Rules for Being a Gentleman | The Art of Manhood

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, creators of the motivational hardcover book Evergreen: 50 Inspirational Life Lessons. Purchase your copy today at InspirationalLifeLessons.com. Today’s reading was edited and adapted from On the Threshold by Theodore Thornton Munger, published in 1908.

Every man should desire above all else to be regarded as a gentleman. There once was a time when the greatest offense you could levy on man was to call him not a gentleman. But today we struggle to even understand what the term gentleman means. So today we will search it with definitions. The word gentleman undoubtedly comes from the Latin gens, meaning tribe or family — hence all the one-sided and incomplete notions that a gentleman is a man of family.

It is a good thing to born into a loving family, with inherited tastes and traditions; but birth does not make the gentleman. The writer Julius Hare famously said that a gentleman should be gentle in everything; at least in everything that depends upon himself — in carriage, temper, construction, aims, desires. He ought, there- fore, to be mild, calm, quiet, temperate; not hasty in judgment, not exorbitant in ambition, not overbearing, not proud, not rapacious, not oppressive.

Other classic writers describe the gentleman as possessing a character that is distinguished by strict honor, self-possession, forbearance, generous as well as refined feelings, and polished deportment — a character to which all meanness, explosive irritability, and peevish fretfulness are alien; to which, consequently, a generous candor, truthfulness, dignity, and self-respect have become natural.

The gentleman is never unduly familiar; takes no liberties; is cautious of questions; is neither artificial nor affected; bears himself tenderly towards the weak and unprotected; is not arrogant; cannot be supercilious; can be self-denying without struggle; is not vain of his advantages; habitually subordinates his lower to his higher self; is (in his best condition) electric with truth, buoyant with veracity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who writes on the theme with keenest inward sympathy, as well as discrimination, says: “The gentleman is a man of truth, lord of his own actions, and expresses that lordship in his behavior; not in any manner dependent and subservient to persons, or opinions, or possessions.” Beyond this fact of truth and real force, the word gentleman denotes good nature or benevolence — manhood first, and then gentleness.

Sir Philip Sidney — who was considered an ideal gentleman — put the whole matter into one pregnant phrase: “High thoughts seated in a heart of courtesy.”

You will notice that in these descriptions of a gentleman the moral element predominates; not family, nor station, nor manners, but qualities. They do, indeed, take on and draw after them external forms (for the inside and the outside must at last be alike); but the essential condition (that which makes one a gentleman) is moral qualities.

Following this unanimous hint, I will now try to get these qualities into some order.

Number 1. Truth. One who well-knew described a perfect man as someone who (quote) “speaketh the truth in his heart” — inward truthfulness, outward veracity; this goes before all else in making up the gentleman.

Calvert says: “A gentleman may brush his own shoes or clothes, or mend or make them, or roughen his hands with tools, or foul them with dye-work or iron-work; but he must not foul his mouth with a lie.” A lie makes relations impossible. When two persons meet, there can be no true conversation unless it is thoroughly understood that each is himself: “I am I, and you are you; I say what is true, and I believe that you say what is true.” This is the foundation of all human intercourse.

Nor can a man long be himself who does not speak the truth. He duplicates and reduplicates himself, loses all sense of personality, and becomes a mere phenomenon, flickering among men with a false light, trusted by none, and at last is lost even to himself — for a liar finally ceases to believe himself; his memory, judgment, and, even senses, fail to bring him true reports.

There is no girdle that will hold a man together and make him a person but the truth. And so it enters fundamentally into the highest type of personal character. Among those who wear the title of gentleman, it takes precedence before all else, even kingly dignity. When Nicholas of Russia desired to assure the English ambassador that he was speaking the truth, he said, “I desire to speak with you as a gentleman.”

The reason that some occupations traditionally exclude those following them from the rank of gentleman is because they foster lying. In certain forms of trade, where the values are unknown, or variable, or obscure, the temptation to lie is so strong that it becomes nearly universal, and those following such callings are presumed to be unworthy of the society of gentlemen.

A gentleman not only speaks the truth, but is truthful in bearing. “He never dodges,” says Emerson. He looks squarely at person or thing, because he proposes to see things and persons as they are. And being attuned to truth within, his voice will have the pitch of truth; the very poise of his body and sway of his members will have a certain directness born of truth.

Number 2. Kindness of heart — “The willingness and faculty to oblige,” as Emerson calls it. If one has not this, he may step aside. If truth is the foundation of good manners, kindness is the superstructure (that which most appears, and which constitutes them).

The phraseology of polite society is expressive of love and interest. We begin letters with a term of endearment, and we used to end them with an assurance of humble service. Those were fine old every-day words — now used too little — “I am at your service,” “What are your commands?”

