Reviving the Gentleman

Conservatives long to recapture “the ideal of a gentleman.” But is this another example of cheap moralizing and lamenting the good days gone by? Do they themselves really understand what they aim to recover?

Aaron Renn thinks not. In The Masculinist, he argues that today’s nostalgia for the gentleman ignores the historical context which made the concept possible. Instead, promoters “cherry pick” the safe bits that will not incur the wrath of today’s PC sensibilities—specifically, the hierarchical values and corollary strictures for women.  

What conservatives demand is men with physical courage but not moral courage, something they themselves often lack. They yearn for, in effect, a vulgar, ahistorical chivalry, where men are disposable and women are not only honored and protected but entitled to set their own rules, change them at whim, and remain off-limits to criticism.

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Yet none of this discredits the gentleman himself or his importance for our time.

Renn points out that the ideal arose in a specifically English context (though he focuses on the exported American version). It is not even clear that the word “gentleman” has equivalents with the same connotations in other languages.  (Gentilhomme carries different ones and is rarely used.)  

Borrowing from sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, Renn argues that the Victorian WASP upper class set a standard that filtered down to lower social ranks. The decline of this elite meant the loss of the type it embodied.

So if the WASP establishment is finished, is the gentleman with it?  

I believe we have little choice but to revive it, because correctly understood, it is a defining feature of our civilization. It was not merely a social code but an ethic of self-governing that set apart the Anglophone nations as history’s most successful. But I agree, we must recover the real thing and not some bowdlerized trappings acceptable to today’s political class.

“The rules of gentlemanly behavior have been historically defined by the upper class,” writes Renn, and “to be a gentleman was to have a certain social status.”  

But that class did not always have undisputed supremacy. Moreover, its code of conduct helped achieve its hegemony as much as the reverse. If it became a ruling “establishment,” that was only after victory over competitors. While the ideal may have reached its apogee in Victorian England, it did not begin there. Baltzell/Renn acknowledge that American WASP supremacy lasted a mere 40-50 years, hardly epitomizing a model of manhood that had been developing since the Middle Ages and did not depend for its authority upon the Philadelphia Club.

Originally, the term was indeed inextricable from its namesake class, the gentry: that large, mostly untitled stratum below the peerage that for centuries ran the English shires, unpaid. It was the class that refined the English Constitution during the seventeenth-century English Revolutions, and their second sons in Virginia at least continued with the American.  

But this class-identification was under constant challenge from those who found fault with the moral conduct of the upper classes and sought to inject ethics into the definition. The novels of nineteenth-century England make this clear. But they were not the first.

If the code reinforced class distinctions, as Marxists claim, it also challenged them and rendered them more permeable in England than elsewhere. Guidebooks instructed parvenues how to enter —not easily perhaps, but eventually. With antecedents in medieval “courtesy” books, they came largely out of the Renaissance. From the start in Italy, it was a code for ruling, as indicated by those two atypical and un-English authorities, Castiglione and Machiavelli. The English modified what they imported, notably in Thomas Elyot’s The Book of the Governor (1531), which was likewise a manual for statesmen. Popular versions by Henry Peacham (1622), Richard Brathwait (1631), and others toned down the statecraft, but it remained implicit.  

But the sharpest challenge to the upper-class monopoly—and the most widespread popularization—came with the Reformation. Renn dismisses the suggestion that gentlemanly behavior is specifically Christian because the Victorian version exhibited non-Christian features.  But it was a Christian impulse to elevate the population using virtues unlocked by the Renaissance and especially the Reformation.

The definition of “honor” was a principal target, which was transformed from a status into an ethic by those who were also responsible for transferring it to America: the Puritans. They devolved divine-right rule from the monarch to lesser officials and then to others, employing a theology that required people to prove themselves worthy of the divine image. Acting on a sophisticated social psychology that understood the connection between social insecurity and moral crisis, they appealed to fears of downward mobility among the gentry and others to instill in them the habits of not just civilized comportment but also conscientious self-government.  

If the modern American version was “WASP,” this was why. While broadly upper class, that class was not monolithic. The Puritans were driven to America because the populist potential was feared by an Anglican establishment anxious to preserve even more exclusively “WASP” values. (And logically, Anglican Virginia figures little in Baltzell’s/Renn’s American establishment.)

