The Gentleman Ideal and English quality of life

The gentleman ideal is still one of the country’s most prized values, in spite of the ambivalence which makes the Eton boys try to get rid of their public school accents. The ambivalence means that the ideal is changing, as it has changed in the past. The main currents have been:

(1). A gentleman is a good fighter from a good family,

i.e. a family comparatively wealthy and influential for several generations: this was the classical view of the Greeks and Romans;

(2). A gentleman is a noble fighter who protects the weak—view of chivalry;

(3). A gentleman is a well-born man with a gloss of courtesy, refinement and poise in his manner— the French and Italian ‘courtier’ view;

(4). A gentleman is above all a sportsman—the view of the 18th century English country squires;

(5). A gentleman is a man of honesty and quiet strength of character, conforming strictly to artificial canons of speech, clothes and behaviour, reticent and restrained in everything—the 19th century public school view.

There is now coming up more and more strongly a quite different notion, which has been quietly developing in Britain since Chaucer:

(6). Any man who behaves gently is a gentleman.

Here we must look again at the word ‘gentle’. It derived from the French gentil, which meant belonging to a good family, and hence pleasant and agreeable, especially in manners. Now already in the 16th century, this French word had taken on a new meaning in England; it had become the English word ‘gentle’, with the meaning ‘mild, not harsh or severe’ and so on. The word was moving away from the French is association with wellborn manners, and towards a new English association with kindness and softness in actual feeling and behaviour. This shift of meaning was so marked that at the very end of that 16th century, in Shakespeare’s day, the French word was re-introduced  with its original meaning. The French gentil was reintroduced as ‘genteel’, and this had (and still has) the meaning of ‘polite, well-dressed, having the characteristics of superior social status’.

The reason why the word reappeared as ‘genteel’ is interesting. In English we have a strong stress accent, and in a two-syllable word this generally falls on the first syllable. In French there is no stress accent. The French gentil, pronounced with equal stress on each syllable, had been ‘Englished’ into gentle, in which the stress falls strongly on the ‘gen-’ and the ‘-tie’ drops away into almost nothing. Now when the word was re-introduced, with its original meaning, it was desired to keep it in its French form, to distinguish it from the new meaning of ‘gentle’. This meant that some way must be found to get at least equal stress on the second syllable. It was done by lengthening the vowel of the second syllable, so that it could not be dropped off. Hence the word genteel, with a long vowel. This ‘French’ word had strictly its original meaning, to contrast it with ‘gentle’.

So ‘gentle’ in ordinary speech lost the associations with wellborn, and the related word ‘gentleman’ also to some extent began to lose them. Those associations remained with the word ‘genteel’, and whereas to appear ‘genteel’ was an ambition in the nineteenth century, in this century the word ‘genteel’ has become a term of contempt. The two words, gentle and genteel, are now quite different in meaning: to put a cup down gently means without making a noise, whereas to put a cup down genteelly would mean in an artificial manner, perhaps with the little finger held away from the cup, as was once the fashion.

Today, more and more the association of ‘gentleman’ has come to be with good behaviour. A ‘gentleman’s agreement’ is a well-known phrase, and it means an agreement or understanding between two people, in which there is no written contract or other guarantee of performance: the sole basis of the agreement is the  honour of the parties concerned.

When George IV in 1822 visited Scotland and was received with great courtesy and expressions of loyalty, he called them ‘a nation of gentlemen’.

There has for a long time been a use of the word lo ‘gentleman’ simply to mean a man. It sometimes forms the basis of scholarly jokes, which are based on the fact that the word ‘gentleman’ has the two meanings. For instance a historian writing about Wellington wishes to say that a message congratulating him on the Waterloo is victory was brought by a man whose name is not known, but who may have been Creevey. (Creevey was a well-known social climber of the time.) Normally the historian would write: “The message was brought by an unnamed gentleman (perhaps Creevey).” But this historian deliberately writes: “The message was brought by an unnamed gentleman (or perhaps Creevey).” This delicately inserts the hint that the historian does not like Creevey. Creevey is of course a ‘gentleman’ in the sense that he is a man, but he is not a gentleman because he is not of good behaviour. There are many such jokes in English writing which foreigners generally miss.

Already the wide use of the word ‘gentleman’ is found in the dramatist Sheridan (1751-1816), who coined a famous phrase, ‘gentleman’s gentleman’. This means a valet, who is a personal servant to a gentleman. The valet too is beginning to consider himself a gentleman, so he is not a gentleman’s valet, but a gentleman’s gentleman.

A standard phrase for newspaper reporters is ‘the gentlemen of the Press’.

