I'm giving a talk to a gathering of some of the faculty of Lake Forest College this Wednesday. It's called "Why You are Not a Gentleman," and it goes like this.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming here today for the last faculty luncheon discussion of the semester. Could we begin with a little of what our friends in administration call "self-assessment"? Could we have a show of hands from those who consider themselves ladies or gentlemen? Perhaps we can come back to the reasons (legitimate or otherwise) why you consider, or don't consider, yourselves as falling within those categories. But for now I'd like to confess that I am no gentleman. I know because I've read Faulkner, and his greatest novel, The Sound and the Fury, contains this exchange:
"You're not a gentleman," Spoade said…
"No, I'm Canadian," Shreve said.
Having confessed to my own low and provincial status, I should begin with the low and academic moves of providing definitions and hedging one's bets.
Up until the 14th century, gentil homme meant "nobleman," and nobleman meant "a man of aristocratic birth." Certain behaviors and attitudes, including the martial virtues, were associated with gentlemanly status, of course, as we know from many records, including Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," where we read:
Loke who that is most vertuous alway
Prive and apert, and most entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he can
And take him for the gretest gentilman
But this didn't generally pertain for those of low status: the fine deeds of the swineherd did not, in most cases, result in social elevation. So, while the borders of the term "gentleman" have always been a bit contested, and seem to blur whenever there is social mobility, it is birth — legitimate, high-status birth — is near the center of things gentlemanly for a very long time. Even when Shakespeare wrote, it is clear that Edmund, in King Lear, who dressed, spoke, and behaved as well as his legitimate brother Edgar, was no gentleman, or at best a gentleman with an asterisk after his name, in the manner of baseball's Roger Maris.
Gradually, cultivation increasingly supplemented birth, and in some measure nudged it aside, cozying up next to it at the center of what gentlemanliness was about. We can see this begin to happen when, in the 16th century, the clergyman William Harrison claimed that "gentlemen be those whom their race and blood, or at least their virtues, do make noble." The phrase "or at least" is interesting, isn't it? Without high birth one can be a gentleman, of sorts, at least of a junior varsity kind. This relative liberalism was picked up in the 17th century by the English public schools (what we in America would call private schools), which emphasized the idea that cultivation makes the gentleman—but then again, they would. I mean, those of us who work for expensive private educational institutions are not without an awareness of how such institutions make the strongest possible claims for the value of the services they peddle.
I should also mention that definitions vary not only over time, but by locale. Americans make much of the idea of the southern gentleman, but I won't speak of Americans. Even after 20 years in this country, I do not understand their mysteries.
Anyway. When and where the notion of the gentleman as a creature of cultivation, with certain behaviors and attitudes, came to displace the notion of the gentleman as a creature of high birth (who might well also be cultivated, but wasn't necessarily so) is a debatable matter, and of course there is no single defining watershed. But let me follow a true gentleman in locating the largest shift in the 18th century. Here is how Thomas Babington Macaulay (that's Lord Macaulay to you), looked back on the English gentry of the 17th century from the vantage of the 1848. The English gentleman before the 18th century, says Macaulay,
…was compounded of two elements which we seldom or never find united. His ignorance and uncouthness, his low tastes and gross phrases, would, in our time, be considered as indicating a nature, and a breeding, thoroughly plebeian. Yet he was essentially a patrician, and had, in large measure both the virtues and the vices which flourish among men set from their birth in high place, and used to respect themselves and to be respected by others. It is not easy for a generation accustomed to find chivalrous sentiments only in company with liberal studies and polished manners to imagine to itself a man with the deportment, the vocabulary, and the accent of a carter, yet punctilious on matters of genealogy and precedence, and ready to risk his life rather than see a stain cast on the honor of his house. It is however only by thus joining together things seldom or never found together in our own experience, that we can form a just idea of that rustic aristocracy...
Perhaps we could visualize such a character thusly:
This is not, of course, an actual photograph of a boorish 17th century gentleman. This is Johnny Rotten, formerly of the Sex Pistols, in fancy clothes, but I hope it makes the point.
