Live Simply

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 19: Live Simply

The modern gentleman, unlike forebears, is an individual that chooses simplicity over materialism. Investing his or her time in personal development, the modern gentleman has no time for a life filled with possessions and distractions.

Of all the guidelines listed during this challenge, simplicity is my greatest struggle. I like things. I appreciate fine clothing, books, furniture, and knick-knacks of various sorts. The only way I’ve been able to combat this is by living by the motto quality before quantity. Rather than accumulate lots of possessions, I’ve tried to look for quality goods that will last a lifetime, or at least close to one. For example, rather than buy shoes that would need to be replaced after a year or two, I buy quality shoes that will last many years and then can be resoled to last for many more.

While I can’t really lead by example, I understand the principle well enough to present some suggestions for living a simple life.

1. Declutter – Sort through all your possessions and get rid of any that haven’t been used/worn in over a year. (Many people say six months, but I feel like a year is a little more realistic.) Reducing clutter in your house will reduce stress, save you time, and give you a fresh start on life. When I do declutter, I feel like I’ve taken a fresh lease on life.

2. Reduce Distraction – Most people have a lot of unnecessary distractions in their lives. Surrounded by smart phones, easily accessible internet distractions, television, and near-constant contact with both friends and strangers, it’s difficult to concentrate on a task or on the things that matter. While all of the above are useful and enjoyable, try not to let them usurp the important things in your life. Take time each day to cut out all distractions and focus on yourself, your friends or family, or your work.

3. Cut Ties – We all have a lot of unnecessary relationships in our lives as well. While it may seem harsh, cut ties with people that don’t benefit you. Reducing the amount of people you interact and associate with will allow you to develop stronger relationships with the people that remain. You don’t need 800 Facebook friends, and you don’t need to hang out with a different social circle every night of the week.


Be a Renaissance Man

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 18: Be a Renaissance Man

The modern gentleman, a reader and an orator, should strive also to be a renaissance man. A renaissance man, or a polymath, is a person whose knowledge or expertise spans a number of areas. Polymaths often have a deep understanding of literature, history, art, religion, science, and hands-on subjects like engineering or construction. Most of the greats, e.g., Ben Franklin, da Vinci, Francis Bacon, were polymaths.

Having interests in many fields helps to make you a more interesting conversationalist, a stronger orator, more attractive to potential love interests, and, let’s not forget, more knowledgeable–which is a worthy goal in and of itself. There are a variety of ways to approach this: take classes; visit museums; read; join a club; hell, watch the Science Channel or other learning channels. I heartily endorse EdX, a collection of free online courses offered through MIT, Harvard, and other partner schools. I recently completed a few courses in history and science and was really impressed.

Become a polymath this April, at the very least, you’ll be a hit during trivia games.

Be Quotable

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 17: Be Quotable

Being well-versed in the intricacies of language conveys power to a writer and speaker. Consider the myriad writers and poets of the past, idolized for a well-crafted stanza or turn of phrase.  In your social circles, you can be idolized and admired for your skill with words. For the modern gentleman, being an orator and a  reader, has a way with language.

They say that all roads lead to Rome, and in the case of writing eloquently, they do. Cicero, Roman philosopher, orator, and politician, is often credited with creating prose, as we know it. Classical scholar John William Mackail once wrote that “Cicero’s unique and imperishable glory is that he created the language of the civilized world, and used that language to create a style which nineteen centuries have not replaced, and in some respects have hardly altered.” Cicero’s contemporaries proclaimed that “Cicero” was not only the name of a great man, but a word for eloquence itself. My point? Study Cicero. Read some of his works concerning rhetoric and language, and afterwards, read his private letters.

After spending time with prose’s progenitor, study others. Read other Greek and Roman orators, like Quintillian and Aristotle. Explore exotic places and become acquainted with beautiful language with poets Li Bai, Du Fu, Su Shi (Chinese) and Matsuo Bashō, Ueshima Onitsura, and Yosa Buson (Japanese). And, once you’ve had your fill of the literary, read fiction. Read, read, read. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading James Patterson, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, or Herman Melville, just read.

With hard work and effort, you can become quotable. It really is something to aspire towards.

Be Pragmatic

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 16: Be Pragmatic

Recently, “The New Yorker” highlighted studies which posited that positive thinking and optimism may actually lead to failure and distress. It wasn’t news to me. I can hear the villagers gathering with torch and pitchfork, so before you storm my house, let me add this: I’m not in favor of pessimism either, though I do tend to lean in its direction. While I was unable to find a study detracting from pessimism (or supporting it), most of us would agree that pessimism seems to be a harmful attitude, both to the individual and those around him or her.

The modern gentleman doesn’t fall sway to idealism or fatalism–I’ll use these terms interchangeably with optimism and pessimism. The modern gentleman is pragmatic.

Most of us know someone with their head in the clouds. They go about their days, smiling, fantasizing. The world is their apple, and they’re about to take a big bite out of it. But when they find a worm in their apple, it all falls apart. Suddenly, those fantasies don’t ring true, and they find that their upbeat attitude and ceaseless optimism didn’t prepare them for, well, anything.

