Dennis Green has come up with an interesting list of fourteen books he believes the modern gentleman should read. I endorse his point that there’s more to being a gentleman than wearing fine clothes and smelling good. It also means a man should be informed about the world around him, in touch with both the facts of the day and the temper of his times, and that’s the function of this list. There’s something more, however, involved in the pleasure of being a gentleman, a spirit that Green’s list misses, but we should not.
Cardinal John Henry Newman argued over a century ago that “a true gentleman never inflicts pain.” I’ve never been certain that that is axiomatically true, nor am I certain that in the rigorous give-and-take of intellectual argument or in the conduct of our lives together any of us can even avoid the infliction of pain. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua–his defense of his decision to leave the Anglican Church–is a model of gentlemanly and even moving prose, but there’s no doubt that Newman’s choice to move toward Catholicism caused great pain in Anglican circles of the nineteenth century.
No, being a gentleman is not about avoiding inflicting pain on someone. It is about doing right rather than being right in our dealings with our fellow citizens, and it is about finding and maintaining a proper emotional balance in the private lives we all live within our own minds. For this, Green recommends the Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and so do I. The balance Marcus and others sought we have come to call Stoicism, and it works. For those who find Marcus a bit too distant or who might wish to add a little Eastern wisdom to a list which is Western in its emphases, I would heartily suggest Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, a book that not only identifies “the important things” in life but also suggests how we may incorporate them in our experience.