In Defense of Gentlemanly Things

The following is a guest post by Jason Craig, Executive Director of Fraternus.

Vanity turns us in on ourselves, like all sin. But in the case of the superficial or vain “gentleman” we are turned inward with the false image of being a man for others, a vanity more pitiable than others. The gentleman, after all, is not the one who wants everyone to notice him, and how “gentlemanly” he is.

Yet, I think the trend of “calling out” so-called vain gentlemanly things to be wrong. Wrong not because vanity is not dangerous or possible (if not probable), but because it is a misdiagnoses of the root problem. I don’t think that the young men buying fedoras and wingtips are struggling with vanity or false hopes of these things seeping into their souls and making them men. I think they long for a sense of belonging, place, culture, and most important of all, fatherhood. That sense and even that reality comes to us in many forms, and those gentlemanly things and manly traditions of yore are one way they arrive.

The Necessity of Custom

The transition from sonship to manhood happens through rites of passage and symbols that accompany a culture. Every culture has these signs, these almost sacramental ways that men have said to young men: this is how to be a man; this is what is important in life; this is who you are. “Now, my son, you are a man.” These signs are not universal, but the bestowing of manhood from generation to generation is. We don’t say, for example, that a camping trip is the only way to become a man, but in some families and even regions one safely says, “This is how we become men.” By analogy, we don’t say that the Rosary itself will save you, but prayer will, and this is how “we” pray, by praying the Rosary.

But let’s be sure to bring up the whole Pharisee dynamic. Traditions and customs are not forbidden in scripture, but abuse is. The Pharisee, in his pride, creates a legalism that itself is actually a sin against custom, making something that is meant to be life-giving into something life-taking. By analogy fatherhood is often viewed as tyrannical instead of life-giving, as proposed in Marxism (see Marxism has Infiltrated Your Family). And though some fathers are tyrannical, this did not stop God from revealing the true nature of fatherhood by revealing Himself as Father. Similarly, God did not forbid tradition, because it is part of our nature (i.e. from Him), but even placed the seed of salvation in tradition as a means of guarding and handing on Divine Revelation – i.e. Sacred Tradition.

Tradition is a liberating and formative necessity of human life, of fatherhood, and the family in general – it’s what links generations and gives us a “we”, as Stratford Caldecott explained:

In traditional societies, the past is a living part of the present, continually rehearsed, celebrated, and interpreted through ritual and story. Tradition joins the generations together in a community of anamnesis that transcends time. The contemporary dissolution of the family is also the dissolution of tradition, because it can only be passed on within the community whose identity it helps to define.

We need traditions, because you and you alone have not what it takes to form the next generation. You need a body of customs because you have a body, that give you the vehicle to pass on the innumerable ways and means of manliness, which necessarily adjust organically based on time and place. “The purpose of tradition is to serve the personal growth and development of man,” summarized Caldecott. Again, the purpose of tradition – its spirit – is freedom, not legalism, which is an abuse.

You’re Not Alone

Traditions, because they require the interaction of generations, form us as persons as opposed to individuals. To be an individual is to be considered alone, without relation, a specimen. One is only a person in relation to another. For example, God the Father is Father only in relation to God the Son. This is why we call the makeup of the Holy Trinity a relationship of persons, not individuals. Today, we pass on only the prison of individualism – “do whatever feels good to you, because you are autonomous and alone – so make the best of it.” By far the most damaging individualization of a man is the division from his fathers, from his own customs and traditions of manliness – his own rites of passage. It leaves him confused and unfinished; this plays out in many sad ways. We need traditions, because they are the glue between generations. A boy’s first cigar does not make him a man, but the man that handed it to him might.