True pessimists aren’t much better. I knew a guy once, a very morose chap, who believed that all the good things in his life would fall apart just as he accepted them. He had a lovely girlfriend but would say, “Yeah, she’s great, but she’s going to cheat on me. It happened before, you know. I’m just preparing myself.” And after being given a raise, he proclaimed, “The company won’t be able to maintain these expenditures. They’ll lay us all off when they realize they can’t afford to keep us at this pay grade.” Pessimism had its dark tendrils so tightly wrapped about his brain that he didn’t enjoy anything.

Don’t be either of those people. Be realistic, pragmatic. Good and bad things happen to people for no apparent reason, and there is absolutely no predictor or predetermined cant to your life. Not every apple with have a worm, but rest assured that some of them will. It’s just a dose of protein, right?

I’ll close with this quote from actress Gilda:

I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.


Be an Orator

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 15: Be an Orator

Public speaking is one of the most common (and most irrational) fears of the modern age. Many people will admit that they are either afraid  or uncomfortable   speaking in front of others. This is unfortunate because history’s most charismatic, memorable, and influential people were not only comfortable public speakers, they were orators.

Oratory as a skill and art was fashioned in Ancient Greece. Oratory skills were essential for all educated men and were even considered virtuous. The great Greek philosophers owe a large part of their fame to oratory. Oratory as an art form would continue in early Rome, and then fall aside, to be briefly revived during times of revolution, and  governmental and social change in Europe and the Americas.

The difference between oratory and public speaking is comparable to the difference between the crayoned picture on your fridge and Monet’s Impression, soleil levant.  Oratory is public speaking elevated to a higher, nobler plane.  An orator inspires audiences, moves them to action, and stirs their thoughts and emotions. It is something all modern gentleman should strive to master.

You won’t master oration immediately. It takes years of practice, study, and experience in front of audiences, but it can be done. First, conquer any fears you may have of public speaking. Your first speeches will probably be awful. So what? Keep doing it.

Supplement these early experiences with study. Study rhetoric and logical fallacies. Explore pathos, ethos, and logos. Watch great orators in action and read famous speeches. And, fortunately, if you’ve followed the other guidelines to being a modern gentleman, you’re a step in the right direction: The Greeks believed that to be a true orator, you must be of good character, sharp wit, and broad mind. Continue to hone your empathy, amiability, and chivalry, and before you know it, you’ll be a fantastic public speaker, and maybe, you’ll be an orator too.

Nurture Something

On Being a Modern Gentleman: 

Guideline 14: Nurture Something

The modern gentleman, like the Victorian gentleman, Confucian Jūnzǐ, or Medieval gentilhomme, is a person of good standing, impeccable behavior, and strong discipline; however, the modern gentleman, unlike his or her forebears, is a person who also cultivates emotional depth, compassion, and, in a variety of forms, love.

I can’t teach you to be compassionate, nor can I teach you to love. These things are unique and come from within you, not from books or from a blog (no matter how cool and witty the author, unfortunately). That being said, I can teach you how to start. Nurture something.

Cultivate that emotional depth and compassion by taking care of something. Get a pet that you love and adore. Buy a houseplant and do everything you can to make it flourish. Lovingly tend to an antique book or furniture piece. Treat your house as though it’s your spouse. Nurture something. This goes behind doing your duty as a pet-owner or housekeeper: to nurture means to protect and encourage something or someone to grow, to thrive,  and to to be successful. Those of you who have children already do this, or, at least, I hope you do. If you don’t have children, treat something like it is your child. (For the hyper-masculine readers, it’s very easy to do this: nurture your vehicle.)

Like so many of the guidelines for being a gentleman, nurturing something is deeply tied to the gentleman triumvirate: empathy, chivalry, and amiability. These values or ideas are symbiotic. Mastering one invariably leads to another. So, nurture something. It’ll be good for you.

Make Something

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 13: Make Something

Few things are as rewarding as making. On the other hand, few things are as sad as someone with the ability to create doing nothing. Sure, we can’t all be Picasso, Jack London, or Gordon Ramsey, but each of us has the ability and, almost always, the opportunity to make something.

The modern gentleman is a person who is driven to create something with his or her hands and mind. A person driven to leave a lasting, physical impression on the world. In order to be a gentleman, you must create — no two ways about it.

Joss Whedon expressed similar thoughts, though I don’t believe he was considering gentlemen: “Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it. Sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”

MAKE. This is one of the simplest guidelines to being a modern gentleman, yet one of the most important. Consider all the teens playing video games and slacking through school; the tired, old business men waking only to trudge through their work day and hit repeat; the hordes of talented creators saying, “If I only I were inspired…” Do you aspire to that? No. So make. Do. Create. Stand back, look upon the product born of your labors and say, “It is good. It is mine. I made this.”

