Monday, February 27, 2012

The Elusive Gentleman - PART II

I am beyond thankful for the contributions in the last section of comments, which actually caused me to scrap what I had written in favor of distilling the genuine wisdom of those who commented.

Here are qualities and uses described by readers:

Restraint with Power
To possess power and wield it responsibly in the face of understandably human temptation makes a good King, politician, officer, neighbor, parent, friend, etc.  The restraint is likely a complex mixture of respect, humility, duty, honor, charity, and stewardship among others.

Setting a Benchmark
Parents use this often, and for many of us, it works.  Encouraging boys and others to "be a gentleman" is requesting that they rise to a level of conduct that is above their level of action at that moment.

American Differentiation
Because clothing, money, schooling, and all of the other chips we gather to make our case have little to do with it, Americans are forced to earn the title, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world.  JKG astutely observes that many in the U.S. use their clothing to attempt justification of their virtue, of use their virtue to justify their clothing.  You can almost hear the exchange: "Why are you so dressed up?" the young woman at the party asked the bow-tied and tweed clad young man.  "Because a gentleman should always dress well." This is the type of smug idiocy JKG is likely warning against.  Its similar to someone introducing himself socially as "Doctor So-and-so".  Forceful self-branding makes my pen scratch that name off the list the next time a set of invitations go out.

My Man Godfrey - 1936

Robert E. Lee was discussed, and while his mention can be a lightning rod or bristle point, I think that the description gets at the larger picture.  Flawlessness of conduct by every single standard is impossible.  While many of our founding fathers and historically pivotal characters were certainly gentlemen by most of today's standards, they were still human men.  Staggering duplicity and occasional deviation from the course is inevitable.  Frequency, degree of deviation, and its level of premeditation probably play largely into disqualification/qualification of the title.

Adherence to Principle
ADG suggested that his fatherly defense of virtue will someday get him into a slug-out.  Getting your ass kicked is no different than giving an ass-kicking, because the reason it took place is what is important.  Violence should be the absolute last resort in all situations, but there are times when humans become mere mammals, and a man is forced to enter into that unfortunate dynamic.  ***When it does happen, I highly recommend having a guy like The Mainline Sportsman next to you.

Non-physical fights are what we should focus on.  ADG wrote that he defends virtue for sake of the virtue itself, but also to set an example, possibly to calibrate those around to higher standards.
     Gentlemen seem to adhere to causes others have left for dead, and they will take their fights to town hall, to court rooms, and to their daily life if needed.  They fight against what they individually see as unjust, threatening to their moral outlook, threatening to their family, and they often find themselves alone, abandoned by those unwilling to take an unpopular or uncomfortable stance.  Examples may include protesting eminent domain abuse, trials by media, modern social witch-hunting, or mistreatment of someone they may or may not know.  Unconcerned with crowd-dogma, the gentleman will often emerge the loser of the battle, but he emerges each time.

It seems unanimous that courtesy has largely disappeared from society in the forms we once knew.  Because of this, simple courtesies are now sadly considered chivalrous.  Walking a female guest home from a party in the city seems so unthinkable that hosts are often talked out of it by insistence... from the female guest herself.  It is clear that because the bar has been so lowered on courtesy, old etiquette and manners either inflame resentment and hostility by modern Ms. Chip-on-shoulder, or worse, they nearly swoon from unfamiliarity with being afforded the dignity of a lady/citizen/friend.  "He's such a gentleman... he sent me a thank you note."  Huh?  Thank you notes are sent by anyone who is thankful.  Gentlemen may hold doors, give up their seats, etc., but they also likely take up causes reluctantly because of staunchly held principles that are being attacked (or viewed as attacked).


Comedian Brian Regan jokes that following any heroic feat (Capt. Sullenberger landing on the Hudson was his example) you have to answer "no" when the media asks you if you consider yourself a hero.  I think that there is some overlap here for our purposes.

