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  • Writer's pictureKip Barton

The True Gentleman - an interpretation

by John O. Moseley

additions by James Irwin

While “The True Gentleman” remains as relevant today as it was when it was written, truly timeless in nature, the discussion of its meanings for members continues as part of a great discussion. Each line of “The True Gentleman" can have several meanings for brothers, and this essay, originally published in several previous editions of The Phoenix, offers one consideration for what, using a phrase-by-phrase examination, our creed means and reminds us of in our lives and endeavors.

The True Gentleman is the Man…

When you say the word gentleman, it is important to put the accent on man. One's idea of just what a man is may be crucial to an understanding of "The True Gentleman." The opinion of the nature of man is and has been. Some see man as a human animal. little above the beasts in the field, while others picture man as standing just a little below the angels. No matter how they look at man, all must agree that all history is the history of man, and every civilization has been a civilization of man in his relations with other men, be they animal-like or angelic. As a human being, man possesses virtue, even nobility, but he also possesses human limitations and imperfections. We honor the man who exploits his strengths and controls his weaknesses. 'The accent on man signifies something more. It implies the mature man, not the child. Look at a child. Not yet having discovered a concern for those about him, the child is fundamentally egocentric. Egocentricity has been defined, perhaps not inaccurately, as the belief that one's own navel is the center of the universe.

The gentleman is neither egocentric nor eccentric but is a mature social being who knows he is a member of society and acts as though he knows it. If you think that in talking about our concept of man we are wasting our time, you might remember that it is the profound difference of opinion about the nature of man that lies at the root of the clash between the free and the unfree world today. In contrast with some other societies today, our democracy exalts man as a precious and irreplaceable object, endowed with inalienable rights and responsibilities. The gentleman is, then, a man in the best and fullest sense of the word.

…whose conduct proceeds from goodwill…

The man of goodwill has a genuine interest in other people. He likes his fellow men because of their virtues and in spite of their faults. Possession of goodwill produces a positive, warm and outgoing attitude in making friends. The interest in others is usually reflected and thus helps friendships grow. If you like a man, you can cultivate his goodwill. This doesn't mean you have to like everything he does or even everything he stands for, but you can seek in his personality his good qualities.

A man of goodwill is willing to cooperate with others. He doesn't wait to be asked to help when he knows his help is needed. He responds voluntarily and warmly and will almost certainly like those with whom he cooperates. Conduct that proceeds from goodwill exhibit another important trait:

Enthusiasm. Few things are more distressing than the apathetic attitude of one who just doesn't care about much of anything. He may not react negatively to his environment; he just doesn't react at all. Such a man inspires nothing in others and, in turn, is incapable of being inspired by anything or anyone. But the man who boils over with enthusiasm when he is with others engenders goodwill and warmth like no other can. He has an interest in others and likes them, and his enthusiasm, growing out of a positive attitude toward everything around him, is contagious.

…and an acute sense of propriety…

The dictionary defines propriety as "the character or quality of being proper; especially, accordance with recognized usage, custom or principles; fitness; correctness." Propriety is, in short, the almost automatic sense of doing the right thing at the right time. Propriety is not simply etiquette, even though a certain amount of etiquette is an important possession of a gentleman. It is the keen awareness of the fit and proper thing to do at any given time. To have an "acute sense" of propriety is to be alert, or as a lot of people say today, to be “cool" or "on the ball.”

No definition of "cool" would satisfy everyone, but chances are that the college men you would call "cool" are those who are alert and observational. They watch what is going on around them. They listen more than they speak. They are interested enough in other people to be able to put themselves in the other fellows' shoes long enough to figure out what creates a good impression and what creates a bad one. This doesn't mean being a sort of human chameleon changing the color of one's personality for every occasion. In fact, many people will tell you not to worry about this matter of propriety - to be yourself. The advice is fine, but it has its limitations. It depends on what "being yourself" is like in addition to how alert and observing you are. Maybe it would be better to advise one to "be your best self.” The easiest rule to follow in acquiring "an acute sense of propriety" is stated simply: If in doubt, watch the other fellow. If the other fellow is a gentleman, his actions will tip you off as to the right things to do and the things not to do. Don't be afraid to imitate another gentleman. Remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

…and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies…

We admire the man who seems to be able to handle himself well in any situation. 'This is mostly a matter of self-control that makes the gentleman equal to any situation, whether it is an emergency or not. Admittedly, there are many situations that are hard to meet. But any man can greatly improve his chances of coping with any situation if he will remember and put into practice a few simple rules that, taken together, go a long way to assure self-control.

