A Gentleman

We often quote Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” His site uses as its epigraph another argument: “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in concentration of power.”

But how is our awareness of such a truth likely to be revealed & implicitly acknowledged in our customs? (Or when such tendencies are reinforced, unfortunately, by other traditions and customs.) Perhaps we should accord the greatest of dignities to he who lets another keep his, even when that person risks his own pride & dignity (or perhaps we should say, apparent pride & dignity).

When General Robert E. Lee chose the task, as Fischer describes it, of “of training a new generation of southern leaders in his Stoic and Christian vision of liberty and self-mastery,” he described Washington College’s rule as simple: “We have but one rule here, and it is that every student must be a gentleman.” Lee’s definition of a “gentleman” remains the code of many and such values lie beneath the civil (generally) exchanges on this blog. Here it is:

The forebearing use of power does not only form a touchstone; but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others, is a test of a true gentleman. The power which the strong have over the weak, the magistrate over the citizen, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly; the forbearing and inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it, when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light. . . A true man of honor feels humbled himself, when he cannot help humbling others.

In our therapeutic & litigious society that power is sometimes reversed. And even when the code is internalized, a society that nurtures victimology encourages the belief that only one’s self is aggrieved; therefore, neither acknowledges the power each possesses. Obsessed by our own impotence & possible shame, we demand of others the respect we fail to recognize is our duty to give.

In the sixties boomers felt they were “speaking truth to power” and were on the side of the “people”; now they have the means to not only choose among expensive coffees and wine, but also to bully those at their mercy – whether in business, academic, or domestic hierarchies. So sure they are “not the man,” they feel no need to hold themselves to the standards that “the man” respected (even if, being human, did not always met). Not even seeing those standards as applicable, though, means we are even less likely to succeed at gentlemanly behavior.

2 thoughts on “A Gentleman”

  1. Lee believed in hierarchic liberty. Some are born to rule, others to be in subordinate positions. All have liberty appropriate to their station. He did not, as we do, equate freedom with equality, or think they were necessarily related. To the contrary.

    However, Lee also believed that as a Christian gentleman, that possessing advantages in life imposed obligations. Moreover, possessing authority required that the person exercising it do so in the interests of those under his authority. We deride this paternalism. He would agree that the system was paternalism, but not agree with the derision. We are used to assuming that all authority is corrupt or corruptible. Lee would say that authority always exists and must exist, whether in open or in disguised form. If it is open, then it is accountable at least to the rebukes of conscience and respect or disdain of others. He would also say that a virtuous and truly Christian man would in fact live a life of self-sacrifice and service to those whom Providence had placed in his care. Jesus Christ himself is the model — he is God incarnate, yet his life is one of service to others. He washes the feet of his disciples and tells them that is the model for rulership. Lee would have been acutely aware of this.

    It is not a form of social organization we would tolerate now. We are and expect to be free, equal and autonomous. But I do not doubt that there were people who tried to live within this type of hierarchical society in an honest and self-denying way. Lee seems to have.

    And his description you quote of the way a gentleman behaves is still applicable today. A very high standard, easy to unprofitably mock as hypocritical. Much harder would be to strive to reach that standard, day in and day out, without seeking praise or recognition for it.

  2. Thank you, Lex. As usual, you give a spiritual dimension to the choices we make – and, I think, you are right to do so here. Not too long ago, someone described the ritual of footbathing in the churches of her youth – it was clearly to her (and quite understandably) – a moving and deeply symbolic act.

    We may not see the world as Lee did nor is our society organized in such a hierarchical way. (In Lee’s time it wasn’t in much of the country.) But each of us acts in situations in which we do have authority (as parent, boss, teacher, customer) in general ways and often in specific ones (as policeman, doctor, minister). Pretending we don’t have authority can lead us to blunder in hurtful and even destructive ways.

    The teacher who thinks an impressionable student freely chooses to enter a sexual relationship ignores that dynamic; when I was an undergraduate such temptations to professor & student were common, but it was given that sleeping with a student was not the act of a gentleman.

    I had a certain fondness for the fact Bill Clinton had done much with himself, given the culture from which he rose. However, given great power, he did not recognize his responsibilities in such hierarchies. Much of my fondness disappeared when I realized it wasn’t just that he wasn’t raised a gentleman; he wasn’t one.

    By the way, part of my respect for Brian Lamb is the subtle and rather lovely way he guards his interviewee’s dignity; he would rather appear naive than patronize others – whether the audience or the author/politician, etc.

Comments are closed.