Another Perspective

The Incompleat Gentleman

What it takes to be the real thing, even if he is extinct.

By 4.30.04

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Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, has written a new book called The Compleat Gentleman (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 258 pp., $27.95, available through www.spencepublishing.com) which culminates in the following definition of a gentleman:

He is the descendant of the medieval knight and the Victorian gentleman; he is very much like them except that he has a newer and more realistic view of women. He is a conservative liberal, a man educated in tradition but not bound by it. If he is very different from other men, it is by virtue of his commitment to honor and his devotion to restraint. He is like a warrior, because he knows that there are things worth fighting for and will fight. He is a lover, because he allows his wife and family to liberate him from the tyranny of ego. He is like a monk, because he employs learning to unlock the mysteries of the human heart. He is possessed of that commingling of restraint and detachment that … we can as easily call cool.

Where does this definition come from? Why, from Brad Miner! But let us leave to one side the question of how far it can be the act of a gentleman to set himself up as the arbiter of gentlemanliness. I had as lief take Brad Miner's definition as the next man's. The trouble is that the next man's definition is, in his own conceit, every bit as good as Brad Miner's -- which is really why the gentleman is extinct. Back when such creatures actually walked the earth, there was no need for definitions. Or rather, gentlemanliness was by definition an agreed upon standard of behavior within a certain more-or-less circumscribed social class. We might wish to join Mr. Miner in wishing that gentlemanly standards were of universal application, like the precepts of morality. But the fact is that they have never been understood in that way. Instead, they have always been the means by which some people have marked themselves off as being different from and better than other people.

Not that, pardon me, that old timey gentleman -- the gentleman who had an actual as well as a theoretical existence -- was quite so high-minded as Mr. Miner's paragon. In fact, he would have been a bit of a brute and a bit of a snob by present-day standards. He might have been any or all of the things which Mr. Miner desiderates -- barring the allegedly "more realistic view of women" -- but by and large he wasn't. He was much more likely to have spent his time with horses and dogs than books, was probably little if at all more "restrained" about indulging his appetites than most people today are, and was, I'm sorry, not in the least scintilla of a degree anything that could be described as "cool" in its contemporary sense. In fact, "cool" is the great killer of gentlemanliness. Cool is Frank Sinatra knocking women around or Miles Davis shooting himself up with heroin and self-pity or Marlon Brando's witheringly ironic portrayals of, um, gentlemanliness.

Jonathan Yardley, reviewing Mr. Miner's book in the Washington Post, comments mordantly on the definition given above: "Right. In Man of La Mancha you'll find three words for that: 'the impossible dream.'" I wonder whether Mr. Yardley thought of Man of La Mancha just because of the song or because it is also the portrayal of a forlorn, Miner-like attempt by the Knight of the Woeful Countenance to understand honor in terms of an ideal of virtue which everybody else recognizes as being quite detached from reality? But in a way, that's the point about honor, and gentlemanliness too, which is a particular historical incarnation of honor: it is a polite fiction. When, for example, you say -- if anyone does still say -- that a gentleman never lies, you don't mean it as a statement of fact. If you did there would be no gentlemen. You mean that a gentleman is a man who has a right to expect that other people will take his word for things. In order to be granted the same courtesy himself, one gentleman pretends to believe what another gentleman tells him, even if he is sure he is lying. Or if he chooses to call him a liar -- to "give him the lie" or the mentito in the old duelist's code -- he must be prepared to fight.

So to a lesser extent with the other articles of Miner's definition. These are not the signs by which you may know a gentleman, as a white blaze on its black wings is a sign by which you may know a bird is a mockingbird. Rather, they are (more or less) things which the politeness that really is the sign of gentlemanliness agrees to attribute to another gentleman in recognition of the fact that (a) both aspire to them as an ideal and (b) both are prepared to extend to those within the circle of gentlemanliness the benefit of the doubt as to the exact degree to which the others are living up to that ideal. The true test of gentlemanliness is in the ability not so much to attain virtues as to overlook faults, and where faults may no longer be overlooked, to fight like a man. As gentlemanliness is a system of trust, there can be no such thing as a gentleman in isolation -- which is why the virtuous adherents of Mr. Miner's code would be good men but not gentlemen.

For that there would need to be some culture beyond the Miner library in which a tacit agreement to attribute those virtues to everyone within it had a real social utility. In other words, his gentleman is not and cannot be "compleat" without a complement of other gentlemen whom he may honor, or quarrel with, as equals. Mr. Minor himself may hope that a new cult of the gentleman, and the gentlemen to go with it, may be brought into existence by the book itself, but that seems to me to be most unlikely unless he can also provide them with something more than the conceit of their own gentlemanliness. And what that something more would be is the social esteem of the broader society which is necessary for them to be able to look down those members of it who are not gentlemen.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.