Saturday, June 27, 2009

Gentlemen, gentleness and greatness

I received an interesting comment today on my post On being a gentleman which I thought it would be a good idea to share with you:

I read all your posts on this subject, and it's a topic I have a deep interest in, as I was always taught that this was something to aspire to.
A few of the quotes you have mention the behaviour of great men. But while some great men were gentlemen, I would argue that few gentlemen were great men. Gentleness and great accomplishment rarely go hand in hand.
Along the same vein, a certain moral righteousness is associated with the term of gentleman. But I've come to meet many men, especially in my time in the military who are "good" men, living by their own Spartan code, but could not be called "gentlemen" in the most liberal interpretation of the term.
I associate the term now mostly as a white-collar social affectation. It may be a sign of "good breeding", but not the standard by which I judge myself or others. Personally I've always admired Kipling's view on manhood as expressed in "If". But that's just my 2 cents. Dave Oaks

Well, Dave, good comment, and you are absolutely right to have a deep interest in this subject because it is in my opinion the most important subject you could possibly think about and what you decide about it will have important consequences for you and all those around you.

Up until a few years ago, I thought I knew what a gentleman was. I also had associated the term as an upper-class social title referring to someone from the right family, well-educated, cultivated and acquainted with all rules of etiquette and letter-writing etc. Added to this, I vaguely saw my gentleman as a moral animal, who knew right from wrong and had the courage to defend his moral principles. That was about it.
I think this pretty well sums up most people’s idea of a gentleman and it is this limited definition that most people wish to refer to when they use the term. It is the limited definition that comes down to us from the Victorian era, when the term was most in use.
Then I read A Gentleman’s Code, a compilation of quotes from the East (and some from the West) edited by Philip Chew Kheng, and I saw that my previous definition of a gentleman was too narrow and above all, too culturally narrow. I say gentleman, you say wise man, he says holy man and they say good man. All cultures know the ‘gentleman’, they just don’t name him the same way. And they are not talking about a chap with a bowler hat and an umbrella. All cultures look up to the ‘gentleman’, as an ideal, as an example and even as a moral obligation.
Now, Dave says ‘Few gentlemen were great men’. I would disagree and say, within a wider definition of the gentleman, all great men were gentlemen. Of course, what do you mean by great? Noteworthy? Admirable? I would say that all gentlemen are by definition great men even if the world does not know about them. And I would say that men who were not gentlemen are by definition not great men even if everyone knows them.
‘Gentleness and great accomplishment rarely go hand in hand’. I would absolutely disagree. You need to read the Tao Te Ching. The example that immediately comes to mind is the gentleness of Ghandi in the peaceful overthrow of the British Empire in India. Then again, what do we mean by gentleness? We don’t mean spinelessness, but gentleness as in love and respect. And you can’t achieve anything without that. Not anything worthwhile. Nothing good or worthwhile was ever acheived without gentleness, in this wider sense.

The quote that really made the penny drop for me about what it means to be a gentleman is this one by Oscar Wilde:

If a man is a gentleman, he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is bad for him.

Being a gentleman is not about knowing things, manners, etiquette. Nor has it anything to do with breeding. It is a moral attitude, a philosophy of life that can be practiced by people from any country and any social stratum. It is a being, not a knowing.

What do you think? I would welcome a discussion here. Anyone agree or disagree passionately?

Update 7 October 2010:

It is a grand mistake to think of being great without goodness and I pronounce it as certain that there was never a truly great man that was not at the same time truly virtuous. Benjamin Franklin

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

'The White Company'

I have been reading an absolutely wonderful little story today - ‘The White Company’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (You can find an online text here at It is the tale of the adventures of a young man raised in a monastery in fourteenth century England who must go out into the world for one year before deciding whether to become a monk or stay in the world. The White Company refers to a company of English longbowmen who wage war on the French.
I have for some time been mulling the idea of writing a novel and this tale is very much of the essence and of the period that I would like to write about. It also has the kind of humour and zest for life that I admire in a writer. Barely a page goes by that I don’t burst out laughing in delight. I thought you would like this example because it centres on a philosophical discussion.

Alleyne, the young adventurer (trained as a clerk by the monks), stumbles upon a couple of arguing students sheltering from the rain under a holly tree at the side of the road. They invite him to partake of their food...