1. Develop a good sense of humor.

The man who has a sense of humor knows that life can be a wonderful experience. The man who has forgotten or never learned how to laugh is a sad case. He lives out his life as if it were the last act of a tragedy and makes everyone around him as miserable as he is himself. But the man who has learned to laugh, especially at himself, has gone far in developing the attractive personality of a gentleman. Can you laugh with others, even though they may be laughing at you? Try it sometime. You’ll find that a lot of your worries and problems dissolve best in laughter and enable you to exercise much better the kind of self-control that is equal to all emergencies. And it goes without saying that if you can tell a joke, play an occasional joke on friends, and take a joke when one is played on you, you'll have a lot more enjoyment out of life. There are, of course, times when humor is out of place and only the jokester tries to make something funny out of every situation. The incurable practical joker has a badly distorted sense of humor.

2. Be flexible.

A good fighter rolls with the punches. If you can develop the fighter's flexibility in your personality, you will be able to adapt yourself readily to changing circumstances. The man who is brittle and inflexible surely will lose his balance - his self-control - when suddenly faced with a difficult situation. To be flexible means to be able to give a little here and there, to admit readily that you're wrong when you're wrong, and to make that admission gracefully. It means keeping an open mind, being willing to accept new ideas or a different outlook or being prepared to change your opinion. It is futile to try to cover up inflexibility by retreating, as some do, to the courage of their convictions. Remember that, while we rightly honor many who have stood up for their ideals, every fanatic, every crank, every Herod, and every Hitler also had the courage of his convictions. Self-control dictates that if you don’t want to break, you'd better be able to bend a little.

3. Develop a wholesome attitude toward teamwork.

An important part of the personality of a gentleman is a healthy attitude toward work. Sooner or later the successful young man realizes that life is a competitive experience and that the best way to compete is to work intelligently and persistently. The man who has a wholesome attitude toward work likes to work for the satisfaction of accomplishment. He works hard when he works. He plays and enjoys recreation at the proper time and achieves a happy balance between work and play. A desire to work and the enjoyment of work take most of the drudgery out of any kind of labor. Learn to like what you do. You might as well, and it makes life much more pleasant if you do. You have plenty of time for your academic work and for Fraternity and extra-curricular activities. If you don't have time for both, then you are wasting your time. And the only proper way to kill time is to work it to death. It requires self-control to work enough and to work effectively.

4. Watch your temper.

Nobody likes a man with a bad temper. He is unpredictable and over-sensitive. People have to be on their guard around him. And bad temper is not a thing to write off as impossible to change. If you want to get along with others, you must control your temper. Do little things annoy you? Do you flare up when others make chance remarks that you think are directed at you? Analyze the reasons for your annoyance and your outbursts of temper. Socrates said, "Know thyself" Self-examination is good for a number of reasons, but it will help you especially to overcome unnecessary sensitivity. Control of one’s temper is one of those things any gentleman must learn if he is to get along well with others.

5. Be temperate.

Moderation is the mark of a gentleman. It is more than that; it is the mark of any intelligent human being. Moderation is the avoidance of extremes in thinking and behavior or, as the Greeks called it, the "Golden Mean” Temperance means neither denial nor excess. It means simply that a man should be moderate in his habits.

…who does not make the poor man conscious of his poverty, the obscure man of his obscurity. Or any man of his inferiority or deformity…

The democratic ideal holds that all men are recognized as equal before the law and that all are endowed with certain inalienable rights. It does not follow, however, that all men are equal in intelligence, talents, abilities, or in social and economic position. It is true that men are indeed not equal, whether by accident of birth, variants of environment, or exercise of individual will. Many men are unfortunately afflicted with "poverty…obscurity ... inferiority or deformity" While we may deplore the misfortunes of others and try to do whatever we can to help them cope with or overcome their difficulties, the gentleman will never knowingly make any man conscious of those deficiencies over which he has no control, whatever they may be. To do so would be cruel, unkind, and most certainly ungentlemanly.

