Dead. Dying. Outmoded. Androcentric. Useless. Unhelpful. At least that’s what some people think of the idea of being a ‘gentleman’.
It’s a notion that has been exercising us for some weeks. Scratch that – it always exercises us. What does it mean to be a gentleman? Can we even begin to define it?
A recent effort in The Independent has particularly been getting our goat over the past week or so. (OK it’s not all their fault: they were prompted to write by the Country Life Gentleman of the Year award.) Their “modern definition” is someone (anyone, man or woman) who would never engage in anti-social behaviour. With a helpful list of delightfully middle-England examples of such behaviour (sigh).
How dull. Country Life doesn’t exactly manage better – someone who is at ease in any situation and always puts others at ease. Pedestrian. And the list of things he (yes, just men apparently) does are even more antiquarian: write letters with a fountain pen, eschews social media and judges prizes at village fêtes. Where is the hope for any of the remaining 95% of the population?
We can surely do better? Aren’t there, after all, bigger fish to fry than listening to music at an appropriate volume and announcing the winner of the Best Marmalade Prize? Not for nothing has this kind of issue been under consideration since at least Aristotle, even Homer.
The Indy points to Haruki Murakami’s sound-bite that “a gentleman is someone who does not do what he wants to do, but what he should do.” To our ears that sounds rather too mechanical: like all it is to be a gentleman is to be a good Kantian, find our duties, mind our duties and do our duties. Where’s the humanity, the individuality, the love?
Time to get fancy – the idea of gentlemanliness needs to focus on supererogation (even fancier, try this). That means on doing good things that are beyond one’s duty. For love. Because you want to. Gentlemen (and women) bring more good into the world spontaneously, without compulsion.
A very contemporary, consumer-individualist says “why should I?” The whole point is that there is nothing we can point to which dictates that you should. It isn’t about sticking to rules to avoid sanctions, even less about what you can get in return. A gentleman is more than a creature of contract.
A gentleman exceeds expectations with wholly unnecessary acts of kindness, and concentrating on duties, being at ease or being culturally Anglo-posh misses the point.