The last Dowager Empress of China, known as Cixi, depending on which transliteration you prefer, is an unlikely person to quote approvingly. She was not a nice woman. She had a penchant for having her eunuchs beaten, as if being a Chinese eunuch wasn’t bad enough. Even if one has no trouble with the Western Powers interfering in China (and it is pretty hard to make a case for the West’s virtue in the Opium Wars), she was not always adept at dealing with the unpleasant realities of her age. In short, she usually seems little better than a vain tyrant who did better for herself than she did for her country. Still, she said something worth considering: “One must cultivate one’s person.”
What she meant was obviously more than taking care of one’s appearance, though that is not unimportant. (I speak as one of the few who taught in coat and tie – never a suit, for that indicated delusions of administration. I wore a sports jacket and, as I aged, cravats with orchidaceous patterns I would have eschewed in my youth.) I think the Empress was hearkening back to the Confucian idea of the Gentleman and those virtues without which the term “Gentleman” is currently meaningless. (In the old days, it used to be a rank, the bottom tier of the gentry, as in “William Shakespeare, Gent.” Now it means to behave as a gentleman should, with honor and courtesy. Just in case there are Politically Correct punters reading, I am absolutely aware that these same virtues can be acquired by gentlewomen as well, even if I do prefer the generic “he.”) “To cultivate one’s person” is at the very least to follow the Confucian virtues, which, after all, are pretty much the same virtues extoled in the West: benevolence, loyalty, righteousness, politeness, and sincerity. There are other translations of these virtues, and some authorities substitute other virtues in the list of five, such as “wisdom.” (Of these, I imagine “sincerity” is the most overrated in our own century, not because it is not a virtue, but because it is quite possible to be entirely sincere and be completely wrong, for example, those who think I am wrong!)
The curious thing about virtues is that almost everybody everywhere approves of them, at least publically. More importantly, those who do not often think of virtue might be surprised that the list of virtues does not vary widely from culture to culture, as C. S. Lewis cogently pointed out in his The Abolition of Man. There are surprisingly few exceptions to his observation, and the values espoused by the good Confucian are for the most part the same for the good Christian as well.
Most people agree virtue ought to be followed, but the logic behind being virtuous is more than a matter of preference. Aristotle pointed out that everyone desires to be happy, but he also pointed out that happiness is in fact dependent on virtue; it is the only “good” one can guarantee because it is not subject to external loss. The richest man may become impoverished; the most powerful, impotent. (Remember “St Nicholas, Tsar and Martyr”? Tsar Nicholas II was once the richest man in the world; the good news is that he and the Imperial Family have been canonized by the Orthodox Church as “Passion Bearers” for the Christian fortitude with which they met their deaths). Even human love is subject to death and disaffection. Virtue, however, can guarantee happiness because it is intrinsic and therefore cannot be lost – as long as one chooses to keep it.
Each of the Confucian virtues could easily be extolled in a separate essay, which I may find myself later compelled to write, but let me say this first. It is not only in the obvious virtues that one should “cultivate one’s person”; one should also add to virtue those graces that that are intrinsic to civilization. (I almost said “graces becoming a gentleman,” but these days I fear what a storm that might provoke. As I said before, I am one whose archaic bent prefers the generic “he,” and I don’t need any more trouble.) The graces I mention are those possessed by gentlemen and gentlewomen going back long before Castiglione, and the term would be as meaningful at the Elizabethan court as it would at the court of the Duke of Zhou.
While virtue can be acquired by anyone, there is something to be said for realizing that appreciation for the arts, reading for edification as well as amusement, and knowing what to do both formally and informally are not merely useful at the dinner table. They are equally useful in the stockyard. (Interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon “cow” now means “beef on the hoof,” but when beef gets to the table, it becomes Frenchified as “beef.” We may think to eradicate class distinctions, but they are with us etymologically even as we speak.) The graces that make us both human and humane ought to be cultivated. While the great saints are models for us all, not all of them make for easy dinner companions. One who has added to virtue a civil deportment can engage almost anyone, from pirates to potentates; he has a store not only of information but more importantly, enough questions to engage his companions’ interests. He will have mastered an ease that will do him well, along with a source of conversation that will keep him from being bored. It will also keep him from not boring others. After all, who does not like having his opinions solicited?
These graces include some of the great arts of civilization, and so I concur with Her Majesty, “One must cultivate one’s person.” Even with the plethora of tables of iPhone addicts who would rather communicate with anyone other than those with whom they dine, her adage remains, well, worth cultivating.