So what happened in England in the 18th century to make the idea of cultivation essential, rather than accidental, to gentlemanly status? The shortest possible answer is this: the rise of the financially-oriented bourgeoisie and their assimilation into the existing, landowning elite. Well, perhaps that's not the shortest possible answer. Perhaps the shortest answer is: lowborn people getting rich.
I know what you're thinking: "poor Archambeau, he's gone native in America after all, confusing money with class." Not so! Bear with me, while I, a humble poet, seek to take you into the murky waters of the late 17th century English financial revolution, and its consequences for gentlemen.
At the end of the 17th century England was developing a mercantile society as vibrant as any in Europe, with fortunes being made in the trade of textiles, paper, and metals, but it was the Financial Revolution of the 1690s that really allowed a new elite group, based on trade and finance rather than land, to emerge. The 1690s saw the founding of the stock market, the Bank of England, and the national debt, the last of which gave unprecedented power and influence to investors in public credit. Unlike some other countries in which a moneyed faction arose, though, England did not see a direct clash between moneyed and landed interests. This relatively peaceful accommodation of the rising bourgeois wasn’t due to innate English virtue so much as it was made possible by the England’s lack, of formal legal privileges for the gentry (there were privileges, certainly, but in typical English fashion these were more matters of tradition than of law).
Looking back on England’s early and relatively peaceful amalgamation of moneyed and landed classes from the far side of the French Revolution’s gore, Alexis de Tocqueville declared that England had been unique in “the ease with which it had opened its ranks,” and in how this merging of landed and moneyed classes created a more powerful, amalgamated elite: "With great riches, anybody could hope to enter into the rank..." of gentleman, or above. As the historian David Castronovo puts it when comparing England to another country with a more bloody history of class conflict, “The Russian merchant was a merchant in law, forbidden to buy land; the English merchant was the man who could become an eminently respectable man ... a gentleman.”
But how could it be done? England began the century as a country of rough squires proud of their pedigrees, on the one hand, and grasping, penny-counting London moneybags, on the other. What would bring them together as a single elite of cultivated ladies and gentlemen? Those of us in the English department can take great pride in saying that a good part of what did it was reading.
Consider the great flowering of magazines in the English 18th century.
At first glance, conditions in England at the dawn of the eighteenth century might not seem propitious for the founding of journals, particularly journals devoted in large measure to literary discussion. Rates of literacy had actually fallen since the period of the Civil War and the Commonwealth in the prior century. But if the country did not yet clamor with avid readers, it soon would: censorship and the taxing of periodicals was relaxed, periodicals blossomed. Daniel Defoe started his Weekly Review in 1704, and in 1709 Richard Steele founded the more literary Tatler. Two years later Steele joined with Addison in launching another literary/cultural journal, the Spectator. The last two publications were widely imitated, and both the number of journals published and the reach of their total circulation rose dramatically throughout the century. As the former editor of a cultural journal, I must emphasize that this phenomenon, the actual popularity of a cultural journal, you bears investigating. Why, we may wonder, would such notoriously difficult-to-market commodities as cultural journals become viable in the marketplace at this particular place and time?
The answer lies in the way these journals provided a way to redefine gentlemanly status, decoupling it from birth and linking it more strongly to cultivation. People wanted to form a new elite, bringing old prestige and new money together, and these journals, the Spectator in particular, presented them with a model for a new kind of gentleman, and also provided an arena in which to perfect one's new, gentlemanly cultivation.
Let's look, first, at how the Spectator offered a model for the new kind of gentleman. The most famous issue of the journal presents us with an imagined "Mr. Spectator," the fictitious "author" of the various articles in the magazine, and his friends in the imagined "Spectator Club." Here they are in the frontespiece to a collected edition of the journal:
Mr. Spectator, the model of the new kind of gentleman, embodies a combination of the social types that went into forming the new elite. His origin, as he tells us in the first issue of the Spectator, lay among the landed gentry:
I was born to a small hereditary estate, which, according to the tradition of the village where it lies, was bounded by the same hedges and ditches in William the Conqueror's time that it is at present, and has been delivered down from father to son whole and entire, without the loss or acquisition of a single field or meadow, during the space of six hundred years.
