Saturday, October 30, 2010

On Gentlemanly Character

When I was perhaps six or seven years old, my mother started her own housecleaning business. Her clients tended to be wealthy people who owned expensive apartments or luxurious homes in the Charlottesville area. One of the married couples who employed her had two sons, to which I will refer as Chris and Daniel and with whom I soon became fairly close friends. Our friendship, however, was oddly divorced from the friendships I had with other children my age. At that point in my life, I was unaware of the invisible, interpersonal chasms that class distinctions create; it confused me greatly when my parents refused my requests to invite Chris and Danny over to our house. In retrospect, their refusal saved me a great deal of heartache later.

Six years after I met them, I began attending a private school in Charlottesville through the generosity of a benefactor. Coincidentally, this happened to be the school in which Chris and Daniel were enrolled. Soon after I started that fall term, their attitude towards me underwent an ugly shift in tone and temper, and I became the object of their ridicule, scorn, and mockery. In retrospect, it has become apparent that all middle school experiences are fraught with such petty betrayals. At the time, however, I was unused to such forms of emotional treachery, and took it with a great deal of anguish. My father, witnessing my grief and dismay over this issue, took the opportunity to talk to me, one day, when we were out together. This happened thirteen years ago, so I will by necessity paraphrase, but I believe I know my father well enough to do his thoughts and attitudes justice.

"Will," he said, "a hundred and fifty years ago, Chris and Danny’s ancestors were poor immigrants, while your ancestors were Southern landed gentry. That does not make you better than them, just as their current wealth does not make them better than you. However, by virtue of your heritage, you are a gentleman and the descendant of gentlemen. That is something their money cannot buy and which our family’s current lack of wealth cannot take away from you."

It is important, at this point, to note the distinction between the two uses of the term "gentleman." Historically, a gentleman was defined by certain privileges and achievements: land ownership, collegiate education, and so forth. These became associated, over time, with certain virtues: aesthetic taste, cultural refinement, courteous and genteel behavior, et cetera. Although my father was using the word in its more historical sense, I understood—and understand—him as meaning that the aforementioned associated virtues represented the foundation of a more classical, and timeless, gentlemanly character.

In later conversations, it would become impressed upon me that being a gentleman had much more to do with responsibilities than rights. In short, being a gentleman is being, and becoming, a superior man while making no man your inferior. What of a superior man, though? What qualities does he embody? Attempting to distill the essence of this superior man, this ne plus ultra of a gentleman, remains a daunting task, complicated by the difference between modes of expression and foundations of principle—in short, the difference between doing and being. A gentleman does many things, but only four identifiable virtues make up his being: duty, honor, compassion, and integrity. On these cornerstones is the house of gentlemanly character constructed.

Duty is the sense of responsibility to one’s country, creed, and other analogous institutions—that is, the more abstract and group-oriented of human constructs. It is also the most easily mocked of the gentlemanly virtues, due to its association and connotation with outdated notions of chivalry, nationalism, and pride—things that fell by the wayside during the relentless advance of post-modernism. As gentlemen, we are bound to such constructs as our homeland, our commonwealth, our community, and our family. There is an intrinsic sense of obligation to protect and defend these things, both as entities and ideals, for without any individual sense of duty, there is no group sense of duty. This virtue makes an appearance in the oath of obligation of one of the remaining organizations dedicated in principle to the preservation of gentlemanly qualities: the Boy Scouts of America. "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country…"

What would Richard Winters do?

So what, then, of honor? How is honor different from duty? Put simply, honor is personal, in the sense that it is directed inward. Duty is an outward sign of fidelity to social and interpersonal mores. Honor is an inward display of devotion to one’s own personal beliefs, ethics, morals—those intersubjective perspectives which reflect objective values. Honor is essentially the currency by which a man measures his own worth. We appraise our own progress through life by asking ourselves if we are, indeed, the men we wish to be. Honor requires certain external foci, to be sure, but in the end the assessment of self is wholly personal. This interior and personal nature is what gives honor its potency and passion. It is important to note the (perhaps deserved) negative connotations of the term "honor." It is in the name of honor that men down through the millennia have submitted to their baser emotions. When a lesser man’s honor is insulted, his worth—and, by extension, his concept of his own being—is insulted. When honor is informed by gentler impulses, such as compassion, it becomes less prone to wild swings of emotion.

Compassion is, to some extent, an extension of duty. Love is a duty towards those with whom we do not necessarily have any sort of attachment. It is the human incarnation of divine grace, love that does not know or care about the meaning of the word "deserve." Unlike duty, however, which is born of fidelity—fides—compassion is an expression of love—caritas. Compassion is the mercy that tempers the justice of duty and the passion of honor. Lest we grow arrogant in our estimation of ourselves or cold in our actions towards others, compassion urges us to kindness, empathy, and humility. Love in the absence of humility is possessive, jealous, and at times vengeful. Love in the presence of humility gives without needing to receive, and is fulfilled by the simple act of communion with our fellow man. There is no small amount of pragmatism in compassion, for it is in the realization that we are "all in this together" that we access our benevolence, our desire to do good for others at no apparent personal benefit. It is a realization, in a sense, that by helping and healing others we become more whole ourselves.

This leads naturally to integrity—both in the sense of moral and ethical impeccability and in a more overarching sense of integration, wholeness, and unity. Moral integrity is, to use a tautology, "doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do." Knowing what "the right thing" is—being able to recognize a right action, and contrast it with a wrong action—is what makes integrity impossible to teach. Many evil men have felt compelled by duty—one need look no further than the Nazi Party or the Cosa Nostra. Many men who are slaves to their more primal urges place a great deal of value on honor, as we see in tribal cultures of both the modern day and antiquity. The most maudlin and slothful anti-war protestor feels a sense of compassion, albeit compassion in the form of moral equivalence rather than a true feeling of brotherly love. A gentleman understands that no aspect of his character can be divorced from any other—they inform each other, feed into each other, and provide a network of principle through which all behavior is ultimately informed. Without duty, compassion is too weak, too soft. Without honor, compassion has no guiding light, no principle to inform its progress. Without compassion, duty is too harsh, honor too prone to petty spite. A gentleman strives for balance in all things. Integrity of character—which is to say, moral integrity as well as wholeness of being—is the result of that quest for balance.

The timelessness of gentlemanly character is often overlooked. Its virtues are associated with bygone eras. Perhaps gentlemen of our own time are so rare that we long for an age where more strove to comport themselves in a dignified, impeccable way. Perhaps we are simply reluctant to nurture within ourselves the same virtues, realizing at some level that such an undertaking would require more restraint and discipline than we are willing to expend. Being a gentleman is not easy. Being a gentleman is not designed to be externally rewarding. However, it is only through pulling himself out of the primordial ocean of simple existence and striving for perfection in a fallen world that a man transcends his ordinary nature and realizes the spark of the Divine within his soul.