My good friend, Dan Gwaltney, joined me on my last sojourn to West Point. Since he had never been there before, Chaney and I decided to give him the platinum tour, so to speak. It started off at the West Point Visitors’ Center and then we went to the West Point Museum to see some of the artifacts that had been gifted to the United States Army throughout the years, and others the Army liberated from some of our more nefarious adversaries.
One of the “gifted” items came from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (for those of you who have studied my blogs, one of my favorite historical figures). In one of the display cases on the second floor of the museum, under a portrait of Napoleon and gifted by the government of France, is a pair of Napoleon’s dueling pistols.
They are absolutely exquisite, as you would suspect Napoleon’s dueling pistols would be.
“We really do need to bring back dueling, Dan.”
“Yes, indeed! It would make things so much easier, wouldn’t it?”
We stared in silence at the pistols for a few moments, contemplating not just the weapons themselves, but what they represented.
“You know, Steven, I have a proposition for you. Would you be willing to put a dueling provision into one of the arbitration agreements we use at my company?”
I laughed, “Seriously?”
He smiled, “Yes, let’s draft it up and make it legal boilerplate stuff, Code Duello, Seconds, Defense of Honor, and all that stuff. I’ll bury it in the fine print, but we will know that it is there.”
We both laughed at the idea as we moved on to look at the section dedicated to Frederick the Great.
It did get me thinking, though, well not exactly so much about dueling per se, but about honor and the sense of honor, and most importantly, the protection of honor.
First, let’s look at a brief history of dueling. To start out, it has been around since we first crawled out of the ooze. But, throughout most of our history, it has been essentially limited to offenses within a social caste system. Someone outside of the social class, if challenged to a duel, could demur without having it reflect on his honor. On the other hand, if someone in your social class were to challenge you, failure to accept is seen as an admission of cowardice.
Duels also did not mandate death. They didn’t even mandate the actual duel. The Seconds of the combatants (think of them like lawyers) would step in and endeavor to resolve the dispute. Once the challenge had been made, no further communication between the combatants was allowed. The Seconds handled all of the negotiations. Their primary obligation was to unravel the offense and come up with a solution that restored the offended party’s sense of honor. This was usually done through the most ingenious of instruments: the apology. Once the transgressor had apologized, honor was restored and the duel became moot.
Of course, there were times transgressors either felt they could not, or would not, apologize. This then led to the actual event. Even here death was not an inevitable outcome. Most duels were fought to first blood. (This was especially prevalent when using swords.) Even when pistols were involved, parties oftentimes purposefully missed. Killing your opponent was not the “goal”. Restoring your honor was the goal.
In “civilized society” (and I use this term with all the trappings of sarcasm I can muster) we have democratized the duel to an extent. We have abandoned the class distinctions. We have also institutionalized the practice. It is called the Civil Court System.
If you are wronged, you “sue” for compensation.
This, in my humble opinion, is thoroughly distasteful. We have transferred the concept of preservation of honor and, instead, replaced it with financial compensation. Worse, our Seconds are usually paid out of our winnings or through the use of insurance instruments. In a sense, we have made it far easier to “duel” and made the whole process far more elongated. In the process we have abandoned all vestiges of a desire to have one’s honor restored.
In our modern world we have institutionalized and homogenized our academic growth. The dominant Leftist / Collectivist paradigm notwithstanding, the very institution of education is drawn around the typically erroneous belief that academic success translates to financial independence. In our chase for “marketable skills”, we have largely abandoned the notions of civics, communal and personal responsibility, and, most importantly, honor.
Our founders pledged to sacrifice just that: “our lives, or fortunes, our sacred honor”. The phrase seems quaint and largely absent of any connection to our modern world. Yet, that is a decision we make, and we make it every day.
Yes, our children and our fellow citizens need to understand and be educated to the notion that honor is something unique and precious to each of us, and, frankly, something that should never be sacrificed for personal expediency.
Perhaps a good duel now and then, or even the threat of a duel, might be enough to make our society less prone to offense and outrage.
There does seem to be merit in that. Well… now on to Amazon to buy a glove and a rapier. You never know when they might come in handy.