Be Gentle: An Address to the Graduating Class of 2014

July 25, 2014

Graduates, I have a simple exhortation for you today: Be gentlemen. Be gentlewomen. Be gentle.

To understand what I mean when I urge you to “be gentle,” let us consider the origins of the word, “gentle.” From your study of Latin vocabulary, you probably recall that the root of gentle is gens, which means nation, people, tribe, race, or clan. English words that derive from this Latin root include not only gentleman and gentlewoman, but generation, generate, generous, gentility, genteel, genetics, general, even genitals.

The sense of the root word that all these derivative words hold in common is the idea that a class of people is created (generated) through biological transmission or natural propagation. Thus the terms gentleman and gentlewoman originally referred to those of a certain class—the upper class to be precise. To be a gentleman or a gentlewoman simply meant, rather literally, to exhibit the characteristics of one’s class.

Until very recently in human history, one’s class was based, of course, upon one’s birth. One could be a gentleman or a gentlewoman only if one was born to parents who were genteel. But with the onset of modernity and as a result of factors too complex to recount here, the modern age saw the birth of social mobility: the possibility of moving out of the social class of one’s birth into another—hopefully, higher—class.

With this possibility, then, the very definitions of gentleman and gentlewoman came under question as well. If gentility were no longer merely an inherited state, what did it mean, then, to be a gentlewoman or gentleman?

This is the central question of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations. The poor orphan boy Pip being raised by his sister and her blacksmith husband Joe desires more than anything to be a gentleman. When an anonymous benefactor comes along and sends Pip to London to gain a gentleman’s education, to live on a gentleman’s allowance, and to fraternize with gentlemen, why, Pip thinks he has indeed become a gentleman.

Let’s spend a few minutes steeped in a scene from this wonderful story.

When Pip’s brother-in-law Joe, the humble blacksmith, and the person Pip once loved most in the world, journeys to London to see Pip, Pip arranges his “sittingroom and breakfast-table to assume their most splendid appearance.” Here are excerpts from the scene that follows:

I heard Joe on the staircase. I knew it was Joe, by his clumsy manner of coming up-stairs—his state boots being always too big for him…. I thought he never would have done wiping his feet, and that I must have gone out to lift him off the mat, but at last he came in.

“Joe, how are you, Joe?”

“Pip, how AIR you, Pip?”

With his good honest face all glowing and shining, and his hat put down on the floor between us, he caught both my hands and worked them straight up and down, as if I had been the last patented Pump.

“I am glad to see you, Joe. Give me your hat.”

But Joe, taking it up carefully with both hands, like a bird’s-nest with eggs in it, wouldn’t hear of parting with that piece of property, and persisted in standing talking over it in a most uncomfortable way.

“Which you have that growed,” said Joe, “and that swelled, and that gentle-folked;” Joe considered a little before he discovered this word; “as to be sure you are a honour to your king and country.”

“And you, Joe, look wonderfully well.”

Joe, being invited to sit down to table, looked all round the room for a suitable spot on which to deposit his hat … and ultimately stood it on an extreme corner of the chimney-piece, from which it ever afterwards fell off at intervals, and he started out of his chair and picked it up, and fitted it to the same exact spot. As if it were an absolute point of good breeding that it should tumble off again soon. Indeed, it demanded from him a constant attention, and a quickness of eye and hand, very like that exacted by wicket-keeping. He made extraordinary play with it, and showed the greatest skill; now, rushing at it and catching it neatly as it dropped; now, merely stopping it midway, beating it up, and humouring it in various parts of the room and against a good deal of the pattern of the paper on the wall, before he felt it safe to close with it; finally, splashing it into the slop-basin, where I took the liberty of laying hands upon it.

As to his shirt-collar, and his coat-collar, they were perplexing to reflect upon—insoluble mysteries both. Why should a man scrape himself to that extent, before he could consider himself full dressed? Why should he suppose it necessary to be purified by suffering for his holiday clothes? Then he fell into such unaccountable fits of meditation, with his fork midway between his plate and his mouth; had his eyes attracted in such strange directions; was afflicted with such remarkable coughs; sat so far from the table, and dropped so much more than he ate, and pretended that he hadn’t dropped it….I had neither the good sense nor the good feeling to know that this was all my fault, and that if I had been easier with Joe, Joe would have been easier with me. I felt impatient of him and out of temper with him; in which condition he heaped coals of fire on my head.

