Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Peter Lawler

For a particuarly noble example of unbelieving, conservative American respect for religion, let me remind you of the neglected tradition of Southern Stoicism, kept alive in our time by the novelist Tom Wolfe in A MAN IN FULL and I AM CHARLOTTE SIMMONS. But my favorite southern stoic actually appears in Walker Percy’s "The Last Phil Donahue Show" in LOST IN THE COSMOS. The character is "Colonel John Pelham, C.S.A., commander of the horse artillery under General Stuart."

How the colonel shows up on Phil’s final show need not bother us here. But he thinks that most of the people are on the show are "white trash." By contrast: "A gentleman knows how to treat women. He knows because he knows himself, who he is, what his obligations are. And he discharges them."

On the religion of John Calvin, who also appears on the show (don’t ask!), the colonel says: "Well, I respect his religious beliefs. But I have never thought much about religion one way or another. In fact, I don’t think religion has much to do with whether a man does right. A West Point man is an officer and a gentleman, religion or no religion. I have nothing against religion. In fact, when we studied medieval history at West Point, I remember admiring Richard Coeur de Lion and his recapturing Acre and the holy places. I remember thinking: I would have fought for him, just as I fought for Lee and the South."

Obviously, as Percy shows us, there are problems, especially when it comes to justice, with the southern stoic or any stoic position. But there is some American greatness there. If only our atheists were gentlemen!

Discussions - 31 Comments

Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. is a gentleman and from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Where does his type fit in? (Or: the south doesn’t have a monopoly, does it?)

Well, not a monopoly. You can follow the longer path of reading Aristotle, Burke, Tocqueville, and Tom Wolfe (who Mansfield appreciates as the novelist of manliness and may imitate to some extent in dress). A classically southern answer, based on remark by Harvey that I mangle by paraphrasing from memory: Harvey says in his book: A manly man can be small, but you’d wish he were bigger. (which is very funny) Col Pelham would say: An American gentleman can be northern, but you’d wish he were southern.

Well replied, my good sir. To draw you out even further, what about that quintessential midwestern gentleman, Leon Kass?

A further comment/query: Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. is the scion of a famous father, a noted polisci and, I believe, his politics were not those of his son. This leads me to think about the WASP establishment that led us through the middle of the century. They had many gentlemanly ways and airs, did they not? Some may even still be alive. Are they the (a?) quintessential American gentlemen?

A final query: didn’t somebody (worthy citing) say that The Great Gatsby is about "the last American gentleman"? If so, the south really didn’t/doesn’t have a monopoly!

Excuse the stream-of-consciousness ramble; answer as you will, kind sir.

To answer the Kass point would require a long discourse on the place of immigration in invigorating and elevating the American middle class. Walker Percy actually wrote a book called THE LAST AMERICAN GENTLEMAN--and there’s obviously something vaguely southern and close to Percy about Gatsby. No southerner would recognize a WASP as a gentleman in full, and most WASP affectations are vulgar and bourgeois. (See Newport, RI. ) Late 19th c. and early 20th c. NYC is beautiful, you might respond (after watching Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN), but maybe because of the immigrant-WASP mixture. Harvey Mansfield would add: Look at Harvard! Well I did!) But the WASP combination of entrepreneurial and gentlemanly features is more characteristically American. We stoics must add, of course, that the WASPS, unlike southern and 19th c. English gentlemen, never were comfortable with getting their moral guidance from the Greeks and Romans. (There aren’t even many WASP Straussians!) But of course there were and are WASP gentlemen--like George Bush the elder and even the underrated (by people like us) Franklin Roosevelt (I’m not defending his progressive policies here). The real story of the last of the WASP gentlemen is Whit Stillman’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, both the movie and the unjustly neglected novel, and the moral of the story is that the WASPS (unless they become genuine Christian) are doomed to be bougeois--and not so successful bourgeois--becuase they’ve inherited nothing they can actually live by. (Our president, for example, had to BECOME Christian. He wasn’t brought up that way.) This, by the way, is baloney I wrote while talking on the phone and periodically petting the dogs.
But I’m glad to contribute to any thread on what is a gentleman? It’s a real question for me, because I’m clearly not bred well enough to be one.

