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Gentlemanliness and Virtue

Every Catholic parent of boys hopes their sons will grow up to be gentlemen. The world is coarse and cruel; a restoration of the gentlemanly ethos is desperately needed. This is a truth even secular culture has begun to recognize as people increasingly ask, “Where have all the good men gone?”

There is no lack of articles online about gentlemanliness and how to be a gentleman. I did a quick search and turned up scores of posts with titles like “20 Habits of a Gentleman,” “100 Ways to Be a Gentleman,” “Become a Gentleman in 10 Easy Steps,” and so on. The sheer quantity of this content suggests there is a lot of interest these days in the restoration of gentlemanliness.

Unfortunately, most of these articles only go skin deep. They will give advice like holding doors open for people, walking on the curbside when you’re with a lady, and pulling a woman’s chair out for her. These are certainly all good and wholesome behaviors, but we don’t want to reduce gentlemanliness to an etiquette checklist. There’s much more to gentlemanliness than just holding doors and moving chairs. Let’s dig into this a bit deeper into the issue of gentlemanliness and how we can cultivate it in our boys.

Gentlemanliness Reflects Virtue

Good etiquette is certainly part of being a gentleman, but it is ancillary. Being a gentleman is first something a man is, not something he does. Gentlemanliness is nothing other than virtue manifested in a man’s social interactions. It is what magnanimity, patience, or fortitude look like as exercised in a social context. As virtue is a quality of the soul, so gentlemanliness is fundamentally about a man’s character. Gentlemanliness reflects virtue and flows from it.

In his famous book The Seven Storey Mountain, Trappist author Thomas Merton recounts his youth in England and how young boys were taught the connection between the virtue of charity and gentlemanliness by reading 1 Corinthians 13 and replacing the word “charity” with the phrase “a gentleman,” (“a gentleman is patient and kind; a gentleman is not jealous or boastful; he is not arrogant or rude. A gentleman does not insist on its own way,” etc.). 

While we would never want to make the mistake of reducing the supernatural virtue of charity to a series of social norms, it is a helpful exercise to aid us in seeing how the virtues should be manifest in our social interactions. If we have charity, we are considerate of others—we anticipate their needs, put ourselves at their disposal, and demonstrate generosity in our interactions. Gentlemanliness is thus tied intimately to the development of virtues. It naturally flows from a man’s inner character.

A Gentleman’s Strength

We also don’t want to reduce gentlemanliness to merely being “nice,” especially if we think of nice in terms of docility or passivity. A gentleman is kind, but he is not a pushover. He possesses a reservoir of strength he can draw upon in times of need. He is prudent and reserved in his actions, but when he needs to act, he is capable of acting with strength and decisiveness. C.S. Lewis stressed this very attribute about Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia—”He’s not a tame lion, but he is good.” Lewis was insistent that Aslan’s goodness should not be confused with docility.

Jordan Peterson has made the same point in his talks on virtue and goodness. Peterson famously said, “A harmless man is not a good man. A good man is a dangerous man who has that under voluntary control.” Dangerous in this context means strong—capable of acting forcefully. Think of the chivalry of a medieval knight, who, while fully capable of wielding the sword to defeat his foes, voluntarily restrains his martial impulses in the consideration and generosity he displays towards his lady.

What this means for our boys is that we don’t want to raise them to be passive and indecisive. The Latin word for virtue, virtus, also means “strength.” A gentleman is strong in the virtue that shapes his soul. He knows what is right, and he pursues it with resolution. He does not merely let life happen to him; he reaches out, takes hold of his circumstances, and uses his resources to shape them to the best of his ability.

In order to become strong, boys need to be challenged. Just as muscle grows under strain, so virtue grows from overcoming life’s challenges. From a parent’s perspective, it is important that we do not discourage our boys from embracing challenges and taking risks, for it is in facing such challenges that virtue develops and gentlemanliness blossoms.

More on Gentlemanliness & Virtue

The Homeschooling Saints podcast has an excellent episode called “Bringing Back Gentlemanliness” with John Heinen, the founder of the excellent website Catholic Gentleman. You can check it out here: Bringing Back Gentlemanliness

For more resources, you might want to take a look at these articles from the Homeschool Connections blog:

Catholic Homeschooling: Teaching Virtue
Antidotes to Male Teenage Sloth
Homeschooling Teens: Excellence, Not Perfection

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