Am I a man? Anatomically speaking, yes. I look like a man. I sound like a man. I smell, well, not manly, but mannish. Mannesque. Hair springs from my face and my chest and my navel, and I’ve virtually never asked for directions. I’ve seen Blood Sport three times. If you were to grab your family medico and direct him to where I’m stroking these keys right now, and direct him to stroke me, he (or she, you sexist) would almost certainly conclude that indeed yes, this is the male of the species. But beyond the trunk and boulders (twig and pebbles), am I a man? And, more importantly, am I a gentleman?
Seneca, the great Roman orator, defines a gentleman as “ad virtutem bene à naturâ compositus. Non facit nobilem atrium plenum fumosis imaginibus.” But I don’t speak Latin so I’ve no idea what that means. Thanks for nothing Seneca. The seminal work of 1568 – The Institucion of a Gentleman – is a little clearer on the subject, “This woorde gentelman is a compound worde… as much to say, a man of Gentlenes, and (as I thynke) the fayrest name a Gentleman can deserue to haue is to be called and holden an honest man, in that by his honestye he is made Gentle, and by vyce vngentle.” Honestly though, if you can’t even be bothered to spell the word ‘gentleman’ correctly maybe you shouldn’t be pontificating on the subject.
So let’s get someone a little more diligent on the job. Someone worthy of pontification. An actual pontiff. Cardinal Newman, what do you reckon? “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed actions of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself.” (Idea of a University, 1881) Now that’s more like it. “One who never inflicts pain.” I love it. Can’t say I’m worthy of that title - I’ve done karaoke after all - but it’s an admirable sentiment.
W. M. Thackeray, the towering author of Vanity Fair (the capacious novel, not the plump mag) and an ould resident of these shores, asked the same question, “What is a gentleman? It is to be honest, to be gentle, to be generous, to be brave, to be wise; and possessed of all these qualities to exercise them in the most graceful manner.” A tall order, especially at three in the morning outside Rick’s Burgers. But again, a noble thought. Lets keep it up. Ah here we are. “The true gentleman is of no rank or class,” wrote Samuel Smiles, in his Life and Labour of 1887, “He may be a peasant or a noble. Every man may be gentle, civil, tolerant, and forbearing. You may find politeness in the tent of the Arab, or in the cottage of the ploughman. Politeness is but natural, genial and manly deference to others, without sycophancy or hypocrisy. Riches and rank have no necessary connections with gentlemanly qualities. The humblest man may be a gentleman, in word and in spirit.” That’s it. Nail on the ceann. Civility. Forbearance. Tolerance. Not so tolerant that he didn’t think all Arabs lived in tents, of course, but that’s the perfect trifecta right there. To look at other people, regardless of colour, creed, cut or cloth, and behave respectfully to them, is the true definition of the gentleman.
Does that make me a gentleman? Unfortunately, ruefully, sadly not. I’m guilty of preconceptions and faltering smiles. Who hasn’t judged someone on their manners or their mothers or their runners? Jesus… maybe. At a push. And he lived two thousand years before Nike Air Max. But a real gentleman aspires to that condition. The state of tolerance when tolerance doesn’t come easily. Civility when your teeth are gritted like a German autobahn in January. And forbearance when someone has been at an ATM for WHAT COULD HE POSSIBLY BE DOING ON THAT THING!? And though it may not always lie within his power, he must stick to that trinity again and again every day: every busy-bus Monday, every traffic-jammed Tuesday, every seagull-shit Wednesday, every trodden-mess Thursday, every spilled-pint Friday, every lost-ball Saturday and every hangover Sunday.
And in doing so, just in trying so, then he’ll be a gentleman.
By Cian Hallinan, writer, comedian, Gentlemen’s Academy founding member and friend.