Some more blather (without the excuse of dogs-and-cell (?) phones. Once you start thinking about it, "gentlemens" and "gentlemanlyness" is everywhere - the Greeks - "the noble and good ones" - therefore Nietzsche; in Burke (hence Harvey’s great attraction to and affinity for him, especially Burke’s great line in Reflections: "I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as much as ... the next man (?)) (Harvey does say something about a novel ’Christian’ element in Burke’s gentlemanliness, so there’s probably an issue there, as well); in Jane Austen (whom I’m reading these days: in the novel Emma, Mr. George Knightley and his brother, John, epitomize "Englishness" (they’re the only two explicitly said to do so): neither’s a born aristocrat, neither’s a perfect gentleman in manner or breeding, but G. Knightley’s the epitome of manliness and ... yes, gentlemanliness. I suspect Austen’s in synch with Tocqueville’s observation about the "open," non-caste character of the British aristocracy. And how ’bout Tocqueville as a gentleman? And we must not forget (on this blog!) Churchill who never put his own toothpaste on the brush and, thanks to Dan Mahoney, "The General" and his hauteur; they seem to partake of the category, in different ways.
And with them, we’re entering into the area of ... magnanimity. Which seems to be both connected with, and too much to expect of most, gentlemen. Or am I wrong? A few more queries: to have a gentlemenly class is one thing, a natural gentleman would be something else, yes? And what’s the relationship between how the gentleman looks (down?) upon social and moral inferiors and how he looks up to the divine. We know that Aristotle famously said the magnaminous man considers nothing wonderful. And didn’t Stauss say somewhere that the gentleman isn’t pious?

You were forwarned about the blather.

Does the gentlemen look down upon inferiors with any but the most discreet glance? Aristocrats may look down, but surely, a gentleman would never let anyone know he was looking in that way.

Maybe I just can not know what it IS to be a gentleman, but I tried to raise five of them. Observers tell me I succeeded, for the most part. (They have an unfortunate tendency to jokes and loud laughter.) I think all are manly men, but I am only just reading the Mansfield book on the subject and may know better, shortly. Spirited? Yes, each one is that, though my third son is more hen-pecked than I would like. His wife is beautiful and that gives her a definite leverage that I just might envy.

I appreciate Christian gentlemen and gentlemen made in the Christian traditions. Why? They have a humilty in their superiority that is just wonderful. I like to tell feminists that they only have sufferage and their other civil rights because of the sufferance of American, and therefore mostly Christian, gentlemen. They may fuss at me, but the evidence that it took the consent of the electorate, then all male, to cede political power to us is inescapable. It was such kindness to allow us equality in politics.

In what other but the Christian tradition has that equality been acknowledged? It is in the nations touched by Christianity through colonialism or political influence that women have any rights at all. Even Marxism, if you think about it, has within it that Western tradition. Though in Marxist countries, I would say women’s equality made them economic slaves and workhorses of the regime. Some equality.

But religion really means to tie back. Or is it to be tied back? Anyway, I bring it up because the essence of a gentleman is restraint. So whatever a gentleman’s personal belief or piety, surely he is religious.

Kate, On your last paragraph, Mansfield says something like this: The manly man, at his best, is guided by some image of perfection, and in some sense or another it makes sense to call that image religious. The philosopher, as Mansfield says, may search for the best way of life for human beings, but it’s the religious man or woman who knows it.
So in Wolfe, Stoicism is presented as a religion--in A MAN IN FULL, there are born-again and evangelical Zeussians.
That raises the issue: Can women be gentlemen? They can be manly, after all. And reflecting on what Paul and Col. Pelham, we can say that the gentleman is religious in some sense but not pious. Is it unmanly to be pious?

Briefly, on Professor Lawler’s last point, I’d say one can be manly yet pious -- and that the theist is not completely manly if he lacks piety.

Manliness includes, among other things, a clear-eyed recognition of reality. Piety is a recognition of reality, in that it bows toward the creator, assuming one believes in a creator. If "it is He who hath made us, and not we ourselves," the theist who lacks piety lacks manly realism --because he lacks gratitude, which must be both felt and shown, not merely acknowledged on a mental ledger.

To say "God" is to say both "superior" and "beloved." To believe in God, and yet be too proud to bow to him, is the narcissism of wanting to have your cake and eat it too -- a truly effeminate position.

I would like to add something, but can only say kudos to a great discussion--keep it up

David, That’s certainly a very manly and otherwise admirable statement.

Good chain, all around.

One of the points of my blathering post was to indicate that the phenomenon of "the gentleman" and "gentlemanlyness" is not restricted to Christian times (nor paga, for that matter). I (as usual) am a bit wary about restricting our focus and reflection to simply our own context, whether it be America (which we started out with), or the Christian West.

That said, I’m not convinced that we’ve quite got the mysterious combination of look down and looking up which constitutes the gentleman as such. While I know that Newman said that gentleman doesn’t needlessly give pain (and Aristotle that he hides his contempt for the polloi), he still knows (or believes?) that in important respects he’s superior to the run-of-the mill. In what the superiority resides is one of the important questions, I believe. Does he (the gentleman) get it from his class-and-upbringing? Does it have natural roots or grounds? Is it a mixture of social-and-natural?

