The Winning Entry: A Gracious Mentor

Tomorrow being the official 3rd birthday of this blog, today I am publishing the winning entry from this year’s Blog of the Courtier Birthday Contest.  My regular readers will know that I asked entrants to submit examples of people who exemplify the ideal of “sprezzatura”, that effortless graciousness that the patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, extolled in his “Book of the Courtier”.  I received numerous entries, too many to acknowledge individually, but want to thank all of you for taking the time to sit down and write.  Not only were all the entries I received good examples of living individuals who embody some aspect of sprezzatura, but I am also pleased to see that this virtue is not yet entirely dead in our society.

The winning entry came from Jake P., whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person but have met through Twitter, where he tweets under the moniker of UCCowboy.  If you are a fellow blogger, gentle reader, or if you have an interest in some topic and would like to meet more people with whom to discuss your ideas, I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity Twitter provides.  Through sharing my blog posts and engaging in discussions on Twitter, I have met a number of very interesting people who have not only provided helpful information and discussion on topics that interest me, but in many cases have become patrons of this and my other blogs.  And it is to the subject of patronage that we turn, with Jake’s entry to the Birthday Contest about his former boss, Jerome, whom he met at university.

Of all the entries that I received, that regarding Jake’s mentor Jerome I think best exemplified the virtue of effortless grace that Castiglione was trying to encourage in his writing.  For remember that sprezzatura is not just about how one looks, which is what some commentators focus on, as if sprezzatura is merely some sort of fashion statement.  Rather, it is really about how one behaves in the society of others.  A true courtier who knows his worth, as Castiglione reminds us, is someone who has reached a level of accomplishment in his career whereby not only are others drawn to him and his example, but he in turn is generous with his time and encouragement.  He does not make a show of being, as it were, the smartest one in the room, but makes himself available to those who need his counsel and leadership, without having to call a press conference about it every time he decides to take an action or express an opinion.

And now to Jake’s entry:

My old boss/mentor Jerome is, in my eyes, the epitome of a gentleman. There is nothing grand or eye-catching in the way he holds himself, but rather he has an accumulation of pure decency and a respect for others. He took a basic interest in me as a Freshman at University, took me on as his assistant, and molded me into the person I am today. He routinely gave me career advice, helped me develop social/analytical skills, and served as the one person who would vouch for me in any circumstance.

I’m sure everybody has a mentor like this, but Jerome sticks his neck out for everybody. My best friends/roommates in college were always free to go into his office and chat about school or work. Jerome led a faculty/student class and served as a source of stability whom first years could go to, when University got crazy. And he helped my younger sister get the job with the athletic department she so seriously desired.

Jerome tells me he lives by the belief that he had a lot of help in his path and that, as a way of acknowledging this, he has spread the love around as an adult. Looking out for others, showing mutual respect, and treating others as being on the same plane are the characteristics of a gentleman. Jerome has shown me how to act that way.

Mentors like Jerome, who take the time to give a hand up to those who are getting started in life, make what is often a selfish and self-centered world a more agreeable and civilized place to live in. Rather than being threatened by those on the way up, he responds to the needs of others with wisdom and generosity. That example of good patronage is a trait which Castiglione believes is essential to the gentleman or lady who is worthy of that title.

As the Count himself writes in his “Book of the Courtier”, all of us are given certain gifts, but these must be perfected by training:

Wherefore good masters teach children not only letters, but also good and seemly manners in eating, drinking, speaking and walking, with certain appropriate gestures. Therefore as in the other arts, so too in virtue it is necessary to have a master, who by instruction and good reminders shall arouse and awake in us those moral virtues whereof we have the seed enclosed and buried in our soul, and like a good husbandman shall cultivate them and open the way for them by freeing us from the thorns and tares of appetite, which often so overshadow and choke our minds as not to let them blossom or bring forth those happy fruits which alone we should desire to have spring up in the human heart.

None of us emerges into the world completely capable of caring for ourselves. We are all dependent upon the care and example of others in order to grow into adulthood. By giving an example of generosity of spirit to others, people like Jerome show young people like Jake that when their turn comes, when they are the ones in a position to be a mentor or patron to someone else, they must take advantage of the opportunity, rather than retreat into selfishness. One may call it Christian charity, noblesse oblige, mentoring, or the like, but without it, we descend into the bestial, self-centered tendencies of our fallen nature.

