Once upon a time it was a designation of character. One that men strove for, one that was valued. Are those times forever gone?
A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job. ~John Wayne
Few words create such a vivid, complex, controversial, and individualized interpretation within the English language as “Gentleman.” Although “chivalry” isn’t far behind. Everyone seems to have their own idea of what a gentleman is, or at least what he should be, and how he should behave.
Images of an elegant well-dressed man with impeccable manners, drinking only the finest single malt scotch from French perfume bottles the size of a milk gallon comes to mind. Thoughts of a man gallivanting around town to open doors for the random lady he doesn’t know seem somewhat adequate. And even a mental picture of a well-travelled and well-educated chevalier, equally skilled with a pen and a sword, might be what you define as a “Gentleman.”
But to some people, the word Gentleman creates images of a power suited wannabe player who exudes a condescending attitude of superiority based on his social status and bank account. It reeks of men spouting anachronistic words and repeating trained etiquette behaviors in a desperate attempt to impress women. Chivalry promotes the ideals of a misogynist patriarchy wanting to reinforce the notion of male superiority, while at the same time promting the ideals of a man’s servitude to women and his expendability within society.
It’s ironic how some men view the concept of the gentleman as a servant of women, and some women view the concept of the gentleman as a man expecting women to serve him.
Whatever your own personal take on the subject; three common threads seem to stand out within this debate.
The first is the notion of that Gender Neutrality to achieve Gender Equality dismisses the validity of the term Gentleman. Equality and Sameness are not the same thing. The second is the way too many people limit Gentlemanly behavior to the interaction between men and women, something that deserves an article unto itself. Alas this is not such an article, as I am currently including that one as part of a book in the works. (Yes, shameless self-promotion. I know.)
The third thread, the I want to discuss today, is how Gentlemanly behavior is an outdated concept.
We are told that the Gentleman is a direct descendant of the Medieval Knights and their Code of Chivalry. And this is the reason why so many people question its validity today. Some people who pride themselves on being “forward thinkers” question why we should follow a code of behavior founded 700 years ago. These people will catalogue the Gentleman as a cultural invention with no real relevance other than being a social construct; a remnant of times past and no longer valid in today’s society. They might even add that Chivalry was a way to reinforce a class system or gender dominance, and keeping it around reinforces these ideologies.
I guess that we’re done here. Let’s call it a night and let’s sit back, take out the popcorn, and see what social group will take credit for the killing of Chivalry this time. And I say ‘this time’ because these chants of supposed triumph over Chivalry and the Gentleman are nothing new, having started the day after of both concepts were initially defined. Every person threatened by the notion of men willing to live up to higher standards than the rest of their contemporaries has desperately been trying to kill off the Gentleman. Not only has the term survived several assassination attempts, but has changed with the times and is currently experiencing a revival of sorts thanks to its latest evolution in the form of a new Gentlemen’s Movement.
I can only assume that your next question is “But why?
With so many attempts against the term and the ideal, why do we still have Chivalry and the Gentleman?” The answer is rather simple. Because the idea of a “Gentleman” goes beyond the word itself, existing as a Universal concept within almost every culture in the planet, since society decided that civility was better than barbarity.
A Gentleman, after you strip all its aesthetic decoration and poetic mannerisms, is a man who has taken the responsibility to function as an example of personal development, discipline, and service to those around him. These men strive to improve themselves physically, mentally, and spiritually as they adhere zealously to a strict code of conduct. They will take the mantel of defenders of whatever cause or an ideal they follow. That being said, assuming that Chivalry is limited exclusively to gender relations is like assuming it’s raining on the entire planet just because it’s raining in your neighborhood. The world is too big to be small minded.
There is no denying that much of what is defined as “proper” behavior for a Gentleman does have a military origin from Medieval Times and its elite warriors. But the concept goes beyond the Knights in shining armor and their Chivalric Code. The Roman Legionnaires followed a strict code of behavior and etiquette as defined by their Patron Goddess Diciplina. They would serve as symbols to society as they praised the female God of education and training, self-control and determination, as they educated themselves in the arts, and led an orderly way of life.
Yet these lessons were not exclusive to Europe and its military traditions. The military legacy of elite warriors defined by discipline, service, self-control, and artistic development is repeated across the globe. We find parallels within the Arabic Faris and their Furusiyya Code, as they produced some of the best examples of Arabo-Persian literature during the Golden Age of Islam. The Korean Hwarang, followers of the Se Sok O-Gye Code, were renowned warriors and Buddhist debaters. The followers of Japanese Bushido, the Samurai, literally meaning “One who serves”, were expected to be just as skilled in Calligraphy as they were with the sword. Even the Jaguar and Eagle warriors, the Cuauhocelotl, of the Aztec Empire left an extensive literary legacy. All of these men were expected to be as skilled with a weapon as they were within the arts, literature, and social etiquette.
There is also the concept of the ethical and moral obligations that went past the military traditions. The Knights were known as the Defenders of the Church, becoming symbols of self-sacrifice, altruism, and integrity. But again, this is not exclusive to European Christianity and its descendants, as the Faris followed Islam and the Hwarang followed Buddhism, just to name a couple. Taoism and Buddhism had a direct parallel to the social Gentleman called the Junzi, “the ruler’s son”, and Judaism call these men Mensch, “a person of integrity and honor.”
Even if we move past the religious aspects, within the intellectual elements of society, these concepts are again repeated. We find the Greek and Roman ideals of the “Superior Man” and the “Philosopher Kings”, men who trained themselves in mind, body, and spirit, past what most men would.
Later on, the Polymathist, usually referred to as the Renaissance Man, was expected to be knowledgeable in all Gentlemanly aspects. Even during the age of reason, the best complement a man could receive was that of a Gentleman-Scholar, and it was the Gentleman-Explorer who heralded a global view of the world. And even within modern times we see the development of the Übermensch, a man unwilling to settle for the mediocrity of his contemporaries.
Sure, there have been times that the word Gentleman has lost its luster, and there have been plenty of “gentlemen” who have given the term a bad name. But as a fellow GMP author said:
Before condemning the concept of the Gentleman, people need to understand that a true Gentleman’s actions are neither to impress others, to demean others, or to intimidate others.
Opening a door or pulling a chair has nothing to do with minimizing women. Neither is racing off to stand up against injustice and confronting perceived breaches of honor, typically called white-knighting. These are just the results of living as a Gentleman. These are not men who think they are superior to others, but who have chosen to hold themselves up to a higher standard.
Why is this personal choice wrong?
Photo: Flickr/Pink Sherbet Photography