I have just finished reading Brad Miner's The Compleat Gentleman.
The book calls itself "The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry", and attempts to assemble a general model of the perfect chivalrous man. The Compleat Gentleman, says Miner, is sophisticated and brave, personifying the virtues of the Warrior, the Lover, and the Monk, and is rich in sprezzatura, that is, gentlemanly grace and restraint.
On the whole, I found the book to be extensively flawed. For all Miner's lip-service to an apolitical ideal, his idea of chivalry is inextricably bound up with his strongly conservative political views. Miner is adamant that a gentleman's honor is worth fighting and dying for, but he never bothers to explain what honor means to him. Worst of all, while the book makes clear that the modern gentleman "has a newer and more realistic view of women" than his historical predecessors, Miner never once considers the possibility that a woman might fulfill his ideals as well as a man.
All that said, the book did give me a few things to think about.
Miner is a student of Goju Ryu karate, and what he writes about karate in his book leads me to believe that he is, like me, a relative newcomer who didn't begin his martial arts journey until adulthood. Nonetheless, the martial arts are important to his model of the perfect gentleman:
Does a gentleman need martial training? And if he does, does our martial training, therefore, bring us closer to being gentlemen?
Many of us like to think so. We like stories of the Celtic warrior-poet, the samurai philosopher, the rapier-wielding Renaissance man, and (if we are taekwondo players) the ancient Korean hwarang youth, each a sophisticated man educated in the various arts of peace but trained and ready for combat.
I'm a musician--a damn good one if I do say so myself--so I like to think I have the "poet" half of the warrior-poet equation down pretty well already. With some more martial arts training, could I join the ranks of history's great gentlemen?
I am reminded of the popular series of Dos Equis beer commercials featuring "The Most Interesting Man in the World". The character would perhaps not satisfy all of Miner's gentlemanly criteria (not enough of a monk, I think), but he does in many ways embody the popular ideal of the gentleman, that is, a man who is sophisticated and cool without being weak. He rescues trapped animals, he woos women, and he plays at politics, but he is equally at home arm-wrestling or wielding a shinai in a kendo match. The commercials' narrator says of him, "He could disarm you with his looks... or his hands, either way," and, "He's a lover, not a fighter, but he's also a fighter, so don't get any ideas."
Be honest: what guy doesn't want to be that guy?
Much as I often criticize romanticism in the martial arts, I must confess this image appeals to me a great deal. I didn't start my martial arts training with the single-minded goal of becoming a great martial arts master; I wanted to add one more piece to myself, a piece that would make me a more complete human being, a more "interesting" man.
I have written before on how I feel my training has prepared me to face life's challenges with a little more grace. And, stylized as my aikido may be, I suspect I am a little readier for a physical confrontation than I was before, too. Both of these, Miner and the Most Interesting Man in the World seem to agree, are key ingredients of the gentleman. Is it such a bad thing, then, to pursue this romantic ideal in the dojo? I am starting to think not.
Of course, we must pursue this ideal outside the dojo, too. Miner's Compleat Gentleman and the Most Interesting Man in the World are not just fighters. They are jacks-of-all-trades, well-traveled and broadly educated.
I keep saying that I want to make a deeper study of Buddhism, that I want to learn to speak Spanish, that I want to improve my cooking, and that I want to be more diligent in the gym. If I am to be the perfect gentleman, I'm going to need all these things, and I'm going to need to fit them in around working, being a husband, and raising a daughter. It's not for no reason that Don Quixote calls it "the impossible dream".
But even if it is impossible (and, skeptic that I am, I'm pretty sure it is), I think it might be a worthwhile pursuit. And I think my time in the dojo can help.
(This piece can be found on The Young Grasshoppper here.)
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