Three Square Males
The Compleat Gentleman by Brad Miner
The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry
reviewed by Jeff McAlister
Though the term “gentleman” is encountered these days mostly as a label on a public restroom door, Brad Miner aspires to educate the twenty-first-century man in an older, more elevated, more powerful, and more inspiring ideal of life. “There have always been,” observes Miner, a former literary editor at National Review, “two senses of the word itself: the fine man of high birth and the fine man of good character. And the latter has always been the more important.”
Borrowing the title of a seventeenth-century English work, the author seeks to trace, in part, the genealogy of the gentleman (which dates at least from the twelfth century and the traditions of knighthood), to focus on his attributes, and to explore the relevance of the gentlemanly ideal for the present age.
In the early sixteenth century, Baldesare Castiglione’s The Courtier sought to define the ultimate courtier or gentleman. The book takes the form of a dialogue at the court of the duke of Urbino, and, after much debate, the participants decide that what matters about a gentleman is his virtues rather than his birth.
He must also possess sprezzatura, a certain “art of concealment.” Miner elaborates: “from the Renaissance forward the gentleman’s grace, his ability to deport himself with a kind of effortlessness, has been considered fundamental. A man’s character must be—or seem to be— organic, if you will. There must be no artless pretension.” The indispensable sprezzatura is a concept Miner will return to more than once in the course of the book.
The heart of the book consists in Miner’s presentation of three archetypes, or rather three aspects, of the “compleat gentleman”: the warrior, the lover, and the monk. He devotes a separate chapter to each.
As a warrior, the gentleman believes there are things worth dying for; with Epictetus, he agrees that “it is better to die of hunger, exempt from fear and guilt, than to live in affluence with perturbation.” He knows that in a fallen world there will be conflict, and therefore he must be among those ready to fight when the occasion arises. Like the Boy Scouts, his motto is “Be prepared.” Above all, when death approaches, the warrior will accept it with courage and grace. Miner finds contemporary examples of the warrior-spirit in the Scouts and at West Point and other military academies.
The author’s discussion of the gentleman-as-lover is intriguing. Courtly love, or fin amour, complements the martial aspect of chivalry, and is credited with bringing romance into Western culture, thus taming male sexual aggressiveness. It was a sort of game in which a man beset and attempted to take a lady, one who was married and thus already spoken for; a perilous test in the course of an ongoing education.
It was also, as C. S. Lewis and others have pointed out, a kind of adultery, though physical adultery incurred severe penalties in the twelfth century A.D., when the troubadours and literary chroniclers of courtly love flourished. Since, according to Miner, medieval marriages were “frequently loveless,” the mystique of fin amour, tempered by Christian mores, which vanquished the adulterous element, helped to instill a newfound respect for women in society.
This positive aspect found expression in the practice of courting, “that lovely, languid dance of a man and a woman preparing themselves for marriage,” but Miner laments that there isn’t a lot of courting these days, thanks to Kinsey, Hugh Hefner, et al. Be that as it may, the gentleman-as-lover will always treat his lady with respect, and this goes far beyond holding the door open for her.
As regards the monk, the reader may wonder what he has to do with the compleat gentleman. We often associate the monastic life with isolation, and our compleat gentleman is something of a man of the world (though not “worldly” in a base sense).
Miner points out that many who lead cloistered lives are at ease with most people and in most situations. A gentleman is inherently monklike in that he lives under a dispensation of principles, and, also like the monk, is “dedicated to the virtue of goodness.” The compleat gentleman benefits not only from the monk’s near-Stoic reserve, but also from the traditions of liberal education that were championed and preserved by the monasteries in the Middle Ages.
When discussing the historical evolution of knighthood and chivalry, Miner confesses that the reality fell far too short of the ideal. But by keeping the ideal before us, and striving toward it, we affirm its indispensability to the good life. For reminding us of these things, Miner deserves our thanks.
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