Despite Mr. Spectator’s mother’s early hope that he take up the profession of law and become a respected judge, he has instead taken to habituating London’s coffee houses, where, if he has not exactly joined the bureaucratic and financial classes, he has become indistinguishable from them in their various haunts:
There is no place of general resort, wherein I do not often make my appearance; sometimes I am seen thrusting my head into a round of politicians at Will’s, and listening with great attention to the narratives that are made in those little circular audiences. Sometimes I smoke a pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Postman [a newspaper], overhear the conversation of every table in the room. I appear on Sunday nights at St. James’s Coffee-house, and sometimes join the little committee of politics in the inner room, as one who comes there to hear and improve. My face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-Tree, and in the theaters both of Drury Lane and the haymarket. I have been taken for a merchant upon the Exchange for above these ten years, and sometimes pass for a Jew in the assembly of stock-jobbers at Jonathan’s...
So this new kind of gentleman was ubiquitous, and could be a creature of the country gentry or of the newer worlds of city finance and politics, at home with gentry, clergy, and merchants alike, watching the world but—and this is crucial—not pushing for his own interests, not out for his own gain, at least not in any overt way. The gentleman, suddenly, isn't someone passionate about pedigree and the vengeful cleansing of blots from the family escutcheon. He has become a man of what we have come to think of as typically English reserve, of dispassionateness, of impartiality and disinterest. This ideal runs throughout the cast of characters we see in the Spectator. Indeed, the attitude of disinterested reserve is the common thread uniting the characters, and is, really the essence of this new kind of gentleman. What this has to do with cultivation and the liberal arts lies ahead of us—first, lets put some flesh on the bones of Addison's fictional gentlemen.
The cast of characters in Addison and Steele’s fictitious Spectator Club — in many ways an idealized version of the audience for their journal, and for the amalgamating English elite — is something of a showcase of polite disinterest. Here is the first of them, a country gentleman of the old school named Sir Roger DeCoverly. He's important, because we're told he has changed, after a disappointing love affair. Take note of the differences between his youthful behavior and his present behavior, and you'll get at a great deal of how the idea of the gentleman is being redefined:
The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of an ancient descent, a baronet, his name Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country-dance which is called after him. All who know that shire are very well acquainted with the parts and merits of Sir Roger…. It is said he keeps himself a bachelor by reason he was crossed in love by a perverse beautiful widow of the next county to him. Before this disappointment, Sir Roger was what you call a fine gentleman, had often supped with my Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a duel upon his first coming to town, and kicked bully Dawson in a public coffee-house for calling him youngster. But being ill-used by the above-mentioned widow, he was very serious for a year and a half; and though, his temper being naturally jovial, he at last got over it, he grew careless of himself and never dressed afterwards. He continues to wear a coat and doublet of the same cut that were in fashion at the time of his repulse, which, in his merry humors, he tells us, has been in and out twelve times since he first wore it. It is said Sir Roger grew humble in his desires after he had forgot his cruel beauty... He is now in his fifty-sixth year, cheerful, gay, and hearty; keeps a good house both in town and country; a great lover of mankind; but there is such a mirthful cast in his behavior, that he is rather beloved than esteemed. His tenants grow rich, his servants look satisfied, all the young women profess love to him, and the young men are glad of his company. When he comes into a house, he calls the servants by their names... I must not omit that Sir Roger is a justice of the quorum; that he fills the chair at a quarter-session with great abilities, and three months ago gained universal applause, by explaining a passage in the Game Act.
What was this man in the past? Passionate, a dueler, proud of his ancient family, and reader to avenge any insult with violence. But what is he now, reformed? Indifferent to impressing others by his appearance, sociable with all, more-or-less without selfish desire, and (unlike so many judges in his time and ours) without much by way of a judicial axe to grind. He has stepped back from passionate family honor as an ideal, and become much more reserved, disinterested, and detached: qualities important to the new gentleman — and qualities, it should be noted, less of bloodline than of attitude.
After Sir Roger, we meet another gentleman of the Spectator Club, an unnamed lawyer. Reading his description, I wonder: would you want him as your attorney? In what context would it be good to know him?