Yes, these customs and traditions are human and therefore susceptible to sin. Yet, because they are human, in our very nature, they are also susceptible to grace. And we must readily admit a hierarchy of customs. Whether your socks go with your shoes or your trousers (or bridge the two) is just not a matter of life and death, but saying “please and thank you” (a tradition of manners) carries tremendous import. However, the relationships and spirit that fill those modes of tradition communicate more than meets the eye, because (and the man of tradition knows this) it’s not about socks, or pants or camping or fixing old cars or songs or folklore or festivals. The man of tradition knows these things don’t make a man, but he also knows they’re indispensable for making a man.

I don’t think young men dressing, acting, and drinking with a “vintage” flare are longing for vintage for fashion’s sake, but I think deep down are looking for the universals of manliness that our culture is failing to give: brotherhood, fatherhood, even friendship. They’re after a lost “we”. A boy watching a video on shaving with a straight razor is not longing to shave like his granddad, but is longing for his granddad. “I don’t know who ‘we’ are,” he says, “But I think this is how ‘we’ used to do it…” He knows something went awry, and that for some reason he is alone, an individual. This thing, this razor, is a link that he knows he needs to recover. Do you really think a boy is dragging a dangerous blade across his neck every morning just to be cool? Ok, maybe sometimes he is, but maybe there’s something deeper there too, and I think our understanding of “cool” isn’t that bad after all (I think it fits what St. Josemaria Escriva called ‘naturalness’). I’ve actually never done cliché manly things (smoking cigars, drinking scotch, working on cars, going to a barber shop and so on) and not felt deeply bonded with the friends I was with, uplifted in some way, and, yes, a bit more manly. Do these things make me a man? No, but they sure seem to help.

I would heartily point to the tradition of fathers fixing up cars with their teenage sons – a particularly American tradition. That tradition typically kicks in when it’s needed most, when fathers and sons are paradoxically at each other’s throats yet in very real need of each other. The father needs to pass on the skills of manhood and the son needs to receive them, but because the boy is nearing manhood there’s a sort of clash of wills and power. The fixing of the car provides the vehicle (pun intended) that they need to complete this transaction. I could imagine reading an article on the need to fix cars with your sons and then reading a comment meant to correct poorly placed hope: “Fixing cars doesn’t make you a man! It’s the interior renewal! Quit putting manliness in a box. Some men don’t know how to fix cars.” Great. Thanks for the clarification. I think the average man might roll his eyes about that comment, not really having the vocabulary to defend his original thesis, but knowing intuitively that the commenter is wrong, because that’s not what’s being proposed. It’s not about cars. The commenter thinks it’s about cars, but the dads in the garage know, perhaps unable to articulate it, that it’s about much more than cars. The same goes for clothes, cigars, drinking, and other things, but also with poetry, music, art, literature, and so on. Be careful what you toss out. (Oh, and yes, you need to know the basics of fixing cars.)

You might ask why the “image” of the gentleman seems stuck in time, say in the look and feel of the 50’s. I think it’s simply because the era of the 60’s and 70’s, and even into our own day, was and is an eerie eclipse of tradition, ushering in a radically individual-focused era, a cold and dark time. Notable Princeton University family historian Lawrence Tone said, “The scale of marital breakdowns in the West since 1960 has no historical precedent…” Caldecott said tossing tradition tosses the family – and the history proves it. The monster of individualism that grips society now was not born in the 60’s (it’s a much older foe), but he sure went through a growth spurt then. I would go as far to say that the modern era, insofar as it roots itself in this anti-tradition individualism, cannot create true tradition, because tradition itself is an act of love, and an act of self-gift. So, since we can’t create it, we simply have to look backward at the last good thing available.

The other shift in the middle of the last century was caused by the cult of the expert and the cult of the celebrity. Instead of looking to their ancestors for wisdom people were encouraged to listen to the professionals and stars. For example, women were told that “formula” was as good as if not better than breast milk. After all, we “formulated” it! Viola – progress! Even in that name – “formula” – you can hear the salvation-by-science approach to life. “Midwives and grandmothers might not get it, but you will, because you’re young and hip and know that we’re the experts, we’re making progress!” And alongside these experts is the rise of the media, especially Hollywood, which sets the new trend of trends. Yes, there’s always been things that ebb and flow in matters of taste and style, but the idea that an entire “look” could be introduced or abolished by the fiat of a celebrity is a strange and modern phenomenon.

