Several of us explored the topic of duels and honor in the comments to a recent post. As a result, the following may be of interest to you.
What does it mean to be a gentleman?
The other day I ventured down to Gwinnett county, which is named for Button Gwinnett, signator of the Declaration of Independence. Gwinnett died in a duel with Lachlan McIntosh, a Continental officer who later became a Valley Forge veteran and general in George Washington's army. I encountered, while walking around, a posh store with very fancy appointments, declaring itself to be "for distinguished gentlemen."
Standing outside, wearing a Stetson hat and blue jeans, I realized that these fellows had a very different definition of "gentleman" from mine. I doubt they understand the concept at all.
"For distinguished gentlemen!" A Google search on the term yields botiques, perfumes, and escort services.
This is not right. A gentleman is defined, as noted in Blackstone's commentaries, as "one qui arma gerit."
That is, "one who bears arms."
The manners and grooming aspects are entirely -- entirely -- secondary. I will explain how they came to be associated with gentlemen in a moment. For now, I will note Major Leggett's objection to gentlemen focusing attention on fashion:
I think that any self-respecting individual should take the time to ensure that their grooming and apparel standards are up to snuff. Nevertheless, I categorically reject the idea that an obsessive concern with the latest fashion trends is the hallmark of gentlemen. That is the hallmark of a fop. Remember, the concept of the gentleman comes the tradition of chivalry, which was itself an ethical system for fighting men, not fashion models.
Blackstone notes, as does the Oxford English Dictionary, that the "arms" in question are heraldic arms -- that is, symbolic ones. Those symbolic arms, however, were the later representation of what was earlier a very real right: the right to bear not only weapons, but armor onto the field. Heraldry describes the shield of a fighter. In the Middle Ages, the sort entitled to such a shield were those with the literal right to bear arms. It is only in these more decadent ages -- in more decadent countries -- that this right has become purely symbolic.
Why did the state recognize that right, in a time before the Declaration that Gwinnett signed? It did so because it depended on these fighters, knights and noblemen and squires, who later became the gentlemen. It needed them to defend itself. Before the Napoleonic era, wars were a matter of professional armies and levies raised by the fedual structure. The right to bear arms arose from the fact that you could be counted upon to defend your country and its civilization at need.
That is what it means today. Fine manners and courtesy pertain to the gentleman because he is, through their use, upholding what is fine about civilization. He defends it symbolically as he defends it practically.
In America, the right to bear arms is secured in the Constitution itself. If you wish to register heraldic arms, follow this link to the American College of Heraldry. If you wish to bear literal ones, you have the right to do so. Every American man can be a gentleman.
To do so, though, requires that you constitute yourself a defender of your country and its civilization. It is not enough to say, as did Dutch humanist Oscar van den Boogaard:
"I am not a warrior, but who is?" he shrugged. "I have never learned to fight for my freedom. I was only good at enjoying it."
No, that is not a gentleman, though he wears the finest clothes and writes the finest novels, keeps the best society, and has the finest manners. He has only the accidents of a gentleman. He has nothing of its essence.
The essence is to bear arms, in defense of country and civilization. That is the real thing, the root of the tradition. The arms may be symbolic, or they may be actual. The defense must be devout.
That may sit ill with some, but there it is. Honi soit qui mal y pense,* goes the motto of the greatest of England's knightly orders.
* Literally, "Shame to him who thinks evil of it" -- or, if you'd rather have it in modern American, "&#%@ you if you don't like it."