Masculine Etiquette: Should Men have Manners?


Before beginning an article dedicated to the topic of "masculine etiquette," it will likely be necessary for this author to jar his reader from two tacitly-held presumptions which the majority of readers are likely to have. This will be done by my making two claims. First, the topics of "etiquette," "hospitality," and "manners" are not at all peripheral matters for those concerned with the restoration of all things in Christ.

Indeed, when the above social and moral realities are infused with sanctifying grace and revealed truth, we can truly speak of the hospitable and well-mannered man as Catholic culture "walking."              

The second presumption that this article will dedicate itself to eliminating is the one which holds "etiquette," "hospitality," and "manners" to lie solely within the domain of womankind. Not satisfied with merely applying these concepts to the behavior of males, I will make the more sweeping claim that these belong primarily and properly to the domain of male behavior. Feminine etiquette can accurately be seen as a fitting response to refined masculine behavior.                                               

The masculine origin of the social realities of hospitality, manners, and etiquette can be demonstrated by a relevant historical analysis. A historical and sociological analysis will, however, not only reveal the fact of the masculine origin of manners, but it will also clearly indicate to us the content of those forms of social and domestic behavior which have been considered by Western man to be ideal. Along with an analysis of ideal male behavior, I will also consider what the Western tradition indicates concerning the psychological states and moral virtues which ought to characterize the ideal male type. In this regard, along with the models provided us by history and literature, we can also consult the perennial philosophical and theological tradition, as this is articulated and perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas, concerning the moral virtues which shape and are expressions of the soul of the true "gentleman."              

My portrayal of the male social ideal, the gentleman, will attempt to lay to rest the notion that manners are a manifestation of effeminacy. Rather, I will maintain that the classical model from which most of the details of what we take to be fitting male behavior, derive from the gestures of honor and respect which warriors offered to each other. These "fitting" responses filtered down to the lower layers of society, providing those layers with highly delineated standards of conduct. It is a cultural and historical certainty that "manners" as we understand that term, have an aristocratic origin. This is not at all to contradict our claim made above that manners and modes of hospitality have their origin in the refinement of the life of the warrior. Here we must remember that in the "heroic" age of Greece, in the "classical" age of the Greek city-states, and in Medieval Catholic society the aristocrats were warriors. They were, in fact, the professional military class. This deep connection between the male ideal and the refined warrior, cannot be without significance. Does it imply that the "vocation" of those of the male gender is "war," of one kind or another?

Before considering the various historical models of the male social ideal of the "gentleman," a few claims must be made. First, by an historical and cultural analysis of the early and late Catholic Middle Ages, along with a consideration of the heroic ideal which Christendom inherited from Antiquity, we can come to an adequate understanding of what is truly classical in male social and domestic behavior. For something to be "classical," it must be conformable to a standard which is universally valid irrespective of time and place.

Second, it shall be my contention that "manners" are nothing but the exterior manifestation of an interior order corresponding in a fitting way to external order and value. Third, in this article it shall be presumed that it is the husband and the father, rather than the wife and the mother, who carves out the "cultural space" in which festivity and companionship take place. It is the hospitable male who provides the domestic "realm," which the woman "fills" for the benefit of the "stranger."

