Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Reviews > The Compleat Gentleman: A Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry

The Compleat Gentleman: A Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

A Review of The Compleat Gentleman: A Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry by Brad Miner (Spence Publishing Company, 2004)

When asked to explain the mission of Seven Pillars, I generally begin by outlining the four core areas. As I invoke the words Cosmology, Revelation, and Mysticism, I am typically greeted with beaming approval. Then comes Chivalry. Now my listener has a furrowed brow. Peering through that brow I can almost read the thoughts it encloses: Chivalry is sexist, elitist, and violent. Chivalry is dead.

Why should Seven Pillars struggle to resurrect a concept that seems irredeemably mired in the morass of outmoded social mores? It’s a fair question.

As it happens, Seven Pillars is not alone in its attempt to revive and redefine chivalry. Consider for instance Scott Farrell’s delightful website, Chivalry Today. Mr. Farrell clearly has a soft spot for the medieval aesthetic, but his central concern relates to chivalry’s timeless values. These are, in his seven-fold formulation: Courage, Justice, Mercy, Generosity, Faith, Nobility, and Hope.

Turning to the world of print, the most energetic case for chivalry that I know is Brad Miner’s The Compleat Gentleman. A former literary editor of National Review, Miner writes with flair. He also writes with the ideological conviction of a committed conservative.

The Compleat Gentleman effectively traces the concept of chivalry from its origins in medieval Europe through its revival in the Confederate South. Along the way we encounter King Arthur and Charlemagne, Andreas Capellanus and Baldassare Castiglione, the Cathars and the Templars. The subjects treated here are treated well. One only wonders why nothing is said of the formative influence of Islamic culture via Muslim Spain and the experience of the Crusades.

Miner’s purpose in writing, however, is not so much to chronicle medieval manners as it is to articulate a chivalric ethos of contemporary relevance, a corrective to the pervasive absence of personal ethical clarity in our time. The greater part of the book is devoted to portraying the qualities of a true gentleman.

Miner’s gentleman is a warrior. This means that he is ready to stand for, and if necessary to die for, his convictions. This gentleman is also a lover. He respects women, prioritizes their welfare, and strives to give them what they want. And this gentleman is a monk, which is to say he is disciplined, stoic, and taciturn. In all three of these roles, Miner’s gentleman is recognized for his sprezzatura, a word borrowed from Castiglione, the meaning of which, in contemporary terms, is (approximately) “cool.”

The Compleat Gentleman aims to inspire, and for this reader, it frequently succeeded. The page sparkled as I read Miner’s account of Benjamin Guggenheim’s refusal of a lifejacket as the Titanic sank, saying, “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen. But we would like a brandy.” That’s sprezzatura! And Guggenheim is just one of many examples of death-defying cool that Miner offers up. If The Compleat Gentleman were to be updated in 2009, it would have to include Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the steely-nerved pilot of US Airways Flight 1549.

Yet I must confess that, try as I might, I was not always able to see eye-to-eye with the author.

One of my concerns relates to the manner in which The Compleat Gentleman conceptualizes the virtue of honor in the context of international relations. When Miner complains that, in the U.S., “We obsess about root causes … we whore after global consensus,” he seems to be saying that conscientious introspection and dialogue have no place in the conduct of foreign affairs when honor is at stake.

To my mind, H.G. Wells had it right when he argued, following Dante, that patriotism will serve a constructive purpose when every human being sees him/herself as a citizen, first and foremost, of the world community. Then zealous militancy will be on the right track. To quote Richard Grossinger addressing al-Qaeda: “Hey, bad boys, make it the honor of the whole planet, the defense of all sentient beings—and we will be there right alongside you, halfway home.”

My aunt, Noor-un-Nisa, is my own “mirror of chivalry.” She valiantly fought (non-violently), endured torture, and died for the ideal of liberté, braving the worst of odds in the darkest hours of the Second World War. When she enlisted with Special Operations she made it clear that while she would faithfully serve the Crown in the present war, she retained the right to take up the cause of Indian independence when it was over. Her allegiance was not to Great Britain; it was to freedom.

Noor-un-Nisa is the reason I cannot accept the claim that “chivalry is a male mission.” My aunt was no less a woman for being a hero. Gentlemanliness is all for the good, but what the world really needs now is the Compleat Human.

Brad Miner is someone I’m sure I would enjoy having a conversation with. Should our differences become too acute, we could always settle them the old fashioned way: by duel.

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, founder of Seven Pillars House of Wisdom, is the spiritual leader of the Sufi Order International, a mystical and ecumenical fellowship rooted in the visionary legacy of his grandfather, Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. Pir Zia is also President of the Suluk Academy for esoteric studies. Pir Zia holds a doctoral degree in religion from Duke University, is a recipient of the U Thant Peace Award, and is a newly appointed Lindisfarne Fellow.

Comments (1)
  • I am writing a paper on chivalric ethos in modern warfare, and I’m daring to reinterpret chivalry- as a concept not of stupid sappy love in which the woman is the recipient and the man, the lover, but more of an intrisic part of the culture of war. Your argument on the Compleat Gentleman confirms my contemplations concerning chivalry. I have over the course of my research developed the question: Isn’t it chivalrous to risk your life in defense of your convictions? The medieval knights did. Thanks again, and please do write to me. grin

    — Lynda Johnson on April 30, 2010

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28 February 2009

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