The gentleman next in esteem and authority among us is another bachelor, who is a member of the Inner Temple, a man of great probity, wit, and understanding; but he has chosen his place of residence rather to obey the direction of an old humorsome father than in pursuit of his own inclinations. He was placed there to study the laws of the land, and is the most learned of any of the house in those of the stage. Aristotle and Longinus are much better understood by him than Littleton or Coke. The father sends up every post questions relating to marriage-articles, leases, and tenures, in the neighborhood; all which questions he agrees with an attorney to answer and take care of in the lump. He is studying the passions themselves, when he should be inquiring into the debates among men which arise from them. He knows the argument of each of the orations of Demosthenes and Tully, but not one case in the reports of our own courts. No one ever took him for a fool; but none, except his intimate friends, know he has a great deal of wit. This turn makes him at once both disinterested and agreeable. As few of his thoughts are drawn from business, they are most of them fit for conversation. …. He is an excellent critic, and the time of the play is his hour of business; exactly at five he passes through New-inn, crosses through Russell-court, and … has his shoes rubbed and his periwig powdered at the barber’s as you go into the Rose. It is for the good of the audience when he is at the play, for the actors have an ambition to please him.
What do we notice about him? About what does he care? Although this gentleman plays in the high-stakes world of London law, he also shows a remarkable degree of emotional distance from the world of power-interests. More inclined to connoisseurship than the fray of the law, he spurns legal matters for his true love, the theater, and devotes himself not just to literary theory, but to most formalistic literary theory: to questions of genre and aesthetics, rather than to the political or social or religious aspects of literature. One might not trust the man to protect one’s money or land in court, but it is his very removal from such practical matters that makes him so eminently “disinterested and agreeable” to Mr. Spectator and his friends, for “as few of his thoughts are drawn from business, they are most of them fit for conversation.”
The next member of the Spectator Club is Captain Sentry, a representative of the military officer class. What virtues does he have that we have seen in the other gentlemen?
Next to Sir Andrew in the clubroom sits Captain Sentry, a gentleman of great courage, good understanding, but invincible modesty. He is one of those that deserve very well, but are very awkward at putting their talents within the observation of such as should take notice of them. He was some years a captain, and behaved himself with great gallantry in several engagements and at several sieges; but having a small estate of his own, and being next heir to Sir Roger, he has quitted a way of life in which no man can rise suitably to his merit, who is not something of a courtier as well as a soldier. I have heard him often lament that, in a profession where merit is placed in so conspicuous a view, impudence should get the better of modesty. When he has talked to this purpose, I never heard him make a sour expression, but frankly confess that he left the world because he was not fit for it. A strict honesty and an even regular behavior are in themselves obstacles to him that must press through crowds, who endeavor at the same end with himself, the favor of a commander….The military part of his life has furnished him with many adventures, in the relation of which he is very agreeable to the company; for he is never overbearing, though accustomed to command men in the utmost degree below him; nor ever too obsequious, from an habit of obeying men highly above him.
Again, reticence, a lack of concern with overt self-interest, and a kind of self-possessed reserve are the attitudes of the new gentleman. We hear much the same about a clergyman, and about an old rake named Will Honeycomb, who is also a disinterested an honest man, "where women are not concerned."
If disinterest is the defining ideal of the new gentleman, then another kind of member of the arising elite presents particular difficulties: the merchant. Merchants, after all, are by definition creatures of self-interest, their individual greed leading (if Adam Smith is to be believed) to a general improvement for all. How can they be assimilated to this new gentlemanly ideal? Here is Addison's example of the merchant gentleman, Sir Andrew Freeport:
The person of next consideration is Sir Andrew Freeport, a merchant of great eminence in the city of London; a person of indefatigable industry, strong reason, and great experience. His notions of trade are noble and generous, and (as every rich man has usually some sly way of jesting, which would make no great figure were he not a rich man) he calls the sea the British Common. He is acquainted with commerce in all its parts, and will tell you that it is a stupid and barbarous way to extend dominion by arms; for true power is to be got by arts and industry. He will often argue that, if this part of our trade were well cultivated, we should gain from one nation; and if another, from another. I have heard him prove that diligence makes more lasting acquisitions than valor, and that sloth has ruined more nations than the sword. He abounds in several frugal maxims, amongst which the greatest favorite is, “A penny saved is a penny got.” A general trader of good sense is pleasanter company than a general scholar; and Sir Andrew having a natural unaffected eloquence, the perspicuity of his discourse gives the same pleasure that wit would in another man. He has made his fortune himself; and says that England may be richer than other kingdoms by as plain methods as he himself is richer than other men; though at the same time I can say this of him, that there is not a point in the compass but blows home a ship in which he is an owner.
He's different, isn't he? Do we see in him any disinterest or reserve? Perhaps his nationalism makes him seem less selfish, and his “natural and unaffected eloquence” makes him strong in his conversation at the club. But, as any acquaintance with English history shows, the assimilation of those in trade to the ideal of the gentleman remained, and in some quarters remains, imperfect.
If the fictional characters of the Spectator were representative of the emerging elite, so too were its very real readers. When Spectator #269 announced that prior issues were to be republished in a somewhat expensive octavo edition, buyers, both male and female, came forth in droves from the aristocracy, the professions, and the mercantile world. So strong was the response that a somewhat less expensive duodecimo edition was announced almost immediately, in Spectator #278, for a readership composed of those aspiring to membership in the elite. When the name of Addison was heard in the bookseller’s shop, both the actual elites and their striving emulators reached for their wallets.
But what does cultivation have to do with this new kind of disinterested gentleman? Long story short, it's this: one gains these attitudes of disinterest and dispassionateness (according to Addison) from the contemplation of art and literature. Although Kant had yet to batter the German language into the spikes and sharp edges of his unreadable, ponderous, and wonderful aesthetic theory, Addison had learned from such English philosophers as Shaftesbury to think of art and literature as things contemplated for their own sake, and to see such contemplation as a kind of training ground for attitude toward life in which one steps back from the pursuit of one's self-interest. It's fascinating to read the literary criticism in the Spectator, because it asks you to look on literature as a purely formal matter of beauty, and of the decorum of part to whole. When the Spectator discusses Milton's Paradise Lost, for example, it's all about whether the language is appropriate to the sentiment, and about what kind of beauties the poem holds. The fact that the poem was a political and religious statement—and a particularly wrathful and bitter one, to boot—goes unremarked. We're not concerned, here, with partisanship: we're concerned with developing an attitude that will help potentially clashing factions of an elite get beyond partisanship, and club together. It worked. England's old elite, unlike that of France, did not end up on the wrong side of a guillotine blade at the century's end. And in no small measure their survival had to do with the redefinition of the gentleman as a creature of reserved impartiality. (I should stress that this was an ideal, not an actuality).
The notion of the cultivated, disinterested gentleman morphs and mutates and changes in any number of ways over the course of the 19th century, but there's one version of the gentlemanly ideal I'd like to mention, because it has some bearing on who we are and what we, as educators, do. This is the ideal of the educated gentleman as a kind of impartial figure mediating between, and being an honest broker among, the various classes of society as they come into conflict with one another. Think of the critic, poet, and educational administrator, Matthew Arnold, and what he said in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy. Writing at a time of serious social conflict, he outlined a special position for cultivated individuals. These people, whose origin could lie in any class, would by virtue of the disinterest they developed through liberal education become "aliens" to any class: impartial, and open to reason and "the free and fresh play" of ideas. In a world of people seeking their conflicting self-interests, these people would be above the fray and, in Lionel Trilling's phrase, serve as a kind of "umpire class." They would make sure the others played fair.
This Arnoldian notion—of the most educated taking on the kind of virtues associated with the 18th century gentleman—is still with us. It is often present when we hear that liberal study will make one a better citizen, or give one the ability for critical thought. It is certainly present in some of the theories of what intellectuals and teachers are for. As Alvin Gouldner, the greatest sociologist of intellectuals ever to have treaded through the stacks of a research library, put it, "As teachers, intellectuals come to be defined, and to define themselves, as responsible for and 'representative' of society as a whole." Rather than representing their self-interest, such creatures, in this view, try to adjudicate matters with disinterest, approaching the gentlemanly ideal, albeit without the good tailoring, and with an aesthetically dismaying number of PBS tote-bags on display.
