The Ideal of Balance and English quality of life
The gentleman-ideal is not an exclusive English thing. The elements have come from many sources, and though it has been developed in Britain, it must be developed further. The valuable elements which have developed so far have included, in my opinion, these:
(1). The concept of life as a sport, undertaken very seriously under strict rules, and always with a fundamental balance, and respect for the opponents. This concept has success as its goal, not triumph.
(2). The courage to resist, to stand out even single handed, against the blind herd instinct—the herd instinct which can find its satisfaction only in conflict with another herd.
(3). Search for an ideal in secular life; this has been found so far in social service to strangers, protection of the weak, and a certain good taste.
(4). Self-control, and specially the sense of humour, which produces personal modesty.
(5). An amateur attitude which prevents becoming absorbed in an expertise without any wider view.
(6). The ‘gardening’ concept—that changes should come about by evolution not by revolution.
(7) Absence of deceit and trickery; keeping a promise.
The deficiencies of the gentleman concept include:
(1). A tendency to regard brilliance as a sign of lack of the balanced standpoint.
(2). A resistance to new ideas—though this resistance has never been absolute, as we can see from the way the gentleman-ideal itself has evolved.
(3). The emphasis on self-control and restraint of feeling can result in insensitiveness and lack of spontaneity.
(4). The sense of humour can deflate enthusiastic endeavour.
(5). The gardening concept, that changes should take place slowly, has sometimes led to a complacency which does not want any change at all.
(6) Over-respect for trivialities, conventions of behaviour, speech and dress which have no artistic or rational basis.
(7). Hypocrisy among those who cannot rise to the moral standards demanded.
(8). Lack of encouragement for intellectual and scientific creativity.
(9). Lack of encouragement for artistic creativity.
The Concept of Balance
As one can see, the concept of balance is absolutely fundamental to the British gentleman concept. Even when engaged in something of vital importance, the gentleman periodically tries to stand back and look at the situation as a whole, in a balanced and rational spirit. I think that many Japanese believe this is the wrong way to go about a thing: that the right way is the sute-mi—to throw oneself wholly into an activity without any standing back or consideration of results or effects. The British ideal would be always to consider the results and effects, though not to be influenced by fear or greed. The sute-mi method does score very dramatic successes, but it can also happen that the goal has been misconceived, or perhaps too limited. When it has been achieved, it may turn out that it was wrong to take it as an absolute.
It seems to us that Japanese people are at their best when they have a clear goal, but they become uneasy when one goal has been achieved and they are not clear what to try next. Whereas British people are better at taking a wide view, balancing risky innovations (nuclear power, Concorde) with restriction on development (anti-pollution laws strictly enforced since 1956).
But the British people on the other hand are sometimes too willing to find objections even when a goal is fairly clear—such objections can be raised endlessly.
Bertrand Russell once remarked, “There are no 100% certainties; there are only 99% probabilities.” Japanese people often act as if there were 100% certainties, and that gives them tremendous energy and resolution; however it occasionally leads to disaster. British people are more likely to consider even the most obvious ‘certainty’ as only probable. Perhaps centuries of experience with horse-racing has made us aware that an outstanding racing horse does not always win the race. The problem for the British people is, when convinced that a goal is 99% certain to be right, how to concentrate 99% effort and conviction into the efforts towards it, and not merely about 50%.
As a Judo man, I appreciate the point about balance. I first studied Judo under a teacher who had also been an expert in Ju-jutsu, and he once remarked to me: “Nowadays in Judo contests, they are using the sute-mi style of throw; the thrower throws himself together with the other man. This is very effective in contest where there is only one opponent. But it was not so much encouraged in the old Ju-jutsu, because if there is more than one opponent, one must not go into ne-waza. If there is more than one opponent, to go to the ground using a sute-mi throw means that the others can kick you while you are on the ground.”
He explained to me that in Ju-jutsu a throw was made under the restriction that one should remain standing after the throw, ready to face the next man. “In making your throw, you must retain your balance at the end of it. Though you use your whole body in the throwing action, you must be balanced at the end of the throw. You may momentarily throw your balance at the opponent during the throw, but you must recover it as you make the throw. Although your concentration on the throw must be good, you must retain a wide awareness of other opponents, and not think that this one throw is the whole world.”
