The Collegiate Gentleman: An Honest Conversation

By Ethan White 

A month ago I was lying on my bed, collapsed after a day of class, texting a friend.  As I sat there, rolled on my side, my gaze drifted back and forth between my laptop’s screen and my phone, anticipating the next vibration that would signal the conversation had proceeded.  The topic of our discussion, which had quickly become something of an argument, was this friend’s best friend’s choice of a date that evening.  I vaguely knew the man and did not approve, a fact my friend was none too happy about.  Following my expression of disbelief that her friend would allow the man in question to take her out, the text message I received back read rather crossly, “You’re a [omitted], he’s a gentleman!”  This was a man who my friend had only become acquainted with some nights before, and I thought it rather interesting that she knew, from this brief meeting and the few interactions she had with this man, that he was deserving of such praise.

As college students, we encounter the word ‘gentleman’ and its plural form on a daily basis.  As men, our professors demand that we be gentlemen and scholars.  As women, our friends always ask if our new boyfriend is a gentleman.  Clothing companies constantly bombard us with advertisements claiming that true gentlemen wear their brand (here in the south the word “southern” can be tacked on the front of the advertisement for extra points), and every year it is inevitable that at least one fraternity’s rush shirt will claim their organization is home to the best gentlemen on campus.  To be a gentleman is the goal, and to be worthy of such a title is apparently no small task.  But what exactly does the word entail?  Is a gentleman a gentleman by his actions, manner, and speech, or does he conduct himself in a particular manner because he possesses a quality which is inseparable from being a gentleman?  The following discussion seeks to understand a truth about what it actually means to be a gentleman in modern society.  Though some points, sources, and ideas I reference may be antiquated, chivalrous, or based in a heteronormative paradigm, I would ask them to be considered for their own merits in an attempt to clear away some common misconceptions about one of the most misused words in our modern collegiate setting.

Since many of the people and businesses that readily use the buzzword in question to sell themselves, clothing, or a way of life like to draw parallels between what is gentlemanly and an overly romanticized view of the world of the historic upper class, let’s look at some historical sources of the word.  Gentry were the land-owning class of post- medieval England.  A gentleman was a man of this noble birth, though during the industrial revolution the title was gained through means of sheer wealth by the up and coming middle and upper economic classes fueled by manufacturing and profession.[i]  The word entailed someone from a good family, but not necessarily nobility.[ii]  These, however, were not the only characteristics which a gentleman was expected to possess, as a well-trained moral compass was also thought to be an important part of the role.  A passage from the second chapter of The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, written around 1860 by Cecil B. Hartley states,

“…cultivate your heart. Cherish there the Christian graces, love for the neighbor, unselfishness, charity, and gentleness, and you will be truly a gentleman; add to these the graceful forms of etiquette, and you then become a perfect gentleman.”[iii]

Hartley’s writing clearly indicates that what was thought at the time was that it was the internal qualities of a gentleman that were the fundamental distinguisher between him and the other man on the street.  These qualities were only perfected by the man being taught etiquette and social rules.

            A history lesson is nice, but how much of this is applicable to our modern day campus in the context of a modern American society? (Another passage from Hartley’s handbook states it is improper to introduce oneself to a woman at a party if not acquainted with her, but I’m not recommending any man follow this advice.)  Americans don’t have a landed gentry based upon family.  Such a system has been done away with in favor of the monetary- based meritocracy upon which our capitalistic society thrives.  In this regard, it is no longer appropriate to deem a man gentlemanly based upon an archaic pedigree of any sort, because we no longer believe it to be sufficient to prove anything about a man..  The word gentleman remains in use, however, and so it is important to determine a clear modern meaning for the word, specifically relating to what is pertinent to us, its use (and misuse) on college campuses.  Many would have us believe that gentlemen are visible by the actions they display in a public environment, the value of their clothes, or the people they associate with.  I asked my friend, a sophomore sorority woman and a lady of excellent character, for a definition of what she thought it meant to be a gentleman.  She replied, “A gentleman is a man that treats a lady with respect and makes her feel like an equal, if not better… [he is] poised, polite, and well mannered.”  Is this a definition we should be satisfied with?  I think it is an adequate starting point, but I believe that such a train of thought only encompasses a partial description of the actions a gentleman is supposed to perform.