The gentleman exists to help; he has no other vocation. If you desire to cultivate yourselves in this matter, let your work be in this direction. A spirit of universal good-will, a generous heart, and an open hand — be strong in these, and you may claim this badge of highest nobility. But if you are exclusive, if you lack heart, if your hand is kept closed except when pried open by shame or stout appeal, if you go about in a spirit of caution and reserve and secret disdain of all but your social set, you are out of the high category of gentleman; neither money, birth, nor sleekness can smuggle you in.

Number 3. Honor. If truth is the foundation and kindness is the superstructure of the gentleman, honor is his atmosphere — a hard thing to define, but a very real thing as we see it, or the lack of it. It is akin to truth, but is more — its aroma, its flower, its soul. It is that which makes a gentleman’s word as good as his bond. We get its exact meaning when it is used in connection with female virtue.

Honor is an absolute and ultimate thing, and may be defined as an exquisite and imperative self-respect. It knows nothing of abatement, or change, or degree. It governs with a noble and inexorable necessity. The man of honor dies sooner than break its lightest behest. To those who do not know it, it is less than the summer cloud; to those who have it, adamantine is not so solid.

Unhappy is he who comes to years of manhood and finds it weak and dull; unhappier still is he who has lost it by some deliberate act. He can never again be quite the same man. Tarnished honor in man is the one stain that cannot be washed out.

Number 4. Next up we put delicacy — fineness of fibre. It is made up of quick perception and fine feeling. It leads one to see instantly the line beyond which he may not go; to detect the boundary between friendliness and familiarity, between earnestness and heat, between sincerity and intolerance in pressing your convictions, between style and fussiness, between deference and its excess.

Delicacy is the critic and mentor of the gentleman. It tells him what is coarse and unseemly and rude and excessive. It warns him away from all doubtful acts and persons. It gives little or no reason (it is too fine for analysis and logical process) but acts like a divine instinct, and is to be heeded as divine.

A man may be good without it, but he will lack a nameless grace; he will fail of highest respect; he will miss the best companionship; he will make blunders that hurt him without his knowing why; he will feel a reproach that he cannot understand. It is this quality of delicacy, more than any other, that draws the line in what is called good society.

Delicacy is what guides in matters of dress, the length and frequency of visits; it discriminates between the shadow and substance in all matters of etiquette. It determines the nature and number of questions one may ask of another, and sees everywhere and always the invisible boundary that invests personality.

Number 5. Respect and consideration for others — something more than kindness and less ethereal than delicacy, but entering quite as largely and imperatively into the every-day life of the gentleman — to consider tenderly the feelings, opinions, circumstances, of others.

One imbued with this high quality never sees personal deformity or blemish. A lame man could easily classify his friends as to their refinement by drawing a line between those who ask how it happened, and those who refrain from all question. I say distinctly, the gentleman never sees deformity. He will not talk to a beggar of his rags, nor boast of his health before the sick, nor speak of his wealth among the poor; he will not seem to be fortunate among the hapless, nor make any show of his virtue before the vicious. He will avoid all painful contrast, always looking at the thing in question from the standpoint of the other person.

The gentleman is largely endowed with forbearance. There is no finer touchstone of the gentleman than the restrained use of power or advantage over another: the employer to his staff, the husband to his wife, the creditor to his debtor, the rich to the poor, the educated to the ignorant, the teacher to pupil, the prosperous to the unfortunate. “Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannical to use it like a giant.”

Number 6. How far manners are to be made a matter of rule, is a question you will inevitably ask. From within out — is the fundamental law; still there is an external view of the subject quite worth heeding. There is a certain fine robustness of character that is prone to pay little heed to the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” of society; and there is a certain spirituality that says, “I will make my own rules.”

There is much truth in both positions, but it is delicate ground to tread on; one needs to be sure-footed and quick-eyed, to avoid falls. Upon the whole, and for most of us, it is better that there should be a code of social laws, well understood and rather carefully observed; at least, one should always have them at hand, ready for use.

There are many things that help to make life easy and agreeable which are not taught by intuition. Nor could we live together in mutual convenience unless we agreed upon certain arbitrary rules as to daily intercourse. If it is well to have these common habits and interchanges of courtesy, it is well to have them in the best form, even to meticulousness.

Without a doubt, what are called the manners of society are not only a part of being a gentleman, but they are extremely convenient. I am not about to indicate these rules, but I may suggest that in all matters of dress, of care of the person, of carriage, of command of the features and voice and eyes, and of what are called the ways of good society, it is of great use to be well informed.

Such manners will not take you one step on the way, but they will smooth it, and the lack of them may block it altogether. Your main focus must be on the things we have already considered. If you are centrally true, kind, honorable, delicate, and considerate, you will almost without fail have manners that will take you into any circle where culture and success prevail over folly.

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