The Death of gentlemanliness

gentleman (ˈdʒɛnt ə lmən)
n , pl -men
1. a man regarded as having qualities of refinement associated with a good family
2. a man who is cultured, courteous, and well-educated
3. a polite name for a man
— From Dictionary.com

Consider this question: When is the last time you met a gentleman? A gentleman under 40? A gentleman under 30? Is it just me, or are true gentlemen getting harder to find? And, for that matter, why is the phrase “true gentleman” so common these days? I suspect it’s because of the latter definition; “a polite name for a man.” The term may be applied to men frequently, but less and less frequently does it actually fit.

A few caveats before I go any farther with this. First of all, I don’t consider myself a gentleman, though I aspire to it. I am insufficiently refined, and I’m too insecure and self-absorbed to be truly courteous. Second, I’m not really using “gentleman” solely regarding men. The term “lady” can be used interchangeably with “gentleman” in what I’m about to say (and if you look it up, the definitions are largely interchangeable, too).

Now then. I believe that gentlemen are a dying breed. While our culture used to foster, support, and celebrate gentlemen, that is a thing of the past. That a person may become well-educated, it is true. The same could perhaps be said for cultured: “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.” But there is no getting around the general lack of courtesy in our society.

What is more, those three qualities are increasingly hard to find together. The educated and cultured today are often every bit as vulgar, mean-spirited, and base as the poorly-educated and uncultured. One need look no further than politics in this country for evidence. Some of the most highly educated and cultured persons in our country are collected in Washington, yet the level of behavior and discourse there is anything but courteous.

Why is this? Because our society no longer values the qualities of gentlemanliness. While the level of education in this country is quite probably at the highest level in American history, it is probably valued the least. A college degree is now seen as the means to an end, a meal ticket, a qualification on the resume. This is supported by a recent study that suggests that 36% of college students don’t learn anything in four years.

Culture is also suffering. Popular culture is dominant, while high culture is seen as largely the purview of the elite–and even then decreasingly so. From Obama’s “Beer Summit” to dot.com billionaires buying sports teams, low-brow culture is “in”, while the “arts” have largely been taken over by the elite and further intellectualized to the point of incomprehensibility to the average American. “Arts, letters, manners, and scholarly pursuits” are hard enough to find individually in people any more, let alone all four at once.

Courtesy, needless to say, is all but dead. Our public discourse has largely degenerated to a shouting match. Very little is held sacred. Respect and consideration are taken as weakness; a sign that someone can be interrupted, intimidated, and ignored. Once-common terms of address like Sir, Ma’am, Mr. or Mrs., Mother or Father, have been pushed aside in favor of first names for everyone, by everyone. And nearly every political dialogue (if it can be called such anymore) invariably begins with the assumption that the person on the other side of the issue, by nature of being on the other side, must be an idiot with the most malevolent motivations possible.

It didn’t use to be this way, but I fear it is irretrievably so now. There are still gentlemen out there, but they are becoming rare. That they exist at all is practically miraculous considering the lack of a hospitable society from which to develop. Any gentlemen out there exist more by careful upbringing (see the first definition) and strength of both character and will than by any support from our culture.

It’s a pity, but all is not yet lost.

What do you think? Has the gentleman gone the way of the dodo or chivalry? Weigh in in the comments!

the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.