The change in attitude towards the concept of gentleman has been very noticeable in my own lifetime. When I was a young man, the lavatories in the factory were marked MEN and WOMEN, whereas the lavatories in the office were marked GENTLEMEN and LADIES. Now in many companies all the lavatories are marked GENTLEMEN and LADIES, and public lavatories are generally marked so. A few egalitarian socialist town councils have tried marking them MEN and WOMEN, but the interesting fact is that people seem to want to be called Gentlemen and Ladies. The argument of the egalitarians, that if these words apply to everyone then they have no meaning, is not accepted.

One type of Litter-bin notice which has been successful is this: “GENTLEMEN WILL—OTHERS MUST.” If you are a gentleman, you will of course have consideration for others, and put rubbish in the litterbin; if you are not a gentleman, then you are warned that you will be fined if you drop litter on the ground.

The word ‘gentleman’ is everywhere used to mean ‘honest’, and especially to be honest when one could benefit by another’s mistake.

If the greengrocer gives me too much change and I notice, and return the excess to him, he takes it with thanks and remarks, “You’re a gentleman.” If it is the other way round, I say it to him. Sometimes ultra-left-  wing Socialists, who reject the word ‘gentleman’ totally because of its past associations with privilege, inadvertently say of someone who has behaved with kindness and restraint, “He is a gentleman.” Then when they realize what they have said, they look embarrassed.

(2) “The Gentleman is not a Fool”

 What we have seen, in every field, is a gradual loss of the automatic distinctions between the gentleman and the others. This is not because the gentlemen are disappearing, but that the working class are ambitious to become gentlemen. Of course the change is slow, and there are innumerable little remnants of the former privileges of the gentlemen. Against these remaining privileges the full force of egalitarian propaganda is being concentrated. And if the former privileged classes simply try to defend these bastions of privilege—public schools, exclusive golf clubs and other clubs, behind-the-scenes influence in politics and so on— then they will inevitably fall.

To survive, the gentleman ideal will have to execute another Judo move, similar to those which it has executed in the past. First it moved from the ‘birth’ qualification to the ‘birth-behaviour’ qualification; then it moved to the concept that the gentleman must do something useful, and from this arose the great tradition of social service done for nothing (i.e. for no salary). Naturally, to perform these social services, as a magistrate, or as an unofficial health visitor, one had to have money and free time. The gentlemen and ladies had both, and there is no doubt that by giving this service to the country in so many spheres, they prevented the otherwise certain revolution in Britain which Karl Marx prophesied. They did it all as amateurs; the essence of their social service was that it was done purely out of community spirit and without training or any salary. But now there is the Welfare State, and this function of the gentle-folk has gone. They have not got the money to compete with the Welfare State, and furthermore most of them have to work for their living.

The future of the gentleman perhaps depends on whether he can get out of the ‘amateur’ and into the ‘professional’ field. The distinction, which is clearly seen in sport, goes very deep in British psychology, and is one should study it a little.

To illustrate: from 1806 onwards, a great cricket match was held in Britain nearly every year, called ‘Gentlemen versus Players’. The two teams changed in different rooms, and came out on to the field from different gates. The ‘Gentlemen’ were the best amateurs, and the ‘Players’ were the best professionals. Altogether 137 of these matches were held till it was abolished in 1962, when the distinction of amateur and professional was dropped in cricket. Just how good the amateurs were is shown by the fact that they won 41 of these matches; the professionals won 68, and 28 were drawn. In the programme of the match, the two teams were listed, but the Gentlemen always had their names given with the initials, whereas the professionals, though famous national sporting heroes, were simply listed under the surnames. Thus ‘P.G. Fender’ was an amateur, and ‘Hobbs’ must be a professional. It was a tradition for a very long time that the all-England team, though consisting mainly of professionals, should have an amateur as captain. The idea that the national team should always be captained by an amateur was very significant.

The concept has been extended—like so much of English thinking—from sport to the whole of life. A professional means a full-time paid performer with expertise, and a professional was assumed to have no other virtues. In this view there is something machinelike about him and he has a one-track mind. An engineer or any technologist (with the possible exception of doctors or lawyers) is a ‘pro’; he is an expert at managing gadgets and thus serving the gentlemen who are his betters. They pay him to do it.

A gentleman on the other hand is supposed to have the gift of flexibility and improvisation, which is highly prized; expertise is not needed by the gentleman because his powers of improvisation will cope with any problem that turns out. But more than that: expertise is despised. It is a bit similar to the Confucian phrase: (The gentleman is not a tool).

When I read the history of the industrialization of Japan after the Meiji Revolution, it struck me forcibly that the Meiji politicians were amateurs, complete amateurs. But they could be very flexible, and they could inspire men.