Heroic Man

It is a historical certainty, that the ancient Greeks, meaning the Greeks of the city-states of the sixth through the fourth century B.C. had a clear conception of the "gentleman." We know this since they formed a specific word to refer to this specific ideal type. The term was kalos kai agathos or "the beautiful and good" man. We know that this concept was both ubiquitous and long-lasting since, through frequent usage, a unitary term was formed kalos k'agathos. This descriptive term, meant to describe a specific type of man, was a combination of the Greek word for "beauty" kalos and the word for "goodness" agathos. Here we can get an insight into the Greek understanding of the ideal male, if we recognize that for the Greeks there was not much of a distinction between the concept of the "beautiful" and that of the "good." What the Greeks were profoundly aware of was the fact that there is a certain thing as "moral beauty" which manifests itself in human actions. A "good" action was, also,a “beautiful” action.  For the Greeks, the gentleman was the man whose entire mode of existence was surrounded by a certain "aura" of moral beauty, continually revealed through specific acts of virtue. The "beautiful" aspect of the acts was an epiphenomenal by-product of the "fittingness" of the action within a particular situation. Since the Greek notion of beauty fundamentally included an element of goodness, the concept of "beauty" carried with it more of a commanding presence than we now tend to ascribe to it. Plato recognized this fact when he made a pun, saying that the kalon, the beautiful, is a kalein, a "call." The moral implications of the beautiful were further emphasized by the Greeks when the term kalos, when applied to a man, came to mean both "noble" and "honorable." To live nobly and honorably was to live beautifully.  In order to clearly discern the paradeigma or the example for imitation the Greeks were looking to when they, over generations, formulated their understanding of the morally beautiful or noble man, we can consider the original meanings given to the terms for "good," agathos, and for "bad," kakos. Originally, the term agathos was used to convey the idea of being "good at" something or other. To be a good man was to be a man who was successful or effective at a particular task which fell to him because of his social and familial position in life. The term opposite that of goodness, kakos, tended to convey that meaning that the man who this was applicable to was ineffective, unsuccessful, or, even, harmful to the occupations for which birth and talent destined him. A man who, in the particular situations of life, failed to perform in such a way that he achieve a result which was considered to be "fitting" by the community, was thought to be acting in a "shameful" (aischron) or in an ethically "ugly" way.         

Even though these concepts of "goodness," "badness," "morally beautiful," and "morally ugly," could be applied to all the members of a society, we must not fail to consider the fact that, for the Greeks, it was the heroic warrior of ancient memory that originally was judged by these moral concepts. Of course, the heroic aristocratic culture which served as a model for the Greeks of the classical period (i.e., sixth, fifth, and fourth century B.C.) was presented to them in the Homeric poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. In these works, the heroes, who are both gentlemen and men of war, do not find it difficult to know what they owe one another.[1] Here we see the close connection that existed between "manners" and morality. This was linguistically revealed in the word dein in which the meanings of "ought" and "owe" were merged. What was owed to a fellow warrior was honor. The beginning of "manners" in the Western tradition was in this rendering of honor to a man to whom it was owed. After the rendering of honor, the second component of a mannered life was the experience of shame at the thought of failing to respond in a fitting way to the value and nobility of another gentleman or at the thought of acting in a way contrary to what was expected of a gentleman. It was amidst this brotherhood of warriors or peers that one received honor or experienced shame.[2]

In the heroic age of Greece, it was precisely because all the members of a community were so definitively "situated" within a familial and social group, that the "stranger" also found himself occupying a definite and respected place. Just as each of the member of the community received the honor and privileges (i.e., private laws) due to them because of their specific place within the structured social hierarchy, so to did the stranger have something due to him. What was due was hospitality. We glimpse the role played by the concept of "hospitality" in the life of the heroes, when we realize that the Greek word for "alien" and the word for "guest" are the same word. Indeed, in the Odyssey, Odysseus attempts to discern whether or not the Cyclopes possess civility or themis by discovering how they treated "guests" or strangers. When he found out that they eat them, it was for him proof that they stood outside the customary laws that characterized all civilized peoples.[3] They did not act like true men, nor did they know how to treat other men. To understand the important role which hospitality played in the mental life of Greek heroic society, only recall the fact that the war which served as the very expression of the heroic mentality, the Trojan War of Homer's Iliad, began on account of a violation of hospitality and terminated catastrophically with another such violation. The ten-year war of the Greek kingdoms against Troy, eventually leading to Troy's complete destruction, was thought to be a fitting response to Prince Paris of Troy's supreme violation of the laws of hospitality. In Paris' case, he, the guest of Menelaos, king of Sparta, kidnapped the wife of his host, Helen. The tragedy of the Trojan War ends with a transformation of the "gift," in this case a huge ceremonial horse, from an offering of friendship and reconciliation into an instrument of cunning, malice, and spite. Our own, almost sardonic, attitude towards the incident, no doubt indicates how far we are from appreciating the intricacies and profundities involved in true hospitality.        

