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Bl. John Henry Newman’s gentleman

Newman, as much as anybody, understood the differences between mere courtesy and real chivalry. Men such as Samuel Smiles and Lord Chesterfield and Charles Kingsley (whose attack on Newman led to the latter’s greatest book, Apologia Pro Vita Sua) put forth a particular view of gentlemanly decorum that for Newman lacked . . . blood.

I do not mean that the intense and ascetic Newman believed men needed to live more by the sword than by their wits, only that the gentleman described by these others was to him bloodless – a whited sepulcher. Kingsley is often (incorrectly) given credit for coining the term “muscular Christianity,” but in fact it was a term he disliked, and he probably doesn’t deserve to be associated with Chesterfield and Smiles. Still, Kingsley certainly was a proponent of sport as a means of promoting manliness, which Newman must have considered just more bluster.

Newman was a neo-Aristotelian, and he layered his description of the gentleman in the Eighth Discourse of The Idea of a University with reflections that are at once candid and guarded, much as was Aristotle’s description of the kalokagathos, the “great-souled man.” Newman says that the ideal university (his thoughts were originally lectures delivered in the early years after he became the first rector of Catholic University in Dublin) is not meant to propagate “any narrow or fantastic type, as for instance, that of an ‘English gentleman.’” Rather, higher education is in the liberal arts, knowledge meant to make a man free. Paradoxically, he calls the ideal curriculum “gentleman’s knowledge.”

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 said—“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.” That man is no Stoic; is not a man committed to truth and beauty. He is an ambitious poseur. In his most elegant and Stoic conclusion, Newman insists that the ideal gentleman is “patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny.” — from The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry (2004)



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