Part 2 of 2
In the virtue known as Amor, the particular personhood of the beloved is central—just as, in true spiritual realization, God is not an abstraction or an insubstantial wraith, but the most concrete Reality imaginable, one that is also (like the ultimate depths of any true person) infinitely beyond anything we can imagine. From the worldly point of view, love for particular persons is seen as mere bourgeois sentimentalism, whereas from a standpoint tinged with spiritual arrogance, love of the human beloved is seen as nothing but idolatry, the worship of one’s ego in the person of another.
In the face of such worldly cynicism, and a (no less cynical) spiritual idealism, we are ashamed of romantic love. Just as the Victorians indulged in sentimental romance but hid their sexuality, so we indulge in every form of sexual exhibitionism, but are ashamed of Amor. In the words of the medieval German poet, Gottfried von Strassburg:
I pity Love with all my heart, for though almost all today hold and cleave to her, no one concedes to her her due. We all want our pleasure of her, and to consort with her. But no! Love is not what we, with our deceptions, are now making of her for each other. We are going at things the wrong way. We sow black henbane, and expect to reap lilies and roses. But, believe me, that cannot be . . .
It is really true what they say, “Love is harried and hounded to the ends of the earth.” All that we possess of her is the word, her name alone remains to us; and that, too, we have so bandied about, misused and vulgarized, that the poor thing is ashamed of her name, disgusted with the very sound of it. She is cringing and flinching everywhere at her own existence. Misused and dishonored, she sneaks begging from house to house, lugging shamefully a sack all of patches, crammed with her swag and booty, which she denies to her own mouth, and offers for sale in the streets. Alas! It is we who have created that market. We traffic with her in this amazing way and then claim to be innocent. Love, the queen of all hearts, the free-born, the one and only, is put up for public sale! What a shameful tribute is this that our mastery has required of her!
In our present culture the image of human innocence, tenderness and self-sacrifice, especially in a woman, is literally terrifying to us, since it confronts us with the depth of our own self-betrayal. Sociologist Herbert Hendin, writing in 1975 when the present emotional regime was being established after the transitional period of the 60’s, had this impression of the college students he studied:
. . . women . . . to shield themselves from male anger . . . attempt to create a life that seems expressly designed to rule out the possibility of being affected by a man. The fear of involvement is profound, pervasive. . . . a fear of being totally wiped out, or losing the fight for self-validation . . . most young women avoid real intimacy with a man, feeling that caring itself is self-destructive . . . for both sexes in society, caring for anyone deeply is becoming synonymous with losing. . . . In a culture that institutionalizes lack of commitment, it is very hard to be committed; in a nation that seems determined to strip sex of romance and tenderness, it is very hard to be a tender and faithful lover. (“The Revolt Against Love,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1975)
Over thirty years later, this is still true, or even truer. And if Hendin’s conclusions sound jarring to some ears, it is because the state of things he laments is now so taken for granted that his tone of outrage may seem a bit excessive. According to the New Testament, this plague of emotional coldness is one of the signs of the “latter days.” In the words of Jesus, “because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” [Matthew 24:12].
In terms of the western romantic tradition, the virtue most related to the defense of Amor is Chivalry: the use of overt or implied war-making power to defend what needs and deserves defending. Chivalry is based on the recognition that power is not a value in itself except to a barbarian, that only for the defense of values other than war does war have a right to exist—just as, in the traditional Hindu caste system, the kshatriya or warrior caste exists to protect the brahmin caste, the sacrosanct contemplatives. In terms of western spiritual chivalry, the ideal role of the armed knight is to protect Love from violation by the World, the Flesh and the Devil, and to defend womanhood as Love’s symbolic fortress.
Chivalry also relates to the defense of the weak—the socially weak, a duty which has everything to do with romantic love, since the ability to regard, to truly see, those who are repressed and discounted by the World is essential if we are to love without vanity and worldly ambition, since if our choice of a love object is based on the standards of the World, of collective egotism, then our “love” is a mere ego-investment, a case of self-love in the person of another. This means that, in order to be faithful to true love, one must overcome in oneself the tyrant Vanity, sworn enemy of self-respect. And this inner warfare also has an outer reflection: the war against those social mores, and sometimes against their representatives, that relegate innocence, humility, sincerity and emotional courage to the backwaters of social marginalization.
Integral to Chivalry is the virtue of noblesse oblige, the knowledge that aristocratic privilege is inseparable from duty, and that this duty involves the recognition and defense of values that occupy areas where the soul of the barbarian, with its worldly cynicism, sees only victims to be exploited, rivals to be defeated, or losers to be ignored. By “aristocracy” I am not referring to any present social class or bloodline, but to the ability to recognize and respect the inviolable uniqueness of each individual, as in Meister Eckhart’s doctrine that “the soul is an aristocrat.” The knight who possesses noblesse oblige knows that “whatever ye do to the least of these, my brethren, ye do unto Me.” Chivalry entails the ability to walk what the Sufis call the Path of Blame (malamah), to die the death of one’s social identity.
A western version of the Path of Blame is presented in the story of “The Knight of the Cart” from the Launcelot Romance of Chrétien de Troyes: Arthur’s Queen Guinevere has been kidnapped by an evil knight, and the Round Table knights have fanned out to rescue her. Hot on her trail, Sir Launcelot encounters a dwarf riding a cart, which “. . . in those days . . . served the same purpose as the pillory does now. . . . Whoever was convicted of any crime was placed upon a cart and dragged through all the streets, and he lost henceforth all his legal rights, and was never afterwards heard, honored or welcomed in any court.” The dwarf tells Launcelot to get in the cart if he wants news of the Queen. He hesitates for two steps, then jumps in. (Sir Gawain, encountering the same dwarf, flatly refuses.) After a series of bloody trials, which include crossing a moat by crawling on his naked hands and feet across a bridge made of the upturned blade of a sword, he succeeds in rescuing Guinevere, whose first reaction is: “You! You hesitated for two steps before getting into the cart. What, is your precious honor more important to you than my life?” He shamefacedly admits his fault before her, who, as a representative of the Deity (who else has the right to be so exacting?) will not let him escape “until he has paid the last farthing.” If Launcelot, like Gawain, had possessed “normal” worldly vanity, he would never have found a trace of her, since it would have been beneath his “honor” to listen to the advice of some nameless dwarf—and to the mounted and armed aristocrat, are not all other men necessarily “dwarves”?
In the inner world, the world of the greater jihad, the defense of womanhood is revealed as the struggle, by the spiritually-dedicated individual consciousness (the Good Knight) to protect the “virginity” of the soul (the Princess or Queen) from rape at the hands of the passions (the Dragon or Evil Knight), and so preserve her primordial receptivity to the Spirit.
Excerpted by Charles Upton from Shadow of the Rose: The Esoterism of the Romantic Tradition, by Charles Upton and Jennifer Doane Upton (San Raphael, Cal.: Sophia Perennis, 2008).