By now, those of you that read my blog have realized that I use philosophy to make sense of my world. It doesn’t mean that I’m right – perhaps it would be more accurate to say that philosophy lets me generate a model by which I can interpret the chaos of a warrior’s life. To paraphrase Dr. Gordan Clark, “Philosophy is always false, but often useful” – or, put differently, the model I have created to interpret my experiences and guide my decisions is constantly under review and does not necessarily hold “truth” value so much as it holds “practical” value. Moral, legal, ethical and tactical decisions are examined through a preexisting hypothetical system of reasoning.
So, to that end, I have been pondering the different warrior traditions. Why, you ask? (I know you didn’t but reading this is a choice so just play along.) Those that are recorded are studied by military officers for their timeless wisdom, and it has been said by more than a few that while the technology and specific tactics of war may change, the men who fight do not. There is something immediately recognizable about the warrior – regardless of time and place, it is someone who is acquainted with violence and prepared for death. In my effort to find a philosophical model of what a good warrior should be – morally, legally, ethically and tactically – I think I must articulate what the constants are between the differing disciplines.
There are parallels between Bushido, the Codes of Chivelry, Sun Tzu and Vegetius, and it occurs to me that what it means to be a warrior – a good warrior, not merely a fighter – actually transcends the quirks of time and culture. I have taken to calling these the Universal Warrior Attributes, and I would like to examine how these are derived from the many warrior traditions.
The two traditions that come to mind first are Bushido, and the codes of chivalry. Both of these traditions are well-documented – both in their mythological form, and in the less pleasant reality of their actual implementation. Here, we find we have already encountered something universal about warriors – we are a violent profession.
Bushido, or the “Way of the Warrior,” was not a standardized code until after the age of the Samurai. The Japanese author Nitobe Inazo wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan at the end of the 18th century. He identified 7 distinct virtues that he believed formed the guiding principles of what it meant to be samurai.
- Rectitude, or Justice, is “power to decide upon a course of conduct in accordance with reason, without wavering; to die when to die is right, to strike when to strike is right.”
- Courage is both martial courage – the willingness to face danger and death – and also moral courage, or the willingness to do the right thing even in t
he face of shame or social pressure.
- Benevolence or Mercy is described by Nitobe as “Love, magnanimity, affection for others, sympathy and pity…the Highest Attribute of the human soul.”
- Honesty and Sincerity relates not only to telling the truth, but also relates to asceticism. Samurai were expected to disdain money and to live simply, even when they were wealthy.
- Honor is the strict adherence to the code of ethics and behavior, and the fear of shame. To that end, Honor is a strong sense of personal dignity and grace that transcends slight offenses, and governs a Samurai’s every action and thought.
- Loyalty is both to one’s superiors, as well as one’s peers.
- Character and Self-Control is a complex concept. Nitobe describes it as the knowledge of Right and Wrong, and places the building of Character far above any other virtue. It is being consistently and demonstrably morally upright.
Now, what I have described is by no means a thorough examination of Nitobe’s work. However, let’s look at the codes of chivalry, and see the apparent similarities.
First, we have Gautier’s 10 Commandments of Chivalry (which was written in the 1800’s as well, and may not be a good example of how the feudal knights actually behaved). They are as follows:
- Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and thou shalt observe all its directions.
- Thou shalt defend the Church.
- Thou shalt respect all weaknesses, and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
- Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
- Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
- Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
- Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
- Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to thy pledged word.
- Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
- Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and the Good against Injustice and Evil.
We can compare that to the pre-codified Noble Habitus:
- Loyalty, which has been defined above, remains a practical element of warriorhood.
- Forbearance is the knights’ self-control towards other warriors and at the courts of their lords.
- Hardihood, or, in modern terms, toughness – again, a practical virtue more than a moral virtue.
- Largesse or Liberality is generosity, as well as disdain for money and immunity to bribery.
- The Davidic Ethic is the strongest qualities of a Christian warrior derived from Biblical sources. The ethic demands that the warrior be a defender of the weak and helpless (in particular the Church), show respect for widows and orphans, and live in opposition to the cruel and unjust. It is elsewhere referred to as “Benevolence.”
- Honor has been discussed elsewhere as well. The loss of honor is worse than death. Honor relates to the unwavering adherence to the code of behavior held by one’s peer group.
