A Real Gentleman

It’s a rare species of humankind, currently bordering on extinction.
From the October-November 2012 Trumpet Print Edition

“He’s a real gentleman.” That’s a phrase I heard often during my childhood. More often than not, it was spoken by my mother, my grandmothers, my aunts, or even my elder sister, to identify a particular kind of Homo sapiens.

It’s a phrase not often heard these days.

I fear that the word gentleman has been throttled to death by the thought police. The feminist-dominated, politically correct movement hates what the very word bespeaks: virtueand manliness.

The typical English gentleman was the backbone of British society during the grand old empire’s glory days. In The Europeans, Italian-American journalist Luigi Barzini Jr. pointed out that men around the world sought to imitate the English gentleman, motivated and “dictated by admiration and envy.” The demeanor of the English, “well-educated, well-behaved … the result of good upbringing … their ease … made them admired models.”

But two world wars and the industrial society, compounded by the rise of feminism, largely did away with this remarkable example of virtuous manliness that the world at large sought to copy and that once was unique to British society.

American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has reflected deeply about this increasingly unfashionable concept, the genteel Anglo-American. She notes, in relation to the historical usage of the term “gentleman,” that “In practice … it was often used, even in earlier centuries, as a distinction of character rather than of class” (The Demoralization of Society, emphasis added throughout).

Himmelfarb is the wife of the reputed founder of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol, and is recognized as an outstanding American historian. She traces one common denominator that once linked all classes in English society: “respectability.” Cutting through the liberal-socialist lie that the British—during their greatest epoch, the Victorian era—were closely strictured by class rigidities, Himmelfarb reveals that the reality at the time was that “the working classes were respectable members of society and therefore worthy citizens ….”

Victorian-era French historian Hippolyte Taine marveled at the genteelness and orderliness of the English. “‘I have seen whole families of the common people picnicking on the grass at Hyde Park; they neither pulled up nor damaged anything.’ This was truly admirable, he reflected, for ‘the aim of every society must be a state of affairs in which every man is his own constable, until at last none other is required’” (ibid).

Contrast this with British society today, with lager louts and ladettes besmirching public places with the effluence of their alcohol- and drug-debauched behavior, and young Britons considering senior citizens fair game for mugging. Every vestige of good English manners and proper decorum appears to have gone out the window, and there are statistics to prove it. “British teenagers are the worst behaved in Europe, a report has revealed. They are more likely to binge drink, take drugs, have sex at a young age and start fights. The report, from a think tank closely linked to Labor, says the collapse of family life is at least partly to blame” (Daily Mail, July 27, 2007).

“Partly to blame?” That surely must be the understatement of all time!

Why have the good graces of the Victorian era plunged into the 21st-century gutter?

Trace it to one common denominator: loss of gentlemanly deportment by British gentry. The male of the species has lost all respect for the God-given offices of husband and father, let alone responsible citizenship. As British society has lost respect for those biblically delineated roles, it has lost respect for family and, indeed, for fellow man. The result is social breakdown of national scope.

History records that where the typical male is a moral person, society thrives. When manhood becomes morally corrupt, that society soon fails. Though the woman may powerfully influence the order of the domestic scene, the moral standard of any successful culture is set by the male. Society rises and falls against his moral standard.

“A real ‘gentleman’ is truly a noble man,” Taine observed, “a man worthy to command, a … man of integrity, capable of exposing, even sacrificing himself for those he leads; not only a man of honor, but a conscientious man, in whom generous instincts have been confirmed by right thinking and who, acting rightly by nature, acts even more rightly from good principles” (ibid).

“What is a gentleman?” asked the 19th-century British author William Thackeray. “Is it to lead a pure life, to keep your honor virgin; to have the esteem of your fellow citizens, and the love of your fireside; to bear good fortune meekly; to suffer evil with constancy; and through evil or good to maintain truth always? Show me the happy man whose life exhibits these qualities, and him we will salute as gentleman, whatever his rank may be; show me the prince who possesses them, and he may be sure of our love and our loyalty” (The Four Georges).

Where, pray tell, would you find such a man in today’s society? Once a prevalent product of British society, admired by the world at large, the gentleman is almost extinct today. The link between that loss and the moral perils our society increasingly exhibits is undeniable.

May all true men of God strive to be such gentlemen!