Why, then, are you—educators, devoted to the liberal arts—not necessarily all gentlemen (or ladies, although I confess to knowing remarkably little about the historical evolution of the idea of the lady)?
Long story short, it's because of these people:
The damn dirty hippies. Well, not exactly. But it is something did happen, beginning in the 1960s, to challenge the idea of the higher education as a redoubt of gentlemanly disinterest. Perhaps the best way to begin is with a little anecdote that our former poet laureate, Robert Hass, gives in a memoir of his days at SUNY-Buffalo. Here we see a gathering in which the younger generation confronts an educational establishment that clearly sees itself as representing the Arnoldian ideal of disinterest, impartiality, and the free and fresh play of ideas:
The year must have been 1969; the room was packed with students and faculty dressed, as the style was, to their archetypes: Indians, buffalo hunters, yogis, metaphysical hoboes, rednecks, lumberjacks, Mandingo princes, lions, tigers, hawks, and bears. Everything the American middle class had repressed lounged in that room listening to speaker after speaker with beatific attention. Which took some doing. I remember in particular a graduate student from the Progressive Labor Party who read an exceedingly long essay on the parallels between Bob Dylan's career and the growth of political theory in the New Left….When he finished, Edgar Friedenburg, the sociologist, rose to speak. He is a dapper man and he wore a light gray suit with a striped broadcloth Brooks Brothers shirt. His glasses sat low on his nose, his hair was tousled, and he looked amused. He only managed one sentence: "I have been reflecting this afternoon that we are patient beings, and that, though popular culture deserves our most urgent attention, it requires from us a good deal less credence and more clearwater." Some of the audience laughed; and a student in the front stood up, jabbed a finger forward, and said, "Friedenburg, it took twenty fucking years of repressive fucking education for you to learn to talk like that."
It's a standoff , isn't it? And a standoff, specifically, between a representative of Arnoldian, gentlemanly disinterest (more clear water, the free and fresh play of ideas; less credence, the simple acceptance of ideas most appealing to our self-interest), and someone who clearly believes that ideal to be deeply flawed. But flawed how? Flawed, I'd venture to say, by being both smug and a sham, by pretending to an impossible objectivity, rather than admitting to one's own self-interested agenda and fighting it out fair and square in the public sphere. It's a New Left idea—that the pretext of disinterest is only that, a pretext—that has in decades since become a neo-conservative idea. It's an idea that underlies the notion that public affairs should be discussed by representatives of "both sides" of a debate, even when the debates (such as that over the existence of climate change) don't have what disinterested people would see as two rational sides. It's also an idea that, as the children of the sixties undertook the long march through the academic institutions became, a large part of how some academic disciplines, particularly in the humanities, operated.
This is not the time to rehearse the theoretical and methodological disputes in the humanities in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, having lived through those disputes, I don't think I could bring myself to revisit them in all their acrimonious tedium ever again. But I will point to one article, quite influential in my field, by the scholar William Spanos: an enormous 1985 effort called “The Apollonian Investment of Modern Humanist Education.” Here Spanos maintains that inquiry aiming at disinterest is, necessarily, going to serve as a screen for received prejudices. Advocates of disinterest, says Spanos, merely reaffirm “the abiding ‘touchstones’ of the logocentric humanistic mind - ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ (by which, as the omission of reference to any other makes clear ... means the Western world).” With language echoing that of Culture and Anarchy, this is very much a shot across the bow of the H.M.S. Matthew Arnold. According to Spanos, the Arnoldian ideal is bankrupt, and thinkers committed to disinterested inquiry will always end up seeking a cultural “re-centering,” a “restoration of a common body of knowledge” based on old ideas and unexamined biases. In its stead, Spanos offered an ideal of “understanding as antagonistic dialogue”—the kind of public clash that the student from Hass' anecdote called for in a rather less articulate way.
If this combative, interest-group-specific model of inquiry is what you believe in—if, that is, you consider self- or interest-group advocacy a part of what you, as an academic, may or may not be right. But (and perhaps this is something you will hear with pride) you are no gentleman.