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.