On the inevitability of hierarchies
In the first of his Arthurian Romances, Chrétien de Troyes tells a rather odd story. At least, it is odd by modern standards; and modern standards should not necessarily be trusted. The story goes that a bunch of men, led by King Arthur, go out into the woods to hunt the white stag—that famous symbol of virtue, innocence, and purity. At the celebration following the hunt, the winner’s prize will be that he gets to kiss the most beautiful woman in the room. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Arthur is the winner. But we have to wait a bit for the celebration to happen. First, the story cuts to a different episode in a different nearby wood.
In that wood, we find Queen Guinevere accompanied by her lady-in-waiting and a knight named Erec. Some way away from them, they spot a knight in black armour, silent and indifferent to their presence. The Queen is curious. Who is that man? She sends her lady-in-waiting to go to the knight and ask him to come to meet her. But the lady-in-waiting doesn’t even get a chance to address the black knight because his servant, a dwarf, blocks her way. With a whip in his hand, he injures the hand of the poor lady-in-waiting; and she runs off weeping back to her mistress.
When the lady-in-waiting meets up with the Queen and Erec and tearfully tells them what happened, Erec is utterly furious. What angers him primarily is not the fact that the lady has been hurt, although this is no doubt part of it, but rather that she was dishonoured. Her position of honour, for to be a lady-in-waiting is to be pretty high up in the world, has not only not been recognised but has been treated with disdain by the dwarf. Erec rushes to confront the knight about his unruly servant. Unfortunately, he is met by that same servant, who brandishes the whip with such ferocity that Erec cannot get to the black knight. The black knight simply rides away.
Erec goes back to the Queen and the lady-in-waiting and tells them that he will, with the Queen’s blessing, chase after that knight, fight him in a duel to reclaim the lady-in-waiting’s honour, beat him, and bring him back to serve the Queen. This is exactly what he does. On his brief travels, he also meets the most beautiful woman he has ever seen; she is possibly the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen. He is so enchanted by her beauty that he immediately asks her father for her hand in marriage. Her father agrees; and she, Enid, also agrees. After all, Erec is clearly both noble and, unsurprisingly, very good-looking. Erec insists that his betrothed should return with him—also with the conquered black knight and his now-chastised dwarvish servant—to receive the Queen’s blessing.
They all meet up at the white stag celebration. During the celebration, a number of things happen in quick succession. The black knight pledges, on bended knee, that he will serve the Queen until he dies and that his dwarf will do the same. The Queen blesses the union of Erec and Enid; and the King, and everyone else, recognises that Enid is definitely the most beautiful woman in the room, if not the world. He kisses her and so ratifies the blessing already given by Queen Guinevere to the happy couple.
I have told the story now from memory, so I may have left a lot out; I also may have gotten some of the details wrong. Still, the meaning of much of what happens in the story doesn’t hinge on a perfect retelling. What we have in this tale is a profound illustration of bad hierarchies being turned into good hierarchies; what has been displaced is placed and replaced. The dwarf in the story is an interesting symbol, although no doubt cries of Ableism! are likely to blind more than a few people from seeing him as such. He represents that which is ‘lower down’ in the hierarchy—he is a servant after all, and a short one at that, closer to the ground and so representing unformed matter or potential. And yet, he acts as if he is higher up; he affords more actuality to himself than he possesses. He calls the shots even when his master is around, and he dishonours the Queen’s lady-in-waiting. Erec, the representative of chivalry here, is also the symbol of perception itself. He sees rightly and wants to put everything back in its right place. We see him do this as he subordinates the black knight to the Queen; he gets the dwarf to act like the servant he is, not the master he isn’t; he places himself and his betrothed at the service of the Queen; and, finally, the King ratifies all of it, reminding everyone of his symbolic power at the top of the great hierarchy of being.
A metaphysical set of categories, already used, helps us to see a further meaning of all of this. I mean the distinction between act and potency; that is, between actuality, meaning what is real, and potentiality, meaning that which might be made real or more real. Actuality, as Aquinas notes, is established by form. Potentiality tends to be a little less formed and a little less well-informed. Whatever potentiality a thing or person has must be actualised by something that is more actual than itself. If you think long and hard about this simple pair of categories, you’ll soon find yourself with a profound understanding of the world, and a proof or two for the existence of God.
In particular, however, let’s think about how these categories help us to understand change. Change happens; it’s inescapable. Even if we were in simulation, we’d have to explain changes in the simulation, as well as the surprising fact that the simulation persists in its being. How would it be able to do this if there were no simulator? Anyway, the very presence of change suggests that potentiality, which has to be actual even to have potential, can be actualised. Potential can be made real.
Here’s a physicalist metaphor for this. Let’s take cold water as our example of an act; it is an actual thing. We know that this actual thing is substantially water while also being accidentally cold. We also know that this may change. Water can be cooled down further so that it becomes ice or heated up further to boil. Even further heating will turn liquid water into steam. Hot water is good for bathing in but when too hot, scalding is certain. Heated up and combined with other things, water can be changed into tea or coffee or some other hot drink.
All of these changes or realisations of potentials require interactions with other actualities. The potential in water to be heated up requires heat from some external source, for example. Water can’t heat itself so the heat of something else must be transferred to it. This elevation of the being of water requires the higher actuality supplied by a kettle or a stovetop. You may criticize me here for importing a value judgment into my assessment of water being improved by its hotness. Of course, I know that its being is not necessarily elevated by being hot. I realise that cold water is good for some things too. But my inclusion of a value judgment here indicates something else I want to get to related to ethics.
