Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Best of Enemies

Someone -- I think it was Napoleon -- once said that the fiercest enemies have much in common and must agree about the most important matters. Two generals at war with each other, for instance, might agree that some piece of land is valuable and worth spending human lives on. The Democrat and the Republican in Congress, denouncing each other in the most vitriolic terms, agree that talking and voting make for the best way to settle an issue and come to a decision.

Amid its talking trees and flying horses and magic fountains, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso also presents a lot of fighting. Rinaldo and Sacripante fight to see who wins Angelica; both men agree Angelica is a worthy prize. (Angelica, unwilling to take either of them, simply runs away before they finish their fight.) Bradamante fights the sorcerer Atlante in order to free the knights held captive in his magic castle; both parties agree that knights are valuable. And Lurcanio and Ariodante fight to determine Ginevra's guilt or innocence; both sides agree on the vital importance of a woman's chastity and on the necessity of fighting for truth.

This last match-up stands as an example of the medieval practice of Trial by Combat, a curious custom I've been thinking about off and on for the last few years, ever since the last time I read Richard II and noticed its importance in that play. Two combatants fight for opposing viewpoints, but both trust God to grant victory to the one in the right. I suppose it's basically a pious duel.

As it happens, the topic came up in my reading earlier this year, as well. Bonhoeffer, praising medieval Christendom, speaks with admiration in his Ethics about what he sees as its attitude to war: fight fairly and accept the result as God's judgment. By contrast, says Bonhoeffer, the nation engaging in modern warfare takes survival of the homeland for the absolute, admits no possibility of the enemy's being right, and stops at nothing in order to achieve victory. Perhaps he would have difficulty finding anything that modern enemies agree on. But in his ideal view of European war in the Middle Ages, both parties agree in their Christian faith and in their reliance on God's ability to reveal his will. Medieval warriors come to battle as enemies and walk away as brothers. If war between Christians can be justified at all, after all, it must be founded on Jesus' instruction to love our enemies.

Ariosto got my attention by adding a new element to this picture of mutually respectful enemies. Writing around 1500, while Muslim nations attacked Europe, Ariosto's epic tells about a similar situation seven hundred years earlier, when the Mohammedans of Spain poured across the Pyrenees to attack Charlemagne's Christian empire. These two forces don't share a religion, and each intends to force the other off the land of "France" by killing as many enemy soldiers as possible. They agree that the land is worth fighting for. But do they know they agree, and can they honor each other for fighting over that land in the name of God (in their respective understandings of Him)?

Ariosto thought so. In Book I, he recounts the story of two knights, one from each army, wounded and exhausted from battle, separated from their comrades, and lost in the woods. Rinaldo and Ferraù (for such are their names) find each other and one horse. From what we know of recent war and from war movies, we in the twenty-first century would not be surprised to find them fighting ruthlessly for the horse. We might even expect one of them to ambush the other for the sake of that horse. But Rinaldo and Ferraù live in, as ObiWan would say, a more civilized age. They shake hands and share the horse. Ariosto writes this:
O noble chivalry of knights of yore!
Here were two rivals, of opposed belief,
Who from the blows exchanged were bruised and sore,
Aching from head to foot without relief,
Yet to each other no resentment bore.
Through the dark wood and winding paths, as if
Two friends, they go. Against the charger's sides
Four spurs are thrust until the road divides.
Living in an era of Muslim assaults on the West, Ariosto wrote of an earlier age of Muslim assaults on the West. Coincidentally, I'm reading the book at yet another time of Muslim assaults and threats of assault on the West, and of the twenty-first century's version of the counterattacking Crusades. The parallels are striking; yet the West is now decidedly less Christian than it was in the day of either Charlemagne or Ariosto. The West's current postmodern culture has difficulty agreeing to disagree. Doing so requires saying that someone is wrong, and that action depends on a belief in Truth, the denial of which forms one of the fundamental truths of the postmodern creed. If we can't openly celebrate another person's culture and character and preferences today, we tend to acknowledge only two other options: (1) maintaining a polite silence about differences or (2) denouncing the other party as something less than human. I would have to search a long time among non-Muslims in this country today to find anything other than one of these three attitudes toward the adherents of Islam.

But Ariosto reminds us that the West once recognized a fourth way. Openly acknowledging one's differences with another person, far from being a sign of intolerance, actually shows respect. It implies that the topics of disagreement are important, that truth matters, and that the other person's beliefs represent honest, human attempts at finding that truth, attempts worth examining and addressing. If I am tempted to think that no Christian and Muslim can be hospitable to each other, debate their differences respectfully, and dine together in the enjoyment of all they agree on, I only have to reread the story of Patriarch Timothy and Caliph Mahdi. And if I forget that this could be true even of warriors who would gladly kill each other another day in the context of a battle, I need only review the encounter of Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin.

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