“A gentleman is to be measured in his speech, generosity in giving, sober in eating, honesty in living, kindness in forgiving, and courageousness in fighting.”
–Fray Antonio de Guevara
I am a firm believer that if you can’t explain something in a simple manner, you don’t understand it properly. It was only logical that if I promote the ideals about modern chivalry, I better have a simple definition on what a Gentleman is. This definition eluded me for many years and it became a source of constant frustration at a personal level.
Since childhood, I was taught what being a Gentleman was supposed to mean. I believed all men could be separated into three different categories:
(1) The man who was still a child and has yet to grow-up into his responsibilities
(2) The Macho who used force and a false sense of masculinity to hide his insecurities while abusing others
(3) The Real Man who took on his obligations with pride.
Keep in mind that for me at that time a “Real Man” was always a Good Man, and all Good Men were Gentleman. These explanations were good enough for me as a boy but as I grew up and learned more of the world, I just couldn’t define what it meant to be a Real Man without resorting into a treaties-long monologue.
You can find volumes of information on what a Gentleman is or on how he must act, most of them tempered to the culture and religious beliefs of the author or moment in history when they were written. Most of the articles are descriptions of specific acts or straight out rules to follow. Even if each description was different in the specifics, we can constantly find similarities within all of them, which begs the questions:
What makes a true Gentleman? Is it his character and his values? Is it his manners or his etiquette? Is it his lineage, the cut of his suit, or the size of his bank account?
Ironically all of these things have been used to define a Gentleman at one point or another. Personally, I feel that these kinds of definitions capture the description of a Gentleman within a specific reference, but fail to capture his soul. Character is somewhat individualistic and subjective, since every person has their own core beliefs and values. Even the bigot and the fanatic firmly believe they are doing good based on their own ideology.
Manners are a reflection of proper attitude to life, while etiquette is a set of rules and information that can be taught to anyone, irrelevant of being a good person or not. As for being born to a “good family” and being well off as a determining factor to becoming a gentleman? Most of the gentlemen I have met in my lifetime come from rather humble beginnings and all have more important pursuits in life than money. I have also met my share of well-off “suits” that deserve many colorful adjectives to describe them, yet “gentleman” is not one of them.
So the question was still there:
How do you define being a Gentleman in a simple manner, one not dependent on social stature, culture of origin, religious beliefs, or even a historical frame?
What was the link between the Junzi, the Samurai, the Cavalier, the Knight, the Faris, the Fianna, and so many others? What did all these men, the Good Men, have in common? What separates a Gentleman from the average man? The answer to this profound question is surprisingly simple. A Gentleman is defined by the actions he takes, a clear understanding of accountability, and the attitude he has towards life.
Let’s start with the first concept, Actions. From Plato to Picasso and from Confucius to Cervantes; actions, not words, have been described as the currency for a fruitful life. Yet we insist on having lives with overcomplicated explanations, broken promises, and hollow apologies. Any man can be versed with a silver tongue, but a Gentleman knows that actions will always carry more weight than any words spoken. He will not go around saying what a good person he is, or how much he helps others, or how much he works for a cause. He simply does these things. These actions will end up speaking for themselves.
Keep in mind that everything you do or don’t do is an action. Every time you act, every time you stand firm, every time you fight against something; you give a clear message of who you are and what you are willing to do for your beliefs. Every time you let an injustice happen, every time you prefer to stay silent within the crowd, or simply every time you complain about your life but do nothing to change it says volumes about who you really are. The best way to understand the character of a man is by looking at his actions and, often, ignoring his words.
If a man wants to be a Good Man, a Gentleman, he must commit good actions. He realizes his responsibility for his actions and his accountability for the results of these actions. This leads us to the second concept, Accountability. Whatever you do or don’t do affects you and everyone around you in one way or another. You are responsible for the effects your actions have, and no amount of excuses and apologies can change that fact of life.
As soon as you realize how your actions affect others, how you are accountable for the joys and pains you might inflict, the way you view how you act changes. You will think of others, and not just yourself, every time you do something. You will become more considerate and more responsible in your decisions. And when you do make mistakes, you actually are willing to accept them. Only after accepting your errors can you learn from them, something surprisingly rare in this world of denial.
Also, based on that same mentality of accountability, you realize that YOU are responsible for YOURSELF. You stop expecting others to solve your problems or view others as responsible for your success or happiness. You also recognize just how responsible you are for your own misery and how easily you can cause misery to those around you. You stop blaming everyone and take accountability for your own life, realizing that the only person in command of your life is YOU. Your attitude changes, from a reactionary one, to an active one.
And so we are presented with the last concept, Attitude. Nothing in this world can stand in the way of the man with a proper attitude for achieving his goal. Unfortunately, nothing can help the man with the wrong attitude. You cannot control what happens around you, but you can control how you react to these events, so a Gentleman strives to be in complete command of his attitude. That way you will master the changes in your life, instead of letting these changes master you.
This attitude, this trademark self-confidence of a Gentleman, is rather contagious. That is why people are willing to follow a humble man who constantly strives to be better every day. It teaches by example instead of by orders. This concept is hardest to achieve of all the gentlemanly aspects because confidence can easily turn into arrogance and humility can easily turn into insecurity. Being a gentleman is not a permanent title but rather something you strive for every day, with every action, and every reaction.