For millennia, human beings have constructed and lived by codes of conduct. These have been crucial to the formation and preservation of viable, prosperous, and safe societies. Chivalry is one of the earliest and most well-known codes of conduct, whereby medieval knights and nobility lived by honor, bravery, loyalty, and courtesy. This code encompassed a set of ideals and behaviors aimed to promote justice, protect the weak, and uphold moral values.
Even today, we live by a set of principles which guides our behaviors, allowing us to operate in functional, efficient, and harmonious societies. But it does appear, at times, that modern society, particularly in the West, fails to adhere to its own inherited and evolved code of conduct. This seeming lack of integrity has led some to question where we are headed as a civil society. By addressing this concern, it is my intention to present here the elements necessary to maintain one’s integrity for self-development, excellence, and a promotion of safe and stable environments, particularly for those who are too weak to protect themselves. Consider this a modern lesson on the principles of chivalry, or to phrase it in more common terms: How to live a life of integrity.
Integrity is universally considered to be the quality of having strong moral and ethical principles (moral uprightness), particularly honesty. Other characteristics associated with integrity are trustworthiness, reliability, and sincerity. In other words, people are considered to have integrity when they do what they say they will. You can trust them to be people of their word. People are also considered to have integrity when they act in accordance with their principles, and they do so even when no one is watching. We call this being authentic. And it is precisely this authenticity which garners respect from others – they feel confident in knowing with whom they are dealing, the person’s character, and the trustworthiness of their word.
Chivalry was not very different from our ideas of living with integrity today. Knights were expected to demonstrate integrity by adhering to their moral and ethical principles (doing the right thing), acting with honesty, and maintaining their word. Integrity formed the basis of a knight’s reputation and trustworthiness. Chivalry viewed integrity as an essential quality for knights, as it ensured their actions were consistent with their values and obligations. Upholding integrity meant fulfilling one’s duties and responsibilities, regardless of personal gain or temptation. It encompassed not only honesty but also being honorable in one’s conduct, treating others with respect and fairness.
Women were the primary receivers of the knights’ chivalry. Knights saw it as a duty to be courteous and helpful to ladies, whom they considered to be the more vulnerable sex. It was not just ladies, though, that benefitted from the chivalry of the medieval knights: so, too, did men of weaker standing, which included the elderly, the ill, and the young. Even able-bodied men benefitted indirectly from the knights’ crusades and protection from infidel invasion. Chivalry prided itself on being “everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.” Knights were expected to give to those less fortunate than they, and to do so generously; in this way, medieval knights were seen as the true guardians of society. As a result, society ran as smoothly as possible, despite being a time of war, famine, and pestilence.
Chivalry underwent changes and eventually declined over time. Several factors contributed to its transformation and eventual replacement by other societal norms and values. Warfare changed and became more centralized. As a result, the need for chivalric knights and their traditional methods of combat diminished. The feudal system, which formed the foundation of chivalry, began to decline, giving way to centralized monarchies and nation-states. With the weakening of feudalism, the traditional roles and privileges of knights diminished, altering the social structure that supported chivalry. New religious ideas emphasized individual faith and salvation rather than adherence to a code of conduct, so that focus shifted away from the rituals and practices associated with chivalry. And changing educational and cultural norms also contributed to the decline of chivalry. Despite its fall from predominance as the primary code of conduct, chivalry left a lasting impact on Western culture and ideals. It has acted as a foundation for honor, honesty, courage, service, loyalty, and justice that persist today, particularly among military heroes.
But could it be that we have seen an even further diminishment of chivalry in today’s western society? Honesty is often brushed aside with an attitude of, “If simply for the greater good,” then dishonesty, corruption, and censorship are all excusable. The ends justify the means with the rationalization of seeking the “lesser of two evils.” Our political systems tolerate unsecured voting structures despite opposing parties echoing the same concerns as their antipodes: Electronic voting machines are rife for election tampering. And yet, the party which benefits from the interference defends the exact opposite position they held when the tampering worked against them.
News media show no restraint in reporting false stories, either. The industry which most necessitates honesty habitually runs stories based on unconfirmed allegations, a disproportionate number of anonymous sources, and flat out lies, without pushing hard against the purveyors of the false information. When they get caught, they ignore the lie and act as if it has never happened. Our scientists and medical doctors did the same during Covid: they pushed clear-cut wrong scientific information, pressured media companies to silence experts who challenged the falsities and have since acted as if they had meant something different altogether. Unfortunately for them, as they say, the internet has receipts, but in 2023 it seems that the pushers of false information care little about their integrity and more about their results. We even saw self-aggrandized philosopher, Sam Harris, rationalize to interviewers,
“…that’s a left-wing conspiracy to deny the presidency to Donald Trump – absolutely it was, absolutely. But I think it was warranted.“
Well integrity is not just an old-fashioned code for suckers. I believe that integrity is the foundation for individual and societal excellence. And I do believe that one can live like a modern-day knight by simply adopting some chivalrous practices. Here is a list of attributes that I am certain will help you live your life with integrity:
Nothing stands out more than being true to your word. If you say you will do something – do it! If there is a chance at all that you may be unable to fulfill a request, then refrain from accepting it under any circumstances. Far better to turn people down than to agree to something you can’t produce. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough: Your reputation hinges on your reliability. People will not likely share their impressions of you with you when you act unreliably, but they most certainly will with others. If, on the rare occasion, something comes up and you truly cannot fulfill your obligations, then acquaintances of generally reliable people will be more prone to think, “That’s not like her/him; something must have happened.” They will give you the benefit of the doubt, and you want that. You want to be so reliable that people are concerned in the rare moments when you can’t come through…and then make it up to them! No matter how difficult it is to fulfill your obligation, and no matter how trivial or unimportant you perceive the task, complete it anyway…and do it timely. This behavior will lead the world to see you as trustworthy, a person of your word, and someone who comes through in the clutch. This behavior is the foundation of integrity.
