The basis of Chivalry was and is in being virtuous. The Code of Chivalry was (and is) an efficient framework for living virtuously. In conducting one's everyday life with Virtue, we practice good habit (in Greek: ethos). Therefore the Ars Ethica, as it was known in Antiquity, may be translated literally as "Art of Habit". A singular act exhibiting virtue therefore doesn't define oneself as 'virtuous' - rather it is in the continual practice of 'virtuous acts' that one may be defined as having 'virtue'.

'Virtue' is related to the Latin word 'viris' meaning 'strength', the same word from which we derive the modern word 'virile'. In de Seville's Etymologiae (Book XII, De animalibus) we also read how the word 'vir' meaning 'man' is related to the word for Ram, both being derived from the Latin word 'vis' (force), and known for its virility. In medieval Wrestling matches, such as those described by Chaucer, the prize was the 'Ram' 1. The inward significance of the 'Champion' demonstrated his strength and virtue.

A further word related to the Ars Ethica is the Latin word 'Modus' meaning "Method", "Way" or "Path". It is more usually found in modern Mathematics, where it has essentially the same meaning as 'Mode'. The 'Mode' in modern Mathematics of a given equation is defined as 'the number of a sequence which occurs most often'. This meaning is important when we realise the meaning of Virtue, and how it is defined.

Therefore one's Modus Operandi (way of operating, acting) is defined as the most common, or default behaviour across all behaviours in one's life.

Virtue was critical to the ancients, beginning firstly in ancient Greece. Plato was the first to define the core virtues of life, which were called the Cardinal Virtues (from 'cardo' meaning pivotal). Already with the concept of pivot, we note someone quite peculiar about Virtue: that is it a balancing point or fulcrum upon which balance may be made. Defining the different extremes in this balance was the concern of not only ancient philosophers, but also pretty much all philosophers through time. The Platonic Cardinals were adopted by the early Christian Church based upon revisions by Neo-platonists.

One of the most successful authors to write on the topic was Aristotle. In his work on Ethics, Aristotle (Book 2:1) tells us how Virtue is defined by actions, and that actions whether good or bad display Virtue (virtus) or Vice. Virtue is the middle point between two extremes of character - deficiency or excess of a particular character-trait was a Vice, the moderation between the two being the Virtue. Moreover, supporting what we have already said Aristotle confirms that It is not the action itself which demonstrates the Virtue or Vice, but the repetition of such action. He mentioned how -

“the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulent, while the man who shuns every pleasure…becomes in a way insensible.”

Thus Virtue and Vice are defined as either repeated desirable acts, or repeated indesirable acts; it is the habit which defines the quality of a person. This “habit” is the very basis of virtue and vice given that Aristotle was the one who reminds us how “ethic” (Greek: ethicke) stems from the word “ethos” (habit). Thus virtue (the desirable quality of a warrior) was the logical mean between two opposing vices (the most undesirable qualities of a warrior). Vice was therefore the representation of an imbalance in one’s character. Virtue depended upon a principle of moderation, wherein one should practice to have a character not beset by extremes. The Modus of one's operation is therefore the standard frequency of operation of one's life.

Doctrine of the Mean

A recurrent theme in the entirety of Chivalric works, and indeed moral and legal works is the concept of the Mean. Concepts of Temperance (Christianity, and from the Cardinal Virtues), Moderation (in Hippocrates & Galen's medicine), of Justice (fairness & unfairness, judgement, objectivity) etc all derive in part from a concept of Mean.

But to define a 'Mean', we must define two polar extremes, and therefore the Doctrine of the Mean is compound because it relies upon another concept: Polarity. Much akin to the Daoist philosophies of the Far East, already familiar to martial artists, Polarity was at the heart of Greek Philosophy. Martial Artists, and in fact the general populace, are quite familiar with the idea of Taiji, or Yin and Yang. This symbol is a visualisation of a general principle of reality - that all things may be identified in extremes - for every thing, there is an opposite thing, and for every set of poles, there are infinite parts between the two.

Needless to say, this Principle of Polarity was not foreign to ancient Greece. The great philophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had already made definitions of Polarity and how they formed the foundation of the sensible world. They further defined principles of Contrario, with Harmonia 2.

The chart below 3 demonstrates some of the Virtues relevant to Chivalry, and how excess or deficiency of a sphere of feeling demonstrates a Vice.

Sphere of action or feeling

Excess (vice)

Mean (virtue)

Deficiency (vice)

Fear and confidence




Pleasure and pain




Getting and spending (minor)




Getting and spending (major)




Honor and dishonor (major)




Honor and dishonor (minor)


Proper ambition




Good temper










Social conduct

Obsequiousness or flattery









Righteous indignation

Malicious enjoyment

Happiness as the End

Utlimately, the reason for practicing virtue was for Truth, such that to align one's behaviour with it was widely believed to be conducive to achieving profound happiness. Happiness and good temper (eudaimonia, frohlich mut8) was the suitable catalyst for good virtue.

Happiness is therefore the underlying end to which a virtuous life is and should be directed. For this reason it is essential that we emphasise any discussion on Chivalry as an attempt to define eudaimonia. The meaning of life, according to both Classical and medieval scholars was to find happiness. Such an end was the most laudable operation of life, but the means through which that end was to be achieved was highly disputed (as it still is).

