"WHAT CONSTITUTES A GENTLEMAN?"by John MacLaren
the PEI Magazine, May 1900
A reply to the question which heads this article was given in the following words:
"A gentleman is a being whose father was born before him and accumulated a competency. The son goes to college and spends all the money he can get, regardless of how his father got it. When he graduates the greatest knowledge he has acquired is how to dress well, play foot-ball, and the college yell. That is what constitutes the gentleman of to-day."
Another definition of a gentleman given is,
"A man with plenty of money, well educated, moving in the front rank of society, a good entertainer, good dresser, and of regular habits. Should be tall, well-built, square-shouldered; hands slender, medium size, feet of graceful shape, long and narrow; faithful in his engagements; soft and low voice; honest, sober, well cultured and of a moral disposition; surroundings of the latest; fads which must be kept in the best order."
The first definition may be regarded as the reply of a cynic; but apart from its apparent cynicism these are the only qualifications which many "beings" possess which entitle them to the sobriquet of gentleman. But if one, or both, of these be taken as the true definition, it will be at once perceived that the only things necessary to constitute a gentleman are a few showy accomplishments; that moral character and manly virtues hold a rather inconspicuous place in his make-up. Slender hands of medium size, long and narrow feet, and a well-attired, graceful form may afford gratification to some fastidious eyes, but neither these, nor to have a grandfather or father who has accumulated a competency is sufficient to constitute a gentleman, and since blood degenerates, neither the tailor nor the toilet can make a gentleman. Good clothes are not good habits.
Riches and rank, as the world knows them, are not necessarily associated with gentlemanly qualities, nor elevation of character. In general they are the cause of their corruption and degradation, "Wealth and corruption, luxury and vice, have very close affinities to each other." Silver is silver without the mint's impress. So "rank is but the guinea's stamp." The "stamp" adds nothing to its intrinsic value, it merely makes it current. So with rank in its relation to character, Titles, princely wealth, great talents, and graceful accomplishments may be desirable acquisitions, but they do not constitute their possessor a gentleman. On the other hand comparative poverty is compatible with character in its highest form.
A man may be uncouth, knowing little of social etiquette, homely and poor, yet he may belong to the uncrowned aristocracy. His face may be blackened in the forge, whitened in the mill or bronzed in the field; his hands may be large and hard; his vest may be patched, and, like Joseph's coat, it may be of many colors; his brow may be wet with honest sweat; yet, if he is upright, honest, truthful, polite, temperate, courageous, cheerful, virtuous, industrious, frugal and self-respecting, he may stand in the front rank of true manhood; he may be a gentleman.
A gentleman possesses dignity; dignity is found in labor, and there is no dignity without labor. He who looks scornfully on him who is compelled to labor, is like Hermes, who had a mouth and no hands, and yet made faces at those who fed him-mocking the fingers that brought bread to his lips. Such a one is no gentleman. Robert Burns says of his father,
"He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne'er a farthing,
For without an honest manly heart no man is worth regarding."The dandy, the well-dressed idler, is merely a dry-goods sign, nota true man, therefore not a gentleman, for his passport to "society" circles is not moral worth, honor, or virtue, but dress. A dandy is the shiniest of beings, in general has no sense, and is, as Dr. Holmes says, not good for much.
Superior intellectual culture is not necessarily related to excellence of character. Intellectual capacity, "culture" in society parlance, amounts to little, for it is sometimes found associated with the meanest moral characters, abject servility to those in high places, and arrogance towards the poor and needy. "A handful of good life," says George Herbert, "is worth a bushel of learning." Not that learning and culture are to be despised, but in order that they may attain their highest powers they must be allied to goodness. One maybe accomplished in art, literature, and science, and know nothing of honesty, truthfulness, or virtue. Hence such a one is not a gentleman. Mind without heart, intelligence without conduct, cleverness without goodness, are powers only for mischief, and we can admire them only as we admire the dexterity of a pickpocket or the horsemanship of the highwayman.
"No man," says an author, "is bound to be rich or great-no, nor to be wise; but every man is bound to be honest." "An honest man's the noblest work of God," said Alexander Pope. The honest man is not guided by expediency. "Honesty is the best policy," said Ben Franklin, and this aphorism has been lauded as "that good old maxim," "the truth of which is upheld by the daily experience of life." But the truth is, that "the daily experience of life" proves in the great majority of business transactions that honesty is directed only by policy. In the opinion of the writer such a sentiment as being honest from the low motive of policy, is vicious: for he who is honest merely because he thinks it good policy, is not more honest than the rogue who, if he does honest things, does them, not from principle, but from fear of detection and punishment. The man whose purposes, besides, being honest, are inspired by sound principles, and pursued with indeviating adherence to truth, integrity and uprightness, lives on a higher plain. Principle, and not expediency or policy, is the compass and rudder that guides a gentleman. A gentleman is a man;
"Whose armor is his honest thought,
And simple truth his utmost skill."A gentleman is never found at the street corners, in the saloon or playhouse, at the loafers' rendezvous, or on the idler' promenade; for he turns his steps in the highway of noble aims and earnest work; for he is not too lazy to work, nor too proud to be poor. He is willing to eat only what he has earned and wear what he has paid for.
