A ‘Compleat’ Gentleman, More Than a Man with Ideas

Detail: Réne Magritte, Son of Man,
Detail: Réne Magritte, Son of Man,
Artist Xu Zhen, Installation NGV Triennial, National Gallery of Victoria, 2018

Artist Xu Zhen, Installation NGV Triennial, National Gallery of Victoria, 2018

In ancient Greece, where the liberty we value today was established, a man believed if anything was worth doing it was worth doing well.

If he wanted to be regarded as a ‘compleat’ man by his peers, he had to be known to be truthful, trustworthy, courteous (even to personal and professional enemies), courageous, respectful of the rights of others and generous with his possessions (as far as his means permitted).

dynamis-sculpture-louvreHe was expected to be immune to the temptation to cheat and finally, required to be proud of the code itself.

The ‘good men’ (citizens) in every polis (city state) were men of leisure, active in sports and outdoor pursuits, if only as part of their military training.

They subscribed to a strict code of conduct which had been thrashed out over centuries.

This ideal was similar to an aspect of Confucianism in far off Cathay (China) where a perfect man acted as a moral guide for the rest of society.

Today a man who styles himself as a ‘compleat’ gentleman can come from all walks of life and all backgrounds. It is not about money, but about a set of values to live by as he turns his words into deeds through practical action.

While elite, a compleat gentleman is not elitist. In his personal presentation he is always appropriate, a trend setter, not a trend follower. And, if he is your friend then he is very definitely all your needs answered.

Colin Firth, a ‘compleat’ gentleman?

A really ‘compleat’ gentleman keeps his body as fit as his mind but never takes anything to extremes. He is subtle, succinct and never flashy, setting an example of excellence in all of his endeavours.

He offers to work with others to find solutions, not to dictate them.

He listens.

He never says ‘of course’, a phrase designed to make others fell inferior and uncomfortable. But instead uses words that both inspire and embolden those around him.

He leads by example, expressing his dedication to affirmative action.

However he is human.

When he stuffs up he knows how and when to say sorry, both humbly and meaningfully.

Statue PotsdamHe is kind, compassionate, but not soft, knowing instinctively when a firm attitude is required. He understands boundaries and tempers his professional courtesy with his personal commitments.

He knows how to offer and to earn respect while cherishing conviviality.

He values the ideas and opinions of those in his personal circle and his professional team. He supports their endeavours.

Medici Family, TV Series, Medici: Masters of Florence

Medici Family, TV Series, Medici: Masters of Florence

His family is sacrosanct and he looks to secure his home, the health and wellbeing of those within his circle above all else. His integrity is tied up in Trust and whether it be personal or professional, the two should always align.

His code of behaviour is also tied up in ‘knowing himself’. Arrogance and self serving interest have no place in his life, especially if he is working in the public domain.

If he is a leader, no matter what the sphere he is working in, he is held up to higher standards, setting an example for society to follow.  If he doesn’t like that with authority and power comes responsibility and respect for others, then he should find another profession.

Noblemen and gentlemen became inextricably linked during the years known as the Middle Ages (c500 – 1500) in Europe. This is when feudal lords and barons, whose role was to defend church, castle and community, found that illiteracy and ignorance did not serve them well.

When they went on crusade to save the Holy Land they discovered their Muslim counterparts were highly educated, very sophisticated and did not behave at all like the many raiding hordes of people from the north of Europe whom they called barbarians, because of the ‘bar bar’ sound they uttered. Subsequently they were forced to change both their own posture and approach as they were more than a little rough around the edges.

As they gradually embraced other learning and expanded their knowledge, they painted symbols on their shields as a way of identifying their allies from their enemies.

Each noble wore a coats of arms, which was originally a linen coat worn over a suit of armour. On this surcoat they applied images that reflected the cause they were defending, or the house of the noble they fought for.

These images are at the foundation of today’s modern corporate professional identity symbols and logos.

Medici Procession by GozzoliDuring the rebirth of humanism in the sixteenth century European merchant families adopted heraldic symbols and applied them to their flags, shields and textiles as a proof of both power and status.

This was the period when scholars searching monastery libraries by order of the Pope discovered important ancient texts and began re-informing society about their contents.

The only architectural treatise from Roman times to be discovered, that of first century architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius (80–70 BCE, died after c15 BCE) would have a huge impact on the future of construction.

This was because it contained, among other important information, the recipe for concrete, which would change the modern world.

Families like the Medici at Florence wore symbols to reflect they were civilized men of action.

Three texts were very important. The Bible, Baldassare Castiglione’sThe Courtier and Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Circulated widely, if you absorbed their message it was only a short step to accept the values they advocated and put theory into practice.

Count Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) wrote the Courtier in 1528 and it became the serious study of scholars for centuries. It also formed the basis for ideologies surrounding the behaviour of a well-rounded man.

He needed attainment in physical (sports and war) intellectual (education, literary and musical accomplishments) and also moral and social mores.

The Duke of Urbino sent Castiglione to England, as an envoy to Henry VII.  His work was translated into English by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561 and from then on became a serious study for those purporting to be gentlemen.

Their aims were
not to hurt the feelings of others
not to make them feel inferior
to behave always with ease and grace
and to experience proper joy in the wonders of true love and service, one to the other.