“Us two being now alone, Sir,”—began Joe.

“Joe,” I interrupted, pettishly, “how can you call me, Sir?”

Joe looked at me for a single instant with something faintly like reproach. Utterly preposterous as his cravat was, and as his collars were, I was conscious of a sort of dignity in the look.

“Us two being now alone,” resumed Joe, “I will now mention what have led to my having had the present honour. For was it not,” said Joe, with his old air of lucid exposition, “that my only wish were to be useful to you, I should not have had the honour of breaking wittles in the company and abode of gentlemen.” [Joe delivers the message that was the purpose of his visit.]

“I have now concluded, Sir,” said Joe, rising from his chair, “and, Pip, I wish you ever well and ever prospering to a greater and a greater heighth.”

“But you are not going now, Joe?”

“Yes I am,” said Joe.

“But you are coming back to dinner, Joe?”

“No I am not,” said Joe.

Our eyes met, and all the “Sir” melted out of that manly heart as he gave me his hand.

“Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come. If there’s been any fault at all to-day, it’s mine. You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain’t that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I’m wrong in these clothes. I’m wrong out of the forge, the kitchen, or off th’ meshes. You won’t find half so much fault in me if you think of me in my forge dress, with my hammer in my hand, or even my pipe. … And so GOD bless you, dear old Pip, old chap, GOD bless you!”

I had not been mistaken in my fancy that there was a simple dignity in him. The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words, than it could come in its way in Heaven. He touched me gently on the forehead, and went out. As soon as I could recover myself sufficiently, I hurried out after him and looked for him in the neighbouring streets; but he was gone.

Just who was the real gentleman in this scene? Certainly it was not the one so eager to show off his newfound status and to make himself appear so “splendid” that his guest felt as out of place as that bird’s-nest of a hat that kept tumbling off the corner of the chimney.

Contrast the haughty and inhospitable treatment of Joe by Pip with a new definition of the true gentleman offered by Cardinal John Henry Newman in The Idea of a Universityshortly before Great Expectations was published.

[I]t is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;–all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He 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 allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while 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, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing 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. From a long-sighted 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.

The essence of Newman’s definition of the gentleman—which applies equally, of course, to the gentlewoman—is he or she who “never inflicts pain.” Rather, the gentleperson ministers comfort like an easy chair or good fire. When gentility was tied only to economic and political class, the genteel were those in a position to afford such ease. But in light of the new social mobility, Newman proposed that a true gentleman, or gentlewoman, is defined not by birth status but by character and behavior. Now, Newman pointed out, anyone can attain the status of gentleman or gentlewoman. Anyone can seek the ease of others, be tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, merciful towards the absurd, have enough good sense to not take offense. Anyone can avoid willfully inflicting pain on others. Class—as in classiness—is as class does.

And, yet, even with social mobility, democracy, and equality, we do not see the complete erasure of class.

The class that still exists—and has for thousands of years—the class that matters most and matters for eternity—is the one of which you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

It is your duty, graduates, as it is mine, as members of this class, who have been assigned by our Creator to be the stewards of this broken world, to be good hosts of this humble place, to give comfort to its broken guests. In a world wracked by darkness, pain, and confusion, may you of this chosen race never be the ones to inflict pain. For you—we—are the class uniquely equipped to point the suffering to the One who took all of our pain on Himself.

Yet, in the throes of the brokenness of this world, many, of course, will mistakenly lash out at you as you speak this truth in love. Many will point to you as their cause of their pain as you point them to the only means for that pain to be redeemed. They err to do so, but do not take offense, as Newman reminds us, or return pain for pain. Rather, be merciful toward the absurd living absurdly in a world made absurd by sin.  Do not, as Newman exhorts us, be mean or little in disputes. Do not take unfair advantage. Never mistake personalities or sharp sayings for arguments. Always conduct yourselves towards your enemy as if he were one day to be your friend.

Exhibit the qualities of your class: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness, self-control – and, of course, gentleness (Galatians 5: 22-23).

In other words, be gentlemen. Be gentlewomen. Be gentle. It is the calling of your race, the class, the people, into which you were born, not by flesh but by spirit.

Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry Press, 2012) and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014) and serves on the faith advisory council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live on a 100-year-old homestead with sundry dogs, horses, and chickens.

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul … Read More