Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Honor Codes, Chivalry and Human Nature

Last week Brigham Young University (BYU) sports fans (including myself) were disappointed with the news that Brandon Davies was suspended from the school’s basketball team. The young man had violated the school’s honor code that does not allow premarital sex.

Davies was a starting forward for the team that was reaching the end of its regular season schedule with a remarkable record of 27 wins and only 2 losses. Just prior to Davies’s suspension the team was ranked 3rd nationally and anticipated getting a number 1 bid to the post-season NCAA tournament. The game following his suspension, BYU suffered an embarrassing loss that seemed to presage the end of the team’s success.

Commentators across the country have been mixed in their responses. Many have commended the school for holding to its standards (even though many don’t agree with them). Others have complained that such moral requirements are unrealistic in the modern world where premarital sex is the norm. Nobody, however, seems to be paying much attention to what it means to have honor codes in the first place – especially honor codes that affect athletic programs. But the issue is a significant one. It involves the question of who we are as human beings. Are we animals only, or are we something more?

From an evolutionary perspective sports are usually understood to be a sort of catharsis for the human tendency of aggression and war. Men in particular are adapted to defend themselves and their families and have an innate drive to be aggressive – or to compete. Human societies, especially those that include cities where people live in close proximity to each other, need to have a way of diffusing this latent aggressive urge. Athletic games are a way of doing this.

One of the obvious ways that this works is because there are rules. If humans were only capable of following animal instincts, athletic games would not be possible. This doesn’t mean that animals don’t play or engage in mock battles – they do. We are all familiar with the tumbling antics of wrestling puppies. But athletic games are different. They involve rules that are learned, not just instincts.

But they also involve more than just rules - or at least they used to. Tradition has it that the ancient Olympic Games were initiated because of a religious desire to honor the gods and restore peace. Modern athletic games have also developed from a code of honor. I refer to the medieval code of chivalry.

It is well understood that medieval knights served a military purpose. It is also accepted that they were defenders of Christianity, and of women and children. When they engaged in tournaments they were competing in games of war but with strict rules of engagement. They also acknowledged that they were defending a higher ideal. This was evident in their respect for the cross and in their recognition of women. We recall in Sir Walter Scott’s chivalric novel Ivanhoe how the disinherited knight (winner of a regal tournament) honors the Lady Rowena as the Queen of Love and Beauty.

This was not just an imaginative literary invention of Scott. A real code of honor existed that knights were supposed to live by. It dated at least from the time of Charlemagne and is memorialized in the Song of Roland where 17 knightly virtues are mentioned such as: to fear God and maintain His church, to protect the weak and defenseless, to give succor to widows and orphans, to despise pecuniary reward, to keep faith, to respect the honor of women, never to turn the back upon a foe, etc.

In this time of knightly honor, manliness was acknowledged as an extension of spiritual strength. In fact it was through spiritual power that the knight rightly drew for strength. As David O. McKay was famous for saying (half a century ago), “spirituality … is the consciousness of victory over self and of communion with the infinite.”

Unfortunately, we hardly remember anymore the chivalric beginning of modern sports. It doesn’t serve our purposes anyway. Chivalry was all about men and their need to defend faith, women and children – hardly worthy motives to the modern world.

It is much easier to accept the evolutionary explanation of sports as martial catharsis and leave it at that. Or, more realistically, we ignore the history and science altogether and just play games for the fun of it.

But this only gets us into trouble. It leaves us morally and culturally ungrounded. When we ignore who we really are – that we have both animal and divine natures – sporting events become nothing more than the glorified human version of a spat of fighting monkeys. Winning is the only thing that matters and working oneself into a froth of aggression is accepted and even applauded. Democratic man, it seems, is ever willing to behave like the beasts.

Yet it goes without saying that there is no honor for a victorious beast. Maybe he wins a mate (the so-called highest goal of evolutionary fitness) or scares off a rival. But he remains a beast.

And so it is with us. Our world has forgotten where it came from. It no longer wishes to acknowledge its historic faith and the dignity that comes from honoring the divine part of human nature. Yet this forgetfulness comes with a price, a diminishment of who we are. Games without codes of honor are no more able to dignify man than are the carnal hysterias of mobs.

So whether or not BYU wins any more games this year, it has already won the more important test. It has insisted that honoring noble rules – shall we say chivalric rules – is more important than mere mortal victories. Honor means more than the madness of crowds. And the victory of self is a far greater achievement than just winning a game.


Girouard, Mark. 1982. The Return to Camelot, Chivalry and then English Gentleman. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

McKay, David O. Conference Report 1969; in, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, David O. McKay. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe. The Easton Press (1977 edition).

Sipes, Richard E. 1973. War, Sports and Aggression: An Empirical Test of Two Rival Theories. American Anthropologist 75(1): 64-86.

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