Not every woman is a lady. Not every man is a gentleman. I don’t mean to be insulting. These are just the facts. In America, we simply don’t have any ladies or any gentlemen, and that’s by design. The fellows who framed our constitution forbade us from creating inherited titles of power—and that’s what a “lady” is, after all. A female aristocrat. A “gentleman” is a male aristocrat.
In America, we have neither.
Nonetheless, Americans often speak of “ladies” and “gentlemen.” These are the words we most commonly find on the doors to public restrooms. These are the words a dignified speaker uses to address an audience. These are the words parents use when commending better behavior to their children. “Act like a lady,” we say. “Behave like a gentleman.”
Given that America has never had an aristocracy, it’s fascinating that we retain an English respect for aristocratic manners. Our knowledge of lords and ladies comes primarily from film and fiction. Granted, the lords and ladies of popular imagination are a mixed bag. For every Mr. Darcy there’s a Mr. Rochester. For every Elizabeth Darcy (née Bennet) there’s a Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Nonetheless, when we tell a freshman boy to “behave like a gentleman” at the spring formal, we mean, “Behave like Mr. Darcy.”
But what makes a lady or a gentleman worthy of imitation, though? And what exactly is it about a gentleman that we want others to imitate?
There are two ways to consider Mr. Darcy: objectivity and subjectively. Objectively, he’s rich. He’s a landowner. All his fortune comes from family inheritance. As a wealthy landowner, he may have certain political obligations, and he has responsibilities to patronize the arts. Subjectively, Darcy has to behave like a fellow who is constantly being watched by everyone—because he is. As such, he’s expected to be a repository of good manners, good morals, and good taste. He has to behave as though others will imitate him—because they will. He doesn’t have to work, which means he is free to get as good an education as possible. He’s free to travel the world, to look good, to acquaint himself with all the most beautiful music and literature and architecture, and to embody all that he knows. Simply put, Darcy holds out a vision to others of what the good life looks like.
There are aspects of the aristocratic life which people born average are never going to participate in. They’re never going to shop on Saville Row. They’re never going to pay a talented composer to write a requiem mass. They’re never going to subsidize the composition of an epic poem which pays tribute to the historic glories of their nation.
However, it’s not as though every aspect of an aristocrat’s life is cut off from the common man. Darcy doesn’t hold out a vision of the good life to the common man to taunt him—but to inspire him.
While a common man can’t patronize the arts, he can adopt the manners of someone who does. Even if a common man can’t spend like an aristocrat, he can behave like an aristocrat. He can listen to the sort of music which an aristocrat patronizes. He can hold his fork like an aristocrat, pass the salt like an aristocrat, and stand for women like an aristocrat. He can speak like an aristocrat and hold his tongue like an aristocrat. He can iron his shirt. Just like an aristocrat, he can come home in the evening to a clean bathroom and made bed—the fact that it’s he who has made the bed matters little.
Here’s the interesting part, though: there’s a compelling case to be made that a man’s better off behaving like an aristocrat than actually being an aristocrat.
The only people who are worthy of high office are those who have wisdom, argues Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy. Obviously, not everyone who attains high office actually has wisdom, though, and yet “high office displays men to the public gaze.” Thus, many men who attain high office find it miserable, for their faults are exposed to the world. While not everyone who is wise attains high office, everyone who attains wisdom deserves wisdom. It is often says, “That fellow doesn’t deserve his position,” but no one says, “That fellow doesn’t deserve his wisdom.” Having wisdom makes a man worthy of wisdom.
The same is true of the man who has good taste and good manners. If a man holds out a door for a woman, no one says, “He doesn’t deserve to hold out that door.” Having good manners makes a man worthy of good manners—and having good manners entitles a man to whatever praise and glory comes from having good manners. Likewise, it might be surprising that a certain fellow has good taste, but no one is unworthy of having good taste. At the same, many people say, “He doesn’t deserve to have such wealth and such power.”
For this reason, Boethius concludes it is better to have wisdom than to have a high office.
While the aristocrat enjoys certain pleasures of wealth and position which are absent from the common man’s life, the common man is also free from the temptations which come with those pleasures—even while the noblest parts of an aristocratic life are entirely open to him. He’s free from the tendency of the rich to become numb and indifferent to beauty. It’ll never become old hat to him. The fact he doesn’t have a lot of money means he won’t develop a lot of pointless, selfish wants. At the same time, though, the common man is free to approximate aristocratic pleasures as best he can. A common man may have a single article of clothing which wouldn’t be out of place in an aristocrat’s closet. He’s free to feel like an aristocrat when he puts it on. Every act of imitation is an act of becoming. He may—just once a year—taste champagne. He may—just once every decade, perhaps on signal anniversaries—eat dinner at The Fat Duck. He may—just once in his life—ride in a Rolls Royce. And if this is so, there’s a strong likelihood that he takes more pleasure out of the one glass of champagne he tastes every year than the aristocrat takes out of the fifty bottles he samples between Spring and Summer.
The common man gets more pleasure from that one glass of champagne because it is imbued with a nearly spiritual value. It’s a dreamed-of thing, a longed-for thing, a thing fondly revisited in memory every time he tastes cheap bear thereafter. “There is something in my character,” he may tell himself, “which is not inconsistent with a higher, better life,” and he is free to live that higher, better life as best he can, albeit on a much smaller budget. In fact, there’s some sense in which the aristocrat drinks less champagne than the common man because he doesn’t really know he’s drinking it.
I should amend something I said earlier, though. I do, in fact, believe that every woman is a lady. And that every man is a lord.
This isn’t because I have something against an aristocracy, though. I’m not an egalitarian who wants to liquidate and redistribute wealth and glory wherever it accumulates. Why? Well, unless there are a few actual lords and ladies around, you can’t tell anyone to “Act like a lady,” or to, “Behave like a gentleman.” Having a few gentleman around is simply the price you pay for making, “Behave like a gentleman,” a meaningful thing to say.
But I believe every woman is a lady and every man is a gentleman because we are all children of a great King. It is right that every man and every woman be as free as Mr. Darcy—even if they are only free on the Sabbath, when the Lord commands that all mankind both give and receive freedom, even the lowliest servants, who afford rest to the beasts they tend. The Lord’s Day makes lords of us all, even strangers and aliens who do not serve the Lord, for even they have souls—and it’s a man soul which makes him free, but also his soul which must be freed through virtue. And there’s nothing which keeps a man from pursuing virtue.