Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: The Compleat Gentleman

The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry (Revised and Updated) by Brad Miner (Richard Vigilante Books, 2009)

In this wonderful book, Brad Miner rolls an incredible volume of history and research into a single reference about chivalry, then applies it to modern times and modern manhood.  The book generally has an academic tone to it, but not in a way that’s distracting.  In fact, for what is essentially a combination of history and what today would be called “self-help,” the book is definitely readable and held my attention throughout.
Miner works us through the picture of the compleat gentleman by discussing the medieval knight (often used to typify gentlemanly behavior), then examining three persons as models or types:  the warrior, the lover and the monk.  He also distills the essence of the gentleman into a single Latin concept: sprezzatura, which he thoroughly examines throughout the book due to its rich, deep and complex meaning.  On the surface though, it simply means nonchalance; Miner says that to today it would mean “cool.”  Toward the end of the book, he summarizes his work by saying, “if ‘honor’ is properly the one word that epitomizes the character of a gentleman, then ‘sprezzatura’ is the last work about the gentleman’s ‘conduct of life.’”  He goes on to say, “There are two ways to look at a fellow’s sprezzatura.  On the one hand, it means discretion, or, more grandly, prudence; on the other hand it means restraint, which may even be concealment.”
As you read, Miner will weave these concepts together with others, including the role of historic stoicism, and leave you walking away challenged and encouraged that no matter who you are or where you think of yourself relative to gentlemanly conduct, you’ll can make more of yourself.
At the end of the book, Miner quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF” (available through The Kipling Society at as his closing and as “the best short summary of the compleat gentleman’s profession.”  If you’re not familiar with Kipling or this poem:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And – which is more – you'll be a Man my son!

Finally, a note for those who might mind, the author clearly writes from a Catholic perspective and defines himself as a classic liberal.  Even so, he’s never in your face with either and the points about being a gentleman don’t conditionally rest on either.  No matter what your religious or political persuasion, the book is informative and useful.
The Compleat Gentleman is definitely worth the time to read.  If you have an interest in the history of gentleman and chivalry, the book is a great anchor point for additional research, with plenty of references and a healthy selected bibliography.  I recommend this book to any man whether he’s a father or not, think it would make a great gift at the appropriate time for any young man, and will definitely be on my son’s reading list.
It’s great to be a dad!


Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments. They're certainly welcome and will appear after they're reviewed.