To the Stoics, true happiness could not be found in the indulgence of the senses – an opinion in contrast to the Hedonists. Such pleasures were the effect of interacting with the outside world, but were transient. Their nature meant that the first experience of anything by means of the senses was either pleasurable or painful, but over numerous exposures, the body builds a tolerance to them. The human body is designed for inertia: changes to its pattern or its experience as a displacement to its operation. The body knows nothing but its own experience, and so repetitive exposure leads the body to adjust, to change its state to comply with its surroundings4.

To Aristotle, happiness wasn’t a characteristic of the mind, it was a state of operation. In this opinion, he is well aligned with the Buddha, given that the latter believed “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way”. There were three components which defined this state of operation: “those which come to us from without, those of the soul, and those of the body.” This concept was distilled fairly recently by the philosopher Schopenhauer.

Modern approaches

Chivalry is an ancient framework, yet the discussion of the virtues which comprise it have been widely discussed. Modern discussions about what define 'happiness' and 'virtue' have come closer to defining it in more concrete terms, which is highly valuable to modern students of Chivalry. These modern definitions are more accessible to a modern audience because they were produced by our contemporaries. Therefore they are valuable for achieving the underlying theme of Chivalry as 'happiness'.

The philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860) defined his Wisdom of Life as being the pursuit of Eudaimonia. Like Aristotle5, Schopenhauer believed that a state of well-being was derived from the features of human experience, which he categorised as three things:

  1. Personality (what a man is),
  2. Property (what a man has) and
  3. Position (a man’s place in the estimation of others, or Third-party perspective).

Life is defined by problems and resistance. Being alive itself necessitates the base functions to maintain that life. This means that life itself is based upon striving by definition. We often forget that the basis of our modern perception is secured because of our legal and commercial systems. We work in order to earn money, and money is the means to acquiring the necessities for maintaining life (security, comfort, food, clothing, shelter etc). In effect, it is these things we require, and the institutionalised means to achieve them are learned in the early stages of one’s life.

These definitions bring us finally to the study of Human Motivation by Maslow 6. Maslow was a psychologist who approached the topic differently from his peers. Freud and Jung had traditionally focussed upon pathology, as a means to understanding the psyche. Maslow instead studied healthy and successful people in a bid to understand what made them so healthy and successful. Such a study would have been an invaluable source to Knights hundreds of years ago.

Maslow profiled many historical personalities as well as contemporaries. He discovered that almost all their traits were shared, so much so, he was able to categorise another form of personality 'self-actualisers'. Maslow's work allowed for definition of what would have been historically referred to as 'worth', which Maslow called 'Self-worth'. Establishing 'self-worth' through self-actualisation - the achievement of 'becoming that which one is capable of becoming' was at the basis of his theory.

In Summary

So with the help of both ancient and modern scholars, we are able to construct a picture of Virtue in Chivalry.

  • The purpose and function of Chivalry was the pursuit of Happiness and Worthiness,
  • The framework for its achievement was through being 'virtuous' and alignment with 'Truth',
  • Chivalry is about striving to become that which we are capable of becoming,
  • Recognition of this by others forms one's sense of 'worth',
  • The term for excellence (Greek: arete) in this striving is what was once called 'nobility' 7


  1. Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, the Miller would "At wrastlyng he would have alwey the ram,"(548), and further in The Tale of Sir Thopas: "Of wrastlyng was ther noon his peer, / ther any ram shal stonde,"(740)

  2. Plato, Phaedo: "Everything arises in this way, opposites from their opposites." (sect. 71a); Heraclitus "they do not know that the differing/opposed thing agrees with itself; harmony is reflexive (παλίντροπος palintropos, used of a compound bow, or "in reflexive tension"), like the bow and the lyre" (fr. 51)

  3. Adapted from J A K Tomson translation (p104)

  4. This principle is well known amongst biologists, and produces the observable 'Baldwin Effect' capable of being a catalyst for evolutionary adaptation

  5. I say 'Like Aristotle', though Schopenhauer himself says "Keeping nothing of this division but the number" in attempting his own classification, although given scrutiny, it seems that Schopenauer's three components are a refinement of Aristotle's rather than a complete departure.

  6. Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–96. May be read here.

  7. Over time, the demographic of people who were 'worthy', either through personal or hereditary achievement were collectively referred to as 'the Nobility'.

  8. In HS3227a it appears with consistant regularity: (18r), "frölichen mut", "guter mut", "At earnest, or at play, have a joyful spirit with contraint; Thus your may observe and with good temper consider" (Czu ernst ader czu schimpf / habe frölichen mut / mit limpf / So magstu achten vnd mit gutem mute betrachten), (18v) "If you need to fight, and carry a good temper" (Wil fechten haben vnd frölichs gemüte tragen), (37r - 37v) "...and you shall thus with him be quite joyful, and with good temper, and bravery without any fear" (vnd salt alzo mit im gar frölichen / mit gutem mute / vnd künlichen an alle vorchte).

    Egenolff mentioned in 1531, (6v) "In the After, you hit with liberal spirit" (Im Nach dich triff uß freiem mut)

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