It’s funny how not just words but even some concepts can become old-fashioned and even apparently fall into disuse. Take the concept of a gentleman, for example.  It was so important in the 19th century as a term of moral approbation that Newman wrote a justly famous portrait of a gentleman. Yet the word is hardly used nowadays except in irony, nor has any other word emerged to describe that particular complex of qualities that Newman delineated. That is what I mean by a concept’s falling into disuse.

   Did St Thomas Aquinas have a concept of a gentleman? I mean in the moral, not the social sense (C.S. Lewis wrote about the shift from the latter to the former meaning.) The nearest approach to Newman’s description that we can find in the angelic doctor is perhaps his treatment of the ‘potential parts of temperance’.  By  a ‘potential part’ of a virtue he means one that deals with something which is similar to, though less demanding than, that which the virtue itself deals with. So the virtue of temperance itself puts limits to the pursuit of tactile pleasure. The potential parts of temperance therefore put limits to seeking pleasure in other, less demanding, realms of life. He mentions three main categories where limits must be put: in the ‘inner movements of the mind’, for example, when we limit by clemency the appetite for punishing an offender; in exterior movements and acts of the body; in possessions.

   It is in what he says about the virtues that set a limit, modus, to external movements of the body that he seems to have something like Newman’s vision in mind. The virtue that effects the due limit here is called modestia. Here St Thomas refers to a treatise called ‘De Affectibus’, then attributed to Andonicus of Rhodes, who lived in the first century before Christ:-

Andronicus divides modestia into three things. To the first of these it pertains to perceive what is to be done and what left undone, and in what order things are to be done, and not to change one’s mind {in hoc firmum persistere}. In this respect he speaks of orderliness {bonam ordinationem}. A second point is that the man in what he does must observe fittingness {decentiam}, and in this regard he speaks of decorum {ornatum}. The third aspect is in conversations with friends or other such things, and here he speaks of due reserve {austeritas}.

   This combination of bona ordinatioornatus, and austeritas seems to come close to Newman’s vision. Bona ordinatio might seem like a too general category to be of much use, far more at any rate than a mere part of a potential part of a cardinal virtue. But St Thomas is talking simply about bodily actions as such. Bona ordinatio is not the virtue that inclines a man to pay his debts or resist a tyrant: it is a mu:h humbler virtue, that ensures that whatever the man is engaged in, he will do it in an orderly way, not beginning to do one thing and then going off on a tangent, giving way to the attraction of novelty and the mild bodily pleasure it brings, but rather acting calmly and consistently until he has finished the task in hand. Ornatus means that the man does not make a nuisance of himself by his bodily actions: not eating with his mouth open, perhaps. Austeritas is the virtue which keeps someone from intruding where he is not wanted: it inclines him, for example, to leave a dinner-party before his hosts are weary, and it prevents him from telling the story of his life to someone he’s just met.

   So St Thomas’s modestia seems close to Newman’s gentlemanliness:-

His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.

   Newman adds, with his unflinching realism, that such a man may nevertheless be a heartless, infidel libertine. Though perhaps less often today than in the past.

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