The Vice of the Virtuous


The Gentleman in Trollope: Individuality and Moral Conduct, by Shirley Robin Letwin, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982, 303 pp., $20.00.

The Gentleman in Trollope offers a moral portrait of opaline fascination, but there are initial obstacles. In the United States I expect that the audience for a detailed study of "the gentleman" is as minimal as the audience for Trollope's novels.

Our reluctance may be compounded by the author's belief that the word gentleman "describes something so peculiarly English that it cannot be translated," as well as by her unhesitating denomination of England as "the greatest civilization on earth." And the 'Spirit of '76' may be rekindled in us by her justification of hereditary aristocracy. But if we are reminded of Bernard Shaw's observation that what divides England and the United States is their common language, "the gentleman" as presented by Letwin and Trollope will in some fundamental respects be no less attractive on our side of the Atlantic than on theirs.

At bottom, the gentleman is he or she (yes, women may be gentlemen no less than men; the term lady carries the wrong connotations and is not used) who understands human nature as "the capacity to shape a character" and responds to the challenge. Letwin is effective at advocating this understanding. "Experience," she says, "is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him. It is the dealing with events, not the events themselves.…Human behavior is never a mechanical reaction to a cause, like the motion of a billiard ball to the cue that strikes it, but a chosen response."

Because every human response is a chosen response (in Sartre's words, not to choose is a choice), all human beings are self-determined. The gentleman acknowledges this, accepts self-responsibility, and strives to become a person of a certain sort. The sort of person a gentleman strives to become is reflected in such virtues as "polish," calmness, collectedness, simplicity, courage, courtesy, and truthfulness; but the central virtue is integrity. Integrity is unity and consistency of personality, and it is such unity and consistency that deserves to be termed "character."

Integrity is both the achievement of enduring, distinctive individuality and the foundation of social order—for the integral individual can be relied upon by others. Such individuals invariably do what they are responsible for doing, not out of fear of punishment under law or in order to avoid incurring the disapproval of others, but in truth to themselves. In this way the supposed antagonism between social order and erratic, "subjective" individuality is overcome.

That antagonism is but one of the unfortunate outgrowths of what Letwin terms the morality of the "self-divided man." It pits reason against passion, spirit against matter, splitting each person into a "higher" and a "lower" side and promising immortality to those in whom the higher side is victorious. Clearly, such a conception precludes the integral wholeness that the morality of the gentleman is bent on achieving.

This conception is also hostile to the distinctive individuality that the morality of the gentleman prizes. In the morality of the self-divided man, individuality represents that variety and change of the lower order that is to be overcome by devotion to changeless, absolute truths. By contrast, the morality of the gentleman accepts and indeed prizes variety and responds to the challenge of achieving the necessary order within it.

It is ultimately to harmonize diversity and preserve distinctive individuality that gentlemen exhibit "respect for formalities," where "formalities" include both laws and unwritten rules of conduct. But the formalities must be of a certain sort. They must be such that subscription to them is not the adoption of ends of action but the agreement by individuals to pursue their self-chosen ends in ways that do not interfere with the similar pursuits of others.

Respect for formalities is an aspect of what Letwin terms the "most surprising" of the gentleman's virtues, his diffidence. Diffidence, she says, is unlike humility in that it carries no suggestion of unworthiness or inferiority. Rather, it is a keen recognition of the limitations of all human reason, together with an unwillingness to claim special sanction for one's own.

The foundation of the gentleman's diffidence is exhibited in the figure of Violet Uffingham of Trollope's Phineas Finn. Violet's humour springs from her seriousness. It expresses her awareness that everything in the human world can be seen from different standpoints, that each can render the others absurd, and that none of this makes everything absurd nor renders it impossible to stay with one's own standpoint and to enjoy the difficulties of doing so as part of the sport of living.

This is indeed an admirable quality and a high virtue, and there are many other striking virtues, illustrated from Trollope's novels, in Letwin's chapters on manners, occupations, love, ambition, and religion.

But if it is a general truth that nothing in life is perfect, that all good things have "the defects of their virtues," then the conspicuous question left unposed by Letwin is, "What is (morally) unattractive in the gentleman?" My own answer: gentlemen are, characteristically, unperturbed (or secretly pleased?) at their own rarity.

Why is this a defect? Because if Letwin is correct, the gentleman is he or she who responds appropriately to the understanding of human nature as "the capacity to shape a character." Human nature is, of course, perfectly general. Then how can gentlemen be so unconcerned about their own rarity? Do they idly suppose it is because only a few are made "of the right stuff"? Then they fall into fallacious elitism, for the stuff of which gentlemen are made is none other than the human nature in which all persons participate equally.

Perhaps the gentleman has oftenest (not always) enjoyed certain conditions that are not general? Letwin suggests as much in her defense of hereditary aristocracy.

Those who, in the nursery, or in the drawing room, have heard nothing coarse or sordid, who have had the opportunity to converse with the cultivated and wise and have possessed the books with the leisure for reading and reflecting, are more likely to be fit to live on an eminence and serve as a model to their fellows. If such people have taken care over many generations to hand on their achievements and not to adulterate their inheritance, they will form a class who consistently display the virtue of a gentleman in its most polished form.

What is the purpose of this "display"? Letwin says it is to provide a model; but as a model the gentlemen have evidently been ineffective, for we are told that they were always a rarity and are now nearly extinct. The gentlemen's unconcern over this suggests that the purpose of their display may in fact have been to exhibit themselves, not as models for emulation, but as eminences to be revered.

Why should we not be concerned that a people, and not just a class, "take care over many generations to hand on its achievements and not to adulterate its inheritance"? But if we are so concerned, how can we be uninterested in the question of generalizing the conditions conducive to this outcome? Neither Letwin nor the gentleman she and Trollope describe show a trace of such an interest.

The book is marred by negligent proofreading. My copy has a list of "errata" pasted to the flyleaf and contains an additional 45 typographical errors to the point at which I stopped counting. A well-produced book contains three or four such errors, and an excellently produced book contains none. I am reminded of this book's advice that the gentleman exhibits "a readiness to take pride even in performing unnoticed, tedious tasks."

David Norton teaches philosophy at the University of Delaware.