Recently a group of college men invited me to lead a discussion on the idea of the gentlemen. This invitation came about, at least in part, due to the publication of two pieces (here and here) on Jane Austen and the gentleman. Having laid out some of the reasons Austen’s depiction of the gentlemen is attractive and shown why this ideal has been severely eroded, I would like to offer a concluding article suggesting what, it seems to me, are the key attributes of the gentleman. But before getting underway it is necessary to ask a foundational question: is the ideal of the gentlemen even relevant in our democratic age?

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke stated emphatically that “the age of chivalry is gone.” Soon after he notes that European civilization has for centuries depended on two essential aspects: the spirit of religion and the spirit of the gentleman. Historically, the ideal of the gentleman emerges only in Christian societies, so it might be accurate to add as an addendum that the spirit of the gentleman necessarily depends on the spirit of Christianity. Nevertheless, according to Burke the ideas animating the French Revolution—a skepticism about religion and a commitment to a radical egalitarianism—undermined the twin supports of European civilization. Which leads us to a crucial question: can the ideal of the gentleman survive and thrive in our present age?

To be sure, the gentleman in Burke’s day, as in the American colonies and early republic, was a designation of social class. Members of the class of gentlemen were expected to adhere to certain social norms, but one was a gentleman by birth and only in extraordinary circumstances could a man not born a gentleman hope to become one. Today social and class mobility is much more fluid and so, presumably, the designation of gentleman might be open to all in a way that was simply not the case prior to the twentieth-century.

However, the commitment to equality that characterizes American society (and indeed all western societies) is not completely benign. When equality means equal in the eyes of God or equal before the law, the concept is true and good. But when equality is taken to its extreme, it leads to an inability (or an unwillingness) to make distinctions. Thus, one opinion is as valid as the next, one social behavior is as good as another, and our ability to render judgment is summarily attenuated. This is devastating for the ideal of the gentleman, for if nothing else, this ideal depends on the ability to discriminate between good and bad, between the noble and the ignoble, between virtue and vice. When we lose the ability to make distinctions, or lose the courage to do so, we simultaneously lose any meaningful notion of the gentleman.

Thus, right at the start, the gentleman is one who is willing and able to judge well. He is discriminating in his judgments and does not shy away from making hard distinctions even when they cause him discomfort and even when he is forced to stand alone. And while admitting the social differences between our day and Jane Austen’s, I think it is possible to glean from her work several key attributes of the gentleman, attributes that are as applicable today as they were in her time. Austen’s gentleman par excellence is Mr. Darcy and it is his example that is foremost in my mind. However, as readers of Pride and Prejudice know, Mr. Darcy himself has lessons to learn and room to improve—as have we all.

First, the gentleman has a firm sense of propriety. Propriety is a word that has fallen out of fashion, but that is unfortunate. A person possessing a sense of propriety knows what is appropriate for every situation. This requires wide-ranging experience in various social settings. It furthermore requires the ability to distinguish between timeless principle and cultural practices that can vary from place to place. A sense of propriety, when properly formed and not merely a sense of personal dignity, requires an awareness of other people. A person with a well-developed sense of propriety makes other people feel at ease. This may at times even require the violation of a cultural norm in the service of a fundamental principle.

Although I have no idea if it is true, consider the following story told of George Washington. Once at Mount Vernon, Washington entertained a rustic from the frontier. During the meal, a bowl of soup was placed before each person. Washington’s rustic guest picked up his bowl and commenced to slurping it down. Without missing a beat, Washington picked up his own bowl and did likewise. Washington understood that the purpose of manners is to facilitate social intercourse, but in this case, to adhere to the social standards generally practiced at Mount Vernon, Washington’s guest would be embarrassed. Thus, Washington set aside a particular convention to attend to the more fundamental concern of making his guest feel comfortable. Of course, a person of propriety does not make a habit of flouting manners, but the gentleman is able to recognize the exception, for he seeks the good of those in his company. Mr. Darcy is, to be sure, committed to observing the conventions of his day and class; however, it takes some hard words from a lively woman to help him see that self-importance and pride are not the same as propriety.

