Have Yourself A Muscular Christmas

Today we celebrate Christmas in a year that has tested all of us in new ways. And so as inspiration for the new year, Ivy Style asked contributor G. Andrew Meschter to opine on the notion of “muscular Christianity.” He said his best work on the subject is the following excerpt from his book As Iron Sharpens Iron: An Adventure in Building Gentlemanly Character.

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British Public Schools, American Prep Schools, And The Boy Scouts
By G. Andrew Meschter

Any meditation on gentlemanliness would require that I first learn about the British public schools, because these organizations formed a nucleus of the idea for generations. As institutions designed for training an aristocracy in the “habit of command,” they were intentionally elitist. To clarify for American readers, these schools were “public” in the sense that students lived there full-time, not in terms of receiving state funding. In this regard they were similar to American “prep” schools.

Although the oldest of these schools date back to the middle ages, they assumed special importance during the Industrial Revolution when newly rich businessmen amassed more wealth than the aristocracy and landed gentry. Feeling their power threatened, the landed classes allowed businesspeople to send their sons to their old-line schools, to teach them how to think and act like traditional gentlemen. A social blending then occurred in which middle class boys acquired such aristocratic values as chivalry, panache, aplomb… (in common 19th century catch-all word describing this was “tone”) while aristocrats acquired the more bourgeois virtues of industry, moderation, thrift… (in a word, “reliability”). Digby Baltzell said, “In the segregated democracy of the boarding school, sons of the nobility, the gentry, and the rising middle classes could be molded into one gentlemanly class.” 

By the 1830s, Rugby School was the thought-leader in this revolution. Its headmaster Thomas Arnold was a devout Christian who reformed the school on evangelical lines. He distrusted both the reactionary Toryism of the landed classes and the crude materialism of the new industrial rich, and he believed the upper classes had been failing to do their duty to the poor. To remedy this, “he aimed to produce a class of educated, truth-telling, Christian gentlemen who would stand aloof from both the new materialism and the old ossifying Toryism.” In a sense, he also wanted to mold spoiled rich kids into benevolent “guardians,” as Plato envisioned in The Republic–boys who would receive special training in youth to later become soldiers as young men, philosopher-rulers in middle age, and then counselors as wizened gray beards. 

With time, Arnold’s methods influenced many schools in the United States. His hierarchy of values nearly the opposite of schools today: 

  • Morals came first. 
  • Sportsmanship came second.
  • Intellectual achievement came third.

It might seem obvious that Arnold the Christian evangelist would place morals first, but why did he rank sportsmanship above academic scholarship? Because he saw team sports like rowing, rugby, and cricket as vehicles for instilling valuable character traits such as loyalty, self-sacrifice, and endurance. These sports were performed in all weather, the rainier and muddier the better. 

He and headmasters at other schools assumed that rich kids would be worthless citizens in adult life if they were self-centered and spoiled, so they aimed to toughen boys up by making school life intentionally harsh. Believing that civilizations rose on manly vigor and collapsed with luxury and effeminacy, they hoped to keep the British upper class from following the example of France’s aristocracy by making each new British generation “more simple, more hardy, more Christian than the last.” 

To this end, the most elite schools in the richest, most opulent nation on earth were uncomfortable, ill-equipped, and slightly medieval. Boys received one meal per day with additional “commons” (scraps of bread and cheese) at other times. If boys wanted anything else to eat, they had to buy it and cook it themselves. “It was good for character to learn that if all your pocket money was spent by half term, there would be no more jam or eggs or sausages before the holidays.”  Hot baths were blamed for bringing down the Roman Empire, so boys were forced to bathe in frigid water. Reminiscing about his years at Marlborough College, one man recalled, “Throughout winter’s rages, the windows of the dormitories were always kept wide open so that one sometimes woke up to find that one was sleeping under a coverlet of snow. . . We were always cold.”

In direct contrast to twenty-first-century mores, Victorian educators encouraged boys to police their own bullying. Instead of running to adults for aid, boys were encouraged to stand up for themselves and even gang up on tormentors. Sometimes the culture was so cruel as to not be Christian. And in a sense, there was a spiritual battle going on between charitable Christian discipline and a harsher neo-Spartan view of human nature espoused by materialist, scientific-racist, social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer which dismissed Christian charity as an excuse for collective weakness.

