As I listened to the American presidential historian Jon Meacham read a definition of a “Gentleman” last week on his daily 6-minute podcast called “Reflections of History,” I couldn’t help but measure myself against this lofty standard and think about how our nation would be different and better-off if more of our leaders behaved according to its prescriptions.
The definition was penned by the 19th century English theologian, scholar, and poet, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890):
“A gentleman has his eyes on all his company. He is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd. He can recollect to whom he is speaking. He guards against unseasonable illusions or topics which may irritate. He is seldom prominent in conversation and never wearisome. He makes light of favors when he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort. He has no ears for slander or gossip. He is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out loud. From the long sight of prudence he observes the maxim of the ancient sage that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults. He is too well employed to remember injuries and too indolent to bear malice. He 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. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust. He is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candor, consideration, and indulgence. He throws himself into the minds of his opponents. He accounts for their mistakes. He is a friend of religious toleration, and that because not only has his philosophy taught him to look on all forms of faith with an impartial eye, but also from the gentleness of feeling which is the attendant on civilization, not that he may not hold a religion too in his own way even when he is not a Christian. In that case, his religion is one of imagination and sentiment. It is the embodiment of those ideas of the sublime, majestic, and beautiful without which there can be no large philosophy.”