Last week I stepped into one of the stickiest patches of the jungle of social classification: who is a "gentleman?" This is a rich question; indeed, I think it is an endless question, one impossible to answer definitively. Gentleman, and lady, are ethical ideals as much as they are social class types. People with identical backgrounds of family status, education, income, occupation, looks, self-assurance, etc., etc., will still have characters which put them, in the end, on opposite sides of the gentleman/not-gentleman divide.
The gentleman is heir to the ethic of the warrior. In some places, where family honor and shame are still measured by how other people see you, this bloody ethic (in the literal sense) results in honor killings and endless vendettas. In the Christian world, especially the Protestant portion of it, the warrior ethic was significantly modified by Christianity to produce the kind of gentility more familiar to Jane Austen readers. The standard of honor is measured more by an inward compass and conscience. Dealing generously with others, especially the weaker, is a crucial part of the ethic of gentility. Strictly speaking, people of any social class could be gentlemen or ladies. In democratic societies, were often presume as much in addressing crowds. Gentility is an ideal.
The ideal of the gentleman requires common sense about how the world works, especially about the use of power. Gentility does not, though, require book learning, formal schooling, erudition. The warrior ethic remains alive, of course, in the military. The gentlemanly ideal, though, has migrated mostly to the form of competition most favored in a bourgeois society, the marketplace. And today our warriors and business leaders often spend a long time in school. Still, those with a vocation for learning are regarded as, well, weak compared to the military and corporate leaders. "An officer and a gentleman" is a natural progression. "A gentleman and a scholar," on the other hand, is an unusual composite.
As some readers pointed out, the American corporate class seems poles apart from the ethical ideal of the gentleman just now. It is certainly true that the Enron-type business crooks fall on the not-gentleman side of the line. But the ideal remains. At the same time that we don't lament the passing of Ken Lay, we honor the gifts of Warren Buffet and the Gateses. There have always been business crooks, and there always will be. That is why we need a strong ideal of what kind of citizens and human beings corporate leaders should be. Adapting the ancient ideal of the gentlemen is the best and highest notion that our culture has developed for our richest and most powerful to aspire to. I think the ideal of the corporate gentleman is a good one for society.
The knowledge class ideal, though, is different. We will explore the difference as we go along with this research.