Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Compleat Gentleman

The Compleat* Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry
© 2004 Brad Miner
256 pages

I have a friend in love with the idea of chivalry, and he often asks me to comment on the rise of chivalry given my tendency to engage in medieval reading. He recently mentioned that he is doing research into the idea on his own, and brought up this book. Unthinkingly, I mentioned that it was part of my Amazon wishlist** and he asked me if I wanted to read it. Partially out of curiosity and partially out of politeness, I agreed. I should explain why a book on chivalry was on my Amazon wishlist: back in high school, I became infatuated with the cult of the southern gentleman. Part of it stemmed my religiosity and part of it stemmed from my brief relationship with southern nationalism (an affair that has left me feeling dirty ever since). I am no longer concerned with being a "manly man" or a "gentleman", but out of curiosity I decided to read the book.

The book is written by Brad Miner, formerly of the National Review and the editor of a conservative encyclopedia and a conservative bookclub. (This is the description on the back of the book, not mine.) He calls himself a "conservative liberal", which means he gets to question the Church while grumbling about the neo-Marxist Titanic and the "so-called sexual revolution". This is funny at first, but grows tiring the more he indulges himself. He begins with "Massed Against the World", writing about how men of virtue are now completely marginalized and ignored in a culture of depravity and egalitarianism run amok. He then spends a number of chapters on the history of chivalrism, beginning with ka-niggits and moving on to Victorian gentlemen, simultaneously dragging Stoicism along for the ride. He then writes on the three basic parts of the "compleat gentleman": the warrior, the lover, and the monk, ending with "Chilvary in the Modern Age" and "The Art of Sprezzaratura".

Miner is quite the romantic. Although he admits that knights and Victorian gentleman did not live up to their ideals, he sees their attempt to be good as admirable. I would, too, if I thought knights and Victorian gentlemen were attempting to be good. According to the rear flap of the book, he is "inspired by tradition but not bound by it", which sounds good but doesn't appear to mean anything. Miner comes off as self-congratulatory, a trait I sympathize with. He wants very badly to be a member of an "aristocracy of virtue", but judging by "Chivalry in a Democratic Era", his "code of honor" is there for his convenience. It does gives him room to snub those he sees as unvirtuous and to act in ways I personally see as uncivil. He also sees violence as honorable in many circumstances. There is also the fixation on "manly" ethics: where do women fit into his worldview? His ideal woman seems to have the virtues of a godly woman with some 21st century sensibilities thrown in.

The book grew rather boring after a while: while Miner and I share a commitment to virtue, his code seems to me to be hypocritical and impotent. I'm curious as to what my friend thinks, though.

* Miner's odd spelling is apparantly based off of a Victorian book about The Compleat Gentleman, but my etymological dictionaries show that "complete" was never spelled like that.

** I was mistaken. The two books on my wishlist were The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy, and Vice by Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro
and The Gentleman's Guide to Life by Steve Friedman.

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