When Ludwig von Mises was still an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army he earned several decorations, but his true title to nobility was a nickname which stuck to him from an anonymous source: they called him "the last knight of liberalism" for even in the dark years of the Great War, he had embarked on a quest to save the world of peace and property. Modern and post-modern thinkers, beginning with Cervantes, seem to have arrived at a consensus that knighthood in a military sense is a rather silly notion at best, but of course Mises was being honored for his services to liberalism not as a chevalier d'epee, but as a literary champion of public thought and policy, though the biography bearing Mises' unauthorized title by Jrg Guido Hlsmann,1 shows that he was not so bad at soldiering either. It would appear that soldiers of the shooting variety, like the poor, shall always be with us, and contrary to the expectations of Cervantes even the private soldier is making a determined, though morally dubious comeback.
What had not made a comeback, until very recently, was a genuine champion of liberty, a political peer who could face down the pretenders and would-be-kings of the illiberal order, beating them at their own game. To everybody's astonishment such a person has actually emerged, in the humble and rather unknightly form of the Congressman from Lake Jackson, Texas, Dr. Ron Paul. To call the Texas doctor a knight might rightly be considered faint, indeed faintly ridiculous, praise, for a man who has vowed to restore the constitution, including all its republican (lower case) scruples on titles of rank and nobility. After all, when and if the good doctor takes up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, we might expect one of his first acts to be a general recall of those so-called Medals of Freedom which presidents since Truman have arbitrarily bestowed on the good, the bad, and the toadies. Or perhaps not, since with so many government-sponsored tragedies crying out for immediate abolition, the comic opera aspect of the state might be safely left to wither from disuse and ridicule.
Yet, when his detractors call Ron Paul's campaign "quixotic," they are in fact dubbing him a knight by way of backhanded compliment. Implicit in this ennoblement is the idea of futility, the noble failure of swords against gunpowder, the man against the machine. It is part and parcel of that modern consensual thinking which is so hard to break away from, and which even the most optimistic Paulistas fall prey to: do we dare trust one man to be a vehicle of our dreams…lest our dreams turn out to be dreams and nothing more? But of course we are taking our chances here not with a mounted warrior engaged in a test of strength, but with a figurative battle for the mind of America. In the case of this election we might better ask ourselves, is it possible for a good idea to be defeated by a bad idea? The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding yes, as the voices of integrity, ingenuity, and expert opinion are commonly shouted down from the stage of policy before they can be properly articulated.
That's why it's essential to have a champion, someone who won't back down in the face of madness and monsters. Unfortunately, this time around, the monsters are quite real, and we find ourselves facing something more akin to the nightmare world of Beowulf than the windmills of sunny La Mancha. And on top of that, what could be more dangerous than when freedom's back is to the wall, and hoards of well-intended bezerkers start crawling out of the woodwork to save her with wild swings of their battle-axes. Indeed, the meat-axe of political diatribe is a perfect illustration in our times of how a knight is more than an ordinary warrior, differing from the latter by adopting the practice of chivalry, a mysterious quality which has been hunted to near extinction by the intellectual progeny of Cervantes.
So we have to ask ourselves: what is this thing called "chivalry"? Actually, today few know and still fewer care, most considering it to be long out of fashion, and that all for the better. One of the few who disagreed was writer and teacher Richard Weaver (19101963), who saw chivalry as a kind of virtue, or quality of character. Far from being antiquated, chauvinistic or elitist, for Weaver chivalry was the traditional virtue ancestral to the watered-down "tolerance" of contemporary political correctness. Thus in Ideas Have Consequences he writes,
It is a matter of everyday perception that people of cultivation and intellectual perceptiveness are quickest to admit a law of rightness in ways of living different from their own; they have mastered the principle that being has a right qua being. Knowledge disciplines egoism so that one credits the reality of other selves. The virtue of the splendid tradition of chivalry was that it took formal cognizance of the right to existence, not only of inferiors but of enemies. The modern formula of unconditional surrender first against nature and then against peoples impiously puts man in the place of God by usurping unlimited right to dispose of the lives of others.2
So chivalry, at least according to Weaver, is tolerance without the debilitating relativism of its contemporary substitutes. This has a double application in contemporary political practice, for the knight of liberalism must first gather together the companions of freedom and then venture out in combat with the knights of illiberalism.