This advice made a deep impression on me. Men make a sute-mi on success in business, but they find they have damaged their health; they have defeated their business opponents, but they have lost to another opponent, namely an ulcer. Similarly nationally one can make sute-mi for a high GNP, and achieve it, but find one has lost to another opponent, namely pollution.
French people are more polite than the British—a Frenchman ends his letter: “Accept, dear sir, the assurance of my earnest salutations”, whereas the Englishman simply writes “Yours sincerely.” In a way the French have made a sute-mi on politeness—but then when French people quarrel (which they do much more frequently than the British) they are more unrestrained and much ruder.
Similarly we find Japanese manners much more polite than the British—but it is a big surprise to British people when they see how many Japanese men let themselves become completely drunk. An Englishman would be most ashamed to have allowed himself to become very drunk; it happens, of course, but he is ashamed of it.
The sute-mi style man is a very formidable man; often he can simply overawe, or force his way through, all opposition. Most people just give way before a very determined and one-pointed effort, just as most people will give way before a man who has lost his temper. But if there is a man who has courage and strength of character, and who can also keep calm presence of mind, he can generally defeat a merely passionate man.
An English millionaire, who believed in the gentleman concept, once told me: “These men who have a tremendous drive towards one single thing are very useful in a company, but they must not be at the very top.” I asked why. He said: “They get totally involved with just one thing. If they fail in it, it is such a shock that it more or less paralyses them for quite a time. And even if they succeed, they generally want a triumph. They are not satisfied with mere success—there are all kinds of details which they demand should be settled in a particular way. These are minor things which don’t really matter at all, but which have got involved in their idea of triumph. They will fight bitterly for them, and it takes a lot of their time and energy.”
So I asked him, “What do you do when you have a failure or a success?” He said, “In both cases I don’t think about it—I go and do something else. I’ve enjoyed the struggle, but I don’t think much about it afterwards.”
That was an illuminating remark, and it gives a good idea of the ‘gentleman’ approach to business. He is a very energetic man, and he enjoys the struggle, but however it turns out, he is neither bitter about failure nor over-elated by success. He wants success, not triumph, not victory. Triumph and victory are associated with battle, and an essential element is the total defeat of the opposition. Success is associated with sport; it does not necessarily involve total defeat of someone else. It just means that one achieves one’s own aim, not necessarily 100%, but in the main points. In a horse-race or a golf tournament, there are second and third place prizes.
An old Chinese in Shanghai gave me his idea of a gentleman: “The British gentleman is selfish, like everyone else. Still, he has one very good point; as far as he can, he tries to see that his selfishness doesn’t interfere with other people’s selfishness! But with people of most other nations, one of the pleasures of getting something is their thought that others are not getting it.”
There is, I admit, a great danger in the ‘balance’ ideal: if things are going reasonably well, one may not wish to change. What will save us from stagnation? The answer in the past has been the respect given by gentlemen to eccentrics. We recognize that many of these people, though today they may have little value, have sometimes got a potentiality of value in the future. We may laugh at them, but if they persist with their ideas even in the face of ridicule, we begin to respect them. We recognize that the type of man who is effective in present-day circumstances may not be so appropriate in the future, and we do not know what the future may be.
This is a scientific attitude. Geneticists point out that there is a great variety of wheat strains in the world. Through our agricultural science, we have selected certain strains which give the highest yield, and many other strains, whose yield is less good, are dying out. This is a sute-mi on high yield. It conceals however a great danger. Because there may suddenly arise a disease of wheat against which our present high-yield strains have no defence.
But one of the wild strains will have a defence against it, and if the circumstance arises, we shall need that wild strain to cultivate. In the same way eccentric people, people with unorthodox ideas, may not be particularly fruitful in present- day society. And many of them, no doubt, will never do any good to society; their ideas are simply impracticable or crazy. But as society changes (and it is changing all the time), we shall need new ideas, some of which we can develop to meet the new circumstances. These new ideas are sure to seem eccentric until their time comes.
© Trevor Leggett 1976
1.Ways in which British people think and act
6.Looking Back Over Victorian Times