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    History: Gentlemanly Ethics

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    In his densely detailed intellectual biography John Locke: Resistance, Religion and Responsibility (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History), John Marshall places Locke’s moral development in the context of a gentlemanly code of generosity and patronage.

    Gentlemen of the seventeenth century believed they had a particular duty to benefit the commonwealth by their offices, and this included maintaining “the networks of beneficence and gratitude that dominated much of early modern English society and helped to hold it together.  According to Marshall, “Much of gentry society, particularly in the south of England, lived lives dominated by these relationships,” and this was explicitly acknowledged in the writing of the period:

    “The importance of these relationships from the perspective of the upper ranks is indicated by the startling declaration of an early seventeenth-century lord lieutenant to the archbishop of Canterbury that a ‘commonwealth’ was ‘nothing more than’ a ‘mutual exchange … of benefits’. It is revealing of the importance of this discourse that in seventeenth-century England a ‘gentleman’ was a ‘generous’ man, that ‘ungrateful’ was generally used to mean unpleasant, and that ingratitude was frequently viewed as the most degenerate vice; Locke was entered into the matriculation book at Christ Church as ‘generosi filius,’ the son of a gentleman, and frequently referred to things as ungrateful when he meant unpleasant. Beneficence and gratitude dominated much of the relationship of the gentry and nobility towards the lower orders in maintaining the traditional social bonds of paternalism, deference and loyalty through considerable patronage, through occasional but important hospitality and through fulfilment of charitable obligations to the ‘deserving’ poor. As Keith Wrightson has written, ‘The paternalistic gentleman, the generous patron, legitimized and justified his position by his actions, in his own eyes, in those of the world and in those of God . . . Such beneficence cost little, and in return a price was tacitly demanded — in terms of deference, obedience and implicit recognition of the legitimacy of the prevailing social order.”

    He adds, “The importance of beneficence and gratitude in gentlemen’s obligations and relationships was set out in many works on gentility; by many of the works that formed the standard education of gentlemen, including a host of classical works by authors such as Hesiod, Ovid, Martial, Sallust, Seneca and Cicero; by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century treatises still influential in the Restoration such as Guiccardini’s History of Italy and Ricordi; by many of Shakespeare’s plays, including Coriolanus, Timon of Athens and King Lear, each of which was revived in the Restoration with amendments that increased their already considerable stress upon beneficence; and by many contemporary works, especially the plays of John Dryden.”

    Seneca lurked as always in the background: “Between 1678 and 1700 a shortened version of De Beneficiis, edited under the title Seneca’s Morals By Way of Abstract by Roger L’Estrange, went through ten editions. For Seneca, benefiting was a ‘fellow like thing; it purchaseth favour’. The exchange of services bound men together into concordia. This was a low level of ‘friendship’, nurtured by the exchange of benefits, but it was absolutely vital because by creating mutual obligations of gratitude and fostering good will it preserved society. For Seneca, a failure of gratitude led to a collapse of society itself since gratitude was quite literally the social cement holding society together and the central form of social interaction. As L’Estrange declared, almost ‘the whole business of mankind in society’ was said to come ‘under this head’ of beneficence.”

    posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, October 29, 2012 at 7:44 am