August 9, 2004

Book review: The Compleat Gentleman

By: Bracy Bersnak

Supposing I had much to learn from a book on modern chivalry, I picked up Brad Miner’s The Compleat Gentleman with great interest. Unfortunately, it is less a book on manners than a rambling history of particular aspects of the Anglo-Saxon gentleman’s identity.

In the first two-thirds of the book, Miner traces the origin of the gentleman’s piety and liberal learning to medieval monasticism, his physical prowess to the medieval knight, and his chivalric treatment and pursuit of women to courtly love literature. A later section of the book on the difficulty of being a gentleman in a democratic age fails to resolve the problematic relationship between the exclusive nature of gentlemanly ideals and social equality. Instead of addressing this issue, Miner characteristically wants to be on both sides of it. On the one hand, he contends that a gentleman must have a discriminating intellect and taste. On the other hand, he is unwilling to say what precludes one from becoming a gentleman. While the idea of the gentleman has always been relatively democratic, being based more on individual merit than noble lineage, it has never been inclusive. It has always been easier to say who manifestly is not a gentleman than to point to someone who manifestly is. Discrimination between who is a man of honor and who is not, between whose word and reputation are considered beyond reproach and whose are not, and between who has decent manners and who has not, have always been essential components of gentlemanly identity.

The most instructive part of Miner’s book is that on the “art of sprezzatura.” Castiglione was the first to point to the importance of this art, which meant “a certain nonchalance (sprezzatura) that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought” (p. 64). Yet Miner conflates ease of manner with coolness, and although both are marked by evenness of temper, gentlemanly courtliness is ultimately incompatible with the coarseness of cool.

Miner seems insufficiently aware of the quixotic nature of his quest to renew appreciation for the ideals of the gentleman. He assumes that men and women alike agree that gentleman are few in number, but utterly fails to explore the reasons why this is so. Since he does not apply gentlemanly principles to thorny problems of modern manners, it is no wonder that Miner has a difficult time finding model gentlemen in contemporary culture. When Miner searches for a model gentleman found in popular culture, the example he offers is… Superman. Not Cary Grant, nor even James Bond, but a man from outer space who wears blue tights and a red cape. Admirable and heroic as he may be, Superman lacks the virtue of sprezzatura, because he triumphs through muscle rather than grace. Of course, the problem with trying to find gentlemen in popular culture is that there simply are none. Bond might be the closest approximation, but he must be ruled out on account of his immoderate appetites, and in any case, as a character he is a figure from another age, that which preceded the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

If one is not inhibited by a polite hesitation to engage in fault finding, one might list a number of cultural phenomena that have contributed to the decline, if not the death, of the gentleman. The first common contemporary reaction to the idea of the gentleman is one of deconstructionist ridicule. In this view, the gentleman is at best a quaint absurdity, and for that reason unattractive to the opposite sex; at worst, the gentleman’s ostensibly respectful manner is in fact a guise for the oppressive, exclusive rule of white men (although sometimes the feminist secretly finds the gentleman attractive — to wit, Camille Paglia’s admiration for Cary Grant). It may be that this response to the ideal of the gentleman is the most pernicious, because it is so dismissive, and eliminates the gentleman by making him utterly unfashionable.

This brings us to the second contemporary response to the idea of the gentleman, namely that of feminism. Like the deconstructionist, the feminist views all relations between men and women as relationships of power. Unlike the deconstructionist, the feminist feels threatened enough by the gentlemanly ideal to take it seriously. By re-defining gentlemanly respect of women as chauvinist condescension, feminism strikes at the heart of gentlemanly behavior by making it seem patronizing and rude. While Miner does not explore this problem, he tacitly acknowledges it through his unseemly obeisance to feminism (along with genuflections toward other politically correct -isms). He even goes so far as to say that a gentleman by definition “gives woman what she desires” (p. 202). In doing so, Miner confuses the principle that a gentleman should suffer fools gladly with the pluralist principle that one should suffer folly gladly. Can a woman enjoin a gentleman to give her something that would otherwise violate Miner’s code? Judging from contemporary culture, it would seem that for gentlemen to give women what they want, they would have to make themselves scarce.

Feminism fatally undermined the gentleman by eliminating the lady, the social type upon which the gentleman depended for his existence. This finest fruit of civilization was turned to rot beneath the withering contempt of feminism. By exchanging the virtues of discernment, modesty, and gracefulness for willfulness, exhibitionism, and coarseness, feminism ensured that Grace Kelly would be succeeded as an icon of femininity by Brittany Spears.

Furthermore, feminism has contributed to the demise of the gentleman by striving for full socio-economic equality between the sexes, in which it has been remarkably successful, again making gentlemanly behavior seem quaint or a patronizing reminder of the patriarchal past. The single most important factor contributing to the extinction of the gentleman is the fact that women neither insist upon nor reward gentlemanly conduct, and although no gentleman would say that any incentive is necessary or sufficient to induce gentlemanly behavior, given the fallen nature of man, that is precisely what I am suggesting.

By way of excusing himself for writing a book about being a gentleman, Miner cites Chesterton’s remark that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. Elsewhere Chesterton introduced one of his books by expressing his hope that it would at least inspire other men to write better books on the same subject. Let us hope that Brad Miner’s book on The Compleat Gentleman does the same.

Bracy Bersnak is a doctoral student in Politics and President of the Graduate Student Association at The Catholic University of America.