"Lies are an ugly soot from the smoke of the pit," says Ruskin,
"and it were better that our hearts should be swept clean of them,
without our care as to which is largest or blackest."
Lying, in all its various forms, is loathsome to every pure minded man; therefore no gentleman permits a lie to pass his lips. A gentleman speaks as he thinks, believes as he pretends, acts as he professes, and performs his promises. His word is his bond. Duplicity of life is quite as bad as verbal falsehood, for actions speak as loud as words.
A gentleman is never found just on the verge of truth. Diplomacy, expediency, mental reservation, equivocation, moral dodging, twisting a statement so as to convey a false impression, a serpent-wise shirking of the truth and getting out of moral back-doors in order to hide ones real opinions, are all different forms of lying; a kind which a Frenchman once described as "walking round about the truth."
A gentleman never wears the name, Mr. Facing-both-ways. He divests himself of all prejudices, sophistry, subterfuge, chicanery, and disquise. He represents things as they are. A man is untruthful when he makes pretensions to what he is not, when he assumes merits which he does not possess. Truth is the manliest of virtues; it is a chief stone in the foundation of all true manliness and personal excellence. A gentleman is always himself. If one attempts to deceive others by an exterior which is affected, he should remember that no one is more easily deceived than the deceiver.Truthfulness of character is a virtue which compels even an enemy to respect its possessor. Virtues are admired even by those who do not pratice them, and firmness of principle will ever command the enconiums of the intelligent. Sterling worth, genuine character, may be misrepresented by some-the envious and the malicious, -and misunderstood by others, -the indifferent, the unreflecting; so that in the event of their possessor failing to inspire the confidence which he really merits, he has at least the paramount satisfaction of having an approving conscience. The man who puts conscience above advantage will adopt the words of Henry Clay,-"I would rather be right than be President." Such a man avoids all base, servile, underhand, sneaking ways; he will rather part with anything than with integrity and conscious rectitude; he does not employ duplicity and call it shrewdness; nor wrong-heartedness, and call it long-headedness; he never seeks to obtain or bolster himself up in a position to which he is not entitled. His is not the feeling of the grasping; of one who cares for no one but himself, and whose motto is- "Each man for himself, and bad luck take the hindermost." He needs no hypocrisy, for his soul is sincere; only the hollowness of a false soul requires such gilding. Integrity is a chief in the foundation of all that is high in character. Only the low-minded and unprincipled will sell themselves. A gentleman is never for sale; he cannot be bribed; his conscience is as steady as the needle to the pole. Man, as the world looks upon him, is rated by his gold or influence; but a gentleman permits no such low estimate of his character.
A gentleman is possessed of inflexible integrity; he neither panders to prejudice nor courts "popularity." If what he conceives to be his duty pleases others, he is pleased; but if his opinions or acts do not meet with popular favor, he yet holds to his high purpose through good and through evil report, even at the risk of loss of position or influence, if he commands either. The penalty attached to adherence to duty may be, and very often is, loss of "popularity;" yet the true man's watch-word will ever be duty.
A man of character, a gentleman, has a keen sense of honor, and acts upon it. He is conscientious. He scrupulously avoids mean actions. His conscience goes into his words, actions and thoughts. His greatest treasure is a stainless life, which he is bequeathing to his country and his age- "A model for the nation to form itself by in all time to come." Intellect, skill, and genius are worth possessing; but honor, integrity, truthfulness, goodness which are the essence of manly character; a clear sense of duty, and the consciousness of having done one's duty, constitute nobility of character. The spirit of duty is a commanding element in character and imparts to it vigor, unity and compactness. Duty is based on a sense of justice. "Duty is not a sentiment, but a principle pervading the life." An abiding sense of duty, is the very crown of character. It injures no one, and does full justice to all. A high and honorable resolve inspires every gentleman. His determination is that of the old Danish hero- "to dare nobly, to will strongly, and never to falter in the path of duty."