Chivalric Man

How then can we characterize the ideal of the "gentleman" which filtered into the Catholic cultural tradition from Antiquity? He is a man who respects the order of the universe (dikaios),[4] a man who tells the truth fearlessly, one who takes responsibility for his actions, a man of restraint, simplicity of character, and straightforwardness.[5] The heroic ideal of Antiquity, shares many characteristics with the masculine ideal which developed during the Catholic centuries of European history. This ideal, embodied in the knightly warrior or miles, was expressed in that code of behavior and mode of life referred to as "chivalry." The virile simplicity of the chivalric character was traditionally expressed in five distinct virtues: prowess, loyalty, largesse (i.e., generosity), courtesy, and franchise (i.e., the free and frank bearing that is visible testimony to the combination of high birth with virtue).[6]

These attributes and virtues could be synthesized into the concept of noblesse or "nobility." It is this concept of nobility, which has shaped our more modern understanding of the "gentleman" (gentils hommes).  The idea that a man needed to perform well the duties and functions imposed upon him by civil society and for civil society, is one rooted, as we have seen, in the ancient past. Of course, the more diversified and developed a society is, the more specialized will be the roles which men play in that society. To excel in a specific task which one was responsible for, was always considered an attribute of manhood (the very word which the Germans used for "prowess" or prouesse in French was "manheit" or manliness). Of course, the task that the chivalrous soul was ordered to was warfare. Much of the prowess of the knight was simply his skillful and successful bearing of the armor and use of the weaponry which were his instruments in battle. Since both the chain-mail and his other equipment were astonishingly heavy, the knight need also have the physical perfections of strength, dexterity, and stamina.[7] To call a nobleman a preudome, a man of prowess, was to pay him one of the highest compliments known to the Middle Ages.

What made the knight-warrior a "gentleman," however, were the moral and social qualities which distinguished him both from the barbarian war-lords of the tribal past and from the "imbelle vulgus," the common people and, especially, rustics.[8] The basic virtue possessed by these mounted warriors (chevaliers), that provided the basic buttressing and armature for the social order, was "loyalty" (loyaute in French and trowve in German). Since the feudal obligation was sealed and publically affirmed with an oath of loyalty and obedience to another person, and since a man would always be held to his plighted word by his peers, violations of such obligations were extremely rare. Here is, perhaps, the origin of the idea that a gentleman always keeps his word.[9] This loyalty extended beyond his mere oath to his military and feudal lord to the Church, the laws of nature and God, and to the Christian civilization in which the Justice of God was partially realized in the community of men. What is most thought provoking for us, is the fact that these warriors and gentlemen were loyal to persons and not to abstractions(i.e., constitutions,nation-states,ideologies, etc.), whether those persons were Divine or human. The act by which the modern warrior offers his life for an abstract concept, cannot but be tinged with incommensurability and cold futility.

It is interesting that in our attempt to penetrate, through a historical analysis, the essence of the classical conception of the true gentleman, we should stumble upon article 1, question 138 of the Secunda Secundae of St. Thomas' Summa Theologica. Here St. Thomas treats the vice of "effeminacy" or "softness" (mollities), which is opposed to the perseverance necessary for all forms of fidelity. To be "effeminate" is to be willing to forsake a good, rather than endure difficulties and toils for the sake of the attainment of that good. The "difficulties" which St. Thomas refers to here, are not even the "heavy blows" of catastrophe or grave misfortune, it is, rather, the "soft blows" of the daily machinations of circumstance.

Even though in the council chamber and on the battle field, loyalty and military prowess were prized, what marked the true nobleman for his peers was his instinctive habit of largesse. Even though we would translate this term as "generosity," which is a prerequisite of "hospitality," the term implies more. The well understood concept of largesse, well understood, that is, in ancient and Medieval times, can only be grasped by us if we see it as an example of the immemorial metaphysical principle that "the good seeks to communicate itself to that which is not itself." Even though, in the reality of the social situation in Medieval Europe, it was the wealthy nobility who through tournaments, banquets, and lavish presents sought to compensate the poorer knights for their faithful service, this "open-handedness" (largitas), the "freeness" which is the original concept behind the term "liberality," was a characteristic of the gentleman as compared to the petty meanness of one who augmented himself alone by placing walls "in justice" around all that which was "his." The virtue of "liberality," according to St. Thomas is not equatable with the virtue of justice, on account of the fact that "justice" concerns repaying "him" what is "his." The virtue of liberality, however, which, by the way, has nothing at all to do with modern Liberalism, entails giving away what is one's own.[10] This largesse, which was often practiced on a large scale, manifested a state of soul which demonstrated through its lavish giving, its detachment from those material and social goods which it "possessed." It is on account of this, more than anything else, that the true gentleman could be called "free."    St. Thomas reveals to us how seriously he takes the laws of hospitality and true liberality when, after citing Psalm 132, "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity," he cites Romans 14, 15 which states "If, because of thy meat, thy brother be grieved, thou walkest not now according to charity."(!)[11]             

