Whited Sepulchers: Newman and Smiles

The Lord helps those who help themselves. Or so said Ben Franklin, and ever since we’ve seen a battalion of advisors eagerly standing in God’s stead. In America, for instance, there was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who offered Franklinesque wisdom without a trace of Ben’s wit. (Poet Allen Tate called Emerson not the “Sage of—” but the “Lucifer of Concord.”) And in Britain there was Philip Stanhope, the Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, about whom John Henry Newman held a similarly diminished view.

Cardinal Newman’s famous observation that a “gentleman” is one who never knowingly causes pain—which Newman didn’t consider truly gentlemanly—comes from his reading of comments such as Lord Chesterfield’s that a gentleman “makes people pleased with him by making them first pleased with themselves.” That’s mere flattery, and Newman knew—if Chesterfield did not—that heaven is not populated by “agreeable, well-bred men.”

Chesterfield’s letters to a family member (also Philip Stanhope), in which he offered pithy advice about how to be a proper gent, had been a bestseller for a century and required correction. The younger Stanhope was, in fact, Chesterfield’s “natural” son—his bastard—and the letters are notorious as much for the great Samuel Johnson’s view of them as for the many disingenuous adages they contain. “They teach,” Dr. Jonson quipped, “the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.” If there was ever a more poisonous comment about a book, I’ve not come across it. (Maybe Voltaire’s to Rousseau about the latter’s The Essay against Civilization: “. . . to read your book makes one long to go about all fours.”)

Say what you will, though, Chesterfield’s Letters spawned an avalanche of similar tomes, not least the 1859 book that named a genre, Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, and it was this book Cardinal Newman really had in his sights. His dismissal of it was less acidic than Johnson’s of Chesterfield, but it was none the less damning.

Smile’s Self-Help advocated a kind of peppy, democratic individuality, albeit the Whig version. Smiles’ glib tales of humble men rising to achieve greatness in government and industry must have seemed to the great Newman a bit shallow. When Smiles—who resembled Andrew Carnegie but thought like Dale Carnegie—wrote that a man needs “consideration for the feelings of others, for his inferiors and dependents as well as his equals—” Newman may have concurred. And when Smiles wrote that a “poor man may be a true gentleman—” Newman may have agreed, but with some suspicion, especially considering that the story Newman lived by was of a poor man who did not rise to riches but did rise from the dead.

Newman understood the difference between mere courtesy and real chivalry. Men such as Smiles and Chesterfield put forth a particular view of gentlemanly decorum that lacked blood. I don’t mean that Newman believed men needed to live more by their fists than by their wits, only that the man described by these others was bloodless, a whited sepulcher. Newman’s layered, neo-Aristotelian description of the gentleman comes in the Eighth Discourse of The Idea of a University—reflections that are at once candid and guarded, much as were Aristotle’s musings on the “great-souled man.” Newman says that a university is not meant to propagate “any narrow or fantastic type, as for instance, that of an ‘English gentleman.’” Rather, higher education (in the liberal arts of course) is meant to make a man free.

Paradoxically Newman calls the ideal curriculum “gentleman’s knowledge,” and so he lists some of the characteristics of a gentleman: “a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life,” and I think it is clear that he considered this catalog admirable.

That is—as he put it—“as far as it goes.”

Newman’s portrait is by no means an endorsement of the man of manners, the one “mainly occupied in merely removing obstacles that hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him.” Newman insists that the ideal gentleman has something more: forbearance.

“He submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.”

And—again in mind of Aristotle—Newman’s gentleman (now we’re talking about the real thing, not the gentleman manqué) also possesses the quality of “understatement,” which the Greeks called eironeia. But Newman was not simply asserting a new version of restraint. Rather he is proclaiming that what makes a true gentleman special is what we can neither see nor define; something concealed and ineffable. He’s a man who “discerns the end in every beginning.” He’s a good man; a daring man; he may eben be a great man, although not necessarily a saint.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.