Posted by: N.S. Palmer | October 7, 2015

The Idea of the Gentleman


By N.S. Palmer

The idea of the “gentleman” is out of fashion these days, not least because it seems rather sexist. The idea of the “lady” is also out of fashion, because although it has a lot of good in it, people associate it with female subservience to which it has no essential connection.

But must we discard the good along with the bad?

I submit that both of those ideas, ladies and gentlemen, hold important truths about how we should live.

The late Brand Blanshard, who was Sterling Professor of Philosophy at Yale, considered two things important for someone to be a gentleman. His remarks apply equally to being a lady:

“First there is that ancient pair, chivalry and honor … Chivalry still includes helpfulness to the weak and gallantry to the other sex, but it has come to mean much more; it means that generous fairness to others which is so essential a part of honor.” 1

The second main trait of a gentleman or lady proceeds from the first:

“He is alive to the feelings of others, and tempers his words and actions accordingly. This is reflected in his name: he is known for gentleness as well as honor … Not that the gentleman need lack force; he is notoriously exemplified by such persons as Bayard and Sidney, whose gentleness flowered on a rock of knightly courage.” 2

A gentleman is masculine but not mindless about it:

“The gentleman himself must be something of a hybrid; he must have in addition to his masculine qualities a dash of the feminine in his nature — of compassion and sensitivity.” 3

The same hybrid nature applies, conversely of course, to ladies.

Here Blanshard reveals something about the era in which he wrote (the 1950s), when Yale did not accept female students and nobody outside of a mental institution had any doubts about gender identity:

“This sort of mixture [of masculine and feminine] is viewed with suspicion in this country. We are faced with the paradox that American men have more respect for women than any other men in the world, while at the same time their fear of effeminacy is so acute that they want to put the greatest possible distance between themselves and any trait that is recognizably feminine.” 4

And then, from what we now think of as a “patriarchal” past era, comes an insight that sounds like a feminist critique:

“Many visitors from abroad have noted this; H.G. Wells described it as the ‘square-jawed’ attitude of American men. It is a hypertrophied masculinity, hesitant to admit or avow any delicacies of feeling because that might compromise the stern and rockbound strength of the male animal.” 5

Blanshard was nevertheless hopeful about a more enlightened future:

“We have in our own youth a remarkable combination of fairness to what is novel with eagerness for the best. Secondly, I share a faith as old as Socrates that in truth and goodness there is a gravitational pull on the human mind … 6

In the ideal of the gentleman or lady:

“… are blended the best features of a long and noble ancestry that is still at work in our blood and our ideas, an ancestry that combines the courage of the Gothic forests, the stern Roman ideal of justice, and the compassion of Judea. Of such a lineage we may well be proud.” 7

Works Cited

Blanshard, B. (1973), The Uses of a Liberal Education. Open Court Publishing, LaSalle, IL.


  1. Blanshard, B. (1973), p. 257. The essay is titled “The Idea of the Gentleman” and is based on a commencement speech that he gave sometime during the 1950s. The exact year is not specified. 
  2. Ibid, p. 261. 
  3. Ibid, p. 262. 
  4. Ibid, p. 262. 
  5. Ibid, p. 262. 
  6. Ibid, p. 265. 
  7. Ibid, p. 265. 

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