This "freedom" in the noble soul of the Medieval gentleman, manifested in the economic sphere by their freedom from seigneurial ("banal") exactions, was referred to by the vocabulary of chivalry as "franchise." This is a virtue which has both an aesthetic quality and a moral quality. It is the spiritual, psychological, and physical bearing of one who "presents" himself as one of whom there is nothing to be ashamed. Here emerges the concept of "bearing," one of the most manifest elements distinguishing a "gentleman" from the average man. To cringe before any man or any reality, is to betray a lack of honesty concerning oneself, one's virtues and limitations. The reason the gentleman always presents himself in a "fitting" way, to another person or to a situation, is that his clear insight into and appraisal of the true value of things, keeps him from the "play acting" which often characterizes those who refuse to accept and affirm their own position in the order of things. You often sense when you are in the presence of certain men, that somehow you, by coming into their presence, have somehow become, unsuspectingly, a well-scripted "supporting actor" in the "drama" of another man's life. The "drama," of course, has meaning for the "director" alone.

This type of spiritual, moral, and psychological dishonesty does not characterize the developed and mature man who can successfully act upon the world and need not resort to staging his own "drama." When attempting to conceptualize the classical understanding of the man of "free bearing," perhaps we ought to consider those virtues in St. Thomas Aquinas which correspond to the image of the ideal male. In the Secunda Secundae, we encounter the virtues of "honesty" and "magnanimity." The virtue of "honesty," rather than being a simple matter of giving an accurate account of events, is classified as a condition for the virtue of temperance. Here we see the ancient understanding of the "morally beautiful" emerge again. The honest man is the one who loves the "comeliness" of temperance.         This "honest" attitude towards the world which allows the man of self-restraint to appreciate the beauty of virtue, also plays a role in his understanding of himself.[12]  If there is one quality that is always mentioned in books concerning the "gentleman," whether of ancient or more modern times, it is that the gentleman is a man who gives, receives, and appreciates honor. This giving of due honor to one's peers is, historically speaking, the root of all notions of "courtesy." Of course, in the chivalric world of the Catholic past, and even in the ancient heroic legends, this courtesy was extended by warriors to women as to those who because of their modesty, refinement, and proximity to the miracle of child-bearing were understood to be worthy of honor.            

St. Thomas is not at all adverse to describing a man who claims honor as his right, due to him because of his virtuous accomplishments. The "magnanimous" man is, in this, the honest man, the man who understands his place in the order of society and in the order of all created things. The reality that St. Thomas had in mind when he thought of this masculine type, cannot be conveyed adequately through the contemporary connotations of the English word "magnanimous." The concept that St. Thomas was working with is taken from Aristotle's description of the man characterized by megalopsychia or "great souledness." In question 129, article 1 of the Secunda Secundae, St. Thomas says "Magnanimity by its very nature denotes the stretching forth of the mind to great things. A man is said to be magnanimous chiefly because he is minded to do great things." It is this man who has the "reverential bearing" suitable to one who concerns himself with "great things," which are few in number.[13]

Conclusion: The Fundamentals

Are there any essential characteristics that underlie all the historical manifestations of the male social ideal that we have treated? Are these traits and behaviors indications of an underlying natural order which struggles to reveal itself even in the most averse conditions (e.g., our own time). I would maintain that such characteristics exist and that they are manifestations of an underlying natural order, which is moral rather than physical.                                    

