by John Milbank
Saturday, 10
April 2021
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07:00

Prince Philip’s Socratic sense of duty

His chivalric devotion to the Queen became his main task in life
by John Milbank
His chivalric devotion to the Queen became his main task in life

The death of a monarch always comes as a shock because the Crown is haloed with immortality. When the present Queen dies it will be a double shock, because her long reign is coterminous with the lives of so many. But it is a tribute to Prince Philip that his death today comes as nearly as great a shock. He is inseparable from the Queen in our minds and it is poignant to think of her left old and alone in her echoing palaces.

We ourselves are left with the sense of the beginning of the passing of an era. And Prince Philip would seem to represent in an acute form the best of the values of that era, which in many ways jar with today’s.

At the core of those values was an attempt to transform and yet maintain much older inherited traditions and attitudes.

For Philip was the lost scion of a European dynastic network. As such he retained a fundamentally international outlook, but one which fully recognised that humanity can only be nurtured in specifically national and religious identities.

For this reason he remained unbounded within a tightly bounded circumstance. Although he fully accepted the limitations of public service, he did not see this as any reason for passive self-abnegation, but actively, if ironically, identified with his potentially undignified role. It is this bold and humorous embrace of fated restriction which many now find irksome: one is no longer supposed to mix public performance with private self-expression in quite this manner.

Yet such a mix is authentically Socratic: the proof that the doing of one’s duty can also be the way of self-fulfilment. The Duke’s sacrifice of career to romance and ceremonial office is all the more impressive for his not hiding some annoyance. The combination of his restless temperament and his deeply felt devotion to duty found fruitful expression; for instance, in the creation of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, the work of Saint George’s House Windsor, and in catalysing the engagement of the great religions with contemporary environmentalism.

Above all he developed a way to be male that was both traditional and modern. He served one woman with chivalric devotion as his main task in life while fulfilling his public engagements in a bold and active spirit. He eventually embraced the opportunity to read and contemplate more. And yet, he remained loyal to the imperatives of his mentor Kurt Hahn in seeking to combine imagination with action and religious devotion with practical involvement.

Prince Philip took more pride in the roles he had accidentally inherited than in the personal gifts which he was never able fully to develop. He put companionship before self-realisation and acceptance of a sacred symbolic destiny before the mere influencing of events. In all these respects he implicitly rebuked our prevailing meritocracy which over-values officially accredited attainment, and our prevailing narcissism which valorises the assertion of discrete identities.

Now he has passed out of this life, our times need to heed his example more than ever.

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  • I had previously thought that KBO stood for “Kindly Bugg** Off’.
    Either way, it’s good advice for the “snowflakes”

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