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.