Peggy Noonan wants to revive the concept.

There was a time when I wrote about all this quite a lot. I don't think I have anything to say that I didn't say back then about what the concept is, or how it applies; my sense is that the gentleness falls out of the fact that our old norms for gentlemen were invented by men who were essentially a cavalry class. An important part of taming a horse and riding it to war is learning the self-control necessary to control the horse. That's why gentlemen are gentle. Moreover, what makes a gentleman isn't a commitment to be nice to people, but the moral seriousness that comes from taking up the sword in earnest.

Once those ideas were suffused through our society; even Robert E. Howard's Conan, mentioned recently, is frequently described as having 'a rude chivalry' about him because otherwise he would have behaved in despicable ways (and thus not been a suitable hero for 1930s Americans). Actually, I think of Howard as mirroring Tacitus, whose Germania describes the northern barbarians as having similar qualities, and likewise attributes the nobility of those qualities to the very barbarism of the men. “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split," Conan says in The Tower of the Elephant.

The collapse of morals attends the collapse of consequences. Men aren't gentlemen any more because there is so little danger of having their skulls split, or of splitting another's.


E Hines said...

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split

Without disputing the thrust of OP, because I don't, I wonder about this statement of Conan's. Is it really courtesy in such a circumstance, or is it a desire for self-preservation? Courtesy, it seems to me, is what we do unbidden, because it's a right thing to do, not something we do in the expectation of gaining a consequence or avoiding one.

And that sets a properly high bar. A true gentleman is courteous, he's not looking for something in return.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

"Courtesy," at least as a word, is the behavior one engages in at court. I'm guessing the enforcement arm plays a role in compelling such good behavior in many cases (as it does in a modern court of law, in which contempt for the courtesies is enforced by jail time).

There's an interesting question about what 'doing the right thing' would look like if there really were an absence of compulsion. It sounds like a nice ideal, but what I've observed of it so far is that freeing people from compulsion hasn't produced gentler behavior.

E Hines said...

Oh, no doubt enforcement is necessary to get most right behavioral outcomes done. But is forced behavior "right" behavior in its own right, even if the outcomes might be convenient to us, or is it merely coerced behavior that has outcomes convenient to us?

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Well, that's the right line of questioning, only it doesn't stop there. Socrates asks whether gods love just behavior because it is just, or if it is just because the gods love it. The orthodox Christian answer is the latter, except for big-G God, who defines the right. But the American answer can't appeal to that, as 'what is right' has to be defined in a way coherent with the First Amendment's embrace of freedom of conscience.

So we have to talk as if there's a way of defining the right for Americans per se as if 'the gods love it because it is just.' I'm not sure that program is philosophically defensible.

Attempting it anyway, because it is necessary even if it is impossible, I fall back on a kind of virtue-ethical pragmatism. The right is right, that is, because it works; courage is a virtue because it helps you attain your ends more effectively, and moderation is a virtue because it maintains physical health (which also helps you attain ends effectively). Even that approach is a kind of appeal to natural theology, of course: God set up the world in such a way that courage and moderation turn out to be effective, and thus virtues. But it's possible to speak agnostically about it, and so it can pass the First Amendment test.

But that does end up grounding ethics on something like Conan's terms. Courtesy is right in part because it keeps your skull from getting split (as well as making it easier to work together with others towards mutually desired ends, some of which you probably only discover because you arranged to be polite to one another long enough to talk it through). God is hiding in the background, via the natural theological move, but remains the ultimate ground of morality on this picture.

David Foster said...

"An important part of taming a horse and riding it to war is learning the self-control necessary to control the horse."

John Patterson, founder of National Cash Register, believed that no one could be a leader of men unless he was a good horseman, and he expected his executives to demonstrate the skill.

Two who weren't very good at it were Charles Kettering (later of Delco and GM) and Tom Watson Sr (who built IBM)

Nonetheless, there may be something to the idea....

Grim said...

It's too strong to say that you can't be a leader of men without knowing how to ride a horse. It's more that the long period of high honor enjoyed by knighthood allowed them to transform the values of the whole society, for a time. A man who grows up in a society that honors those values will emulate him even if he hasn't the knack for horses. Once society no longer honors the men of the horse and sword, though, you'll get other values. And the safer the society, the less valuable those values will be. We only discover what is really virtuous when we rub up against destruction: that's where the value of courage is proven, and the power of moderation.

Ymarsakar said...

This is not including various Alt Cultures like the Amish or the Latter Day Saints.

It's like watching time travel sci fi fantasy.

Ymarsakar said...

The only two things that can free humans from external compulsion are death and the other one.

Having to eat, fearing death, obeying instincts, and various other problems with mortality, will always mean that human are the slaves of the elohim one way or another.

The people with the maximum amount of free will choose tyranny and totalitarian control. That is either because they did not have free will, or they chose to use free will to enslave themselves. Either way, they are slaves.

The test is not which mortal answers the correct multiple choice question. In some sense, all answers are wrong, what is important is how one approaches the test questions.