(Questions about Virtue, Class, Honor and Privilege, oh yeah, and Manhood)
When you think today of the brashness of our President, the thuggery of our “masculine models”, the “tail-between-the-leggedness” of others, you can seriously wonder what’s become of manhood in our times. Today I want to review what we once held up as a gentleman, for good, bad and indifferent, and what if anything should be done to resurrect him?
Being a gentleman used to mean you were of a certain upbringing, family, heritage. This has become problematic and “loaded” for our age, because today we are mostly very much against anything that smacks of “regionalism”, “familyism”, “racism” or “traditionalism”. But back in a certain day this was not the case, and there were some understandable reasons why. Certain families had an untaintable reputation surrounding their social conduct. They were fair in their economic dealings, their word was their bond (they weren’t known for dealing falsely), they weren’t afraid to deal with hardship in the middle of the night when it came calling. In these traditions, a gentleman would have been a man who was not known for cheating, or shirking responsibility, or running when a situation was difficult.
But before we go much further it might be helpful to stop and look at the two components to the word being examined: Gentle + Man. Obviously in these cases we were describing the male half of the citizenry of a place and time. The main describer of this gendered actor was his gentleness. The question is why highlight this particular component? What is the value in being tender, kind, soft, controlled for the societies that elevated this character. Didn’t manhood back then yet still smack of confrontation, strong decorum, gruff poise, etc . . .? It did. But gentleness seemed to be a buffer against its extreme uses.
Many would reject the notion of “gentleman” today, yet many of these same commentators do otherwise value a general outflow of gentleness, restraint and self-control. The complications arise when we want to elevate or praise one set of persons over another, for manifesting these traits. For we have begun to deeply live in…