Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Gentleman's Manifesto: An Essay

What is a gentleman?  Is it, as a learned friend of mine said, a limited legal term, referring to a male of a certain age, with a certain amount of property, and certain legal rights, as formerly defined in the laws of the United Kingdom?  If so, why do societies other than the United Kingdom talk about people being gentlemen, or acting like a gentleman?  Why do we talk about a gentleman as manifesting a certain standard of behavior.  And why do there appear to be related concepts, for instance in Confucianism or in ancient Greece, or in many other civilizations?  Are we talking about a common human reality? Is this reality something worth our attention?  Risking the danger of oversimplification, let me lay out what the basis of the idea of a gentlemen is, and how it applies to our present world.

In so-called primitive human societies, a natural division of labor occurs between males and females.  (One reason this division is necessary is the need to contain and manage the greater aggressiveness and libido of males so as to mitigate its destructive force, and direct it to the benefit all of society.) In these societies, all male groups, in particular, are dedicated to hunting and warfare.  These male groups both value certain qualities in their members, and also train and encourage their members to acquire those skills and habits useful in hunting and warfare, those skills and habits of behavior that promote cooperation in the group, and also those qualities useful for beneficial interaction with the greater tribe of which these groups and its members are a part.  Such skills would include physical strength, speed, agility, and skill with a weapon; also the ability to kill and dress prey.  An essential quality would be courage, the ability to overcome one's own fear sufficiently to kill prey or stand up to an enemy.  Other qualities would include courtesy, respect for the group's leaders, the ability to follow orders, and a willingness to listen and learn.  They would include honesty, and the ability to communicate. They would include the ability to learn the stories and lore of the group, and to pass these on to the next generation.  Perhaps most significant is the willingness to sacrifice one's self, one's own particular good, for the good of one's fellows.  (I am aware of, but, for the sake of brevity and the scope of this essay, am not dealing with the parallel, but very different and equally important, development of the idea of feminine virtue.)

Those qualities and habits are good which served the purposes of the tribe.  Those which did not are bad.  The good qualities are virtues.  Virtues can be innate, or acquired.  For instance, some people are naturally strong or fast, and thus have the innate virtue of strength.  By contrast a person who gains strength by assiduous exercise has the acquired virtue of strength.  We also see from this that the concept of virtue is not limited to moral virtue, however, for the purpose of this essay, we will restrict our discussion of virtue to acquired and habitual virtue.  Thus bad habits are vices; good habits are virtues.  The sum of one's virtues or vices is one's character.  A person who had a virtuous character was noble.  One who had a vicious character was base.  Later, in Greek thought, the idea of the good, and thus of virtue, was expanded to include not just all of human society, but the transcendent good for which man was created.

With the rise of increasingly complex civilizations, many societies created servile classes beneath a military ruling class.  An example is the Spartans and the Helots who served them.  The creation of servile classes had the effect of excluding from the male brotherhood those relegated to these classes, and also of denying to them the possibility of striving for nobility.  Thus nobility gradually lost the aspect of acquired virtue, and became seen as a something one was born into.  For many in the servile class, "nobility" ceased to be a matter of real virtue at all, and became the despised status of an oppressor.

There were exceptions to this.  Very clannish societies, like the Highland Scots, preserved an egalitarian ideal in which all males could aspire to an ideal of manly virtue.  Also, the idea of being noble, or being a gentleman, was not entirely discredited, and in the British colonies of North America it combined with egalitarian and republican ideals to become once again something which could be available to all males.  These American ideas spread to other parts of the world in consequence of the American Revolution and the rise in her power in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The problem in the modern context is that two different, and fundamentally opposed, egalitarian ideas compete.  The first is that the pursuit of excellence and manly nobility is available to all, and to be encouraged.  Let us call this republicanism (not to be confused with anti-monarchism).  Of course, a problem with those who promoted the republican ideal is that those who advocated it, as in the U.S., often tolerated their own servile classes, and this undermined their witness; a further, and related, problem was the mistreatment of women.  However, the goal of returning manly virtue and nobility to being the objective of all human males is an admirable one, and a necessary one, if we wish the flourishing of human society and the human person, and if we truly wish to abolish servitude and ensure that women are to be treated as of equal dignity with men.

The second egalitarian ideal has been described as totalitarian democracy.  It holds that equality is to be achieved by reducing all to the same level, and discouraging and discounting excellence, virtue, or the idea of being better than others.  In order to enforce equality, and to replace the social order and stability lost when ideas of personal responsibility are discredited, increasing bureaucracy is created, and more and more power is accrued to the state and other large bureaucracies.

Totalitarian democracy is now in the ascendant—not just in the state, but also in for-profit corporations, and even religious bodies, most obviously in the Roman Catholic Church, whose post-Vatican II liturgy has been aptly described as the liturgy of totalitarian democracy.  As a necessary consequence of this ideology, and to reinforce the power of the state and these other bureaucracies, much trouble has been taken to discredit the idea of a gentleman.

The problem is that human males have certain drives, including a drive towards manliness.  If these are not recognized and directed, they become very destructive.  Denying to most human males this direction, the effect of totalitarian democracy is in effect to render a very large part of the populace into a servile status, with entirely predictable and destructive results increasingly evident.

The question is whether we shall have the goal of raising everybody up, or putting some people, indeed most people, down.  The former will build a free society; the latter will create anger, resentment, and eventually violent social disorder.  If we chose the former, then the way forward for human males is to revive the ideal of the gentleman as something towards which every human male can and ought to strive.  This is, inevitably, an act of revolutionary resistance to our present servile state and society.  Thus the man who wants to be a good man must of necessity now be a revolutionary.

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