In an age such as ours, when boys grow up to be either “wimps” or “barbarians,” where is the modern-day knight? Does he even exist? If so, then what does he look like—how does he act? These are all questions explored by Brad Miner in his new book, The Compleat Gentleman: A Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry.
Considering the abdication of manhood from many of the would-be “men” in our culture, books about “how to be a real man” are not in short supply. Just go to any bookstore, secular or Christian, and find volume upon volume of books on how to be a more sensitive man, how to deal with your deepest psychological hurts, and even how to be a wilder man. The Compleat Gentleman is none of the above.
Miner’s gentleman is a modern incarnation of the gentleman of old (hence the archaic spelling, compleat). Beginning with the concept of the knight, and the code of chivalry, Miner traces the concept of the knight throughout the Middle Ages to its metamorphosis into the Victorian gentleman of more recent centuries.
The compleat gentleman, Miner suggests, consists of three elements: the warrior, the lover, and the monk. The warrior is guided by both strength and honor, traits lacking in today’s therapeutic culture. Writes Miner, “…strength and honor more dependably keep the peace than does palaver about psychic posture and moral equivalence.”
The lover practices the virtues of chivalry which, “comes down in the end to respect for women.” The author argues that while men and women don’t have to be completely equal, the compleat gentleman allows a woman to be what she wants to be.
The monk is the side of the compleat gentleman who is devoted to learning throughout his life. This learning is not mere bookishness, but extends to spiritual realms as well. Miner, a Catholic, offers for comparison the monastic life with the gentleman-monk.
These three traits of the compleat gentleman have an underlying characteristic that Miner sees as the hallmark of the compleat gentleman: sprezzatura. A term with Renaissance origins, sprezzatura denotes a sort of nonchalance:
There are two ways to look at a fellow’s sprezzatura: on the one hand, it means discretion or, more grandly, prudence; on the other, it means restraint, which may even be concealment.
These are, of course, very counter-culture qualities in an age when men are constantly told to express their inner feelings more and more. Keeping things close or showing restraint is considered repressive and even unhealthy in our hyper-psychologized climate. To say that the potent coolness of sprezzatura is lacking in our culture is understatement. The compleat gentleman stands against the grain because not only does he do something, but he does it with nonchalance, when everybody else would be tooting their collective horns.
I do have a couple of small quibbles with Miner’s work. First, I think he goes too far with equating the physical abilities of men and women. His point is to show that the issue of keeping women out of combat is a matter of honor and prudence rather than inequality, and this I agree with. When he says that modern women are able to meet the physical requirements for combat, I’d have to disagree. While there may be some “Amazon” women who probably could beat a man in a fistfight, these are extremely rare, and even fewer of these women could defeat a well-trained soldier. Men and women are simply made for different purposes. Make no mistake—Miner does argue against women in combat, I just think he goes a little too far with his concessions.
Second, when Miner uses Stoicism as a backdrop for the monkish sprezzatura of the compleat gentleman, he mentions the Apostle Paul as expressing Stoic qualities. This is probably not the best description of Paul—the determinism exhibited by Stoic philosophy is of a much different nature than that of Paul.
As I said, these are minor quibbles. Overall, The Compleat Gentleman is a refreshing departure from the hodgepodge of “men’s movements” that clutter the scene. If nothing else, it points men toward a recovery of honor, a virtue that is scarce these days.