As Castiglione recognized, the encouragement of this nurturing attitude towards others ensures the continuity not only of society, but also of civilization.  I want to thank Jake for his entry, as well as all of those who entered, for showing that there are still gentlemen and ladies of good will who seek to bring a kind of effortless grace to the way in which they themselves behave and treat others.  Let us try to encourage others to follow this example, by first, of course, following it ourselves.

Contest winner Jake P. and his prize,
a scholarly edition of Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier”

Sprezzatura Friday: Now It’s Your Turn

This week we have been looking at some examples of Castiglione’s concept of Sprezzatura, as part of the Blog of the Courtier’s 3rd birthday celebrations.  Castiglione praised that ideal of seemingly effortless nonchalance which he believed a lady or gentleman ought to employ in all that they do: being competent or skilled at something, or many things, but not making a big fuss about themselves for so being.  Now it is your turn to submit your ideas about the person or persons you believe embody this virtue in the present day, whether people of your own acquaintance or those whom you admire from afar. Birthday contest entries are due before the clock strikes midnight on the East Coast of the United States this Sunday, July 31st.

I have already received a number of entries that are very interesting candidates for this label of a modern-day practitioner of spezzatura, including a few nominations of candidates whom I actually know. To date, no one has nominated themselves, though of course that would not be sprezzatura at all.  If we are to celebrate the fact that there are still people about, in our increasingly repulsive society, who try to behave graciously, have a curiosity about the world, and are seeking to better themselves at all times, without crying “Look at me!” all over the place, then such persons could hardly nominate themselves.

And this is the point, of course, because Castiglione’s ideal is not a dead, unobtainable thing. We can all think on cases throughout human history of people who tried to always do their best, and hold themselves up to a higher standard without trying to put others down in the process.  Unfortunately the example of these people in the present age is lost not only because of a general celebration of the loud and the perverse, which holds sway at present, but also because by definition the courtiers whom Castiglione would seek out would never be quick to praise themselves in the first place.  Their quiet competence and accomplishments get drowned out in a din of mediocrity, showiness, and immodesty.

It is this last which has done such a great deal of damage, despite in some cases having the best of intentions in aiding those who suffer from serious emotional or psychological difficulties.  With the adoption of the ideal of “self esteem” to replace that of “self effacement” by the Baby Boom generation, and their indoctrination of that ideal into us, their children, Western society has been done a tremendous amount of harm.  The worship of the ego, instead of God, and the command to “do what feels right for you”, instead of “do unto others”, has created a cacophony of selfishness that has led us to the rather muddled point in history where we now are.

This is why the higher standard, as advocated by Castiglione, is so important to a world which is seemingly intent on destroying itself not through wars, famine, and plagues, but by a kind of exaggerated narcissism coupled with celebrity worship.  There are still people out men and women of good will can admire for their talent, their charity, their intellect, and their style, without descending into the depths of ridiculousness, as did Castiglione’s contemporary Machiavelli, who held out the moral reprobate Caesare Borgia as his ideal in “The Prince”.  The worship of fame, wealth, and excess in oneself or in others has replaced the appreciation of dignity and common sense.

The world still needs Castiglione, not as someone who teaches us specifically how to live, but rather as someone who provides a different measuring stick by which to look at history.  For centuries after his death, Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier” was considered required reading by anyone hoping to live life well – not only for the titled wealthy, but for those in business, politics, the law, diplomacy, the arts, and so on. It is no surprise that now, Machiavelli is more widely read than his contemporary, because his avocation of selfishness and love of “whatever means necessary” over the quiet confidence of Castiglione seems more in keeping with out times.

The correct response, it would seem, is to reject that selfishness as not being the inevitable result of society. It is all very well for the pathologist to diagnose the cancer, but unless someone comes along and shows us how to get rid of that cancer, then all that is served is a recognition that evil exists in the world. Evil must be combated, not embraced, and this is why Castiglione should be embraced today.

My very best wishes of good luck to all of you who enter the Birthday Contest, and I will be announcing the winner on Monday.

Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly chatting on Oscar Night, 1956

Sprezzatura Thursday: Practice Makes Mozart

Today we continue exploring the idea of sprezzatura, as the deadline to enter my blog’s birthday contest rapidly approaches [N.B. have you entered yet?]  The patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, coined the term sprezzatura to express the seemingly unstudied, effortless nonchalance that one should try to develop in how one goes about the business of life.  Among the great composers no doubt all would agree that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal in action, what with his seemingly effortless ability to produce extraordinary, timeless music that is still beloved today.  And yet it is important to remember that by sprezzatura Castiglione does not mean something superhuman; nor was Mozart some sort of a god.  Rather, here we looking at the maxim of “practice makes perfect.”