There is this sense of hierarchy, the hierarchy between higher actualities and lower ones with potentials, in the story told by de Troyes. There are higher goods but these require actualisation. Note: not self-actualisation, which is arguably just nonsense. Actualisation requires something beyond a being. At the start of the story, what is lower seems to call the shots and denigrate what is higher. It becomes obvious soon enough that the chivalry and virtue of Erec must be given room to act in their full reality to set everything right. He must beat the knight who did nothing to stop his servant from injuring a lady of virtue. He must marry the girl he falls in love with rather than just using her to scratch an itch or two. He must also remind himself that his place in the hierarchy of being is not to command the whole show. He must conform to the given order because, if only symbolically speaking, it is the best order. He is not at the top but he can still manifest virtue at its best while not being at the top.
I know that Arthurian legends tell of many ways that fallible people, Arthur and Guinevere included, corrupt their place within the hierarchy. They surrender to what is lower rather than allowing themselves to be lifted by what is higher. However, they remain symbols of authority. They are symbols of goodness, truth and beauty. There is no doubt that de Troyes is pointing to more than what is obvious to the modern mind. Because the highest things of all are invisible.
But none of this sounds very liberal, at least in the democratic political sense. And that’s because it isn’t. Liberalism attacks hierarchies. In its theoretical forms in humanities faculties, those parodies of ancient wisdom, we often hear about dismantling hierarchies. Inequalities and disparities are regarded as problematic. This is claimed and never proven, as if this is a trustworthy metaphysical principle on its own. Everything must be queered, disrupted, destigmatised, deconstructed, decolonized and subverted. In practice, especially as the word subverted suggests here, this just sets up a whole new set of hierarchies. We don’t end up without any power structure and with no abuses of power. Rather, we end up with a new power structure and all kinds of new abuses. The patriarchy is replaced by the matriarchy, and the head of this matriarchy is Medusa, the enraged Gorgon.
I can’t right now think of a single exception to the rule, although there may be one, that at the top of the list of what must be dismantled in this frenzy of resentment is not the power of the patriarchy but purity itself. Virtue itself is very unpopular among the rainbow alphabetirati, that amorphous and self-contradictory organisation that splits white light into its constituent components at the expense of illumination. The white stag must not belong to the King, apparently, but must be defiled by the prideful, envious, and lustful. We see this sort of denigration of purity especially in what I do not think is an exaggerated slur; I mean the arrival on the world’s stage of the so-called groomer. Children are actively sexualised in so much mainstream media. Lying is outright encouraged as the state steps in to help the medical industrial complex to flourish while it sacrifices children on the surgical-table-turned-altar of Mammon.
There are other inversions we can name. Too many to name in one place, perhaps. One example is the follow-the-science mantra made famous by Greta Thumbspurge. If the idea were genuinely to seek the highest possible good for people through scientific research and discovery, no one would push back against it. However, recent times have shown a consistent push to subordinate people to something called ‘science’ but which is probably better understood as ‘scientism,’ and which has profoundly disturbing links to Mammonite money-grabbing. The reduction of human beings to objects of bare life during the covid pandemic is just one manifestation of this scientism.
And yes, sadly, other new hierarchies are becoming more and more well-established. Consumerism is placed higher than spiritual integrity. Employment becomes the measure of any education, not enrichment. The cheap is placed higher than the priceless. Immediate gratification is placed higher than enduring love. War is placed higher than peace. Looting, at certain times in recent years, has been praised, while people have failed to see that looting is capitalism par excellence. Pure greed is fully on display.
We may or may not find ourselves slipping down a slippery slope in all this. None of it is inevitable. But it is not unimaginable, given the outright attack on old virtues, that we could live one day in a world in which surrogacy is granted a higher value and status than regular pregnancy and birth; in which people are praised for their addictions; in which applications for victim status will be demanded; in which being straight is a problem. In a way, though, it would be just more of what the current anti-culture demands. Taboos are taboo. Prohibitions are prohibited. Why? Because it is much, much easier to fall off a cliff than it is to climb a mountain. It is easy to go with the flow; it is difficult to go against it. Nihilism, at its essence, simply means giving up. It means submitting the higher to the lower. It means submitting actuality to potentiality. It will do this parasitically, often in the very name of the higher.
But we have a symbol in the story of de Troyes. Arthur hunts the white stag to show us that purity itself is no obvious given. We have to work for it. I know, as a parent, how almost unbelievably difficult it is to protect kids from the world even as we want them to be resilient. But genuine resilience will be found precisely in purity; in a desire, that is, to live up to what is highest and not to simply give in to what is lowest and what is most definitely not on our side. This, I think, is a battle worth fighting. But it is a complicated battle.
Nietzsche foresaw the destruction of values in Western culture arising from the death of God. He also foresaw the need for revaluating values; that is, ensuring that we have a strong sense of what is valuable given the rise of nihilism. He got that latter aspect of his assessment almost entirely wrong, though, having failed to understand that new values cannot be created ex nihilo but are necessarily always reliant on the natural law. And this is the lesson we need to learn, and fast. We need to learn that some things are genuinely better than others. Purity is better than impurity. Virtue is better than vice. We need to learn, too, that if we have some warped impulse to denigrate purity, then we have really just given up. We have allowed ourselves to be driftwood. And just going with the flow is not something we should give ourselves credit for. Being proud of absolute failure is the epitome of malice.
The only real way to stop being driftwood is to allow that which is higher than us to actualise what is lower within us. Spend time with good people, allow yourself to be nourished by the best that life has to offer, deal with your addictions, and put your faith in God, who is more actual than any other actuality. This is easy to say, I know. But, honestly, it is easy when you spend time in the company of those whose goal is the same as yours, which is to hunt the white stag. If you fail, get up and try again.