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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The rise and fall of the gentleman

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Do you know any gentlemen? Perhaps you do - perhaps you are even a member of that apparently dwindling band? For we chaps it's not an easy question is it - am I a gentleman

In my case the answer is a reluctant "no". It may not even be a practical proposition in the modern world yet I have a sneaking suspicion that those with no wish to be a gentleman probably aren't.

I may as well add here that I prefer not to pose a similar question our lady readers. If I may I'll stick to the gentlemen - to coin a phrase.

gentleman
Pronunciation: /ˈdʒɛnt(ə)lmən

NOUN (plural gentlemen)
1 A chivalrous, courteous, or honourable man: he behaved throughout like a perfect gentleman

Historically a gentleman has been many things and chivalrous might be a tad tricky in most areas of modern life, but courteous and honourable shouldn't be too difficult surely? Our leaders could easily set the trend - leading  by example in fact...

...oh dear. I see this line of reasoning might compel me to say something ungentlemanly about our leaders. Which is something I usually enjoy but for the moment I'd better say nothing and move on to a less unsavoury subject.

In fifty years there will be nothing in Europe but Presidents of Republics, not one King left. And with those four letters K-I-N-G, go the priests and the gentlemen. I can see nothing but  candidates paying court to draggletailed  majorities.
Stendhal - Le Rouge et le Noir (1830)

When Stendhal wrote these words, the use of the term gentleman already seems to have begun its apparently terminal decline although there has been an uptick in recent years. Not exactly a hockey stick though and I'm sure the meaning has shifted anyway.  

Not that we should put too much weight on gentlemanly shoulders because at least some were mountebanks, seducers of virgin innocence and even bankers. Dickens created a few, such as the ghastly Pecksniff who certainly posed as a gentleman, albeit not one of independent means.

So coming back to our less than illustrious leaders as I suppose we must in these troubled times, how about our current crop? Are they gentlemen? Mr Putin? Mr Cameron? Mr Obama? 

Would it help if they were - or have we been seduced by the myths of realpolitik?

4 comments:

James Higham said...

It's an intriguing question. I've been rated "definitely no gentleman" and "the perfect gentleman" [on that evening].

Will start tomorrow's post here.

Sam Vega said...

Too young to be a gentleman, too old to be a dude.

Roger said...

So why the rise between 1700 and 1820? More words written maybe or the rise of the pamphlets and newspapers - the chattering classes with time and teacups on their hands. A hang over from medieval nobility. Rough huntin shootin farmers becoming a rich elite looking to be a bit more elite than the next. The rise of manners and Jane Austen's imagination.

Why the decline - perhaps we lost interest in the fiction of 'gentleman', the realities of making money and fornication and fighting wars and making machines gave the chattering classes something else to think of.

Today I think IDS looks the picture of an officer and a gentleman, make of it what you will, but the reality is as in 1820 not quite like the imagination. FWIW I reckon we are heading back into a Regency condition of society - an obscenely wealthy elite, a middle class anxious for position and the rookeries are all on their way back. But I don't think the word gentleman will play much of a part - what what.

A K Haart said...

James - maybe many of us are actually part time gentlemen which presumably is better than nothing.

Sam - you are never too young to be a gentleman, dude.

Roger - I'm not sure about the rise, but I think prosperity and aspirations may have come into it.

I think it was always more of an ideal than a reality, but now we don't even have the ideal.