16 July 2013

What does it mean to be a gentleman?

The statue of Beau Brummell (1778-1840) in
Jermyn street, London.
"To be truly elegant one should not be noticed"
Brummell was an immaculate dresser and
gentleman who changed the way people
dressed in Regency England.

If one aspires to be a gentleman it is only reasonable to have an understanding of what that entails. It is, however, not necessarily that easy to define the term gentleman. The meaning has changed over the centuries from being a term indicating a social rank to be a term used to denote a man subscribing to a certain standard of behaviour. Being a gentleman is, more than anything, a state of mind. It has to do with how one conducts oneself on a day-to-day basis and not just in special situations. If you do a quick Google search to find out what a gentleman is, the majority of the results will concentrate on, or at least mention, behaviour in relation to interactions with the opposite sex. It goes without saying that a gentleman should conduct himself in a gentlemanly manner towards women, but a man who reserves his gentlemanly ways for female interaction is not a proper gentleman. Being a gentleman inflicts on all areas of a man's life and is not something one turns to when one thinks it will give oneself an advantage.
Before I go any further in this discussion of the ways of a gentleman, I would like to introduce you to a few paragraphs written more than one and a half centuries ago. In his work, "The idea of a university", John Henry Newman (1801-1890) describes the essence of being a gentleman better than I ever could.
...it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits. If he be an unbeliever, he will be too profound and large-minded to ridicule religion or to act against it; he is too wise to be a dogmatist or fanatic in his infidelity. He respects piety and devotion; he even supports institutions as venerable, beautiful, or useful, to which he does not assent; he honours the ministers of religion, and it contents him to decline its mysteries without assailing or denouncing them. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that, not only because his philosophy has taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness and effeminacy of feeling, which is the attendant on civilization.
If you want to read more of the book, it is available for free here. If you are, like me, more comfortable with a real book, you can find it here.
I believe this text captures the essence of what being a gentleman is all about. Some modernisation may be needed but it is a very good starting point for a few ground rules defining the modern gentleman. Here are a few points you may want to keep in mind:
1. A gentleman never causes unnecessary offence.
A gentleman has too much sense to get any enjoyment from other people's misery. Being purposefully offencive and down putting is the lowest form of behaviour any person can reach for to make oneself feel better. There is only one sensible way to make yourself feel better and that is to improve your own life, and there is never a reason to diminish the quality of others'. A gentleman will always be encouraging towards others and take pride in the support he can lend to the people he meets.
2: A gentleman treats everyone with respect.
This point follows on from the first but is definitely important enough to stand by itself. Being respectful towards others' is one of the most important features of a gentleman. Treat your enemy as your friend, you never know when your enemy will be your friend.
3: A gentleman always chooses brains over brawn.
In a world were disagreements are far too often settled by physical violence it is time to implement some gentlemanly manners. I cannot think of a single situation where a gentleman would need to be violent. A gentleman will never lower himself to the level of an aggressor and will always try to solve conflicts diplomatically. If a conflict cannot be solved by peaceful means it is probably best to walk as the better man.
4: A gentleman pays great attention to his appearance.
A gentleman is often first recognised by his flawless appearance. Emphasising personal hygiene and being well-groomed is a trait of a gentleman. He is also particular about the clothes he wears and pays great attention to details and basic rules of dressing well. A gentleman is concerned with quality rather than brand and never wears clothes and accessories as a way to show off. It is a common misconception that being well turned out is for the wealthy and that it requires substantial monetary means to fund an appearance worthy of a gentleman. Being a gentleman is a mental state and acquiring good quality, well-fitting, attires can come at a very reasonable price. It is all about making an effort within the means available to you.

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