Write Letters

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 12: Write Letters

I maintain various social media accounts, correspond with friends and acquaintances via email, text, or private message, and talk to family using telephone or Skype, but there is something to be said for the power and imbued message in a handwritten letter. Saul Bellow said it best:

 I send you a mere booklet, and you answer with a personal letter, a really valuable communication in the old style.  I sometimes think I write books in lieu of letters and that real letters have more kindness in them, addressed as they are to one friend.

A handwritten letter is good for the sender and the receiver. As Bellow said, letters have more kindness in them; they are more genuine, more personal. A letter held in one’s hand is much more intimate than the same words received in an email or text message. And, the art of writing a letter is much different than the art of writing a novel or blog or editorial. Twain is believed to have attributed his writing style to a history of letter writing, and (in a letter of course) he wrote:

 I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice. 

While his skill with plain language may not be born completely from letter writing, it is hard to argue that writing letters might contribute to such a style. Letters exercise different skills than a novel; in fact, letters are most like short stories. There is little room for verbosity when it all must fit in an envelope.

Aside from teaching diction, letters teach penmanship, a skill abandoned in this world of texting and email–I’m appalled at the handwriting of my students and many colleagues. Letters also contribute to values and attitudes previously mentioned in this month’s theme: amiability, chivalry, and empathy.

Lastly, and on more, well, nerdy note. Can you imagine studying an author without poring through his or her collected letters? There would be no way to stumble upon a chest full of letters betwixt your grandparents. I agree with Martin Amis who wrote, “no, we won’t be seeing, and we won’t be wanting to see, the selected faxes and e-mails, the selected texts and tweets of their successors.”

Use Your Knowledge

On Being a Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 11: Use Your Knowledge

Whew, what a hectic weekend. I had yet to schedule postings for the 12th or for today, so I’m a little behind. I’ll be posting one blog, “K”, right now, and I’ll post “L” later this evening. 

I’ve been a fan of Mike Rowe for some time and enjoyed his look at less “respectable” or desirable jobs on Discovery’s “Dirty Jobs,” but I’m a much bigger fan now. Rowe, after leaving “Dirty Jobs” created the mikeroweWORKS foundation and Profoundly Disconnected in order to promote skilled labor, hard work,  and trade schools. Rowe has appeared before Congress, Letterman, Maher, and other talking heads to promote, in my mind, getting your hands dirty. He often tells interviewers that mikeroweWORKS is partly a reaction to a poster that he beheld while in school, one that many of us saw in the counselor’s office when considering post-graduation options: “Work Smart, Not Hard.” Rowe created his own poster and displays it proudly on his website, at his interviews, and, occasionally, on his t-shirt: “Work Smart, Not And Hard.”

Guideline 11 for being a modern gentleman is similar: Use Your Knowledge. It doesn’t matter how much you know about furniture, literature, Slavic history, fashion, etc. if you do nothing with it. A modern gentleman isn’t a repository of trivia, a modern gentleman is a person of action.

Sure, some of us are knowledgeable in areas that don’t lend themselves towards doing, so start telling. If you can’t make something out of your specialty, then teach others about it. Start a blog, a club. Write an essay about it, and publish it in a journal or your local press. If your knowledge can be used, find a way to use your knowledge in the workplace. Start a side-hustle if your area of interest can lead to a physical product. There is nothing more useless than a skill (and special knowledge of a topic is a skill) not being put to use.

For a modern gentleman, being smart isn’t enough. You aren’t a pedant, you are a scholar.  And scholars and gentleman “work smart and hard.”

Join a Club

On Being A Modern Gentleman:

Guideline 10: Join a Club

I’ve written before that becoming a part of a group of like-minded individuals is important for continued growth, and I still believe that; in fact, I believe it so much that joining a club is Guideline #10 for being a modern gentleman.

Intellectual, moral, and physical growth is less likely to occur when you go it on your own. Bringing a companion along on your quest usually isn’t enough, as they have their own goals and fears to strive for and against, respectively. What’s a modern gent to do? Join a club. Hell, make one.

Some of the greatest men and women in history have belonged to clubs: Teddy Roosevelt considered himself a member of two, the Rough Riders and the Tennis Cabinet; most have heard of Tolkien’s order, the Inklings; the leading Russian Romantic composers of the mid-1800s often gathered together and came to be called The Mighty Handful. Look about today, it’s difficult to turn a corner without coming across a men’s fraternity or women’s organization.

I have never felt so well, so appreciated, so productive as when I was a part of several groups in academia. I was a member of both formal and informal organizations: Honors College, English Honors, Dr. Carter’s misfits and smartasses, guys who had burritos every Thursday at 1, literature students who hunted for peer-reviewed journals every Wednesday morning. . . It felt great. I belonged.

I challenge you to find a group. Become a member in something, be it bowling league, tennis club, book club. Joining others and allying yourself to people other than your close friends and family will help you to make new friends, to grow in confidence, and might just teach you something about yourself and others. Do it. It can’t hurt. (Unless you join some strange BDSM club. That will probably hurt.)