Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What Makes a Good Gentleman

In the preface to Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis mourns a change he observed in the use of the word “gentleman.” No longer using the term to refer to a person of a well-defined class, some people in Lewis’s time apparently called a person a “gentleman” if he behaved in a praiseworthy manner. The problem, Lewis argues, is that such a definition makes the word useless; it moves “gentleman” from the objective realm to that of the subjective, and applies it to a situation for which we already have words. While it’s difficult for an American to appreciate the issue, Lewis says it’s much better to let the word remain as a reference to a man of certain property holdings and, if he misbehaves, call him a “bad gentleman.”

Implied in that argument is that to be a good gentleman requires both the right breeding and the right behavior. In The City of God, Augustine adds a third ingredient. In book XI, he says that to be good at anything (“anything” presumably including being a gentleman), one needs ability, education, and practice. In parallel passages, he uses the terms power, knowledge, and purpose. It seems obvious to me. I will never be able to type quickly because I don’t have the right fingers. I can’t speak Mandarin because, although I have the tongue and lips required, I don’t have the knowledge. And I can’t speak Italian well because, while I learned some before spending a semester in Italy, I haven’t put what little I know it into practice for over a year.

Imagine what Plato’s dialogs would have been like if Socrates had thought along these lines. He wouldn’t have said over and over that someone knowing what’s right will do it. After all, what if this educated person hasn’t practiced doing the right thing? What if she doesn’t even have the natural or spiritual ability to do the right thing? Where would drug education or “safe” sex education in this country be if the Emma Pillsburies of the world knew students needed power and purpose in addition to the “facts” printed in their cliché-ridden posters and brochures?

Having just read these passages in Lewis and Augustine the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking about ability, education, and practice a lot. And Jane Austen made me really happy by chiming in to the conversation with certain passages in Pride and Prejudice that resonate with Augustine’s trifold analysis. Darcy feels shame at Lady Catherine’s “ill-breeding,” suggesting that, even supposing titles truly indicate a natural aptitude (element no. 1) for virtuous action, aptitude will atrophy without practice (element no. 3). But, of course, Austen doesn’t believe that only aristocrats have noble natures, since her most sympathetic characters almost always reside in the middle class. P & P deals with education (element no. 2) in its picture of the Bennett girls. The narrator calls Elizabeth’s youngest sisters “silly and ignorant.” Since they inherit the same natural ability from their parents that Elizabeth does, their silliness can only be blamed on their lack of education. And Elizabeth says that the girls were all urged to read and that “such of us as wished to learn” could do so easily. So the younger siblings’ ignorance might be blamed on their failure to put into practice their father’s instructions. On the flip side, both Mary and Mr Collins have all the education one could want and end up intolerable prigs.

In my previous post, I said that Jane Austen didn’t seem like a Radical although she indulged in various forms of moderate subversion. But by making natural aptitude independent of pedigree and by demonstrating that virtue requires nurture and practice in addition to nature, she puts a powder keg under the intrenched class system’s insistence that blood will surely tell.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought that the silliest of CS Lewis's beliefs was that the morphing of language was somehow bad. Language has always changed, and always will changed, based on the needs of those who speak it. The languages which change the least are like Greek--the individual words can be interpreted in many different ways anyway, so they tend to keep fitting the changing needs of their society.