Where Are the Gentlemen?

It is rare in today's America to hear the word “gentleman” describing a man and perhaps even rarer for a man to give a definition of one that satisfies. It was not always so. There was a time when Americans of a certain age, as a result of good public or private education and coming from a stable, two-parent family, would be able to name the qualities of a gentleman and more than likely could cite their own examples from history. Mine would be George Washington, Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee, Theodore Roosevelt and General Douglas Macarthur, as well as the departed President Ronald Reagan.

Brad Miner, executive editor at Bookspan and former literary editor of National Review, in The Compleat Gentleman (Spence Publishing, 2004) draws on a thousand-year tradition of chivalry, honor and heroism to define the concept fully and give the reader vital ideas about recovering real manhood for the 21st century.

Miner goes about his examination of the gentleman by considering various aspects of this term and its history. He sees its origin in early feudal medieval times, in the knight who wages war on horseback in heavy armor, in service to his feudal lord, when not competing in tournaments. Very early, the institution of knighthood became allied with Catholicism and with the idealization of women called “courtly love.” The knight, though brutal in warfare, must be virtuous in his personal behavior, particularly to women, children and the poor.

Miner describes the history of the medieval knight from Charlemagne through the Crusades and the foundation of warrior religious orders, such as the Templar and the Teutonic Knights, that played an important role in the late Middle Ages, particularly in the Crusades. Knighthood clearly was spent, however, by the time of Cervantes, whose Don Quixote both parodies and wistfully looks back on an age now gone.

In the Renaissance, the idea of the gentleman developed in the courts of kings and noblemen. There have always been two senses of the word: the fine man of high birth and the fine man of high character. The latter sense has always been the most important. To nearly everyone, it also meant a standard of conduct, “a standard, to which the best born did not always rise and which even the humblest might sometimes display.” Castiglione's Courtier, written in the early 1500s, became the textbook for this new approach. The gentleman became more intellectually serious. He is “urbane” and elaborately civil. He will not only have knowledge, but “knowledge integrated: of refinement, sophistication, elegance, courtesy… plus suavity.”

The concept of “being a gentleman” reached its finest moment, at least in the English-speaking world, in the Victorian age. Education and refinement became the primary standard by which a man was judged, regardless of his birth. All of us have read books and seen films about the Victorian age that portray this idea of a gentleman.

The great headmaster of the Rugby School, Thomas Arnold (father of literary critic Matthew), gave “character training” in a “muscular Christianity” that formed the boys to be Christians, gentlemen and students of the classics. It was the great Cardinal John Henry Newman, however, who defined “gentleman” definitively in his monograph “The Idea of a University.” He recognizes being a gentleman as a natural good, but shows its relevance to being a saint. The gentleman, to be a saint, must aspire above all to holiness, which is always a work of grace as well as virtue.

Miner tells us his book is “about an ideal. No man behaves as a compleat gentleman all the time, but the best men never cease yearning to.” He says the aristocracy of gentlemen “is, in fact, a brotherhood of virtue.” Miner makes clear that the virtue he prizes above all is courage.

Though Miner cites Robert E. Lee as the “complete gentleman” in that he exemplified “the three graces of gentility: sociability, learning, and piety,” it is Lee's role as warrior that Miner especially admires: “Today's gentleman must be a warrior, a latter-day knight — one ready, willing, and able to sacrifice his life in defense of honor.” Miner clearly believes that it is in our military academies and in our armed forces, and in the courage displayed in war, that we find the best examples of modern-day chivalry.

But Miner singles out the tragedy of United Airlines Flight 93 as evidence of civil courage on 9/11. “Tom Burnett, Todd Beamer and Jeremy Glick, big men with muscular views of life, each spoke to their wives, expressed love for them, and then stormed the terrorist hijackers.” Beamer was heard to say to the other men: “Are you ready, guys? Let's roll.” So chivalrous gentlemen do walk the earth.

Miner starts his book with a personal anecdote about watching a film about the sinking of the Titanic. As is well known, when Benjamin Guggenheim is offered a life jacket, he refuses, allowing women and children to be put on the lifeboats first. He says, at least in the movie, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen. But we would like a brandy.” Miner recounts his experience watching teen-agers laugh and scoff at such bizarre behavior on the screen. The experience led him to muse on the fate of a country that no longer understands the meaning of the words “chivalry” or “gentleman.”

There are few people in the United States over the age of 50 who would disagree with the assertion that standards in behavior have declined in virtually every area during their life span. Whether one looks at the relationship between the sexes, marriage, family life, language, dress or manners, one thinks we can't possibly go lower as a nation, but we do. The reasons are many, and I do not have the space to go into them all now.

I would say, too, that the lack of historical knowledge plays an important part. The continuing decline in orthodox Christian belief and practice, with the resulting lessening influence on education, family life, and cultural mores and customs, is a clear determinant of the current coarseness and pusillanimity that surrounds us. When the average schoolboy, asked who his heroes are, replies with the names of steroid bulked-up athletes or the latest rock star — rather than great statesmen, saints and religious leaders, and war heroes from the Western tradition — we are in desperate need of action if our country is to flourish or even survive as now constituted. The current cultural conflicts will not be resolved by spineless “half-way men.”

If there is a weakness in the book, it is that Miner puts his emphasis on examining the chivalrous gentleman as holy man, by putting the emphasis on the monk — i.e., great monastic saints, and founders of the past such as St. Bernard or St. Benedict. We could have heard more about secular saints like St. Frances De Sales, St. Thomas More or, for that matter, Venerable John Henry Newman himself. These men also are authentic role models, according to their state of life, for men today. You don't have to leave the world in order to transform it.

Miner has written a book that should be required reading for all Christian fathers and sons, and could indeed be used as a text for leadership formation in our schools and colleges. Decay is not inevitable, and renewal is always possible. If we are to transform our tottering and divided society and culture, we will need all the courageous gentlemen in their various manifestations that we can get.

Father C. J. McCloskey III is a priest of Opus Dei.