In order for thumos to repair our emaciated souls by giving us staying power, combating the treason of cowardice and gluing us to transcendent causes, we need first to contend with what it really means to be a gentleman. Most people cannot say where the “gentleman” concept came from, or how it has evolved through the centuries. And most of us have no idea how offensive a historical gentleman would be today if we were unfortunate enough to be stuck in the same room with one for more than a half hour. He is our ideal in need of an overhaul.
The comprehensive evolution of what has been meant by gentleman is too extensive to cover here. And besides, much of that development is pretty boring. For our purposes, know this: the definition, which has changed throughout the centuries, has always been a construction of what society has deemed best in men, and what it has deemed best has undergone some drastic alterations. Those of us who respect liberty and equality would call a traditional gentleman, at best, a stuck-up weenie.
Though the Bible tells us a lot about the virtue of gentleness, it doesn’t include the long-popular concept of a gentleman. In its original sense, the word gentleman described a male who came from an upper-class family—that is, he was of privileged birth. A gentleman didn’t need to work, and if he did, blue-collar labor was far beneath him. That was reserved for “lesser” men, like us.
Through much of history, a gentleman would not be someone you’d want to sit next to at a ball game or in church. He represented the kind of rigid and punitive social order that revolutionaries saw and rebelled against. That worldview would make the average American’s skin crawl.
Making matters worse, at times this privileged order was sanctioned by the church as being part of God’s divine providence. For example, Charlotte Bronte was attacked by church people as godless and anti-Christian because in Jane Eyre she had undermined the God-given social order of her time. How? By the end of the novel she had allowed a mere governess to marry the lord of the manor. For tradition lovers this was a scandal of biblical proportions—which is amusing, given Jesus’ aforementioned unmannerly disregard for convention.
At the same time, though, there have been certain better concepts associated with being a gentleman. One is guardianship, or looking out for the well-being of those charged to your care. Also, the gentleman was thoughtful and courteous, and we need more of this today.
Looking to the East also helps us gain a more authentic understanding of this ideal archetype. For instance, Confucius called being a gentleman chun-tzu. Such a man is “distressed by his own lack of capacity,” but he is never distressed at the failure of others to recognize his merits. He will be “slow in word but diligent in action,” indeed he is “ashamed to let his words outrun his deeds.” He remains “unperturbed when not appreciated by others.” Like you, I would be more than happy to spend time with this kind of man.
Conservative feminist Katherine Kersten has said well what an ideal man should be:
True manhood means accepting responsibility for others, and making their welfare a primary focus of life. It means developing a capacity for judgment, courage, honesty, generosity, determination, public-spiritedness, and self-denial in pursuit of a larger good.
Manliness, Kersten says, embraces both tough and gentle virtues.
All in all, it’s important to understand that amid the shifting historical definitions, in large measure we men are expected to be more conformed to the image of Mr. Gentleman than to that of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, we likewise must realize this: Mr. Gentleman doesn’t have the last say regarding what it means to be a man among men.
Mr. Gentleman is a compilation of both helpful and hindering impulses and desires. Eh wasn’t brought to us from
A gentleman once was expected to possess a martial spirit and, when necessary, to fight. That this aspect of his nature is largely lost today isn’t accidental. It’s a deliberate cultural jettison of valor in favor of a comfort-stupor. Now when we think of a gentleman, we think of a pleasant and amiable guy. He’s swell, a sweetheart, everyone’s buddy; he says “Golly,” with a grin, when he’s mad. As I’ve said before, we aren’t very good at recognizing how cowardice and fear so smoothly masquerade as “pleasant and amiable.”
One problem is that gentle is such a misunderstood word today. When Christian men hear or read about the virtue of gentleness, they often substitute “the vice of nice.” This is especially true for younger men, and the results of confusing gentleness with niceness can be deadly when it comes to love, marriage, and fatherhood.
These guys get very nervous during conferences when I encourage them to embrace rugged virtues. Our male-disdaining culture already has geared them to think manliness is wrong, so they huddle after I talk, and they pull their pastor aside, and they express their “godly concern” for what I’ve said, and they have “a check in their spirit” (whatever that means). All the while their single Christian sisters pine for a man with some juice in him so they can respect him.
The force that a true gentleman brings into a situation or relationship is moderate and metered in its presentation—when being moderate and measured is an appropriate response. It’s respectful—respectful enough to be both truthful and gracious. Sometimes we see this in a show or a movie, when a mature police officer is able to diffuse a volatile situation with diplomacy, eye contact, direct speech, a straight back, and—this is critical—the threat of further force if necessary. No need to use your Taser when its mere presence is working.
Chivalry is strongly connected to our current understanding of a gentleman, and that term comes from the French word for knight. Most generally, knighthood has codified a set of principles for men to follow in three major arenas of life: (1) man to man, with the virtues of courage, valor, and fairness; (2) man and his God, with faithfulness in promoting good and battling evil; and (3) man to woman, how he should serve and honor his wife, and then, after her, how he ought to treat other women. Chivalry had become established before the social invention of a “gentleman,” who tended to be more concerned about self-preservation than with defending truth, justice, and beauty.
In thinking about a better understanding of masculinity, of what it means to be good guy, let’s go with chivalry, which is more receptive to our thumos than gentlemanliness. And when doing so, let’s remember Edmund Burke’s observation (paraphrased): Men who lack a sense of responsibility to a power above themselves are easily swayed by vanity or self-pity, and they come to prefer softer virtues. When men attach their strength to a power above themselves, they are better able to avoid the tendency to be sucked into the schemes of powerful and deceitful men who would employ another man’s thumos for their own gain.
Thumos brings wholeness to a man’s fractured soul in many ways. Atop this list of healing is that it creates greater staying power, the absence of which is a source of great pain and shame for some men (especially Christian men). Another term for “staying power” is fortitude, the ability to stick to a task and not give up. Other words for this soul-repairing, meaning-producing attribute: gumption, moxie, verve, and the crowd-pleaser among young men, balls. From this seat of animation flow both strength and endurance to fulfill difficult responsibilities.
One of the unassailable facts of masculine life is that we have to fight to help foster our own spiritual growth and other attributes that help create a life well-lived. The version of “life in Christ” that’s not about joining an army but rather a recreational co-op in which we watch our cholesterol and learn “Kumbaya” can sound appealing; it was to me for many years. But it’s also incredibly boring after a while, and worse, it’s misleading, for it leaves us turned away from the trials and struggles of others. This approach to life actually becomes a form of spiritual pot that causes us to languish.
In order for our thumos-courage to grow, and with this growth help to heal our own souls and to love others better, we need to sink our teeth into a juicier and grittier faith. We will have to break away from rec-center Christianity in order to find abiding maturity, guidance, and meaning. Especially during what I call Second-Half Spirituality—that time after a midlife crisis (which, in a healthy life, should really be a midlife celebration), where hopefully, if we’ve not yet done so, we discard our small lives for God’s larger life for us.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.