The second attribute is amiability, which is closely related to propriety. To be amiable is to be friendly. An amiable man is a good conversationalist who is interested in the people with whom he speaks. He is not self-absorbed nor is he so self-conscious that he refrains from engaging with others. Mr. Bingley is often referred to as amiable and this attribute seems especially notable when compared with the cool detached manner of Mr. Darcy, who eventually, in loving Elizabeth, learns to be more amiable. An amiable man is not a boor who cares only for the sound of his own voice. Mr. Collins is a boor, for he has no sense of propriety and therefore his attempts at amiability consistently miss the mark. Here we can begin to see how the various attributes of the gentleman complement each other and to have one attribute without the others results in a misshapen man. Take, for instance, Mr. Wickham, who is the very picture of amiability but also a bad man.

Mr. Wickham lacks a third attribute that Mr. Darcy possesses in spades: constancy. Constancy is, simply put, consistency. A man possesses constancy when he actually is what he appears to be. Mr. Wickham is amiable, yet he lacks constancy. Thus, he is willing to present himself in a false light. On the other hand, Mr. Collins possesses the virtue of constancy, yet because he lacks a sense of propriety, he consistently falls flat in social situations. Mr. Darcy prides himself in his steadfastness, in the fact that he does not waver. This, of course, is an admirable trait so long as the principles to which one is committed are sound. A man who is committed to treating others with respect, to helping those in need, and to behaving with dignity is a man whose constancy is well directed and laudable.

Fourth, the gentleman is willing to sacrifice for others, and though he does good deeds, he does not insist on publicity. He is secure enough not to blow his own horn. He surely does not use his social position or material circumstances to leverage his way into a woman’s heart. Mr. Darcy goes to great lengths to see that Wickham and Lydia are married. This is at considerable financial cost to him but more significantly, Darcy is forced to deal with and benefit a man he despises. All of this Mr. Darcy seeks to keep secret, especially from Elizabeth, for he does not want her to feel any obligation to him, lest she feel it necessary to marry him out of familial gratitude. Ultimately, Mr. Darcy is concerned with Elizabeth’s happiness and he is willing to forego his own to secure hers.

Fifth, a gentleman can admit he’s wrong. This is not easy, for a gentleman who assiduously seeks to cultivate the attributes of propriety, amiability, and constancy will, in one sense, be loath to admit that he has failed to live up to the very principles he espouses. Darcy’s first proposal was a travesty, and Elizabeth does not hesitate to hit him where it hurt most. She informs him that she might have felt more concern in refusing him if he had “behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” This, we later learns, cuts Darcy to the quick. Once his anger subsides, however, Darcy comes to recognize his error. He makes serious efforts to reform his behavior and, eventually, he admits his fault to Elizabeth and apologizes. While it might be going too far to suggest that Mr. Darcy would stop to ask for directions if he were motoring around the English county-side, he is clearly willing to admit his error in a much more serious matter.

Ultimately, the attributes of a gentleman are the attributes of a decent person. A respect for others is the indispensable feature. In a democratic age, where social classes are fluid and poorly demarcated, the gentleman is characterized by these five attributes—and there are others, including courage and self-control, which at the very least are hinted at in the attributes we’re discussed. The gentleman respects persons as persons; thus, the role of the gentleman is open to all, and all persons will benefit from the presence of the gentleman. Here we see the way a healthy conception of equality fosters an expanded notion of the gentleman and makes it an office that any young man can aspire to occupy.

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  1. Good exploration of the idea of a gentleman, I think propriety (or social prudence) deserves a topic on its own.

    However, I rather think the man you are looking for to illustrate your point is Knightly not Darcy. Notice how all your points refer to other characters? Substitute Knightly for Darcy and you have a picture much more centered.

  2. These six things would seem to be worthy characteristics. But do they really only arise as an ideal in Christian societies? Something like the Hebrew “mensch” would seem like a pretty good approximation. I’d be shocked if Islamic, Shinto and other cultures did not have something similar.

  3. The notion of a gentleman is fundamentally a public agreement on virtue. As such all civilizations can and do define what constitutes the good man. It is also accurate that a Christian gentlemen may share similar virtues with other cultures. The interesting question is in what ways are Christian gentlemen different from other virtuous men.

    The problem with the English gentleman is that the virtue language is not (entirely) Christian/Aristotelian and is sometimes hopelessly muddled in that particular English fashion of muddliness such that “constancy” is not properly articulated as “courage” etc.

    What makes the Geo. Washington story (if true) good is that it demonstrates the virtue of prudence: adjudication of competing goods.

    Austen as the student of Virtue deserves a great deal more attention than she gets.

  4. I would certainly like to think that there is some uniquely Christian virtue that distinguishes such a gentleman from other examples cultural excellence, I cannot think of one that is not found at least somewhere else (though sometimes in other forms and under other names).

    Saints through the ages come from all walks of life, social standings and upbringings. They often differ substantially in temperament, experience and calling. Some are praised in their lifetimes, others remain hidden until after their deaths.

    Would the Stoics and the Mohists agree on what a gentleman was? I think the problem is that many societies ask very different questions so their answers only appear to align. This is likely seeing patterns into the static.

    Perhaps what makes a Christian gentleman different is not his features, or even his methods (I’ve seen a couple of good books on how modern cognitive therapy looks much like the writings of the philokalia), but that which lies in his state of being.

    The saints, our gentlemen, were united to Christ. This will look like, well… whatever it looks like. After all, mannerisms (something distinct from manners) can be imitated. Amiability (as you say) can hide a multitude of sin. So while it may be useful to the polis to hold up a gentlemanly guide, one can never become so attached to that image as to allow forgers free rain, or crush the less apt into despair.

    For everything in our lives is given to us for our salvation, not our reputation. Perhaps that’s Mr Darcy’s greatest “Christian” virtue, that he would withstand damage to his reputation (something he most highly prizes) and only corrects the record when it becomes apparent to him that others will suffer greatly if he does not act.

  5. “IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

    I appreciate the characterization of a gentleman and find many of aspects of his virtues compelling and admirable. That said, Mr Darcy is quite wealthy, and many saints are monks or mendicant paupers who have renounced earthly goods. Does that mean it’s most difficult for, say, an accountant or fireman or assembly-line worker to become a “gentleman”?

  6. Mr. McCain makes a very good point. Although it has always been my impression that SOME people without means could be “gentlemanly,” especially members of the clergy, members of the military, etc.

    But yes, this is something inextricably mixed up with “class,” and I think it would have been hard to have been considered a gentleman if you were a ditch digger, no matter how well behaved you happened to be. Betters are betters. That’s why it was such a wonderful concept. And such an odious one.

  7. I recently had a conversation with an Italian woman and a Kazakh woman. They were wondering aloud why men often don’t initiate relationships anymore; I explained that modern men our hopelessly confused about their relational roles.

    They were both litterateurs and film aficionados so I asked them to name the most romantic man they had ever encountered in film or literature. They both instantly responded, “Mr. Darcy”, and then spent ten minutes throwing out other options and disagreeing with each other. In the end, Mr. Darcy was the ONLY figure they could agree on.

    Ergo: I think you are on to something here.

  8. When Burke cites the age of chivalry, he is referring to a bit of Enlightenment historical theory: the medieval chivalric code had made possible the emergence of civil society in which the Enlightenment took such pride.

    The great minds of that age did not hesitate to acknowledge this culturally specific debt, and those who acknowledge (as many do) that we cannot hope to impose civil society and democratic conventions on non-Westerners should be alert to this curious fact; for, while the Enlightenment generally had a crude, even purblind, understanding of historical change and the importance of historical particularities, its voices saw clearly that the manners of modern civil society were made possible through a very particular inheritance.

    The manners of a gentleman may indeed be a universal truth, that is, a real or absolute good, but not all cultures make it equally possible for one to see or grasp a truth.

    Of course, an inheritance poorly received is an inheritance wasted. Thus, not only did Christianity lead to chivalry, and chivalry to the gentility of modern western society, but that same gentility led (not by necessity, but in fact) to the pathologies of equality that are destroying our society . . .
    now I can leave off, since this gives me occasion to go work on my promised FPR essay, “Nobody is Equal.”