These ideas became ingrained in the philosophies and attitudes of society by the time American philosopher, lecturer, essayist, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1881), a leading voice in the intellectual culture and climate of nineteenth century American society said ‘whoever is open, loyal, true; of humane and affable demeanour; honourable himself, and in his judgment of others; faithful to his word as to law, and faithful alike to God and man…such a man is a true gentleman’.

During the final years of the nineteenth century fashion became an integral aspect of projecting the image and status of an English gentleman.

The nation’s Prince in waiting, Edward, led fashionable society and singlehandedly brought about a notion that a gentleman should look as if  ‘he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, and then forgotten all about them’.

Later as Edward VII he encouraged the use of lounge suits on social occasions. The cut was important, the trousers narrow and this style of dress did not relax until it also began to include sporting clothes.

Fred Astaire promoting Saville Row

As a short lived King Edward VII restored visibility and flair to the monarchy, endeavoring to promote international amnity.

This was an age when men relied on the press to advance their many causes, but not to reveal their many scandals.

However these all blew up in the prince’s face when he was cited openly in a scandalous divorce.

It was all too dreadful for his wife, his family and society who had never been so intimately involved with the passions of a prince before.

He proved the cut of your clothes did not make a gentleman and, as a role model for young men of the age, he left a great deal to be desired.

A prominent figure in European cafe society Edward was devoted to a lifestyle of horse racing, theatre going, yachting and mistresses. They were numerous and included the celebrated actress Mrs. Edward Langty.

Edward-VII-Bordehlo-ChairHe took her to Paris, were he was often seen kissing her on the dance floor at Maxim’s. Paris was where he kept his bordehlo chair, complete with stirrups awaiting his pernicious pleasures.

Cary Grant in that suit !

During the 1920’s and 30’s English ‘chic’, as established by Edward and then his grandson Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne of England for the woman he loved, became an international fashion style.

A World War I charmer and grandson of German immigrants to the U.S.A. was tap dancing actor Fred Astaire. His graceful nonchalance was certainly not at odds with his Saville Row London tailored suits. He epitomized elegance wearing the right clothes appropriate to ever occasion, including a top hat, tails and a cane.

He provided a new role model for how a gentleman should look, but also how he should behave. He remained faithful to one wife all his life and was an adored father to his children. And on top of all that he could dance!

His list of colleagues, included British born actor Cary Grant who was handsome, virile, charismatic and charming and always gave the impression of being comfortable in his own skin.

North-by-Northwest Cary GrantGrant wore a tailored gray, ventless, three-button suit in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest stylishly.

American men’s magazine GQ found that this suit was ‘arguably the most legendary in the history of American cinema’.

The three-button suit, with a roll-over lapel was worn for most of the film in which Grant starred with Eva Marie Saint.

Matt-BomerHe lounged about in it, was chased by the baddies  in it, was shot in it, brushed it off and went to dinner in it.

GQ’s Style Editor Adam Rapoport said Grant’s suit was widely copied. By Tom Cruise in “Collateral,” Ben Affleck in “Paycheck” and since then by thousands of men internationally all endeavouring to project the image of a gentleman.

In 2010 American actor Matt Bomer in his retro 50’s suits and hats stars in White Collar, a series about a guy named Neal Caffrey, who is a semi-reformed conman and thief working as a consultant with the FBI to stay out of gaol.

He is certainly leading the way in the contemporary fashion stakes.

On the surface, Caffrey’s a hyper-intelligent, urbane, confident, slick, suave and charming conman, while underneath, he’s really a big kid who is a die-hard romantic.

As Matt, in an interview about why he likes to play the role said just recently , ‘Caffrey’s always testing his own boundaries.

He doesn’t have a lot of impulse control, and you know, he’s always seeing what he can get away with’.

While this may work in Caffrey’s fantasy world, it is not really about any sort of reality.

21st Century Enlightenment – Matthew Taylor, CEO RSA at London

Today a compleat gentleman will be found at the cutting edge of twenty first century enlightenment, much like Matthew Taylor CEO of the RSA at London, a charity that encourages the development of a principled, prosperous society and the release of human potential.

A compleat gentleman of our time realizes that all cultures on earth are equally developed according to their own priorities and values; none is better, more advanced, or less primitive than any other.

Gentlemen of our time: President Barack Obama with Theodore C Sorensen (1928-2010) former speechwriter and consultant to JFK

He knows that the practice of interpreting and judging other cultures by the values of one’s own needs to change.

And, that only by seeking to understand each other more fully and by discovering those values that have made us who we are, will we be able to shape our world into the future together.

Like his ancient Greek counterpart a contemporary ‘compleat’ gentleman will ensure that he always ‘promotes the emergence of new ideas while encouraging the raising of positive voices to benefit marginalized sections of society’.

In our modern age he will offer to give of his time, effort and even money to ensure there is a measure of opportunity for all.

Detail: Réne Magritte, Son of Man,

Detail: Réne Magritte, Son of Man,

20th century gentleman Kahlil Gibran said ‘When we turn to one another for counsel we reduce the number of our enemies’. 

A 21st century ‘compleat gentleman’ is and should be, quite simply a man for all seasons. Do you know one?

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010, 2011-2017

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