Victorian public-schools were a tribal indoctrination process like modern Marine Corps boot camp. Life was a choreographed struggle against privation, adversity, and callousness in various forms. And like boot camp—or an iron foundry’s annealing process—it began with intense heat that was painful at first but gradually eased up each year. Youngsters learned their places in a graded society governed by unwritten rules created by prior generations of boys. A rule created one day on the spur of the moment in jest might become rigid custom (“we’ve always done it this way”) in a decade. Many such rules were tree-fort childish. A first-year boy might be forbidden from putting his hands in his pockets or carrying a furled umbrella. As he progressed each year, he would gain privileges incrementally, taking extra care to ensure that his own underclassmen didn’t overstep the bounds he once obeyed. Eventually, through a system called “fagging” (“fag” is a nineteenth-century boarding school term that originally had nothing to do with sexuality), the boy who once cleaned boots and buttered bread for his superiors would have younger boys doing similar tasks for him. It was hoped that by experiencing these extremes of servitude and command, a young gentleman would enter adult life with equal measures of compassion and confidence.

Convinced that boys would better develop morally if taught by example, Arnold introduced the prefect system, which allowed exemplary senior boys to run their own boarding houses. “It was one of the secrets of his achievement that, in spite of his deep sense of the wickedness of the world in general, and of boys in particular,” that Arnold delegated such power.” 

Often called “boy rule,” the system was taken quite seriously. Holding court in the house “library,” head boys would assign daily chores to keep the building shipshape. Their local government would legislate, judge offenses, and punish offenders with liberal use of the cane. Corporal punishment was deemed essential among people who later expected the same ruthless pursuit of excellence in the army or navy. 

To modern sensibilities, the Victorian prefect system is astonishing. At Marlboro, prefects acquired such responsibility that when one of them ran to his adult housemaster telling him their building was on fire, the housemaster waved him off saying, “That part of the house is your department, not mine!”

Nineteenth-century public schools could certainly be brutal. Social Darwinism took “survival of the fittest” so far enough to emotionally cripple boys for life. But the system also produced men with tremendous grit. As British prime minister Stanley Baldwin said, 

“The Englishman is made for a time of crisis, and for a time of emergency. He is serene in difficulties but may seem to be indifferent when times are easy. He may not look ahead, he may not heed warnings, he may not prepare, but once he starts, he is persistent to the death and he is ruthless in action.” 

Describing life at such a school in the 1960s, Christopher Hitchens said, “True, I did get pushed around and unfairly punished and introduced too soon to some distressing facts of existence, but I would not have preferred to stay at home or to have been sheltered from these experiences.” And he did end up getting the sense that “one may in fact be very slightly better equipped to face that Japanese jail or Iraqi checkpoint.”     

There was a saying, “An Englishman loses every battle, but the last” that assumed a genius for muddling through difficult situations without needing to plan for contingencies. By 1914 this ethos was embedded in the national character. In his magnificent book The Great War and Modern Memory Paul Fussell described an affected personal style called “British phlegm,” in which young officers spent months in squalid, rat-infested trenches cheerfully bearing miserable conditions while taking care of their men. 

As the British Empire reached its apogee, its public-school system attracted global attention. Its blending of middle-class morality and aristocratic chivalry created a standard for gentlemanly behavior respected the world over. Endicott Peabody, an American Episcopal priest educated in England, brought the idea to Massachusetts in 1884 when he founded the Groton School on Thomas Arnold’s Rugby model. With the motto cui servire est regnare, “To serve is to reign,” he worked to form the sons of America’s most aristocratic families into Christian gentlemen. He kept Groton intentionally small, with very limited billets, which encouraged enthusiastic parents to form similar institutions for their own sons. These schools, which originally included St. Marks, St. Paul’s, St. George’s, Groton, and Middlesex (known collectively as “St. Grotlesex”) became the nucleus of American preppy culture today.

Although influenced by England, Peabody was a true New Englander in wanting to sanctify an old-world model. “Groton became more fevered, more messianic, more of a City on a Hill than Rugby, Eton, or Harrow would ever be. The English schools were too civilized in a worldly way, too old-world aristocratic. Peabody wanted to create a moral aristocracy in the tradition of his Puritan ancestors, who considered themselves the pioneers of New England, vastly superior to the decadent citizens of Old England.” With such feelings an American once visited Eton and said, “Ah, the Groton of England, I believe?” 

