Today you’ll come to learn that I do not consider myself a gentleman and steer off using the word itself. Yet, it does a marvellous job explaining the matter at hand, so purely for the purpose of simplification – we’ll stick to using it throughout the entirety of The Perfectionist., and beyond.
The following writing doesn’t aim to be a bible of any sort, and many a time you can find yourself disagreeing with its contents. In such a situation, feel free to drop it. My intent is solely to share my philosophy with the world, hoping someone finds it as useful or maybe even life-changing as it became to me.
Now, I hate elongated introductions, so let’s cut it short, and [*ekhm*] let me welcome you into the world of The ‘Ladies & Gentlemen’ Paradox.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica:
Paradox – is an apparently self-contradictory statement, the underlying meaning of which is revealed only by careful scrutiny. The purpose of a paradox is to arrest attention and provoke fresh thought.
I’m sure you’re familiar with some of them, ie the omnipotence paradox, the paradox of free will etc. If not, there’s a long list available on Wikipedia.
What does it have to do with being a gentleman, one may ask? Well…
To properly answer the following question, we need to go back in time and first learn a bit more about the history of gentlemanship and the word ‘gentleman’ itself. Shall we?
The history of gentlemanship
The word ‘gentleman’ in the sense we use it today wasn’t always a thing. In Middle Age England, if one was entitled to bearing arms, but not included in the nobility ranks – one was a gentleman. Likely deriving from the Latin word gentilis and invariably translated in English-Latin documents as generosus, it simply described a man of good family.
As time passed, the word evolved. First into gentilman, likely as a result of ‘Chapter 5’ of the Acts of the Parliament of England (1413) during the reign of Henry V. Then due to the economic changes of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, caused by the Black Plague amongst other things, those with nobility titles sought their fortunes abroad, often referring to themselves as ‘gentlemen’.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a mess. To put it simply, it was commonly understood that a gentleman bore arms, but that would mean that anyone who bore arms was a gentleman and the English nobility was like, ‘Aw, hell naw! That can’t run.’
As a result, the term ‘nobleman’ was reserved for those of noble roots and those who could afford it – could bear a ‘gentleman’ title. William Harrison puts it nicely in his Description of England (1577):
[One who can] live without manual labour, and thereto is able and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman… [could] for money have a coat and arms bestowed upon him by heralds… and [be] reputed for a gentleman ever after.
Then came the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that slowly put an end to a ‘gentleman’ as a title within social ranks. Nowadays, a gentleman is essentially someone with good manners and not necessarily wealth. Which was perfectly summed up in 1714, way before the world finally came to its modern meaning, by Sir Richard Steele:
The appellation of gentleman is never to be affixed to a man’s circumstances, but to his behaviour in them.
Simply put, yet so profound in meaning. And thus welcome to the modern era of gentlemanship.
The era of modern gentlemanship
Modern times came with a plethora of changes in what seems like every aspect of our lives. Some parts were simplified, some got more complicated. Gentlemanship, and ladyship, for that matter, were forgotten. In the eyes of some – ceased to exist. Thankfully, the latter isn’t particularly true.
Yes, the casual way of life took over, but that’s not a bad thing, I guess, as the majority seems to enjoy it just fine. But. If you’re reading this, I might assume you feel like something is lacking. Well, at least that’s how I felt more than a decade ago, when I first noticed good manners were pretty much gone from our day-to-day existence.
I vividly remember the moment when the thought of something being not quite right struck me. I was 17, just moved to Poland from Ukraine, and was attending this year-long adaptation language course at a university. I was a part of a small group of foreigners, all coming from the post-Soviet countries.
During one of the regular days, when our teacher came and opened a door to our classroom, all the boys, as per usual, rushed to the door trying to get in first and take the furthest seat from the teacher’s table. Nothing out of the ordinary. I think we all did the same thing at school. Something didn’t feel right, though. We weren’t kids any more, were we?
Well, technically, many of us were, but when you go to a uni, that should be a cue to start growing up. Or at least that’s what I thought. Maybe I was out of my mind, but being the sole person who calmly let every girl enter first and then suggested to the teacher to also enter, as I’d hold the door, was an interesting feeling.
Seeing people appreciate this miniscule gesture, what I now think to be a mere decent human behaviour, made me want to find the reason why letting someone through that door produced the reaction it did. Especially considering that the scene that unfolded just seconds before was quite normal for the times…
Fast-forward years of reading, implementing changes to my former self, teaching others, co-creating the largest Polish community of people aspiring to be ladies and gentlemen, and we arrive at me signing off as one of the three co-founding members of what was meant to become the first modern Polish gentlemen’s club. I quit just a few months later after its inauguration, but that’s more of an internal politics story and thus irrelevant.
All those experiences provided me with a lot of data, however. Data that inevitably led to my realization that all this journey of becoming ‘a gentleman’ was flawed at its very core. Data that would make me recognize the ironic paradox at play.
Sounds epic, right?
Okay… At least I tried.
Maybe you’re still intrigued a little? If you are, let me tell you about it.