Now, we see some of these concepts popping up elsewhere in history. Besides Honor, Loyalty and Courage, “Hardihood” or Toughness is a practical necessity and perhaps best described by its synonym: “Spartan.” The ancient Greeks, and everyone who fought them, understood that physical toughness and discipline in discomfort were valuable attributes in a warrior.
But the parallels between Bushido and Chivalry are in themselves striking. In completely different cultural and geographical realities, both traditions placed extreme value on showing proper respect to one’s superiors, giving honor to one’s peers, and showing benevolence to one’s inferiors. In short, all of these concepts touch on a single point: the Warrior was expected to be humble. This is echoed in the Viking Wisdom Sayings:
A miserable man,
sneers at every thing;
one thing he knows not,
which he ought to know,
that he is not free from faults.
Both traditions also place great emphasis on discernment (Forbearance in chivalry and Justice in Bushido.) Knowing when to use force and when to use gentleness is a primary attribute of the Warrior. Not in the written traditions, however, is the reality of a Warrior’s business. This is seen in Gautier’s 6th Commandment: when the time is right, violence must happen. In Ecclesiastes, we find the balance in the familiar passage:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
This seems to show a continuity between the ancient world, the Dark Age Vikings, the Samurai and the feudal knights, onward into the modern world – knowing when and how to act is as or more important than simply being able to act, be it through violence or diplomacy.
Honor has taken many forms and is certainly universally recognizable in every warrior tradition. To fully explore what Honor is, read this: if you haven’t the time, here is the short version:
Honor is both horizontal , which is the right to respect among an exclusive society of equals, and vertical, which is the right to praise and commendation for excelling within the society of equals. Honor requires that there be a standard for behavior (an Honor Code), and an Honor Group, which is the collection of individuals who adhere to that standard and are accepted into the group as a peer. Honor is amoral – it is neither good nor evil – but in the context of the other virtues, commandments or attributes we have seen, they take a special significance. Failing to be benevolent is a breach of honor as much as being cowardly in the face of danger. Honor, therefore, is as practical as courage or loyalty in the pursuit of warriorhood.
Finally, I want to briefly address Honesty, which is found explicitly in Bushido and Gautier and is implicit in any Christian code of ethics. In Nichomacean Ethics, Aristotle defined honesty as a kind of brutality (or bluntness). Telling the truth is a vital aspect of being a warrior – and yet it correlates in Aristotle’s mind to physical force, as the brutal man is more animal then the philosopher – and yet, brutality is superior to vice. (This correlates to Plato’s Republic, in which Aristotle’s teacher Plato recounts Socrates’ commitment to the belief that the warrior class ought not rule because they are less intellectual then the philosopher kings, but have authority over the producers, or peasants.)
It is possible – and given the influence of Greek philosophy on the formation of chivalric codes, appropriate – to connect honesty in this way to Gautier’s 6th commandment, and the necessity of war in all of these traditions. As we have seen above, once we must act, we must act swiftly and violently. In contemporary terms, we refer to “Speed, surprise, and violence of action.” Or, in the words of Lt. Speirs in Band of Brothers, “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier’s supposed to function. Without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends on it.”
So what are the Universal Warrior Attributes? I’m sure there are numerous interpretations, but I believe I have a satisfactory model for the common denominators that transcend culture, geography and era.
- Humility, which is drawn from the Davidic ethic of the servant leader, a recognition of one’s own finitude and imperfection, and respect for others (including one’s enemies).
- Loyalty, both to one’s superiors and to one’s comrades.
- Discernment, which is the ability to clearly decide when and how to act – otherwise known as wisdom.
- Benevolence, which is a virtue in peace because it tends to preserve peace, and a virtue in war because of its humanity.
- Brutality, which is three parts: speaking truthfully, possessing physical and mental strength and toughness, and possessing the ability to act violently when necessary.
- Courage, which as in Bushido is both martial and moral in nature.
- Honor, which is the attribute that ties the other six together.
These attributes are common throughout history and across the world. As a model, this list constitutes a brief and simple overview of a kind of warrior wisdom that has existed since the beginning. By meditating on these attributes, and understanding the Honor Code that has governed us since antiquity, I believe we can gain a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a Warrior, how we can makes ourselves better at being Warriors, and – in time of peace – how the Universal Warrior Attributes can help us be better people.