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The Compleat Gentleman

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Chivalry is dead? Long live chivalry!

In The Compleat Gentleman, Brad Minar argues that a gentleman must be a warrior, a lover, and a monk. Not one, or even two of the archetypes will do; he must be all three. No one is born with all of these properties. To be even one requires attention to oneself; to be all three requires dedication to the formation of one's character.

The warrior maintains a martial spirit and will fight the fights that need fighting -- whether the fights are his, or those of another who cannot fight. The lover respects a woman for who she is, even giving her the support and encouragement that lets her become whatever it is that she wants. The monk develops his mind, training it through study and use; this makes him better able to understand others and the world around him.

The Compleat Gentleman is a tour through history, showing us the similarities among the best of medieval knights, Victorian gentlemen, and the cool twenty-first century guy.

I find myself hugely sympathetic with Minar on his basic premise that chivalry, properly understood, is a code of conduct that reflects basic principles well worth preserving: nobility, not of birth, but of the mind.

Today, there are many people who will overtly oppose what might be called chivalrous or genteel. Imagining themselves enlightened, they will profess a belief that no rational man will voluntarily submit himself to myriad rules that have been codified into standards of behavior, more commonly recognized as manners. These Men of Enlightenment know not which fork to use at dinner, how to order a bottle of wine, when to applaud, how to form a coherent sentence, or how to introduce one person to another. Neither will they notice people around them enough to hold a door, to offer the shelter of a shared umbrella, or to control their own volume. Instead of being embarrassed by their ignorance and social ineptitude, these Men of Enlightenment criticize those who, through practice of self restraint, have managed to behave differently from other mammals. This, gentle reader, is not enlightenment. It is savagery, shamelessly advocated by men who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, i.e., those who fail to understand the difference between can and should.

How, you might ask, is this a failure to take responsibility? Very well, I shall tell you. Gentility in behavior is not about an endless list of rules to be followed. Gentility is about the objective of ensuring the comfort of those around you. Sitting at a round table and knowing which bread plate and drink to use, for example, prevents needless intrusion into the space of others; this is a sign of respect for them. Standing to greet someone isn't about following a rule; I do it to meet someone on his own terms, into my space. Holding a door for a lady isn't done because she's incapable; I do it because I respect her as a person and spare her the tedium of having to open the door for herself. I do not speak correctly to show the world how well educated I am or to impress anyone with the size of my vocabulary; I speak with the appropriate levels of accuracy and precision as a sign of respect for the listener's time, knowing that a thought worth entertaining is worth expressing well in the first place. I do not decide what must be done in the abstract and wait for someone else to do it; I see what must be done and work to that end myself. I do not refuse to yield in matters of principle to demonstrate my strength; I stand my ground because I respect myself and accept the responsibility I bear as a free moral agent.

As for the charge some advance that chivalry promotes an inherently unequal society, let us first consider the objective. Universal equality need not be the sort of senseless pandering to the lowest common denominator advocated by some. What if instead of having everyone become reduced to the level of erudition and behavior of, say, certain forms of primates that failed ever to establish any concept of society, everyone had the opportunity to be elevated to the level of respect and deference historically reserved for kings?

Recently, a friend of mine and I were walking down a sidewalk and when we got to a point where it turned and narrowed too much for us to walk side-by-side, I stopped one step short of the turn so she keep moving at the same pace, turning down the narrow leg of the sidewalk in front of me. I was just yielding so that she wouldn't have to wait for me. In response for such a small consideration for her, she acknowledged my manners with the highest possible compliment: she said that she feels like royalty when she's around me. Those were her words, not some I crafted specifically for integration into my manifesto of gentlemanly behavior. Note that my behavior had an impact on how she felt about herself. And it served to build her up, not to tear her down. Her feeling is, in fact, well-founded; I have as much respect for her as a person as any head of state, thinker, or writer, living or dead. That respect is the foundation of my behavior, and she absorbed that feeling.

Although raised with good principles and given good examples to follow, the fact is that I behave as I do because I was listening and testing what I heard against what I saw in the real world. I saw for myself that how we behave affects other people and that this can work for good or for bad. I chose to work for good and I have attempted to develop myself into someone both interesting and interested, all while learning how to ensure the comfort of those around me. I do not seek to entertain; I simply wish to live and to let live. I treat others as I would be treated.

Nobility of the mind, the only nobility that matters, is an important and powerful concept. This nobility is not exclusive, limited to those of particular birth, education, or riches. This nobility is inclusive, achievable by anyone who works to improve himself and to build up those around him. We need not all be peasants to be equal; through the fashioning of our character, we can make each a noble. If only we care enough, each of us can be a compleat gentleperson.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-04-12 01:11 PM
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