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March 22 – It’s interesting; my husband is reading Le Morte d’Arthur, by Thomas Malory. Written in the mid-1400s, Morte d’Arthur is actually a compilation of legends about King Arthur. According to my husband, it is notable for its utter lack of admirable characters and worthwhile endeavors (the action takes place in the sixth century). Based upon Malory’s retelling, we can only assume that later, more modern versions were “cleaned up” in order to accommodate more civilized sensibilities. All of which leads me to speculate about that word, civilized.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Malory’s King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were a busy bunch, what with endless killings, rapes, and pillaging to attend to. Lovers endlessly plight their troths, only to be undone 24 hours later by their astonishingly bad memories. The action unfolds at a breathless pace, no doubt the product of troubadors having once sung well into the night about Arthur’s various escapades, needing all the while to hold their audience’s attention. To what degree historical accuracy plays a role, I have no idea.

The word “chivalry”, my husband tells me, is derived from the word “cavalry.” It is likely, then, that Arthur’s knights were primarily preoccupied with military conquest and the resulting booty, way back in the 500s. Somewhere along the way, the notion that women ought to be protected from adventurers of a similar ilk developed. Perhaps the fact that one man’s sister might wind up another man’s wife had something to do with it. When people who shouldn’t fall in love do so anyway, the earth moves. Call that one small step for man, one giant leap for humankind.

Today, though the protection of women and children is undertaken with varying degrees of enthusiasm, outright butchery is a rarity (one of the reasons Rwanda was so shocking). While political corruption flourishes, and white collar crime nearly topples governments, modern governments are largely stable entities, though their effectiveness is rarely what it ought to be. If enacting the will of the people seems to be on the decline, it is an idea which reasserts itself periodically because of its intrinsic worth. Though cooperative action that defies borders is oftentimes an ideal, rather than a reality, it is an aspiration to which we are perpetually drawn.

If our needs were not so spectacular right now, we might be tempted to say we’ve come a long way. It took a long time, and was always a matter of two steps forward, one step back. Nevertheless, women no longer give birth to half a dozen children, expecting that half of them will die before adulthood. Men and women need no longer work themselves to death, in order to survive. A life expectancy that exceeds sixty years is realistic. An interesting life, a life which affords educational opportunities once undreamt of, is now considered a human being’s right.

It took two World Wars to teach us about universal human rights. Our moral evolution in the direction of equal rights for all has been so rapid as to stand unique in the field of human endeavor, without precedent. We now not only concern ourselves with the rights of all people, we also discuss the valuing and protection of all sentient beings. So much is happening so fast. So much that needs to happen, isn’t.

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