Introduction to the philosophy
Do I consider myself to be a gentleman? No, I don’t.
It is quite funny, actually, especially when listening to people using my ‘background’ as an argument for why I shouldn’t be doing something.
You think you’re a gentleman, and you do that? You’re a fake gentleman! A poser!
The amusing part about the above statement is that never in my life have I called myself ‘a gentleman’. That’s not for me to decide whether I am one or not, whether I deserve the ‘title’ or not. Nor do I care, to be honest.
Yes, my internal codex is built upon the foundation of values that are common with the idea of a modern gentleman, but that’s about it.
Who is a gentleman, then?
As I have been involved with the community of about 6 thousand people who aspired to become that, now-forgotten, ideas of the past, I’ve noticed that virtually everyone had their own version of the definition that fit their personal views.
Considering Poland’s religiosity and stance on patriotism, many were, or should I say ‘are’, convinced that a gentleman should have faith in god (a specific one, the one who’s superior to the thousands of others, obviously) and be ready to sacrifice his life for his country. Ladies, on the other hand, are supposed to take care of the house, family, kids, and their husbands. The good-old traditional stuff.
Then we have posers. Actual ones. They stick to the modern definition of the word ‘gentleman’ for the benefits that can come along. Be it popularity amongst women, the fact that wearing a suit and following the rules of etiquette is a great career / business booster, or merely for being able to flaunt being ‘a gentleman’.
On countless occasions, I have seen how those same people who ‘aspired to be gentlemen’ used their involvement in the Community to impress women and get their body counts up. Don’t get me wrong, one can do whatever they want in their sex lives as long as no one is hurt (well, without prior consent, that is), but don’t pretend. That’s a rather miserable sight to see.
Last, but not least, we have those who seem to truly care about the modern definition of a gentleman. Let’s take one from Wikipedia:
Being a gentleman means treating others, especially women, in a respectful manner and not taking advantage or pushing others into doing things they don’t wish to do.
It’s quite good, to be completely fair. It is also pretty close to mine, but it is still too vague and leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation and defaulting back to whatever your values are.
Upgrading the definitions
My definitions for both ladies and gentlemen are united into one, as there are no real differences besides the feminine and masculine nature of those words.
‘A lady’ or ‘a gentleman’ is someone who, first of all, aims to master the art of self-control. If you allow your instincts to get the best of you, you need to work on it. Not having full control is a weakness that, in my opinion, one should strive to eradicate.
Yes, there are some things that you might not be able to control, ie you have some mental health issues that you struggle to deal with, or illnesses like Tourette’s syndrome etc. Those things don’t define you, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself if that’s the case.
Next, ‘a lady’ or ‘a gentleman’ by definition has to be open-minded and bear no hate towards anyone who gave them no real reason to be hateful. If you’re a homophobe, racist, misogynist etc. – I’m #sorrynotsorry, but you’re out.
Continuing, ‘a lady’ or ‘a gentleman’ is someone who does not impose their beliefs onto another person if that person didn’t ask for it, meaning, if your belief system, for instance, forbids you from eating certain foods or using contraceptives during sex – keep it to yourself and yourself only, don’t be a dick (yes, gentlemen can swear). The same goes for your decision to behave according to the rules of etiquette. Hypocrisy is not acceptable.
The rules of etiquette are your lighthouse, not something you follow mindlessly. Understand the reason behind each suggested behaviour and decide for yourself whether it’s worth abiding to. It is safe to say that ‘a lady’ or ‘a gentleman’ never follows anything blindly, even if it means they have to get rid of the indoctrinations they had received prior. Critical thinking is of the essence.
You should also teach yourself to not care about what people think of you and especially to not try to impress them or change yourself because society, your friends, your family, your loved ones (or even I in this article) tell you to. Yes, you should take into consideration the opinions of those who you know have good intentions, but it’s up to you to make your own decisions.
And finally, you should continually strive to be the better version of yourself. What you shouldn’t do, however, is care whether you are ‘a lady’ or ‘a gentleman’.
If you strive to acquire the title of a ‘lady’ or ‘a gentleman’ – you can never truly become one.
I feel like I need to explain what I mean.
The title itself has no real value. When the title becomes the reason why you want to live your life according to this philosophy, it beats the sole purpose of it. If you behave this way not because you feel that IS the way you truly wish to follow, but because you’re hoping to be able to reap the benefits it can generate, because you will be able to call yourself ‘a lady’ or ‘a gentleman’, because people will boost your confidence by giving you attention and compliments – you missed the real meaning of being one. Period.
You see, nowadays, simply putting on a suit or a non-revealing dress will already get people to call you that. It’s not hard to get the titles, but what does it change? Nothing.
The point is to make yourself a better person, and that will make the world around you a slightly better place. Don’t believe me?
Try opening or holding a door for someone and most people will smile. To me, that smile means so much more than every pretentious title in the world. That miniscule act can brighten someone’s day. Show them this world is not as rotten as it often seems. It can inspire that person to open a door for someone else. One opened door can change someone’s world. Ain’t that worth it?