And what does the gentleman as such look up to? Is it (only? primarily?) the image of perfection that Mansfield talks about? Perhaps. I’d need to hear more.

Okay, may this clarification-blather will "continue the conversation."

Kate’s remarks about her son are wonderful. I’m not so "theoretical" that I can’t appreciate their truth - and their (i.e., the sons’) nobility.

Percy was one of those nostalgic Catholics pining away for a better time, an idyllic age. It should be recalled that when ex-President Jefferson Davis was confined after the war, the then Pope sent him a crown of thorns with the implicit, yet unstated message that Davis’ sufferings were those of the just. There is a strain of Catholic thought, reflected too in Chesterton’s writings, hostile to the industrial age.

And wasn’t Percy a close friend of the late Shelby Foote, author of that incredible 3 volume history of the Civil War?

Percy’s uncle, William Alexander Percy (author of the great LANTERNS ON THE LEVEE) as one of those southern romantics you describe. Walker Percy was a firm critic of that view, and a modern liberal on issues like race. Shelby Foote was WP’s best friend--WP called Shelby’s volumes the American Illiad. There is some anti-industrialism in Chesterton; on the other hand, Chesteron has a perfectly Jaffa-ite view of the Confederacy and the general decline in thought in 19th century from the heights of the Declaration. He also loved Jefferson and Lincoln and only quoted them favorably.

Overall, though, wouldn’t it be accurate to describe Walker Percy as a social conservative and a very serious one?

Thanks for the compliment on my view of piety and manliness.

Sure a social conservative, but not more socially conservative than today’s Catholic natural-law liberals, and certainly without the edge of "neo-orthodox" Catholics. He voted for Reagan once but not twice, and the time he did it was because he was repulsed by Democrats who couldn’t see that the Sandinistas were really bad guys (and to some extent because he was, of course, very hard-line pro-life). He refused to be a "decline and fall" man, he was not really a "traditionalist, and was more interested in love in the ruins and other evidence of the ineradicability of the strange and wonderful human being, that alien more wonderful than any ET ever imagined. He did think that some combination of Greek science and philosophy, Roman manliness or nobility, and the piety of the Christian pilgrim expressed the whole truth about the human being. So David, I should have just said you’re basically right.

A biblio-man here: Lawler’s got a wonderful discussion of W. Percy in his book, Postmodernism Rightly Understood (one of the great titles of our age). Peter knows Percy.

Thank you, Peter, but do women HAVE to be gentlemen? It seems to be the only alternative, these days, when we are not supposed to be ladies, but it seems to give so much to feminism and I resist. Between gentlemen and ladies there is an overlap, as in a Venn Diagram, because of the common civility and all is within a general humanity. But since femininity and masculinity pull to different poles, the two, the gentleman and the lady, are not the same. A woman, even when she acts in a manly way, is never a man. I have known lesbians who could effect John Wayne’s swagger, but never, not entirely, the essential masculinity. They were not ladies, but neither were they effectively gentlemen, even when affecting courtly manners. It was not about piety, either, though they were, admittedly, lacking that.

But Paul, were the pagans interested in being "gentlemen", or are you saying their manly ideal was in the mode we would consider gentlemanly? Maybe it is a quibble. But from my womanly perspective, an ancient Greek could never be a true gentleman because they treated women so badly. If I am right there, in demanding that criteria, then can a Muslim be a gentleman? If he is one, is that anomalous, given Sharia? That is a different kind of piety, isn’t it?

Which brings me to mention my pleasure in David Frisk’s comment 8, except for his last sentence, which stings.

Kate, I liked your remark about why the ancient Greeks could not have been gentlemen.

It seems to me that Kate and Peter are saying that Christianity refined and perfected (pagan) nature. I’ll have to think about that. It’s a position, of course, that has an august pedigree, but it seems to me that sometimes it smooths out things (like the hauteur in/of the gentleman; but that leads me to the connection between gentlemanliness and magnanimity). Thanks, Kate, for pushing the point.

You’re welcome and I thank you guys for letting me play in your game.

Years ago, when it came out, I read The Thanatos Syndrome and while I understood it as critical, I thought, "If this is what the man looks at, I cannot stomach to look where he looks." which is why I could not read Charlotte Simmons after reading reviews, although I usually read Wolfe’s work. Now, however, Lost in the Cosmos joins my "to be read" list. My son loves Whit Stillman and made me read Last Days of Disco which I did like, in spite of myself.

17: Kate, to clarify, by "effeminate" I don’t mean "characteristic of most women."