  9. “Thus, not only did Christianity lead to chivalry, and chivalry to the gentility of modern western society…”

    I think this gentility was meted out pretty inconsistently, and we ignore that inconsistency at our peril. Yes, Mr. Darcy was quite a gentleman with the ladies in the book. But people of his sort were really quite cruel, and obnoxiously so, to other people.

    Are there pathologies associated with equality? I will grant you that point. But our previous arrangements tolerated (even encouraged) different pathologies that we are glad to be done with.

  10. There’s Saladin and Ashoka. And the world of the shining prince.

    Which makes me wonder – Christianity, or wealth and leisure?

  11. Re: Historically, the ideal of the gentleman emerges only in Christian societies

    You will find analogues in other feudal societies, like China and Japan. For that matter the Roman concept of a well-born man’s dignitias underlies the Western notion here. Moreover the concept (in Europe) changed over time. A medieval gentleman had a somewhat different set of virtues and expertise than a Renaissance gentleman, who in turns differs (quite a bit) from the genetlemen Jane Austen’s world.

    Re: Historically, the ideal of the gentleman emerges only in Christian societies

    The saints are indeed united in Christ, but they are (for the most part) not gentlemen. Some of them were pretty rough and tumble types. A few were even functionally mad (I am thinking of the Fools for Christ types). There is a certain tepidness about gentlemanly behavior that does not get on well with true religious fervor.

  12. Great stuff–esp. on propreity.

    Gordon Wood gives us a more American take on the subject:

    “To be a gentleman [for the founding-era generation] was to think and act like a gentleman, nothing more, an immensely radical belief with implications that few foresaw. It meant being reasonable, tolerant, honest, virtuous, and ‘candid,’ an important eighteenth century characteristic the connoted being unbiased and just as well as frank and sincere. Being a gentleman was the perequisite to becoming a political leader. It signified being cosmopolitan, standing on elevated ground in order to have a large view of human affairs, and being free of the prejudices, parochialism, and religious enthusiasm of the vulgar and barbaric. It meant, in short, having all those characteristics that we today sum up in the idea of a liberal arts education. …Of course, as Noah Webster said, having a liberal arts education and thereby becoming a gentleman, ‘disqualifies a man for business.'”
    “When John Adams asked himself what a gentleman was, he answered in just these terms of a liberal arts education. “By gentlemen,’ he said, “are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle: but all those who have recieved a liberal education, an ordinary degree of erudition in liberal arts and sciences. Whether by birth they be descended from magistrates and officers of government, or from husbandmen, merchants, mechanics, or laborers; or whether they be rich or poor.’ Whatever their fathers were, however, gentlemen could not themselves be husbandmen, mechanics, or laborers–that is men who worked for a living with their hands.”
    “Disintrestedness was the the most common term the founders used as a synonym for the classical conception of virtue or self-sacrifice; … …In the eighteenth century Anglo-American world gentlemen believed that only independent individuals, free of interested ties and paid by no masters, could practice such virtue.”
    Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, pp. 15-16.

    The necessity of being a FORMER “husbandmen, mechanic, or laborer” for admission into the status of gentleman should be stressed.

    Beacause what would Matt Crawford say to that? Or Mr. Berry?

    Well, here’s what Walt Whitman said about it:

    “A man is not greatest as victor in war, nor inventor or explorer, nor even in science, or in his intellectual or artistic capacity, or exemplar in some vast benevolence. To the highest democratic view, man is most acceptable in living well the practical life and lot which happens to him as ordinary farmer, sea-farer, mechanic, clerk, laborer, or driver—upon or from which position as a central basis or pedestal, while performing its labors, and his duties as citizen, son, husband, father and employ’d person, he preserves his physique, ascends, developing, radiating himself in other regions—and especially where and when…he fully realizes his conscience, the spiritual, the divine faculty, cultivated well, exemplified in all his deeds and words, through life, uncompromising to the end—a flight loftier than any of Homer’s or Shakespeare’s—broader than all poems or bibles—namely, Nature’s own, and in the midst of it, Yourself, your own Identity, body and soul. ”

    Hmm…I don’t think the wonderful laborer-honoring (but not practicing) gentleman character from Emma, Mr. Knightley, whom Marchmaine is quite right to draw our attention to, would put it quite that way, indeed I don’t think any workman would but it that way, but food for thought!