A man of principle, a gentleman, is he whose conscience is his guide to duty; who scorns to take a short cut to success; and rather than do a base act would willingly act on the admonition of Heinzelman,-
"Be and continue poor, young man, while others around you grow rich by fraud
and disloyalty; be without place or power, while others beg their way upward; bear
the pain of disappointed hopes, while others gain the accomplishment of theirs by
flattery; forego the gracious pressure of the hand for which others cringe and crawl.
Wrap yourself in your own virtue, and seek a friend and your daily bread.The name of Socrates has become a moral theme for schoolboys and rhetoricians; that enchanting "cup of hemlock" is constantly held up before us that it may produce some magical effect; but from the obdurate nature of fallen humanity it seems a failure as a moral influence. For there are weak-minded, sour, crabbed, detestable men, who are never so happy as when nursing an old grudge; they bristle up, snap, snarl, and dig up bitterness because of some financial wrong; they make the worst of everything, giving vent to petty revenge, gratifying their fiendish spirit, pour the vials of their vengeance on the person whom they dislike. They are veritable porcupines. There is, however, one consolation-such people die some time, and that is the best thing they do. A gentleman is a stranger to such vices.
If you have in your own cause grown gray with unblemished hopes, bless God, and die!"
"Gentleman, Do noble things, not dream them, all day long,
And so make life, death, and that vast forever, one grand, sweet song."Self-respect is the noble garment with which a gentleman clothes himself, for this virtue tends to suppress the evil and to evoke the good elements in his nature.
A gentleman is not of the milk-and-water type of character; he is a man of decision. "There is," says Hazlitt, "nothing more to be estemmed than a manly firmness and decision of character. I like a person who knows his own mind and sticks to it; who sees at once what, in given circumstances is to be done, and does it." Says Gilpin,-
"I hate to see things done by halves. If it is right, do it boldly; if it is wrong leave it undone."A gentleman is never a vacillating demagogue or trimmer. A gentleman has true charity; he is slow to take offence and endeavors to put a favorable construction on other's faults and failings. A spirit of kindness and goodwill animates his breast. He is magnanimous. In the spirit of the poet he sings.
"I will not willingly offend, Nor be soon offended;
What's amiss I'll strive to mend, And bear what can't be mended."We must not, however, confound charity with imbecility of character which some people take for gentleness and kindness. Imbecility of character is a fungus, devoid of solidity, and is to be despised. Character is power, not weakness. A gentleman is gentle, but gentleness is not timidity. Timidity is a deformity; fear is repulsive. Courage is graceful and dignified and resides within the breast of every true man.
A gentleman possesses self-control. This is a virtue which forms a chief distinction between man and the mere animal, between a physical and a moral life,- a distinction which forms the primary basis of individual character. Social courtesies should emanate from the heart. Their worth consists in their being the sincere expressions of the inner feelings. Modesty and politeness are attributes of every gentleman; modesty never parades itself; but he who assumes airs of importance exhibits his credentials of insignificance; he puts on politeness only when he pays a complimentary visit; and being so unaccustomed to wear it, he generally makes himself ridiculous.
A gentleman is conspicuous for his cheerful disposition. By this I do not mean the ability or the disposition to excite hilarious mirth; nor do I mean the man who is all smiles and who never frowns; who for cheerfulness presents only a sickly sentimentality,- but him who has sunshine in the heart.
"A gentleman is a human being combining a woman's tenderness with a man's courage."He is a true man; no more, no less; a man who possesses excellence of character. A gentleman is gentle, modest, courteous; slow to surmise evil, and one who never thinks it; a man faithful in all the ordinary duties of life, steadfast in frienship, moderate to his enemy, true to his word, strong in heart and rich in spirit. If he shows one a favor, he does not regard the act as a condescension on his part. He subjects his appetites, refines his tastes, subdues his feelings, controls his speech, is of clean lips, and deems everyman as good as himself.
A gentleman is one whose nature has been fashioned after the highest models; whose essential attributes do not depend on fashion or manners, but on moral worth,- not on personal possessions, but on personal qualities. He is one "that walketh uprightly and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart."
A gentleman values his character, and just so much does he respect that of others. He never profanes his powers by employing them for ignoble purposes. He neither prevaricates, shuffles, dodges, nor skulks. When he says yes, it is law; when he says no, he means it. He acts upon the belief that character is the best capital; that capital is not what a man has, but what he is; that character is made up of small duties faithfully performed. In brief, a man- not a mere male specimen of the genus homo, but- a gentleman, is one whose character is not short in measure or weight, but which measures thirty-six inches to the yard and weighs sixteen ounces to the pound every time it is measured or weighed. One may possess many sterling qualities not enumerated here; but if he can truthfully claim as his those mentioned, he is, in the opinion of the writer, a gentleman.
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