Another sociologist, Max Weber, recognized the Puritan campaign to base self-rule on “self-control”: 

This active self-control, which formed…the cool reserve of its adherents…can be seen [in] that respect for quiet self-control which still distinguishes the best type of English or American gentleman today.… The Puritan…tried to enable a man to maintain and act upon his constant motives…against the emotions.… The end of this asceticism was…the destruction of spontaneous, impulsive enjoyment, the most important means was to bring order into the conduct of its adherents.

The gentleman can be resuscitated because his identification with a specific class was never unconditional. Throughout his history, he was a product of recurring challenges to the complacency, both social and moral, of his class. This is what rendered the English ruling class an “open elite”: stable and resilient because it was renewable.

But Renn’s critique involves the content as well as context of what conservatives propose to revive—specifically its exclusiveness to men at a time when even conservatives fear to endorse such notions. What we are offered, therefore, is an emasculated version: platitudes urging niceness and extolling self-sacrifice, but with less-PC imperatives like strength prudently excised.  

The result, Renn argues, is a code for losers, turning men into sacrificial lambs rather than battlefield champions. “No wonder today’s men are rightly telling these conservatives, ‘No thanks.’” 

Indeed, the artificiality of the enterprise may be gleaned from the way this updated gentleman cannot be exemplified by real men confronting today’s actual challenges but only embodied in fictional television characters from the past, like Ward Cleaver.

Those offended by the code’s decidedly masculine reference point have never been satisfied by its imperative to honor women. Even less do they acknowledge corollary rules governing women’s own conduct.

Thus, while men are scolded for allowing their eyes to wander, the corollary rule that women who dress immodestly in public are insulting the men they accompany (and everyone else) is belied by common experience. The notion that a gentleman should enforce such standards from the women in his life is now too laughable to be entertained, with even his daughters largely “liberated.”  

Likewise absent is the imperative that men sacrifice not only for women but also for one another and for larger principles like justice. Male camaraderie is essential to masculine undertakings like military engagement, where danger and hardship demand cooperation rather than competition. But male solidarity is now denigrated. Indeed, the pundits themselves seem perfectly willing to sacrifice other men for their cheapened gallantry, while they themselves refrain from risking unpopularity by “say[ing] anything that would get them in trouble with the ladies.”

Renn has fun showing the effeminacy of conservatism’s he-pundits, especially Christian ones.  David French needs sympathy because people criticize him. The ever-frightened Rod Dreher extols passivity and withdrawal as virtues. 

But this reflects more serious problems with today’s feminized conservatism, entailing potentially grave practical consequences.

Nowhere is conservative myopia on masculinity more contradictory than in its illogic about fatherhood. Waxing eloquent about serious social ills and financial costs inflicted by millions of out-of-control fatherless children, conservatives then endorse Leftist policies that created and worsen the problem. Indeed, to avoid facing inconvenient truths, conservatives promote communists who support same-sex marriage to positions where they set the terms of family policy. Meanwhile, they vilify men who risk and sacrifice to protect their own flesh-and-blood and belittle those who speak for them.

Throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, we heard endless bemoaning over a supposed lack of “responsible fatherhood” and scolding fathers for “abandoning their children,” though no evidence indicated they were. Fathers whose children were confiscated through literally “no fault” of their own and who undertook truly heroic risks to rescue them from government apparatchiks were not only ignored but viciously attacked by armchair moralists who misunderstand the problem and its dangers. The moralizers included presidents themselves and politicians who used their public offices to attack private citizens who had no platforms to defend themselves. Conservative journalists and scholars who wrote about it lost their jobs.

Now we all may pay the price for cheap morality at others’ expense. Some of the vilified heroes might have been positioned to protect today’s children from the latest government plans to confiscate them using new rationalizations devised by the same functionaries who confiscate them from their fathers. It is hard to comprehend the multiple ways our society suffers because of devalued masculinity and conservatives who profess to rectify but more likely personify it.

Renn calls the conservatives’ neutered gentleman “warped” and says “we’re fully justified in rejecting” him. I will go further: What they are offering is so far removed from true gentlemanly comportment that the offer itself reveals the opposite: ingratiation and cowardice.  

Under the guise of reviving the gentlemanly code, conservatives risk propagating its caricature: a political version of the dandy and fop—possessing the aesthetic trappings of a gentlemen without the ethical substance.  

Given that TV characters seem to establish our standards, we may risk incarnating not Ward Cleaver but Frank Burns, the buffoon from the liberal film and television series MASH, who spouts right-wing bravado but is always the first to run away.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


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