The question that needs to be answered then is whether being a gentleman can be distinguished from one’s actions, or one’s character.  If I witness a man in the dining hall offering to take the plate of the woman next to him, I will certainly make a mental note of his good conduct, but is that enough to call him a gentleman? Hartley would answer no, but instead that it is typical to find, “in the best society, men whose polish of manner is exquisite, who will perform to the minutest point the niceties of good breeding, who never commit the least act that is forbidden by the strictest rules of etiquette.” However, this means absolutely nothing because:

“under all this mask of chivalry, gallantry, and politeness [they] will carry a cold, selfish heart; will, with a sweet smile, graceful bow, and elegant language, wound deeply the feelings of others, and while passing in society for models of courtesy and elegance of manner, be in feeling as cruel and barbarous as the veriest savage.”[iv]

It does not matter whether the man in question takes the woman’s plate a thousand times, walks giving her the high side of the sidewalk every day of the week, or follows her around opening doors for her for the rest of his life. If he does these actions with a motive other than pure respect and politeness, he is not, in fact, a gentleman, but a farce.  When we hear men described by others as gentlemen due to specific actions, this is a truth we should always have in mind.  When we hear men describing themselves or their organization as gentlemanly, boasting to great length about their own character, we should remember what Harley has to say about true courtesy, “Pride is one of the greatest obstacles to true courtesy that can be mentioned. He who assumes too much on his own merit shows that he does not understand the simplest principles of politeness.”[v]

If actions alone will not satisfy the proper bestowment of the title gentleman upon an individual, what will?  The answer to this is his own internal morality.  This is not something which is easily observed, and so may be missed without close inspection, but is essential in defining him as a true gentleman.  Hartley writes that,

“A man may be polite, really so in heart, yet show in every movement an ignorance of the rules of etiquette, and offend against the laws of society…yet you will never hear him intentionally utter one word to wound another, you will see that he habitually endeavors to make others comfortable, choosing for them the easiest seats, or the daintiest dishes, and putting self entirely aside to contribute to the pleasure of all around him.”[vi]

These are the bare essentials of what is required for a man to be a gentleman.  Instead of treating his displayed virtues and actions as a means to an end, and consequentially every person around him as a means to his own end, he acts in accordance with his internal morality, taking care not to take advantage of others or put them ill at ease. The true gentleman enforces the integrity of his own character upon himself, not because of the expectations of others, but because of his own expectations he sets for himself.  In time he will learn etiquette, perfecting his manners and learning the rules of society.  While it is important that he dress well, grooms himself, and visits affections upon his sweetheart, these are gestures which do not entitle him to be called a gentleman without his first being a moral person.

Applying this to our collegiate setting, what are the implications for a true understanding of what it means to be a gentleman?  Gentlemen are those individuals who constantly show a superior degree of morality and kindness based upon an internal passion for doing the right thing.  They push themselves to excel not because of what it will earn them, but because they love what they study, their friendly company, and their community.  They treat everyone who hasn’t wronged them in some sense with kindness and, taking a page from Kant, are careful never to use another individual as a mere means to an end.

Why is it important to make this distinction?  The word examined in this piece is undoubtedly a social buzzword, something which sparks our imagination and understanding in a way that we can’t always clearly articulate.  Because of its significance and the weight it carries, we should always be careful when using it, less we cheapen it or be tricked by its usage.  If we, as a college community, think of gentlemanly qualities as being important, we need to encourage ourselves to use the word appropriately and conscientiously.  When I use it, I want to make sure that it conveys the true weight of my description of a man’s character so that it is not just another noun.  This also means that we can’t be quick to grant the title to just any man, but to one who has consistently shown  – not only by his actions, but also by his words, writings, and undertakings – that he is a truly polite individual.

So, Rollins College, let’s raise the bar for what we expect from a man who is supposed to be a gentleman. I close with a piece of advice that I hope to be able to give to a daughter someday, if I am blessed with one:  Don’t date a man because he is a gentleman. Date him because he is funny, because he is kind, because he is handsome, any of those things, but not because you tell yourself he is a gentleman.  Stay with him when you know he’s a gentleman.

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