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

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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