  13. Ride the Tiger
    A Survival Manual for the Aristocrats of the Soul
    By Julius Evola

    In the current age of Iron (the Kali Yuga), we are in the belly of the beast. Spiritually all we have is decayed. Institutions are shadows of what they once were, and most of humanity is the walking dead, breathing but not thinking.

    The Kali Yuga is, however, an alchemical furnace. While it is an Age under pressure, one of high heat and fire, it is also one that transforms. For those who can withstand the temperature, they will change from lead to gold; for all others, they will be consumed in the final conflagration, nothing is really lost.

    The only way to survive in the Age of Iron is to fight fire with fire, to ride the tiger. This is an age for heroes, for warriors of the spirit; it is an elitist vision and anyone can apply, but most will fail.

    When it comes to politics Evola was under no illusions. He saw the Left as wanting to reduce everybody to bland conformity, an endless match of identical people in colourless uniforms. He saw democracy in much the same way, humanity reduced to commodities, consumers, an insipid equality with no individuality, except as defined by advertising!

    Evola swayed towards the Right because he hoped that even if these structures were corrupt, there was at least some chance of individuals achieving a sense of awakening, at least some hope that in this culture the true elite could scratch and claw its way to the top.

    Later in life Evola seems to have realised the Right was as destructive as the Left and that the only solution was a purely individual form of elite spiritual practise.

  14. I’d rather see someone go back to the etymology of the word to get some better definitions.

    Austen’s world is a fictional, contrived, unrealistically easy one. It’s a woman’s fantasy, and one that lacks a firm basis in reality.

    That doesn’t mean these characteristics aren’t virtuous, but it begs questions like, what virtues are necessary when the world is hard? and is Darcy really a legimitate model of the virtues?

  15. Etymology is a pretty weak tool for discovering the meanings of words. Hamartia was an archery term for Homer. It just meant missing the target. But in Aristotle’s Poetics and in the New Testament its clear that this word has become a technical term in moral and religious writing.

    Austen’s work is exactly the sort of place we should look to learn about the gentleman, because her ‘contrived’ scenarios highlight his character traits so well.

    Many of Austen’s characters are relatively poor aristocrats. It’s true that they have some social standing, but it’s not always in virtue of their wealth. In fact, I take one of Austen’s themes to be that, although wealth and status often find the gentleman, these things are not what make him a gentleman. They are merely the outworkings of poetic justice. I read the book of Proverbs the same way.

  16. What surprises me here is the lack of discussion about the Southern country gentleman ideal. Mr. Darcey is an aristocrat of the European sort. Richard Weaver believed that the South, better than any portion of the United States, had for a long time tried to maintain rather than jettison the idea of the landed country gentleman, as an idea descended from Renaissance England. Several historians are far too quick to dismiss the “Cavalier” thesis of the Southern past. Clement Eaton was probably right in asserting that the South was not so quick to repudiate a European heritage after the American Revolution. The revolution was from this perspective, and one M.E. Bradford ably defended, not as radical as Gordon Wood tends to believe. The Southern gentleman ideal: long may it remain appealing.

  17. Apparently I am not the only one whose first thought was: Really? Mr. Darcy is Austen’s ideal gentleman? Wouldn’t Mr. Knightley be a more likely candidate?

    (Granted, Darcy gets much closer by the end of the book, and his need for growth and progress in it probably makes him the more sympathetic character.)

  18. […] This is what the “spirit of the gentleman” used to provide: a reasoned, courteous atmosphere in which public discourse could take place—where opinions could be stated without savagery, and received without rancor. The problem is that gentlemen are out of popularity on left and right—for reasons Mitchell makes clear in another FPR post. […]

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