James V. Schall, S. J.
“There is no substitute for strength of character, and in boys, or men, this requires two things increasingly rare in our time: knowledge of the past and a vision of the future. Of the former much has been written, and no compleat gentleman will deny that history is the most essential aspect of a sound education.”
—Brad Miner, The Compleat Gentleman, 2009.
“Master Robert, this is what I think upon the matter: I desire to be called by men a ‘loyal gentleman,’ but much more to know that I am one.”
—Hilaire Belloc, “The Conversation of the King,” 1900.
Two of the essays in Belloc’s Miniatures of French History concern King St. Louis of France (d. 1270), one on his conversations and one on his death. Brad Miner’s comment that a “compleat gentleman” finds in history what is essential in his education recalls St. Louis’s place in the history of gentlemanliness. One aspect of being a gentleman concerns the matter and manner of his speech, as well as what he listens to. “St. Louis, the King, loved quiet speech, meeting the speech of others,” Belloc writes. “He loved rallying and conversed with all as though with peers. Pomp wearied him, even when it was necessary for the dignity of so great a state. Those jests which complete a question and leave little more to be said he was amused to hear” (161). Aristotle had said in his Rhetoric that a man should be able to defend himself with words as well as with the sword. King Louis, crowned at the age of twelve, later went on the Crusades, where he died. Even as a youth, Belloc writes, the king’s eyes looked weary, for there was “too much questioning of himself and of the world.”
Men about him felt the “play of his intelligence upon theirs.” The first conversation that Belloc records concerns one Robert of Cerbon (from whom the Sorbonne in Paris is named. King St. Louis chartered this academic foundation). The issue discussed is the propriety of a man’s dress, whether it is too splendid or not splendid enough. “The wise man says that we ought to dress ourselves,” St. Louis avers, “and to arm ourselves in such a manner that neither shall the good men of this world blame us for extravagance nor young blades for meanness” (165).
A second story tells of King Louis being at sea with his whole retinue. A heavy storm comes up during which the ship almost sinks. The King betakes himself to the place on the boat where the Blessed Sacrament is kept. The winds die down and in the morning all is well. He wants to know the name of the wind that almost dispatched “the King of France and all his people.”
It turns out that it was no great wind. It did not even have a name. To this information, King Louis is said to have remarked: “See how great is God and how He shows us His power. Since one of His little unimportant winds, which hardly has a name, all but destroyed the King of France, his children, and his wife, and all his household in peril of the sea.”
King Louis liked to tell the story of a “master of divinity who had disputed for the Faith.” He went to the Archbishop of Paris “in great distress” as he had come to doubt the real presence in the Eucharist. The wise bishop tells this doubter a parable. Suppose the King of England is at war with the King of France. The King of France assigns one of his subjects to the place where the fighting is most intense, and sends the other to a safe place in the rear. To which is the greater honor shown? The obvious answer is to the man in the thick of battle. Thus, the King said, one should never speak ill of any man.
While on the Crusade in Cyprus, the King asked a man why he put water in the wine. The first reason the man gave was that he was following doctor’s orders. The second reason was that he did not want to be drunk. King Louis compliments him for learning this discipline as a youth. “If you do not learn this custom in youth, you will not practice it in age, and if in age you drink your wine unmixed, you will, without doubt, be drunk every evening of your life; which is horrible thing to see in a valiant man.” One wonders how this sage advice relates to the incredible growth in the wine industry in recent years.
The King next asks a young man: “Would you be honored in this world, and then have Paradise?”
When the young man says that he would, the King gives this advice: “This is the rule: Neither say nor do what you would fear that all men should know.” This advice sounds rather like lessons drawn from hearings for political positions.
At another Crusade in the East, the King asks a young man: “Tell me what you would rather be—a leper or in mortal sin.”
The young man, afraid to lie to the King, replies: “I would much rather have committed thirty or forty mortal sins than be a leper.” The King does not immediately answer this, but the next day he calls the man aside.
“You spoke yesterday like a wild man in a hurry, for all ills of the body are cured in a little time, when a man dies; but if your soul is tarnished, and you cannot be certain that God has pardoned you, that evil will last forever, as long as God sits in Paradise.”
Then, turning to the youth, the King asks whether he has ever washed the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday. He hasn’t. The King tells him: “You are wrong again, thinking yourself too grand to do what Christ did for our enlightenment. Now I pray you, for the love of God and for the love of me, get yourselves into the habit of washing poor men’s feet.” Belloc adds: “For this king loved all kinds of men, whatsoever kind God had made and Himself loved.”
Finally, at table one day, the King turns to a man: “Tell me the reason that a ‘loyal gentleman’ is a good thing to be called.” This query causes much conversation. After a time, the King turns to Robert of Cerbon, the man who dressed well, and explains what he thinks about these things, namely: “I desire to be called by men a ‘loyal gentleman,’ but much more to know that I am one.” King Louis concludes: “And if you would leave me that, you might take all the rest; for that title is so great a thing and so good a thing that, that merely to name it fills my mouth.”
One wonders if the recovery of so great and so good a thing as a “loyal gentleman” is not where we need to begin in any return of our culture to a sane and healthy civilized life.