Thankfully, at the end of all of this, I realized that I understand less than I thought I did when I began.  My father will say that that is a good sign.  We should aspire to act like what we think a gentleman is, but never get too wrapped up in the inward obsession of it.  If you are concerned about whether or not people think that you are a gentleman, you are likely in it for the wrong reasons.  My close friend "Plum" says that a gentleman (among other things) takes ownership of that around him.  He considers his community, its parks, streets, institutions, sacred spaces, parties, parades, and well-being of its citizenry all within his purview.  He cannot be ground to submission or apathy concerning these matters, and he realizes that he is a small speck in a long line of stewards of the same cause.

A blogger (in an email to me) said that "some are born gentlemen, or 'nature's gentlemen'".  True.  In my time I have never observed any correlation between birth, worth, wardrobe, or style and what my ideals of a gentleman are.  The farcical "dandy" movement was taken seriously by so many who failed to recognize its satire that an odd blurring occurred in the subtle-but-sacred lines in the sand.  Self-branding and boisterous self-proclamations as "gentleman" may be the fastest and easiest way to ensure disqualification... which (ahem) I find to be true with many other labels.


  1. YWP, I've enjoyed this entire exchange, both Parts I and II, and very much like where you've landed (especially the dig at the dandy movement which to me should end at hobbyism).

    My only other observation is that no one mentioned Polonius' advice to his son, or Aristotle's concept of the 'golden mean' which he suggested was very difficult to achieve but learned over time. Either would seem classic definitions of a standard that only a true gentleman, once at maturity, could approximate.


  2. BRAVO!!! This is the best explanation for our times that I've ever read anywhere. Thank you.

  3. YWP....if one has to proclaim that one is something, then one isn't that thing!

    A gentleman will do the right thing, even when nobody can see/hear him, because it's the right thing to do or say and not to impress anyone.

  4. A gentleman is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

    He is also always prepared and is strives to be physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.

    Or perhaps this is just a blueprint to become a conservative military man.

  5. @Anon 11:36: Nah. I tried to follow that from the time I learned it, and wound up a lefty civilian. Or maybe you think I failed. Anyway, they're vessels that produce good (I hope), not uniformity.

  6. Haven't checked in on the blog since you lent us a bed on our recent visit to Boston, YWP. That comment I sometimes make about the gentleman taking ownership or at least stewardship of the places and people around him comes from my professional side, as a historian. Up until about the 19th century, the only definite requirement for being a "gentleman" was that you didn't work, i.e. rather than being sullied by employment you lived off of the proceeds of your familial estate, generally agricultural land-rent. It was only in the 19th century with the decline of titled aristocracy that the term was liberated to apply only to the better aspects of polite behavior associated with the upper classes, and eventually also with more general virtues. But we should remember that this kind of behavior (and the worse side of the same coin that we've dropped from the term) originated in a group whose duty was to administer and promote the stability of a land-based society and economy. A sense of ownership combined with a duty to the future and an idea of oneself as a small part of a long lineage is very much tied in with this.

    Over about 200 years we've learned to set aside some of the bad aspects of the old way, but inside concepts like "the gentleman", we preserve the kernel of what was worth inheriting from the ancien regime. But let us not forget the history lest we find that in wanting to be gentleman, we are also accidentally bringing back some of the bad side of the thing: snobbery, entitlement, toadyism, social exclusion for self-promotion, estimation of background over personal character, and an assumption that decency is tied to our own political preferences. Today, the lineage of which a gentleman is part is not one of birth, but a cultural heritage that we can all choose or learn to live up to, and I think we can all agree that this is as it should be.

    And by the way to any other commenters, clothes and other trappings are not unnecessary parts of being a gentleman, they are the proof that this is a not a set of rules, but a cultural inheritance with a wide and deep implication for many aspects of our lives. Being steeped in it serves to make it richer, just like anything else worth pursuing.


Let's keep it clean... but if you DO have to get foul, at least give it a bit of wit. Also, advertising disguised as comments will be deleted, unless it is clever.