The gentleman’s attitude toward those less fortunate than himself grows out of the goodwill from which his conduct proceeds. He is able to emphasize the good in others and minimize the bad. His love of humanity is deep and warm. He is mature and unselfish enough to find it unnecessary to boost his own ego at the expense of others.

It is easy to be critical of others in the wrong way. A man can become notorious for his devastating wit, his biting sarcasm, or his apparent delight in putting the other fellow down. Even worse is the man who takes upon himself all the credit for his own good fortune. He is too often pompous and arrogant or, worst of all, self-righteous. He is quite prepared to judge, condemn, and make the other fellow as keenly conscious as possible of his shortcomings and failures.

If you are a gentleman, you will make an honest attempt to see the best qualities in others. You will want to emphasize the strengths of others, not their weaknesses. Even when you are keenly aware of the shortcomings of those with whom you work and live, you are obliged, as a gentleman, to act toward them with patience and understanding. To do so never can diminish your own strength, but it can help greatly to strengthen others.

…who is himself humbled when necessity compels him to humble another…

We accept criticism best from those who can take criticism as well as can hand it out. No man is perfect. We all make mistakes, and there are times when we need to be advised of our error or failure. Sometimes we are compelled to advise others of their shortcomings, if by doing so we can help them and if we honestly feel that those we criticize are able to do something about it. We want to be sure, however, that our motive is honest and that our desire is to help. And let us remember that should necessity compel us to humble another, we can never find any justification for humiliating another. when he finds it necessary to help and give constructive guidance to another without giving offense. But if his own attitude grows out of humility, he will very likely carry off such delicate situations with sensitive diplomacy and fair play.

…who does not flatter wealth, cringe before power…

Nobody likes a coward. A fawning attitude toward wealth is as bad as cowardice in the face of power. The man who feels compelled to humiliate himself before wealth and power is a man to be pitied. Where is his pride? Where is his self-assurance? His self-esteem Humility is a virtue, but cowardly humiliation is destructive to human personality. A man may rightly respect power and wealth, but never for one instant should he allow himself to be degraded by them. The gentleman always has a proper respect for authority out of a sense of order and fairness. But he knows that as an individual he is as important as any other. As a man, he can stand straight with pride born of self-assurance and know that he need not count himself inferior to any other man. With this knowledge of his own dignity, the gentleman can move out in life with hope and ambition, two important ingredients of a good personality.

…or boast of his own possessions or achievements…

While the true gentleman has self-assurance and personal pride, he is never a boaster. He consciously avoids the overuse of the personal pronoun "I. Without humility he can’t be sincere or courteous. He avoids making Olympian pronouncements of his opinions and seeks not to contradict others but to draw them out. He likes to hear others express their views. He refrains as much as possible from talking about himself, and "his own possessions or achievements" He knows that others will discover his merits and successes soon enough and will be more appreciative of them if he hears them from others. And he recognizes his own limitations.

When he wins, he isn't cocky, and he never boasts. If he loses, he accepts defeat graciously, for good sportsmanship is one of the first marks of the gentleman. He plays hard, never wants to win at any price, and never cheats, even on little things. He knows that a good loser commands respect, so he never cries or argues about a loss. He remembers that the game is more important than the victory.

…who speaks with frankness…

We like to deal with people who are frank and honest. We shun deception and despise hypocrisy. The gentleman who recognizes this never disguises his real motives when he deals with people but speaks directly and honestly. He is cautious enough, however, to know that in speaking frankly he is not required to be blunt. He is careful that his honesty and frankness do not injure the feelings of others. He follows the rule: be frank but be tactful.

The gentleman not only speaks directly, but he speaks effectively. He tries to develop a pleasant quality of voice. He avoids profanity and obscenity if only because among cultured people such gross misuse of language is inexcusable. Even though he hears plenty of such language, he knows that those whose speech is a constant stream of profanity are actually disadvantaged since their vocabulary is so limited they have no other means of expressing themselves. The gentleman is constantly at work building his vocabulary so that he can express himself clearly, accurately, and effectively. He knows that effective speech is probably more important than effective writing. He learns to dramatize words and to hold the attention of others by putting feeling into his speaking. He speaks forcefully, and he speaks well.

