In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis makes a provocative point about the modern mind. In discussing love and marriage, he observes that we have a hard time talking about degrees of good and bad. We can only discuss absolutes and never relative goods. This leads to a narrowing of societal discourse. So he writes about duels that,
They ask you what you think of dueling. If you reply that it is far better to forgive a man than to fight a duel with him, but that even a duel might be better than a lifelong enmity which leads to continuous secret efforts to ‘do the man down,’ they complain that you have not given them a straight answer.
V.G. Keirnan’s book The Duel in European History has certain strengths but lacks some of the necessary subtlety that Lewis urges. He has a lot of juicy gems and some incisive points. He searches for a unified field theory of dueling, which I admire. He seems to think that dueling’s best explanation lies in a quasi-Marxist theory of maintaining class dominance, which fails in my view for a few reasons. Of course dueling had something to do with class, but not always. Of course dueling is wrong, but . . . maybe not always?
Some personal examples . . .
I had a good friend in high school and we did various things together. Around our sophomore year we decided to add some spice to our various games of ping-pong, poker, H-O-R-S-E, or video games. We invented consequences for the loser of these contests. These consequences either brought great discomfort (put hot pepper on your tongue for five minutes, run barefoot in the snow, eat a spoonful of mustard, etc.), or great embarrassment (fall down dramatically in a restaurant, sing loudly in the middle of the street, etc.). Looking back, many of these things were essentially harmless and created some good memories. I should say too that losing brought no shame, but to back out of the “consequence” would have been unthinkable and damaging to the friendship. You made a pledge, now see it through.
But . . . I think a lot our motivation stemmed from boredom. No longer could we play “just for fun.” The game itself no longer satisfied. As you might imagine, with this motivation the consequences themselves inevitably intensified over time. Also it seemed that we both sought to find great enjoyment in the suffering of the other person, what the Germans call “schadenfreude.” So perhaps on balance this was “primitive” or “destructive.”
Another example . . .
In college I remember walking into my dorm room one day and seeing my roommate and another guy on the hall wrestling. It was not purely play, neither were they “fighting” in any real sense of the word. They engaged in something in between those two. Some sort of personal disagreement lie at the heart of this–I have no idea what.
I stayed to watch. Keirnan might want to ascribe the fact that I watched to some sort of love of destructive spectacle. Obviously I preferred watching the “match” to opening my biology textbook. Keirnan has a point. But I also stayed to act as a kind of “second” for my roommate should level of fighting go too far. Soon enough a few others came and watched, much for the same reasons, I’m sure.
After several minutes one of them agreed to say “uncle” and they stopped. Commendations for both participants flowed from the audience. It seemed entirely natural that now we should all go to dinner, and the first 15 minutes of conversation had most of us laughing about this or that moment in their match. The two participants seemed entirely reconciled and never again had another such incident. One of them had “lost,” but that carried no consequence.
I would love to know what Keirnan would think about this “duel.” Can duels ever be good for you or society, and if so, why? To answer this question we need to think about why duels happen in the first place.
Before we think about anything possibly positive about duels, Keirnan deals well with their obvious problems:
- Most duels occur inextricably bound up with the sin of pride. Perhaps this, even more so than the violence, explains their consistent condemnation by the Church.
- Many duels bring death or grave physical harm that had no relation to the nature of the “offense” that caused the duel in the first place. For example, towards the end of the era of dueling poets and musicians fought over particular points of artistic criticism.
- At certain points in history duels happened not to settle disputes, but to prove manhood or courage. Duels might then morph almost into a way of life–a way of life that can only end in death.
- And yes, Keirnan has a point about the “social-control” aspect of dueling as its link to aristocracies. Democratic peoples resort to dueling at a vastly lower rate than aristocratic nations, and this tells us something.
None of this surprises the reader. But Keirnan has more interesting parts of his book.
From his tour through the history of the duel, we may guess at when duels tend to emerge more so than other times.
First, it appears that the amount duels rose in times of significant cultural and political shift. Two main examples hint at this possibility. First, dueling increased in the 17th century as the power of monarchs increased. Increased power to the king meant perhaps that aristocrats felt the need to “strut their stuff” and duel more often. They may have had the political motive of settling disputes outside of royal courts–an act of survival.
In time the power of the state grew and aristocracies declined. Duels faded gradually through the 18th century. But the coming of the Industrial Revolution revived it again. Here we have part two of their attempt at survival, as the Industrial Revolution made mince-meat of the aristocratic class. This time, however, the dueling had no obvious political purpose. Also–as to how they thought dueling would ensure their survival . . . ? Maybe they thought they needed to leave the stage in dramatic and pointless fashion? I don’t buy the “irrational” motif Keirnan may favor, but he can put this one in his corner.*
In his eyewitness account of the English Civil War, Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon, spends his first chapter criticizing the government of Charles I. One might suppose that certain policies impoverished England and this led to rebellion. In fact, as Hyde and other historians point out, England enjoyed relative prosperity during Parliament’s long exile under Charles. The problem lay not in the suffering of the country, but in part in its lack of suffering. At length Hyde argues that Charles’ chief error lay in not giving England’s political class anything to do for several years. They had nothing to do in part because times were good in most respects. In other words, boredom and restlessness helped lead to the Civil War.
Keirnan mentions this as well at certain points in his narrative, and this rings true with my own experience that I mentioned above. At some point, things got stale and we wanted to liven them up. But I keep coming back to the question of the possible validity of some kinds of duels.
I had a long talk with my wife about this and she brought up several interesting questions about my experiences. “Couldn’t we have had mercy on one another and forgiven the consequence?” I answered that would not have been possible.
“But why not?”
True, many duelists had “mercy” on their combatant by firing in the air or some other such method. But this was possible because they had already “won” by showing up and standing for the contest. Victory was a side benefit. They had already proven themselves.
For my friend and I, we could only prove ourselves by going through with the consequence. That was the whole point. When reminiscing about what happened we never said, “Remember that time you made that shot and won at H-O-R-S-E?” Instead we reflected, “Remember that time when your feet bled from running in the snow, or when I had to sing the Police’s “Roxanne” in the middle of my street?” Going through with the consequence gained us fame, not winning the contest.
To “forgive” a consequence in our case would have made the whole process pointless.**
So on the one hand we “proved ourselves” as “men” without doing any real harm to ourselves or others. We bonded over this.
But on the other hand, it had all the negatives I listed above.
I still wonder about the possible ancillary benefits of duels.
Amidst the many reasons for duels–obscene pride, class control, the destructive impulse, etc.–what stands out to me most is boredom. In some way, shape, or form, deep down we know that we need to suffer to be who we need to be. Democracies don’t encourage suffering in any way. We are told to gratify our desires. Most modern American manifestations of Protestantism have no concept of voluntary suffering and many churches do all they can to accommodate, not challenge, the modern man.
I think if we can recover the true purpose and place of suffering, we may get closer than Keirnan to understanding duels. And it is here that I must demur, for I have been a somewhat silly teenager, but I am not a saint.
*I generally disagree with Marxist interpretations of history but they sometimes have merit. Kiernan’s class emphasis makes historical sense, but not logical sense–at least to me. Aristocrats have power because of their birth. They do not need to “earn” it in the modern sense of the word. Clearly dueling at times served a purpose of validating their status as aristocrats. But why feel this need? Again, they never had to earn their status in the first place. Perhaps the duel represented for some a kind of atonement oriented suffering for their societal position? Perhaps this might allow them to feel that they had “earned” their role?
I wonder why democracies eschew the duel. After all, in theory all of their citizens are born equal and must distinguish themselves in some way from their fellow man.
**In fact I believe this happened once and only once in our years of performing “consequences” and I was the lucky recipient. If memory serves, we were playing some kind of basketball video game and I had lost multiple times, which meant I had to drink a concoction consisting (I think) of raw egg, tabasco sauce, and mustard.
But my friend did not simply just “forgive” this consequence. Rather, he had to back out of plans we had made for the following day and in compensation released me from drinking the miserable concoction.
Needless to say, however grave and disappointed I made myself sound when he told me this, I accepted his offer quite readily!