I mean, rather, a failure that’s more commonly seen among women than among men, that represents a distortion or excess of femininity rather than of masculinity, and that’s deplorable in a woman, but disgraceful in a man.

Hope that helps.

17 Kate, I don’t know if you’ve read Mansfield’s Manliness or not, but if not you most certainly should because you would really like it. He talks briefly about the difference between the two (and I’m going by memory here), suggesting that the essence of being a lady is in keeping one’s composure and dignity while the essence of being manly is confidence in the face of uncertainty. Gentlemanliness is a refined sort of manliness that doesn’t need to prove itself to anyone because of a self-composure similar that which a lady would possess. This is why gentleman open doors for women and pull their chairs out for them to sit down. They are completely confident of their superiority that they don’t feel threatened by lowering themselves before the more delicate sex. The difference being that a gentleman can throw such niceties aside when necessary (a Southern gentleman challenging someone to a duel over his honor).

Mansfield notes that he does not discuss gentlemanliness in depth because our society doesn’t even know what manliness is anymore.

Andrew: A great start to a real discussion of gentleman. Again, I’m going to stand aside becuase I just don’t have the breeding...

21 David Frisk, I knew what you meant, but could not resist tweaking you.

22 Andrew, I am reading Manliness and writing to myself about it. It is the sort of book that ought to have wider margins on the pages to accomodate the conversations one would like to have with the author. It is very good, but sometimes, not surprisingly, really, he does not exactly get womanliness/femininity quite right. I would also take issue with you here, but only a very little. I think gentlemen opening doors for ladies, and pulling chairs out, and any of the other courtesies they show are because of their superiority and it is never a lowering. It is a matter of protection. A gentleman protects and preserves, because of the confidence and the strength of his manliness. A gentleman may throw such niceties aside when necessary, yes, but no gentleman would duel with a lady or even a woman. To do so, he would have to cease to be a gentleman.

I have read, therein, about the lady being defined by her composure and dignity in any situation. I would add my own qualification, which is that she must also have kindness. Maybe I have just not read far enough in the book, yet, and that is coming. The lady must be secure enough in self-composure and dignity to always be able to extend kindness, in any situation. Otherwise she has hauteur, is proud, aristocratic, but it is self-centered. I do not see that either gentlemen or ladies are ever self-centered. This touches on Paul’s issue of magnanimity, which he lead himself to, and then did not discuss.

Kate, A good point on the gentleman’s protection of women. But maybe women are less kind than realistic, aware that manly exaggerations are exaggerations, but not making a big deal about what they know. The best women humor male pride while trying to moderate it with the truth about human limits and dependence. Let me add that this manliness/gentleman thread has been my favorite. Please keep it going.

Peter, a fella named Peter Kreeft might take exception to your views on Walker Percy. Check out Chapter 5 of his book C.S. LEWIS FOR THE THIRD MILLENNIUM. Chapter 5 deals with Walker Percy, not his Uncle.

Dan, You may be right, but you gotta make a point and not give ma a reading assignment from a book I don’t own.

But Peter, I don’t want to get into a point counterpoint about the Percys. There’s a how-many-angels-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin aspect to the entire discussion here. And I’ve only read portions of Walker Percy’s writings, I’m certainly not familiar enough with his works to get into anything in depth.

About that book I recommended, you would enjoy it. It’s brief and you could devour it on a flight. His theme is that Lewis, {with Percy in support} sees the West as having lost it’s way since roughly the commencement of the industrial age. Which fits in with Percy’s nostalgia for a South that was pitted against the far more industrial North. But this shouldn’t be understood in terms of race relations. There was more to the Southern way of life than race relations. Though to our eyes, that issue dominates.

There is something ironic in the fact that a South that was hostile to Roman Catholicism should find champions such as Percy, and should find itself most notably remembered in the tale of the O’Hara family at Tara, in GONE WITH THE WIND.

I gotta say read the relevant chapters in my POSTMODERNISM RIGHTLY UNDERSTOOD and the last chapter of ALIENS IN AMERICA. But basically: No nostalgia for the old South in Percy--that way of life culminated in despair and suicide. Some of the southern criticisms of the pop Cartesianism (described also by Tocqueville, of course)of middle-class American life are true enough, but Percy doesn’t reject modern justice or prosperity. He’s not an agrarian; he would have laughed at the Crunchy Cons. The agrarianism vs. industrialism thing would be beside the big point for him. He also says these are the best and the worst times to be a Catholic.

All here should bear in mind that the strength of women lies in their ability to appear weak and without that, they are indeed weak. Notably, Catholic women are the best at it. To be fair, southern men love to be under estimated. As an aside, men who protect women seek their warm favors.

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