Of Gentry's Chivalry, Manners, And Good Taste
The gentry may be dead, but the best cultural spirit embodied in it should never be.
Article Contribution by Uncle Gaido
Gentry societies which relied on propriety, manners, courtliness, and good taste as means of civility, coherence, and predictability are easy targets today. To liberal democrats such ‘values’ are little more than expressions of power, status, and influence designed to further the distance between those who rule and those who are ruled. The aristocratic, highly mannered formal gardens, palaces, balls, and couture of French courts were lavish displays with a purpose. No peasant or tradesman could – or should - possibly imagine a life of such luxury, ease, and splendor.
The French Revolution changed all that. The ‘Let them eat cake’ courtiers of Louis XVI were beheaded along with their monarchs, and Robespierre and the Terror made sure that their kind would never again rise to power.
Of course this populist dream was short-lived. It wasn’t long before the French aristocracy was restored and although there was no monarchy, there was no doubt that those with a “‘de la’ devant et une grosse fortune derriere” would return to prominence in France. They would not necessarily rule the country politically – a separate aristocratic technocracy would see to that – but they would certainly assert their privilege as arbiters of taste, manners, and high-culture.
There might be no more of the dandyism of the 18th century court, but chateau balls, masquerades, formal dinners, elegant soirees, and lawn parties were common. The people had had their chance; and now were complicit in the return of nobility to its proper place in French society.
After the French Revolution, the princes of Europe were quick to institute democratic reforms in order to forestall any similar populist uprisings, but they too never ceded cultural authority and privilege.
Modern western society, however, is changing so radically that gentry privilege and culture will soon be things of the past. Chateaux and country manors will be on historical registries, maintained as part of national heritage and patrimony, and toured by tourists and amateur historians; but they will be lifeless, abandoned, and consigned to irrelevance as will the few remaining aristocrats who claim currency.
Gentry has always provided a strong cultural center to society. They, because of wealth and influence have been patrons of the arts. There would be no Louvre, no Sistine Chapel, no Winchester Cathedral, no Champs Elysees, no Ghiberti doors, no Florence without European nobility. Through this patronage they have created a universal culture.
Without this cultural center, culture itself becomes centripetal. Untethered from the proper upbringings of gentry / aristocrats whose education, upbringing, and breeding encouraged an innately sophisticated taste, valuation of art, music, dance, and literature, modern Western culture can only be a grab bag of sporadic, individualistic things – some brilliant but most ordinary and self-supposed.
In America where populism is at its height, where ‘elites’ have no place and should be marched to the guillotine with as little ceremony as in the days of the Jacobins, it is no surprise that popular culture is an even more the norm than ever before. A culture based on individual self-expression, image, idolatry, and short attention spans (‘In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’); and one which prizes innovation and enterprise, cannot help but be permanently disassembled. If there are tens of millions versions of culture, then there is can be no culture.
At best America’s ‘culture’ is the process of enterprising capitalism. There is no substance to our culture as there is in Europe – i.e. 1500 years of cultural patrimony; nothing to point to, nothing of lasting value. The past is irrelevant. Cultural centers are figments of imagination.
Gentry / Aristocratic culture has always had an important by-product – social codes. European courts have always had prescribed and precise codes of conduct. Chivalry was a moral code of honor, courage, and perhaps above all respect for and admiration of women. Duels were fought, maidens in distress rescued, families strengthened and honored through marriage, respect shown for monarchs, princes, prelates, and generals.
Such moral codes are not European inventions. Cato the Elder, a Roman educator, wrote ‘diptychs’ on which he inscribed the basic principles of governance – principles to be taught to young aristocrats and future leaders. Honor, courage, discipline, respect, compassion were among the most important. Aristotle and Plato decades before contemplated the nature of good and evil and how morality was the foundation for any society.
A subset of these social code is manners – the treatment of others with grace, gentility, and respect; and the conditioning of one’s behavior with this in mind. Manners are now in disrepute – a bourgeois trifle, a vestige of a discredited elitist society, a superficial meme of privilege and social authority.
Yet manners are what hold a society together. If only individualism is encouraged then cultural cohesion disappears. If personal behavior becomes sacred – anything goes in the pursuit of self-expression – then many others will necessarily be offended. There is a point to being moderate in dress, appearance, and behavior. Moderation is the principle according to which individual identity can be expressed within a social context.
‘Good taste’ is perhaps the one attribute of a civilized society hardest to define. De gustibus non disputandum est has never been more the hallmark of modern America. Anything goes. There is no taste but taste. In a pluralistic, multicultural society, there should never be one prescribed or authorized taste.
Yes and no. It is not a question of one or multiple tastes, it is taste itself which matters. Italians prize bella figura –looking, sounding, and acting good. It is an ethos rather than a prescription. According to bella figura there is no one fashion, way of speaking required – only paying absolute attention to the way you look, behave, and sound.
Americans need more bella figura. Lack of any sense of style in the name of ‘informality’ is a neglect of manners which in turn is a neglect for a sense of unifying culture. It does matter how you look. French women are known for being svelte and well-dressed; and even women from modest backgrounds adhere to this principle. It is not only part of French culture but a French bella figura.
The gentry / aristocracy may be dead, but the best cultural spirit embodied in it should never be.