkness at Noon is how during his interrogation by Gletkin, Rubashov struggles at times to break through the rhetorical meshes and invoke what really happened (there are lies that he can not bring himself to assent to), and feels an absurd but honorable satisfaction when at one point, after a night of exhausting argument, he obliges Gletkin to withdraw a minor charge against him.


Furthermore, the patterns of honor carry over into our debates as academics at Department and Faculty meetings.

When the rules are right and are scrupulously observed, such meetings can be models of what highly-structured and non-authoritarian power relationships can be like.

No-one can say with coercive force, “We must do such and such because I know it is the right thing,” or, “We must do it because someone somewhere has proved it is the right thing,” or, “We must do it because they do it elsewhere.” As in a duel, or battle, it is the here and now of this space, this ground, that matters. It is a free space. In the end, what counts, with respect to a specific motion or amendment, is a vote freely taken, in which each person’s voice or raised hand has the same value, and in which everyone has the right to say No.

And as a debate, with its motions, counter-motions, and amendments proceeds, one may find oneself having to respond at high speed to the unpredictable.

Thinking well on one’s feet when disagreements are strong demands a focusing of the self, an alertness to the possible consequences if this or that measure passes or fails, and a prior anticipating (as one prepares for the meeting) of what participants are likely to say and feel and do.

And when parties are more or less evenly balanced, there can be a special drama to the moment of a vote, that moment in which one has to say Aye (or refrain from saying it) in ignorance at that moment of who else is saying it or how many people will say Nay.

What one does at the moment of decision can have consequences, sometimes major consequences, for the flesh-and-blood lives of persons in one’s institution. One is incarnating one future, or preventing another from coming into being.


“The purpose of the duel,” observes one of Donald Hamilton’s characters of the rule-governed duel with flint-lock pistols, “is to bring two men together on relatively equal terms; it’s supposed to be a test of courage, not of skill. Even an indifferent marksman, like myself, can hit a man-sized target at twenty yards if his hand doesn’t tremble too violently.” (15).

The courage of honor, it seems to me, involves a whole stance in relation to the world. In the moments of legislative decision, the Kantian concern with principled choosing and the chivalric concern with the honorable act—one not dictated by one’s desire for praise or one’s fear of others’ anger, but by one’s sense of what is right—come together in a single focus.

I take particular pleasure in the thought that the presiding spirit on such academic occasions, concerned with minimizing mere power, maximizing a respect for the rights of others, and allowing the fullest room for the individual conscience, is that of Major-General Henry M. Robert, the deviser of Robert’s Rules of Order.


1. Immanuel Kant, On History, in Philosophical Writings, ed. Ernst Behler, fore. René Wellek, The German Library, vol. 13, NY, Continuum, 1986, p.302

2. August Wilhelm Schlegel, from Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literatur, in German Romantic Criticism, ed. A. Leslie Wilson, fore. Ernst Behler, The German Library, vol. 21, NY, Continuum, 1982, pp. 182–3.

3. Quoted in Montagu, Lord of Beaulieu, More Equal than Others: The Changing Fortunes of the British and European Aristocracies, fore. Sir Iain Moncreiffe of That Ilk, NY, St. Martin’s Press, 1970, p. 61.

4. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, tr. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Collingdale, NY, Vintage, 1969, p.33.

5. To judge from the high page numbers on the MS, 633, 634, these quotations come from a fat anthology. But they do not appear to be in my copy of Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle’s Critical Theory since 1965 (1986), and I am baffled as to where else they might be.

6. Donald Hamilton, The Two-Shoot Gun, Greenwich, Conn., Fawcett Gold Medal, 1960, pp.120–121.

7. Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, trans. Daphne Hardy, Danube Edition, London, Hutchinson, 1973, p.169.

8. Jorge Luis Borges, “An Autobiographical Essay,” The Aleph and Other Stories 1933–1969, ed. and trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni, in collaboration with the author, NY, Dutton, 1970, p 232.

9. Borges, “The Life of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829–1874),” Aleph, p. 83.

10. Kant, Philosophical Writings, p. 219.

11. W.B. Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

12. Borges, Ficciones, ed. and introd, Anthony Kerrigan, NY, Grove, 1962, pp. 92–93.

13. Borges, “Borges and Myself,” Aleph, p.99.

14. Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917–1961, ed. Carlos Baker, NY, Scribner, 1961, p.650.

15. Donald Hamilton, The Big Country, NY, Dell, 1971, p.150.



© John Fraser


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