It was a surprise to me to find that the great industries were not founded by the traditional merchant families of Japan. These specialists seem to have been too rigidly confined to their traditions to be able to adapt to the new ideas. It was the leaders of the Meiji Reformation, lower-ranking samurai, amateurs through and through, who carried it all through so successfully.

Put in different words: there is a difference between character and brains. Brains are unbecoming to a gentleman because they are related to expertise; character, on the other hand, is an absolute value. Character is not mere dependability, loyalty, etc. It has an extra meaning, and that extra meaning is the ability and courage to cope flexibly with the unexpected. In other words, it is the same ability to improvise which was thought to be peculiar to the gentleman.

It was considered that expertise is a sort of drill- skill. Apprenticeship is a form of drill and leads to expertise. But the man who has been drilled tends to lose the capacity to improvise, just because he has been drilled. It is assumed that the man of expertise is incapable of looking outside his own subject; to him, his own subject is the absolute value. This makes him incompetent to judge any wide issues.

Take the case of crime and how to deal with it. The trained psychiatrist will say, “The criminal is sick; more facilities for psychiatric treatment, and for spotting potential criminals.” The educationalist will say, “Prevent crime by more and better schools.” The policeman will say, “Prevent crime by making detection certain —a stronger police force!” All these people are specialists, who do not and cannot think outside their own field.

 The traditional view of the gentleman, explained above, is not absolutely wrong.

The specialist is after all paid for his speciality, and naturally has an interest in promoting it. In the past, the gentleman has often been independent as regards money, and so could afford to judge impartially. (Unless, of course, his own class interest was threatened.) There is truth in the view that specialists do become rigid. Thomas Kuhn, in his very important modern work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, points out that most of the revolutionary discoveries in science have come either from very young scientists, or else from a scientist who is investigating a new field—not the field in which he has specialized. Kuhn’s conclusion is that if a scientist concentrates for more than a few years on one field of science, then the prevailing theories of that field become absolute to him. He cannot question them. Hence he cannot make any revolutionary discoveries in that field.

So there is some reason for the British distrust of the ‘mere expert’ who has no vision. There has been a famous saying in British business circles: “Have the experts on tap but not on top.” ‘On tap’ means that they are at hand, and one can consult them—can turn them on like a tap and get their advice. But then one must be able to turn them off, and not allow them to make the decision. They must never be ‘on top’.

But where the British distrust is unreasonable is, that it often assumes that an expert can never have vision. When this attitude becomes too fixed, it means a dislike of really able men, and a distrust of expertise altogether. It doesn’t recognize that a man like Churchill, though an expert (in military matters and in history), also retained his freshness of imagination. It seems incredible that the brilliant Churchill, bubbling over with ideas all the time, should have been so distrusted in the 1930’s, but it was so. It was thought that his military training and his whole work as a national historian would make him interested in war, and liable to foresee war all the time. All through the 1930’s Churchill was right again and again in his predictions, but he was much disliked in politics and had very few friends. It was only when war came that the country accepted him as leader; then the acceptance came with wild enthusiasm.

(3). Amateur Flexibility

Churchill was able to display a many-sidedness which is for a time weakened the myth that a man highly- trained in one line cannot improvise. He was an improvisator par excellence. He did not show the narrowness of view which had been predicated of him. And he was clearly able to display the supreme virtue of the gentleman—the ability to treat life as a sport, with intense seriousness but with an underlying enjoyment, even of its reverses. When after the final victory, to everyone’s amazement Churchill’s party lost the General Election, he never said a word accusing the country of ingratitude. His wife, knowing how his health had been affected by the strains of the war, tried to console him by saying that he could now have a much-needed rest. “It is only a temporary rest,” she said, “you will win the next election. Heaven has sent this defeat as a blessing in disguise.” And Churchill remarked, with true English humour, “Well, Heaven has disguised it very effectively!”

This was the true spirit of the sportsman as developed by the gentleman. Small children shout with joy when they win, but are angry or dispirited when they lose. The gentlemen ritualized sport—the ritual is to play without emotional disturbance, yet with great keenness. A British team would never weep after a national defeat, as some Japanese teams do. Nor would a winning University sing its song after a victory—as a matter of fact there are no songs.

The problem is somehow to reconcile this amateur attitude in sport and life with the professional skill which is more and more necessary. The gentleman ideal will have to give up its attitude of hostility to the expert, while retaining the important ideal of an amateur. The amateur is defined as the man with an uncommitted mind, with a fresh outlook on problems. The expert has in the past been condemned as a man narrowly drilled to carry out one task with precision. And no doubt many experts are actually like that.