"But I pray you, good youth, to tell us whether you are a learned clerk, and, if so, whether you have studied at Oxenford or at Paris."
"I have some small stock of learning," Alleyne answered, picking at his herring, "but I have been at neither of these places. I was bred amongst the Cistercian monks at Beaulieu Abbey."
"Pooh, pooh!" they cried both together. "What sort of an upbringing is that?"
"_Non cuivis contingit adire Corinthum_," quoth Alleyne. (_It is not every man’s lot to go to Corinth_.)
"Come, brother Stephen, he hath some tincture of letters," said the melancholy man more hopefully. "He may be the better judge, since he hath no call to side with either of us. Now, attention, friend, and let your ears work as well as your nether jaw. _Judex damnatur_--you know the old saw. Here am I upholding the good fame of the learned Duns Scotus against the foolish quibblings and poor silly reasonings of Willie Ockham."
"While I," quoth the other loudly, "do maintain the good sense and extraordinary wisdom of that most learned William against the crack-brained fantasies of the muddy Scotchman, who hath hid such little wit as he has under so vast a pile of words, that it is like one drop of Gascony in a firkin of ditch-water. Solomon his wisdom would not suffice to say what the rogue means."
"Certes, Stephen Hapgood, his wisdom doth not suffice," cried the other. "It is as though a mole cried out against the morning star, because he could not see it. But our dispute, friend, is concerning the nature of that subtle essence which we call thought. For I hold with the learned Scotus that thought is in very truth a thing, even as vapor or fumes, or many other substances which our gross bodily eyes are blind to. For, look you, that which produces a thing must be itself a thing, and if a man's thought may produce a written book, then must thought itself be a material thing, even as the book is. Have I expressed it? Do I make it plain?"
"Whereas I hold," shouted the other, "with my revered preceptor, _doctor, praeclarus et excellentissimus_, that all things are but thought; for when thought is gone I prythee where are the things then? Here are trees about us, and I see them because I think I see them, but if I have swooned, or sleep, or am in wine, then, my thought having gone forth from me, lo the trees go forth also. How now, coz, have I touched thee on the raw?"
Alleyne sat between them munching his bread, while the twain disputed across his knees, leaning forward with flushed faces and darting hands, in all the heat of argument. Never had he heard such jargon of scholastic philosophy, such fine-drawn distinctions, such cross-fire of major and minor, proposition, syllogism, attack and refutation. Question clattered upon answer like a sword on a buckler. The ancients, the fathers of the Church, the moderns, the Scriptures, the Arabians, were each sent hurtling against the other, while the rain still dripped and the dark holly-leaves glistened with the moisture. At last the fat man seemed to weary of it, for he set to work quietly upon his meal, while his opponent, as proud as the rooster who is left unchallenged upon the midden, crowed away in a last long burst of quotation and deduction. Suddenly, however, his eyes dropped upon his food, and he gave a howl of dismay.
"You double thief!" he cried, "you have eaten my herrings, and I without bite or sup since morning."
"That," quoth the other complacently, "was my final argument, my crowning effort, or _peroratio_, as the orators have it. For, coz, since all thoughts are things, you have but to think a pair of herrings, and then conjure up a pottle of milk wherewith to wash them down."

Friday, June 19, 2009

Twitter and The Iranian Presidential Election

It is not the role of this blog to discuss politics, although you will find references to Obama and sincerity, the new era of responsibility and moral hazard, where politics is intertwined with philosophy as it should be. But Loaded Web has come up with an interesting way to help support the struggle of the Iranians to have their voice heard in the Iranian Presidential election. As of today, and until it is no longer necessary, you can see Loaded Web’s green triangle in the top left corner of the screen. It links to blogs and news carriers covering events in Iran and you can also get the code to put a similar green triangle on your own blog if you have one. It’s a small gesture of encouragement for the Iranian people who voted for a reformist president in their country and are protesting the alleged rigging of the ballots.
The Iranian people are using the web and Twitter on hand-held devices to communicate and organize their protests. I am sure the inventors of Twitter never imagined that they would one day be at the centre of a people’s struggle for reform and democracy. As barriers to communication fall, people widen their horizons and become harder to mislead. Let us hope that the truth prevails in Iran, sooner than later, because the writing is on the wall. Or rather, on Twitter.

See a good overview of the situation at Wikipedia: The Iranian Presidential Election

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

HMS Victory - Britain's 'Ship of Theseus'

I remember as a youth reading about the legend of Theseus. As a young boy, the future King of Athens volunteered to be one of the seven youths sent as a sacrifice every seven years to King Minos of Crete to be devoured by the Minotaur that lived there in the labyrinth. Theseus hides a sword in his tunic and slays the beast. On the return journey to Athens he forgets to change the black sail of his ship to a white one as agreed with his father to signify his success. His father Aegeus believes his son dead and commits suicide by throwing himself into the sea, giving his name to the Aegean.

According to Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, the ship Theseus used on his return to Athens was kept in the Athenian harbor as a memorial for several centuries.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place...

The ship had to be maintained in a seaworthy state, for it annually carried the Athenian envoys to the festival of Apollo at Delos.
As the wood of the ship wore out or rotted and was replaced, it was unclear to philosophers how much of the original ship actually remained, giving rise to the philosophical question whether it should be considered "the same" ship or not. Such philosophical questions about the nature of identity are sometimes referred to as the Ship of Theseus Paradox.

For Athenians, the preserved ship kept fresh their understanding that Theseus had been an actual, historic figure, which none then doubted.

