A story is told (whether from the Zen tradition, the Bushidō tradition, or modern Japanese cinema I don’t remember) of an encounter between a Samurai warrior and a Zen monk. The warrior approaches the sitting monk and draws his sword. The monk remains impassive. “Don’t you realize that I have no qualms about killing you?” roars the warrior. “Don’t you realize that I have no qualms about dying?” quietly replies the monk.
Which of the figures in this story exhibits the greater courage?
From some unknown source, certain modern writers who exalt the warrior ideal—Nietzsche, and (to a degree) Julius Evola—get the idea that the ability of the martyr to calmly face death is somehow servile, rather than being an example of manly courage in the highest degree. And this misconception is also accompanied by the notion that while cowardice is a betrayal of warrior virtue, the Christian idea of sin is not—as if self-indulgence of every sort were not the very thing that saps the warrior spirit, producing not the manly warrior but the effeminate debauchee.
How such a misconception could ever have grown up is puzzling—though not, as we shall see, entirely so. Was Thomas à Becket servile when he defied King Henry II in the name of the prerogatives of the Roman Catholic Church, and gave his life in defense of it? Speaking as plainly as I can, anyone who believes that the sort of courage exhibited by Becket was somehow groveling or unmanly is seriously out of touch with reality. There may be such a thing as a pathological, masochistic piety, as is sometimes portrayed in bad religious art, but this sort of mental illness has nothing to do with the courage and virtue of the saints.
Between the courage of the warrior and that of the monk we cannot easily decide, because these two renditions of the one virtue exist on different planes, guarded and exemplified by different castes. The courage of the warrior is of the lesser jihad, that of the monk a fruit of the greater: only the man who has triumphed in single combat over his own self-concept can let go of his life the moment his Lord demands it, as if releasing a captive bird from his grasp. And of course the greatest warriors owe their pre-eminence in the lesser jihad precisely to their successful conclusion of the greater one. A story is told of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the son-in law of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them), fourth Sunni Caliph, first Shi’ite Imam and the greatest metaphysician and warrior of his time. During a battle he at last had one of his greatest enemies at his mercy, and drew his sword to slay him. At that moment, however, the defeated enemy spat in his face—at which point Hazrat Ali sheathed his sword, turned and walked away, it being an unseemly violation of adab (etiquette) for a true warrior—as for a true arif, a Knower of God—to kill in anger.
The Brahmin or sacerdotal caste is intrinsically higher than the Kshatriya or warrior caste precisely because the Divine Intellect within man is higher than the will. The strength of the will, the very root of its power, is certainty—and certainty is intrinsic to the Intellect; if Meister Eckhart was able to say “the soul is an aristocrat”, it was because he knew with unwavering certainty that “my truest ‘I’ is God”. Without contact with and loyalty to such metaphysical certainty, whether via direct Intellection or through that virtual Intellection known as Faith, the will becomes a mad dog—no longer the virtue of a cultivated gentleman, only the aimless impulse of a blind barbarian or a vulgar clown. It should be obvious that only the Intellect can tell the will what to will; a will that consults only its own intent, not those objective factors that alone could vindicate or invalidate that intent, becomes a meaningless, destructive impulse. All objectivity has its roots in the Divine, but when the will loses touch with objective reality and sinks into its own subjectivity, when it becomes self-serving rather than God-serving, then the pride of the warrior eclipses his self-respect. And this leads to the sort of disastrous corruption and precipitous fall discerned by René Guénon as the ancient revolt of the Kshatriya caste against the Brahmin caste, that subversion of the God-given order of things that resulted in the Tower of Babel. The will that submits to something higher than itself fills with power; the will that worships only itself ends by destroying itself.
Dr. Rama P. Coomaraswamy, the son of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, and in his later years a traditional Catholic priest and exorcist, was initiated in his youth into the Brahmin caste in India. On one occasion he explained to my wife and myself that while the spiritual pride of the traditional Brahmin is mitigated by his life as a mendicant, dependent upon the Vaishya or commercial/artisan caste for his food and upon the Kshatriya caste for protection, the pride of the Kshatriya, that élan so necessary to all but the greatest of warriors, is tempered by the ever-present, humiliating specter of wounding, mutilation and death. And it is the traditional dharma of the Kshatriya, his whole raison d’être, to protect the Brahmin, so that his contemplative repose, on which both the social and the cosmic orders depend, will not be disturbed.
If some modern writers, both spiritual and political, have made the error of placing the warrior above the priest, this may be traced to the degeneration of the priestly caste in our time, not to its supposed intrinsic inferiority. The fluttering, effeminate, birdlike curate so familiar in both fiction and real life has—like the pedophile Catholic priest—absolutely nothing in common with the priestly archetype, but is based precisely on the individual’s betrayal of that archetype, according to the principle of corruptio optimi pessima, “the corruption of the best is the worst”. We tend to think of the priest or prelate as soft and passive and the warrior as active; however, according to Scholastic Philosophy, since God is Pure Act, the contemplation by which this Act is realized or the prayer by which It is invoked are the most active, and thus the most manly, of possible human pursuits. The Act of the contemplative is motionless and impassive to the degree that it is perfectly realized; in the face of such realized Action, the busy activity of the worldling, and even the passionate and devoted action of the warrior, are mere Potency. Act is the expression of Necessary Being, the Divine Reality, the Always So; Potency is the expression of Possible Being—not of that which must be but only of that which might be, and so must call upon might in order to be realized.
This quality of virile contemplation may be seen even more clearly in the Hindu tradition of Shaivite Tantra, where Shiva, the admantine Absolute as universal Witness, is the Shaktiman, the “Power-holder”, while his female consort, his Shakti, is the Power He holds. It was this distinction that led Guénon to assign the greater or masculine mysteries to the Brahmin caste, and see the romanticism of the Kshatriya caste, its tendency to unite chivalry with heterosexual romantic love, with the lesser or feminine mysteries. The knight’s mistress is his Lady; the monk’s master is his God. Nonetheless, it is through faithfulness to his Lady that the knight realizes God—and the realization of God may also open the monk to the transcendent charms of secret and most beautiful Lady, who is Holy Wisdom. (The quintessential expression of this development in literature is the story “The Priest of Shiga Temple and His Love” by Yukio Mishima.)
The mighty man is the one with the power to actualize potency, to realize possibility—so according to this criterion, the contemplative in the only truly finished warrior, the only Complete Man. The idea that the contemplative is soft, comfort-loving, servile is nothing more than the self-serving prejudice of the degenerate warrior (better called the “thug”, the “gangster” or the “bandit”), the man eaten up by self-will who has rebelled against the Will of God because the Intellect within him that might discern that Will has been darkened. Unfortunately, the slander of the fallen will against the man of spiritual Intellect, no matter how false it may be in principle, is apparently confirmed, all-too-often, by the sleaziness and cowardice of the degenerate priest.
According to Thomas Aquinas, the contemplative life has pre-eminence over the active life—but the “mixed” life, the synthesis of contemplation and action, is the highest. Thus the saintly warrior-king is, in theory, the greatest of all—not because the function of the warrior is greater than that of the monk, but because in him the monk has triumphed over the warrior, and reached such a degree of perfection that even the rigors of battle can no longer distract him—the Complete Man in whom monk and warrior are perfectly united—from the constant contemplation of God. Let those who are doing their best to resurrect the chivalric ideal in our time thoroughly understand this, and then act upon it, lest their long quest for the Warrior, all their courage and self-sacrifice, lead them only to the doorstep of the Thug.
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