But there is a very important point: where a new problem is concerned, the expert is always an amateur —just because the problem is new, the expert has not got a drill ready for dealing with it. Here we see the value of the gentleman ideal of the amateur. In fact, most original scientists have something of the amateur about them. Einstein—as he himself remarked—was rather the amateur in his attitude. Hideki Yukawa, in his book Creativity and Intuition, says something similar about himself. Engineers developing nuclear energy, with nothing in previous experience to guide them, could at first only be amateur in their new work. But this does not mean they could neglect expertise.

Expertise without the amateur spirit cannot cope with is anything unusual. By contrast, the pure amateur without expertise may be simply incompetent, or at any rate irrelevant because he cannot understand the real point.

The future of the gentlemen must include a solution to Britain’s present ambivalence, which has two facets:  (i) disparagement of its own value—the gentlemen (ii) the split between gentlemen and ‘experts’.

There must be, some analysts conclude, growth of the ‘Expert-Amateur’—a man who fully understands a particular expertise, but can nevertheless rise above it and view the whole situation.

One hope for this future is that the gentleman in the past has shown his own characteristic of amateur flexibility, in changing his own way of life. The gentleman accepted commerce—it was a tremendous step; it meant the humiliation of earning money instead of having it as a natural inheritance. And it should be no worse to accept the degradation of becoming expert.

When in the last century, the gentlemen went into trade, they were able to keep some of their ideals; the British commercial firms had a very high standard of probity. They also, by the end of the century, had developed a sense of responsibility to the public. Even today, Nader’s men here are surprised to find that many big factories voluntarily reduce the pollution to well below the legally permitted level. Nader himself remarked that in this matter many of the British companies showed a great capacity to look outside their own narrow interests.

Now the gentlemen have to try to bring their ideals into the field of expertise. They will have to become a new kind of expert: one who does not simply see things in the light of his own expertise, but can view the situation as a whole. One great hope for bringing about the change of attitude,—or perhaps accelerating a change which is already beginning—will be the new universities.

As a sort of indication, one can look at a remark made twenty years ago by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who said, “I can never understand economics—I have to do all the calculations with matches.” That was a very endearing remark by this brilliant politician—it marked him as a gentleman, an amateur.

 But later, both Harold Wilson, leader of the Labour Party, and Edward Heath, the Tory leader, thoroughly understood economics. They disagreed about many points of course, but these were disagreements between experts, not the disagreements which arise between those who do not understand a subject. On the other hand, both of them displayed more animosity in debate than Sir Alec ever showed. He was sometimes very sharp, but he was always attacking the ideas, and not the man. With Heath and Wilson in their personal duels, one did get the feeling of a personal animosity. Some saw this as a passing away of the gentlemanly spirit from the House of Commons, but most people think it was simply an antipathy between two individuals, and not typical.

Mr. Maudling, who was once a colleague of Mr. Heath in the Tory Party, was on one occasion attacked in the House of Commons by Miss Bernadette Devlin, a young anarchist-type of M.P. from Northern Ireland. She rushed at him, knocked off his glasses and pulled his hair. Maudling was asked afterwards whether he proposed to take any action. “Oh no,” he said, “I don’t bear any resentment. As for my hair being pulled, why, I am used to that—it is regularly pulled by my grandchildren.” When I read this remark, containing the gentle hint that he regarded Miss Devlin as a child, I felt impressed. I disagreed with some of Mr. Maudling’s policies, but here he showed the attitude of a gentleman.

The present Socialist Prime Minister James Callaghan has a restrained and urbane manner; he has also a gentlemanly accent, though he was not in fact at one of the Public Schools. His nickname is Uncle Jim, or sometimes Sunny Jim, and there is no doubt that his appearance of imperturbability has a great appeal to British people; the last Prime Minister who had it was Harold Macmillan, the Tory Prime Minister. His nickname was ‘the unflappable’, and also ‘Supermac’.  All these Prime Ministers above mentioned were practising Christians.

I have sometimes thought that the high regard which many British people had for General de Gaulle, in spite of the fact that his policies were so opposed to British interests, was due to this same attitude of Olympian calm. When one attempt was made on de Gaulle’s life, the assassins’ bullets just missed him; he sat unmoving and then remarked, “These gentlemen are not very good shots.” It reminded me of Suzuki Kantaro in 1936, who when his assassins tried to explain their reasons, simply said, “If that’s all you have to say, then shoot.” This kind of calm courage impresses British people far more than the berserk kind.


 © Trevor Leggett 1976


1.Ways in which British people think and act

2.My Husband and I

3.The Public School System

4.The Gentleman Ideal

5.The Ideal of Balance

6.Looking Back Over Victorian Times

7.The Post-Beatles Generation



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