First with regard to the knight's companions, it should be noted that they include both radical Don Quixotes and the traditionalist Sancho Panzas. In the first category would be those who think the championing of freedom is a duty bound unto them without considerations of reward, and that the non-aggression axiom, once grasped by correct reasoning, should swiftly attain universal assent. On the whole, it seems disgraceful to them that the entire world did not embrace anarchism after its initial proclamation in the works of Herbert Spencer (18201903). To these hardies, values other than freedom are uninteresting, and a "value voter" a cowardly compromiser.
But the truly chivalrous knight would eschew these quixotic pretensions, knowing that only the first, easy, victories of freedom could be won among these odd individuals whose love of liberty renders them indifferent to hot and cold, day and night…or at least those who feign such indifference. Since the vast majority of the human race lies outside this small band of would-be heroes, a true knight would see that the scorn of the quixotic minority was unjust. In the knight's wisdom, the common sense of the "value voter" would in fact be closer to the truth, namely that the conduct of life entails preferences and the better must be chosen over the worse, even if further reflection sometimes reveals what had once been considered better to be a mere prejudice. While its attachment to preferences speaks well for the majority, the majority can obstruct freedom if it fails to distinguish chivalry from indifference.
This is the narrow bridge of freedom before which many an honest, but fearful, donkey of the world digs in his or her hoofs. For those who cherish the tried and true (that is, the Sancho Panzas who make up the better part of the world) the knight of liberalism will seem like either an apostle of indifference or one possessed by a mania for toleration. In fact nothing could be further from the case, for chivalry distains cultural and moral relativism. The chivalrous attitude is that other people have the right to be wrong, not that there is no right or wrong.
With that in mind, Dr. Paul appears to be off to a good start on his quest to restore freedom. After all, he seems to have those qualities Weaver would demand in a chivalrous knight. The "knowledge disciplining egoism" and leading to the "crediting the existence of others" seems to be his hallmark…and even in such provocatively incredible company as his fellow Republican contenders the good doctor has managed to stay on message and refused to be led into the labyrinth of ad hominim argumentation. Should he ever become president we could expect that he would not enforce his values on anyone but would recuse himself from the culture wars, returning debate on such matters to those state and local forums where they rightfully belong. That's respect for the autonomy of others…not a lack of conviction.
With the companions gathered, we come to the second application of the principle of chivalry, the combat, either military or political, against the knights of illiberalism. To be sure, we live amidst a world of barbarous conflict, one in which blackhearted mercenaries in the employ of the American state have been unleashed on helpless populations abroad. This is an evil so manifest that it calls for little moral reflection, but it does call into question the smug assumptions of progress which look back at the "age of chivalry" with condescension.
However, Weaver’s concept of chivalry as "respect for the existence of others, enemies as well as friends" is not a direct contribution to just war theory, as important as that might be. Rather it was integral to his theory of political rhetoric. According to Weaver, the corruption of public rhetoric is the ultimate source of all other evils, since the buck always, or at least was once alleged to, stop in the halls of government. It is easy to visualize the misery created by modern warfare, terrorism, and aerial bombardment, but they are just the end results of political decisions, which in turn are the outcome of mental attitudes. We can see a dismembered corpse, but we don't grasp that it results from the same mind set which prompted Congress to divide Iraq, like Gaul, into three parts. The annihilation of the other which chivalry stands opposed to is primarily a spiritual, not a physical, negation, although the first readily becomes a cause of the second. Indeed, human life is sacred, but there are just wars and police actions, and to my knowledge Dr. Paul is not a pacifist. Rather he opposes that sickness of American political rhetoric which objectifies the world's peoples and communities, and the assumption that they are justly subject to the machinations of our own political process. When Washington politicians speak unilaterally, as if they are agents and the rest of the world patients of their actions, they are destroying the world in thought, before a single bullet is fired. The left dimly grasps that something is wrong here, and fails to come up with any better solution than a universal homogenization of values, grasping hands and singing kumbaya. Needless to say this stupidity only further empowers the unilateralists.
All these evocations are far from the chivalrous ideal and noble rhetoric of the Paul candidacy. Yes, Dr. Paul wishes the peoples of the world be free, enlightened, and prosperous, but he also knows that it is not his business to make them so. Rather, to be content in one's possessions, even if that includes the lonely possession of truth, and not to annihilate the other, either in thought or deed, that is the essence of chivalry. This explains not only why it is hard to be a so-called "knight of liberalism," but why the phrase is, ultimately, a pleonasm.
- Hlsmann, Jrg Guido; Ludwig von Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism; Mises Institute, Auburn AL: 2007
- Weaver, Richard; Ideas have Consequences; University of Chicago, Chicago IL: 1948
November 10, 2007