One of the things that all the specifics of male etiquette presuppose is that it is the bonds between males which provides society with its basic skeletal structure. This is why I believe that, as history shows, male etiquette is primarily meant to structure the relations between males and, only secondarily, structure the relations with females. The reason for this is, perhaps, that males are, by their physical and psychological beings, made specifically for public action. Even a man's duties to maintain house and hearth are only successfully fulfilled if he is successful in the public sphere. Contrary to the egalitarian illusions that cloud our judgment and subvert etiquette, civilizations survive on account of their hierarchical structure. Since males are public "animals," and since the public domain is hierarchically ordered, proper male etiquette must be and is formed by a fundamental recognition of hierarchy. This recognition of hierarchical gradations among men is an aspect of the very essence of etiquette, which is, simply, a proper response to value. The rendering of honor, where honor is due, is subsequent upon this intellectual recognition of and docility before that which is seen as, in a significant way, excellent and important.     

The last of the essential formative elements of male etiquette is the fact that men are the stronger sex. To become "gentle" in the presence of women does not reveal a lack of masculinity, but rather, such self-restraint unveils a power which is held in reserve. It is the reserved power of the man of restraint which must be relied upon to shelter, protect, convenience, and yield way to a woman. The specifics of masculine etiquette demonstrate the validity of the above mentioned elements. Since males are made to be public beings, it is necessary that they know how to place themselves in the presence of another, particularly another man. Here a man is recognizing another man and claiming recognition.

This placing oneself in the presence of another man is realized by the shaking of hands and rising at the approach or for the departure of superiors and peers. In such a way, one man both recognizes the presence of another man, while also affirming the respective places that both he and the man he greets occupy within the social whole. The constant reference to the specific rank and identity of the one whom you are in the presence of through the use of forms of address and titles, is also a way in which the complex social structure, fortified and constituted by the bonds between men, emerges with all of its ancient power, wholesomeness, and rationality. Indeed, the most obvious experience one has with our contemporary youth is that, not only do they seem not to be "present to their own presence," but they are definitely not "present" to you. You are simply a, perhaps rather "weird," insignificant character in a "drama" of their own staging, the plot of which can hardly be imagined.

We see the intrinsically public nature of males revealed also in their role as "host." By initiating introductions and "escorting" guests into a home, a man is creating a social cosmos of bounty and friendship. Indeed, it is the man's role to stake out the realm of hospitality. It is the role of the women to fill that realm with good things. The very fact that it is taken for granted, even today, that it is the proper role of men to be ushers, perhaps indicates that the deep springs of the divinely established natural order continue to bubble up into the parched soil of our culture.                         

Interestingly enough, proper male behavior towards women is not dependent upon the woman's rank or status, but rather, it is determined by the fact that she is a woman. The tipping of the hat, the rising at the entrance and the exit of women, the giving up of a seat, and the holding of doors for women all manifest the giving of honor and the extension of a cloak of protection and comfort which is an offering from one with external strength to one with internal strength. How are such "gentleman" to be formed in our age, in which "useful" behavior, ordered solely to the satisfaction of some "need," is the only type understood to be meaningful? Since, as we have seen, the "gentleman" is first and foremost the virtuous man, it is in the traditional Catholic home and the traditional Catholic school where the classic virtues of the gentleman can be fostered and conveyed. The traditional Catholic home and school is the proper place for fostering such virtues in young men, on account of the fact that they are within the domain of the consummate "gentleman" Our Lord Jesus Christ. The reason Our Lord is the consummate gentleman is because in His being and His actions He is a transparent medium of the grace and truth of the Father. Men are like diamonds. Either they are worn down by the world or they become jewels radiating light and truth. Let us "cut" men, splendid and good, again.

    [1] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), pp. 116-123.
    [2] Ibid., pp. 116-120.
    [3] Ibid., pp. 116-120.
    [4] Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus, 1971, p. 16.
    [5] MacIntyre, pp. 126-144.
    [6] Cf. Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 2-6. Also, see G. Duby, The Chivalrous Society, trans. C. Postan (London, 1979) and Sidney Painter, French Chivalry: Chivalric Ideas and Practices in Medieval France (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1957), p. 30ff. 

 [7] Painter, p. 39.
    [8] Duby, pp. 42 and 106-107.
    [9] Painter, p. 39.
    [10] ST, II-II, Q. 117, Art. 5.
    [11] ST, II-II, Q. 114, Art. 1, ad 3.
    [12] ST, II-II, Q. 143, Art. 1.
    [13] ST, II-II, Q. 129, Art. 3, ad 5.


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