Young men think the feel and look of the vintage man to be cool, because it is.

Look, when my son imitates men of old he straps on revolvers and swords, pocket watches and handy axes; but when he imitates men of late, he straps a cell phone to his belt. That image makes me think of one word to describe our modern “customs”, and the word itself is modern slang but apt nonetheless: it’s lame. I say it’s lame because it can’t carry on, can’t walk you into manhood, it’s about as deep as the iPhone is thick.

Real Things

The “gentlemanly things” themselves are made of real things: fire that can burn on the end of that wood pipe that can splinter, wool from sheep in those trousers, skin from a baby cow in those calfskin plain-toe bluchers. Truly gentlemanly things contain something that polyester-laden, industrialized, de-humanized counterfeits can’t. Why is the true gentleman necessarily a man of nostalgia? Because the hyper-systematized fashions, which are made of fake things, of our day are irrelevant to the man of tradition, especially when they try to be otherwise. John Senior speaks well of the problem with artificiality in life:

There is almost nothing not artificial in [the modern boy’s] experience – the fibers of his clothes, the surfaces of the tables and desks he rests his elbows on, the food he eats, the air he breathes, the odor even of his fellow inmates reeks with waves of artificially scented deodorant in this space-vehicle we have made of earth.

So, before you see old pictures of people dressed to the nines and shrug off their unessential, man-made customs, and congratulate yourself for your completely interior transformation that doesn’t need formalities like shoe laces or manners, make sure you have an idea of how you, and perhaps you alone, are going to create new traditions (an oxymoron in itself) that will effectively do what those customs did for centuries.

But what do we do when it gets ridiculous? I opened with the reality that vanity is dangerous and possible when we talk of these “things”. Baptize it! Maybe just lighten up a bit and light up. Catholics are uniquely suited to embrace this “gentlemanly movement”, because it signals the shaking free of individualism and the embrace of tradition. And the reality is that tradition cannot exist without the interaction of persons and generations. So, watching a video of a straight razor is a bit artificial. Your love can change that, bringing life to it.

Some of you will be a bit more like St. Francis, showing up to weddings without shoes to remind us all of what matters. That’s fine and good and will be needed at times, but do not be foolish enough to rebel entirely against custom itself. Budding gentleman need guidance, and our gentlemanly things are delightful ways to mentor them – vehicles of tradition, containing lessons of ceremonial, beauty, orderliness, manners, and love. And who better to direct, guide, and perhaps even correct those gentlemanly things than a Catholic gentleman. After all, Catholicism is the place where the pipe, the pint and the cross all fit together, at least according to Chesterton. As for me, I embrace that man-making tradition. Cheers.

Jason Craig is the Executive Director of Fraternus, which trains and equips men to mentor the boys into virtuous, Catholic men. Jason holds a Masters in Theology from the Augustine Institute and writes for TCM from his homestead in Western NC, where he milks cows and tends to a variety of plants and animals with his wife Katie and four kids (and counting).

The post In Defense of Gentlemanly Things appeared first on The Catholic Gentleman.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at The Catholic Gentleman.
Jason Craig

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Jason Craig works and writes from a small farm in rural NC with his wife Katie and their four kids.  Jason is the Executive Director of Fraternus and holds a masters degree from the Augustine Institute.  He is known to staunchly defend his family’s claim to have invented bourbon.

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  • JMC

    An interesting article, and with an important message for women as well as men. How many of us women also look to “retro” fashions and customs? For myself, at least, I can honestly say you have articulated all the reasons (in some cases, adjusted for gender ;D) I have never been able to pinpoint as being behind my preference for all things old-fashioned.

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