Commit to a Purpose
When you attune to your life’s purpose (dharma) you have a foundation for all your actions, behaviors, and decisions. When you know why you are here and what you need to do to fulfill it, you have little problem in deciding when to commit (or not) to another person. Being in tune with your purpose allows you to say no when a request is misaligned with your mission. “No, I cannot make the party this weekend; I’m sorry, I have an obligation with my family…,” Or work, or a deadline, or the gym, or whatever. Your motivations are not up for scrutiny when you tap-in to your purpose: you know what needs to be done and you do it. This does not mean you cannot help others, but you weigh the prospects against your obligation to your purpose – if they fail to align, you simply decline. This attunement allows you to remain true to your word. Knowing your role in the world, and acting in accordance with it, is a characteristic of integrity. We want our pilots, police, and surgeons (and all others) to commit to their duties and responsibilities, and not be wishy-washy if something comes along to grab their attention. Integrity is commitment and follow through.
Act for the Good
We all live by a set of values which guide our actions, behaviors, and decisions. These values are the foundation for our life’s purpose. In other words, our values and life’s purpose work in harmony to ensure our fulfillment. If you base your actions on these inseparables, you will naturally act toward fulfillment of the greatest good – not just your greatest good, but the greatest good for all. There must be an underlying intention within your purpose of service to more than just yourself. Pure self-enrichment, self-pleasure, or self-preservation rarely has an impact beyond the individual, and thus they have a low chance of manifesting and/or maintaining. Acting for the good of all (yourself included) gives your decisions a greater chance of manifesting in an impactful manner. You will not be tripped-up on a slippery-slope of moral relativism when you think and act in accordance with universal principles. When philosopher, Sam Harris, rationalized his position as being for the greater good,
“[Donald Trump is] unfit for office in every possible way…My argument is that it was appropriate for Twitter and the heads of big tech and the head of journalistic organizations to feel like they were in the presence of something like a once-in-a-lifetime moral emergency… we’re going to get four more years of Trump if we give this a fair hearing,”
he erroneously assumed the greater good was one that served his political perspective. That others shared his polarized opinion only gave him credence for a momentary feeling of self-righteousness. However, he failed to see that denying a politician – and thus approximately half a population – the conditions of a fair election, opens the door for ALL future elections to be tampered with and manipulated. One day it will be Sam Harris’ polarized side which sits on the receiving end of the ‘greater good’ rationalization, and I’ll bet our philosopher will speak differently at that time. Acting for good in this case would be to attune to the universal: Be honest; abide by fair play, and let the people (not a small group of elite string-pullers in the corporate media) decide which direction we go. Live by this principle and you will always operate at the highest integrity.
Finally, be yourself. At the risk of sounding cliché: You will never be better at being anyone else than you will be at being yourself. But what does it mean to be authentic? You must understand your values and have an inkling of your life’s purpose. Only then can you know who you are and what you are here to do. When you develop this self-awareness, and you act in accordance to fulfilling your purpose, then and only then, will you be able to present your authentic self to the world daily. When you bring your authentic self to the table, people develop trust in you and believe in your mission. When you act in accordance with your purpose, the world learns what to expect from you and loves you for it. You will never need to apologize or rationalize when you express your authentic self. It is who you are meant to be, and you cannot fail when you act in accord with your nature and your purpose.
A life of integrity has many elements, but its absolute foundation is to be yourself always, act for the good, define and pursue your purpose, and be reliable. These four pursuits will make you a chivalrous knight in modern times, in a world too often wrought with low integrity. The code of chivalry will continue to impact our world, as our refined trait of integrity helps maintain a stable world, a safe world, and one which functions efficiently to provide the most ‘good’ to the most citizens. Politicians, academics, and mainstream media may brush aside integrity in their professional and personal lives, but you should not. Operating at the highest levels of integrity will make you stand out as a person who strives for excellence. It is my opinion – based on experience – that this leads to a rewarding and fulfilling life. Be a person known for your chivalry; be known for integrity. Not only will you sleep peacefully at night, you will know that you strive for the absolute best in life, and you will succeed.