Last evening I attended a gathering arranged by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, to discuss an essay on the nature of beauty by the influential German philosopher, theologian, and writer, and had the pleasure of chatting with the Legacy Project’s Founder and Director, John Henry Crosby.  Professor Crosby described how the project is seeking to translate more of von Hildebrand’s work from German to English, given how relevant much of what the German thinker wrote remains in the present day, decades after his death.  As Professor Crosby put it, the work that he and his colleagues are doing is not a  “museum project,” but rather one which sees the relevance of von Hildebrand’s ideas for a wider, contemporary audience still very much in need of hearing his voice.

So this morning, it was interesting for me to spot a tie-in between von Hildebrand’s thinking and that of this blog’s patron, when it comes to the ideal of sprezzatura in the work of Mozart.  In an essay by von Hildebrand and translated by Professor Crosby, which the latter shared with me today, the philosopher considers the life and work of Mozart, surely one of the most naturally-gifted artists which humanity has yet witnessed.  Although he lived long after Castiglione, there is no question but that Mozart’s work embodies fully the ideal of sprezzatura which Castiglione wanted the ideal courtier to strive for.

Indeed, as von Hildebrand points out:

Along with an extraordinarily ability to give a definite spiritual shape and precision to his works as well as his masterful sureness of touch [Treffsicherheit], there is in Mozart’s work a unique effortlessness.  It is a special sign of the possession of a virtue when the good is done effortlessly; however painstaking the acquisition of a virtue, its possession is distinguished by its effortlessness.  The effortlessness of virtue presents itself in Mozart’s art.

In other words, without actually using the term, von Hildebrand is describing the sprezzatura that is clearly inherent to Mozart’s work.  From his earliest days traveling around Europe with his father and sister, performing for kings and queens, and packed houses of doting admirers, Mozart was a genius blessed with an undeniably great talent. He delighted his listeners with his compositions and performances, and made a name for himself as a result of his facility at both.

Yet even though Mozart was a child prodigy, that fact alone would not have ensured his lasting fame. In our contemporary society we can think of dozens of tragic examples of youthful performers who never successfully transitioned to adulthood, or who, upon becoming adults, sank into utter obscurity. It has happened so frequently as to become a truism – the term “former child star” carries with it connotations of a kind of seediness and despair, as a result of both real-life examples and films such as the classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Despite the misinformation spread by films like “Amadeus”, as naturally gifted as he was Mozart still had to work out his compositions on paper, in draft form.  They did not spring fully-formed from his mind, like Athena from the brain of Zeus.  That he had a natural talent for improvisation, or for working out some elements of his compositions in his head before putting them down to paper, does not mean Mozart did not have to work hard.  Had he not continued to push himself as an artist, the little boy who hopped playfully into the lap of the Empress Maria Theresa after a private concert would never have gone on to become the composer of such powerful compositions as the choral sequence of the “Dies Irae” in the Requiem Mass.

The “virtue” which von Hildebrand speaks of in his essay on Mozart, and what Castiglione means in advocating “sprezzatura”, is one in which the talented individual not only recognizes his talent, but fosters it, without making a big fuss about it. If Mozart spends time in the mental gymnasium, working out his compositional muscles, it is because he believes that by the time he is to present a composition to a patron who has commissioned a piece, it should be in as perfect a shape as he can get it, not something all sweaty and slapdash.  The man possessing this virtue of a seemingly effortless grace realizes that he has been given a great gift of facility, in anything from gardening to software programming to musical composition, and in nurturing and caring for that gift, he becomes better and better at it.  He embraces his God-given ability and, like the good and faithful servants in the parable of the talents, takes what he has been given and invests in it.

Needless to say, I can certainly empathize with the Legacy Project’s work, given that their goal is not dissimilar from what I am doing on a considerably smaller scale, i.e. encouraging others to read the work of a great thinker for good, particularly when there is so much meaningless garbage that people have been forced to read and absorb into their thinking.  The forgoing is an example of not only why von Hildebrand is still very much a man worth reading, so is Count Castiglione.  Both recognize that a lazy, half-arsed approach to life is one in which the individual will ultimately fail in the eyes of man, possibly, but more importantly in the eyes of God.  And both are still very relevant writers for us today, if we will but pick them up and read them – and perhaps do so while listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.

Portrait of Mozart attributed to Joseph Hickel (c. 1783)
Private Collection