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An essay by George William Curtis

The Soul Of The Gentleman

Title:     The Soul Of The Gentleman
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

To find a satisfactory definition of gentleman is as difficult as to discover the philosopher's stone; and yet if we may not say just what a gentleman is, we can certainly say what he is not. We may affirm indisputably that a man, however rich, and of however fine a title in countries where rank is acknowledged, if he behave selfishly, coarsely, and indecently, is not a gentleman. "From which, young gentlemen, it follows," as the good professor used to say at college, as he emerged from a hopeless labyrinth of postulates and preliminaries an hour long, that the guests who abused the courtesy of their hosts, upon the late transcontinental trip to drive the golden spike, may have been persons of social eminence, but were in no honorable sense gentlemen.

It is undoubtedly a difficult word to manage. But gentlemanly conduct and ungentlemanly conduct are expressions which are perfectly intelligible, and that fact shows that there is a. distinct standard in every intelligent mind by which behavior is measured. To say that a man was born a gentleman means not at all that he is courteous, refined, and intelligent, but only that he was born of a family whose circumstances at some time had been easy and agreeable, and which belonged to a traditionally "good society." But such a man may be false and mean, and ignorant and coarse. Is he a gentleman because he was born such? On the other hand, the child of long generations of ignorant and laborious boors may be humane, honorable, and modest, but with total ignorance of the usages of good society. He may be as upright as Washington, as unselfish as Sidney, as brave as Bayard, as modest as Falkland. But he may also outrage all the little social proprieties. Is he a gentleman because he is honest and modest and humane? In describing Lovelace, should we not say that he was a gentleman? Should we naturally say so of Burns? But, again, is it not a joke to describe George IV. as a gentleman, while it would be impossible to deny the name to Major Dobbin?

The catch, however, is simple. Using the same word, we interchange its different meanings. To say that a man is born a gentleman is to say that he was born under certain social conditions. To say in commendation or description of a man that he is a gentleman, or gentlemanly, is to say that he has certain qualities of character or manner which are wholly independent of the circumstances of his family or training. In the latter case, we speak of individual and personal qualities; in the former, we speak of external conditions. In the one case we refer to the man himself; in the other, to certain circumstances around him. The quality which is called gentlemanly is that which, theoretically, and often actually, distinguishes the person who is born in a certain social position. It describes the manner in which such a person ought to behave.

Behavior, however, can be imitated. Therefore, neither the fact of birth under certain conditions, nor a certain ease and grace and charm of manner, certify the essential character of gentleman. Lovelace had the air and breeding of a gentleman like Don Giovanni; he was familiar with polite society; he was refined and pleasing and fascinating in manner. Even the severe Astarte could not call him a boor. She does not know a gentleman, probably, more gentlemanly than Lovelace. She must, then, admit that she can not arbitrarily deny Lovelace to be a gentleman because he is a libertine, or because he is false, or mean, or of a coarse mind. She may, indeed, insist that only upright and honorable men of refined mind and manner are gentlemen, and she may also maintain that only men of truly lofty and royal souls are princes; but there will still remain crowds of immoral gentlemen and unworthy kings.

The persons who abused the generous courtesy of the Northern Pacific trip were gentlemen in one sense, and not in the other. They were gentlemen so far as they could not help themselves, but they were not gentlemen in what depended upon their own will. According to the story, they did not even imitate the conduct of gentlemen, and Astarte must admit that they belonged to the large class of ungentlemanly gentlemen.

(_December_, 1883)

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George William Curtis's essay: The Soul Of The Gentleman