From Wikipedia

Reading about the ship of Theseus brought to mind my trip to England in 2005 and my visit to HMS Victory. The Victory was the flagship of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where the British Fleet virtually destroyed an equivalent French fleet thus eliminating the threat of invasion of Britain by Napoleon.
My visit to this ship merits a post or ten of itself. Over 6,000 trees went to build it, all by hand. The photo does not do justice to the size of the ship. This was at the time the largest man-made moveable object ever made. Going aboard you feel small, insignificant, humbled. Some of the ropes are so thick you probably couldn’t get your arms around them. The masts are about 4 feet in diameter at deck level. The ship, like the ship of Theseus, has been restored and inevitably some parts have been replaced by ‘new and stronger timber’, mainly on the upper decks. The lower decks are largely original and you can walk the same planks that Nelson and his crew walked 200 years ago.
The Victory is all that remains of the Royal Navy of the Age of Fighting Sail and we would not have even that but for the pleadings of a wife of a First Lord (of the Admiralty) that it should be preserved. (The Admiralty of the period had no sentimental qualms about sending famous ships to the breaker’s yard).

Like the ship of Theseus for the Athenians, Britain’s Victory ‘keeps fresh their understanding’ of Nelson and his navy and what they did at Trafalgar and in other battles in that critical and historic period. Personally, it makes no difference to me that only 30% of the ship is ‘original’. Like the Gold Pavilion, the spirit and intention of the original builders is what survives and that is what we want to see.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Seeing the essence of things

I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn't weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century.
"So it isn't the original building?" I had asked my Japanese guide.
"But yes, of course it is," he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
"But it's burnt down?"
"Many times."
"And rebuilt."
"Of course. It is an important and historic building."
"With completely new materials."
"But of course. It was burnt down."
"So how can it be the same building?"
"It is always the same building."
I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.

From the book ‘Last Chance to See’, by Douglas Adams

See The Ship of Theseus Paradox at Wikipedia, where I found this passage, for more about the essence of things whose parts have been replaced.
Photo from that breathtaking site, The Tale of Genji

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

To understand all is to forgive all

When you lose in love, things are very confusing. The joke about being the last to know is based on truth. We see what we want to see, we ignore the rest. We project our feelings of love onto our beloved and we believe that they are experiencing the same thing. Of course they are not. We don’t see the end coming. And when it hits us we are not ready. When it hit me I had to understand.
I pulled out my agenda and reconstructed the play: Act 1, Act 2 and the devastating Act 3. I had to understand what happened and how it happened. In hindsight I revisited the conversations, the scenes and the places and I had to admit to myself that the signs were there, I just refused to see them. Eventually, I understood pretty much what happened and this allowed me to gain a modicum of peace of mind.
Anger remained and remains still a little, if I give it any thought, in my heart if not in my head. Strange how love can turn to anger. Over time, with the help of the philosophy of Anthony de Mello and others, I understood more. Until one day I read this quote from Spinoza.

To understand all is to forgive all.

This was a powerful insight for me. I saw that the only reason I still harboured anger and hatred was because of my incomplete understanding. I saw that even if I did not have the power to understand all yet, still forgiveness would be correct. I should not deprive myself of peace of mind and the liberation of forgiveness because of my incomplete understanding.

Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand.

Because when you understand you can accept, and you can forgive. Marcus Aurelius helped me further along this path of understanding:

Whatever man thou meetest with, immediately say to thyself:
What opinions has this man about good and bad? For if with respect to pleasure and pain and the causes of each, and with respect to fame and ignominy, death and life he has such and such opinions, it will seem nothing wonderful or strange to me, if he does such and such things; and I shall bear in mind that he is compelled to do so.

That I would lose my love was plain for others to see. I blinded myself to the possibilities. If I had been able to keep my wits about me as Marcus Aurelius suggests, I would have understood the situation as it was happening. As it was, I had to understand in hindsight, whilst sorting through my negative emotions.

Now keep looking at this unpleasant situation or person until you realize that it isn’t they that are causing the negative emotions. They are just going their way, being themselves, doing their thing whether right or wrong, good or bad. It is your computer that, thanks to your programming, insists on your reacting with negative emotions. Anthony de Mello

My love was compelled to act in the way she did. I was compelled to act in the way I did. That’s life.

To understand is to transform what is. Krishnamurti

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ship's Log - June 2009

I always read the quotes on the top left-hand column of the blog every time I load the page. Some make me laugh out loud with pleasure. I think that we should take note of the quotes that do this for us as they surely reveal something about ourselves. These three quotes I copied to my desktop. Maybe they will give you pleasure too.

An artist is someone who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he for some reason thinks it would be a good idea to give them. Andy Warhol

Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does, the better. André Gide

Unprovided with original learning, unformed in the habits of thinking, unskilled in the arts of composition, I resolved to write a book. Edward Gibbon

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond