Gentlemanliness presupposes manliness. It’s a softening, a harnessing of the core characteristics of masculinity: strength, courage, mastery, and honor. A gentleman, as scholar Harvey Mansfield put it, is a manly man with polish.
The respect given a gentleman is thus premised on constraint.
A gentleman has the ability — the power, cleverness, confidence, and even the desire — to ride roughshod over your interests, muscle you aside, and manipulate you…but, he has instead voluntarily chosen to restrain himself to follow a more moral course. He’s a coiled spring, and his self-control showcases one of the timeless markers of manhood: will.
As anthropologist Paul Friedrich puts it: “The highest praise that one can give a man is that he is capable of doing harm but chooses not to.”
Gents of the “m’lady” persuasion, however, get the equation backwards. They try to be a gentleman before becoming a man. Without the structure of the hard, tactical virtues of manliness behind them, the gentle virtues shapelessly droop and sag, and fail to engender the same kind of respect.
This is because the exercise of the gentle virtues in such men requires little to no constraint or will. If an inherently mild-mannered man demonstrates mildness, it is not an act of self-mastery, but of following the path of least resistance. As 17th century writer and philosopher Francois de La Rochefoucauld put it: