Peggy Noonan Calls for a Revival of the American Gentleman

While reading a recent Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan calling for a revival of the American gentleman, I remembered an old episode of The Simpsons. They’re on the couch watching a public television fundraiser. Garrison Keillor reads a bit of Prairie Home Companion to the obliging laughter and applause from the studio audience. Homer asks “What the hell’s so funny?” and Bart says “maybe it’s the TV.” Homer bangs his fist against the television set and yells “Stupid TV … be more funny!”

While reading all Ms. Noonan’s well-meaning advice, I couldn’t help but picture Homer banging his fist against the computer saying “Stupid Internet … be more gentlemanly!”

This isn’t to say that the gentleman can’t be revived, but I’m not sure Ms. Noonan grasps what a massive feat of reverse engineering she’s talking about. Before we can even discuss the prospects of a revival, we need to know when, where, and why the gentleman got his start, what sustained him for the next 1,000 years or so, and when the wheels flew off.

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The gentleman is an English import, a title that once designated men who had served the king in battle, and who were allotted land grants in exchange for their service. While a gentleman’s behavior toward ladies mattered a great deal in the chivalric era, a man’s status as a gentleman did not initially depend on his behavior towards women.

The essential thing that set the English gentleman apart from his fellow countrymen was a strong sense of obligation (at least up until his demise that began in the early part of the twentieth century). As Simon Raven explained in his 1957 history/memoir, The Decline of the English Gentleman, the king had bestowed material advantages upon the gentry, but those advantages carried with them obligations, not only toward the king but also toward the commoners who worked his land and paid him rents.

Because of these obligations, the English gentleman had less freedom to do as he wished than did the common man. For example, in the early twentieth century, though English gentlemen were increasingly agnostic, it remained incumbent upon them as gentlemen to appear in church every Sunday.

The American gentleman, on the other hand, never had any relationship with the powers of state. In America, anyone could be a gentleman and behavior alone—primarily towards the opposite sex—determined who joined his ranks. But just as in England, these behaviors weren’t just things that well mannered men happened to do; these manners were built upon Biblical obligations that honored the lady, in particular the virtues of chastity and motherhood.

Academic activist Francis Fox Priven has noted that by getting more women into the workplace, the feminist movement had “increasingly ‘liberated’ [men] from their obligations under the moral economy of domesticity.” The exact same words can be applied to the Sexual Revolution, which promised more and more sex, with no strings attached. This is when the wheels flew off.

Aziz Ansari (who was the focus of Ms. Noonan’s column), Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, along with ninety-something percent of the men in media and entertainment who stand accused of some form of sexual harassment over the past year share one thing in common: they are all self-declared feminists.

This is why the behavior of Ansari, who describes himself as a feminist, is so logically consistent. While the gentleman-feminist sounds like a man a woman can trust, he’s really just a guy who’s convinced himself that honoring the feminine virtues of chastity and motherhood is demeaning to women. Honor, for the gentleman-feminist, lies in not passing judgment on any woman who agrees to sleep with him.

And yet, for at least the first 165 years our nation’s history such Rousseauean temptations withered in the face of Biblical obligations, which ran deep. A boy’s parents instruct him to hold the door for a lady and, whether he knows it or not, when he complies he honors the fourth commandment to honor his father and mother (what boy would comply if it were his best friend telling him how to act?). And Biblical obligations flow through one another. For instance, how can a boy honor his father and mother who fail to honor their obligations to each other? Chastity frames the 6th (adultery) and 10th commandments (do not covet thy neighbor’s wife), and without it no family or civilization has ever survived for long. And so boys who receive the inheritance to honor their fathers and mothers also honor the fathers and mothers that sustained the family before them. Before he knows it, the boy has honored his parents and great grandparents all the way back to Sinai by simply holding the door for his mother and sister (now consider how what we used to call “a broken home” disrupts such inheritances). That’s three commandments and there are seven more to go.

Men who have inherited covenantal obligations, rooted as they are in history, family, and faith, stand out. Take, for instance, Eberhard Bethge describing his lifelong friend, theologian Dietrich Bonehoeffer, executed at Flossenburg in the closing weeks of WWII, following his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler:

The rich world of his ancestors set the standards for [his] own life. It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation.

A libertarian friend often asks me why I “always have to bring religion into it.” He prefers Peggy Noonan’s suggestion that men will act like gentlemen simply because women are “often at particular risk in the world” or because “[a gentleman] has his own dignity and sees theirs” or because women “deserve friendship.” My friend is willing to concede that the church at one time may have framed how ladies and gentlemen behave, but the lessons having been learned no longer need the church to sustain them. After all, he says, he doesn’t take his family to church and his sons act like gentlemen.

His sons do, but his grandsons (if there are any) likely won’t. Few parents think about the cultural etymology as they teach their children to behave like ladies and gentlemen, and yet to cordon these lessons off from their source is to snip the rose from the bush. The Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood explains the analogy this way:

A flower grows and becomes beautiful because it is rooted in the soil where it can access the things it needs to live … if you cut the flower and put it in a vase, it will remain beautiful for a time, but it will soon decay and die.

Consider again the case of Aziz Ansari and the anonymous “Grace.” Early on in this “date,” I imagine both Grace and Ansari did their best to act the way they think ladies and gentlemen act. Even the Devil can sympathize with that. As Dostoyevsky has him say it in The Brothers Karamazov, “Above all things, I want to behave like a gentleman and to be recognized as such.” Grace and Ansari had devilishly snipped roses from the bush and pinned them on their evening wear like boutonnieres that didn’t even last the night.

Could either one of these two be so lacking in shame that they would have discussed any aspect of this date with their own great grandparents (perhaps the last generation of their respective families to have received obligations from their ancestors with every intent of passing them on)? Consider Grace, a celebrity-chaser who said she only started sending “non-verbal” signals with her naked body to end the evening after the second or third round of oral sex. Even her choice of nom de plume makes one wonder if her “date” and her published claims of victimhood are just a big stunt.

Dostoyevsky once said, “if there’s no God, then everything is permitted.” He didn’t mean that all hell would break loose the moment our lives were unmoored from faith. As Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, explained it, “he is not saying that if there’s no God then no one’s watching us and we can do what we like. He’s really asking: what’s the rationale for living this way and not otherwise? If there’s no God, then there’s no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something. If there’s no divine tune, how do you know where to go, what to do?”

Music is an apt metaphor here because the obligations of ladies and gentleman toward one another constitutes a dance that can’t be danced alone. For all her well-meaning advice, Peggy Noonan’s suggestion that men should act like gentleman even in the absence of ladies imagines the gentleman as something he’s not. In the end, these obligations are choreographed around sex oriented to conjugal union and family. To call for the return of the gentleman in the absence ladies, is like telling men (or women) to waltz alone.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we mean to have them amongst us, must learn how, in faith and family, to dance together once again.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Happy Days” painted by Frédéric Soulacroix (1858-1933).


  • J. Douglas Johnson

    J. Douglas Johnson attends All Saints Antiochian Eastern Orthodox Church in Chicago, IL. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chicagohound, or you can email him at [email protected].

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