…but always with sincerity and sympathy…

One who speaks forcefully and effectively must also speak sincerely. There is no substitute for sincerity in speech and action. You have met people who make a wonderful first impression, who have the surface quality of politeness, but who are insincere and phony in reality. They are good actors, but they don't wear well. Thus the proof of sincerity lies in one's constant behavior. If you say what you mean and mean what you say, you will be accounted by others as being sincere. Remember the last time you reached for a hand and grabbed a dead fish instead? Everyone appreciates a sincere handshake - one that imparts some friendliness with the handclasp. Look a new acquaintance in the eye; repeat his name aloud; make him feel you are sincerely glad to meet him. You won't forget him, and he will surely remember you.

…whose deed follows his word…

It is said of a gentleman that his word is his bond. He is totally dependable. You can be certain that he will do what he promises. He is the kind of man who makes decisions promptly. He doesn't beat around the bush. He knows he must be decisive to be successful. A man can be very trying to others when he cannot make up his mind. He needs to make decisions promptly once he knows all the significant facts. He is prepared, of course, to reserve a decision if later experience or information warrants it. But when he has made a decision, he follows through in action. He is a gentleman who is known to others for his reliability and loyalty.

…who thinks of the rights and feelings of others rather than his own…

Consideration for the feelings of others is a prime quality of the gentleman. No one has the right to consider his personal feelings superior to those of others. The gentleman will take into consideration what the other fellow would like, how the other fellow feels, or what the other fellow might do. He is constantly thinking of others and is courteous. He knows that courtesy is simply the habit of respecting the feelings of others. Courteous people aren't selfish; they go out of their way to help others. Nor is courtesy restricted to certain people. It is not courtesy when you are nice only to those people from whom you expect to derive some benefit. Remember to be courteous to everyone but not excessively and profusely courteous. Too much courtesy smacks of obsequiousness and is unnatural and insincere and often gives the appearance of patronage.

The man who thinks of the rights and feelings of others is also tolerant of their views. He keeps a place in his mind for their opinions and enjoys learning their viewpoints. He learns that he can disagree in a wholesome manner without being resentful or losing his good disposition. He develops that insight that allows him to disagree with another person on an issue without disliking the person for his differing attitude. Before he criticizes people for their religious beliefs, political ideas, or interests different from his own, he learns more about what they believe and why they believe it.

He is broadminded, ready to forgive and forget his differences with others, and tolerant of their differences with him. He knows those qualities are sure ways toward making and keeping friends.

…and appears well in any company…

You can usually spot a gentleman because he looks like one. We don't mean here to overemphasize outward appearance, but usually, you can tell by looking at a man what he possesses inside since the gentleman is conscious of his appearance. Because people look at his face most of the time, he learns to have a pleasant facial expression. One can go far to improve his appearance by looking agreeable, alert, and self-confident. A cheerful smile improves anyone's appearance infinitely. A natural and sincere smile is contagious and can help anyone, even if he's not the most handsome person, to appear well in any company. Clothing isn't everything, but it helps. Perhaps the saying that "clothes make the man" is overdrawn, but quite often the way one dresses is important. The proper dress certainly need not be expensive or en vogue. It should, however, be neat and clean. Appearing well in any company includes wearing the right thing at the right time.

…a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe…

Our code of gentlemanliness has its roots in the chivalry of by-gone days. When medieval knighthood was in flower, the traits we esteem in a gentleman were developed. But whatever else he may have been, the gentleman was a man of honor. He still must be, or he is no gentleman. In his dealings with other people, he is possessed by a sense of honor that will never permit him to act unfairly with another. It has been often said that honesty is the best policy.

For the gentleman, honesty is the only policy. The honesty under all circumstances and with all people, and dealing justly and fairly with others, is rewarded with friendship and respect. The gentleman does not look for and suspects others' ulterior motives in their actions, for he has none himself.

A man of honor is one with whom virtue is safe. And by virtue, we understand the word in more than its narrowest specific meaning of moral chastity. Virtue means strength, courage, excellence, merit, and worth. Virtue connotes integrity of character and uprightness of conduct. Actually, this one-word virtue describes the ideal man. It comes from the Latin word vir, meaning "man" It is, then, fitting that our definition of a gentleman should end with the idea of virtue. For the true gentleman is a man, a man of virtue in its fullest sense, a man with whom virtue is safe. May you always, and under all circumstances, be a man of virtue. May we all be men of virtue.

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