The system even brought gallantry into commercial life. Take the San Francisco earthquake for example. When it struck in 1906 causing stupendous losses for insurance companies in both the US and UK, American firms quickly hired lawyers to seek ways to avoid paying their rightful claims while Lloyds of London’s public-school trained Cuthbert Heath ordered his San Francisco agent to fully pay all policyholders regardless of their policy terms. His action solidified Lloyd’s reputation in the United States for years to come. 

Heath’s gesture assumes heroic meaning when you consider that he was on the hook with unlimited liability for all these claims. In other words, had the insurance claims exceeded his cash reserves, Heath would have had to cover the difference with all his personal property “down to his brace buttons.” This custom, jokingly referred to as “financial Hara-kiri,” stemmed from a gentlemanly honor code that held money in slight contempt. 

British public-school mores became Americanized as the “preppy” virtues. In a 1979 Atlantic Monthly article Nelson Aldrich described the following five charms: 






Let’s consider each of these in turn, because they flesh out important aspects of the gentlemanly ideal.

Deference, “the ghost of chivalry,” expresses a faith in “natural hierarchies of excellence” and sees goodness in yielding to authority. It holds knowledge and seniority as worthy organizing principles for society. Deference emphasizes the duties we owe to others as opposed to insisting on the rights we demand from them. Instead of going around saying, “I know my rights,” a deferential person asks, “What are my duties?” A deferential person accepts that for every advantage you have over others, you also have equal responsibilities. 

(Speaking of chivalry, the following feudal terms are worth considering: the word knight derives from knecht, a Germanic word for servant; the word noble describes someone of lofty social rank or high moral character; chivalry stems from the Norman chevalier, which means horseman. String these together and we get a well-armed, well-bred horseman with good intentions who acts like a servant. Pay attention to these traits when I describe the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry in later chapters.)

Discretion is a form social alertness or sense of occasion “guided by gut instinct more than the intelligence or convention,” in which one is always alert about how one’s actions are impacting others.

Modesty is “the economy of egotism” that seeks to downplay all accomplishments—not just one’s own. Partly sincere and partly calculated to disarm envy, modesty honors others’ claims to a share of the audience’s time. “It’s an awareness that, historically speaking, all feats are soon undone, surpassed, or shown to have had evil consequences.” According to Nathaniel Burt, it “chastens the pride of those who are on the way up with the realization that others have been there before them.”

Gratitude expresses your dependence on others. It measures wealth relationally (who you know) as opposed to intellectually (what you know) or financially (what you have). Its currency is in “contacts, not in bank accounts.” 

With gratitude in play, no one is ever allowed to think they’ve made it on their own: “While others might brag that they are self-made men, preppies [gentlemen] can only be grateful.”

If you’re grateful, then it’s easy to be graceful. Grace is the crowning trait of all the genteel charms, and it’s also a moral pillar of Christianity. Grace accepts that we are all flawed, and that most people are doing the best they can with what they have. 

Grace is a matter of the heart, but there’s also a bit of theatre to it, which Aldrich defined as “a languid, easy, uncalculating, nonchalant manner that embraces carelessness, negligence, indifference, and recklessness.” Sometimes it takes effort to seem so effortless, because “negligence requires attention, indifference requires concentration, simplicity and naturalness require affectation.”

Grace forgives offenses and generously affords people ample freedom to take risks and fail. In other words, sometimes grace requires you to fake it till you make it, while letting others make their own mistakes along the way.

When you apply grace to competitive situations, you get sportsmanship which, as we saw earlier, holds that it’s better to lose a game well than to win it badly. This naturally flows into the gentlemanly idea of amateurism, which holds that it’s better to do things because you love them than to do them for money. Such an ethos conveniently presupposes you have enough money to afford this luxury. 

By the twentieth century, some British public-school reached boys around the world through the Boy Scout Movement, founded by Lord Robert Baden-Powell “as an education in the code for youth unfortunate enough not to be trained at Eton.” 

Indeed, the Scout Oath and Scout Law reflect these values:

On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. 

A Scout is: Trustworthy












19 Comments on "Have Yourself A Muscular Christmas"

  1. Mr. Meschter provides an excellent history of the British Public School system, its aims, values, and traditions. He also provides a guide to the ideals of gentleman behavior and a code to live by from youth to the “graybeards” of life. Well said on this Christmas day and to be studied and used in the new year.

  2. And for all of this you get Boris…

  3. Anyone interested in “muscular Christianity” should read this review of “Mediocre Men”:


  4. Old School Tie | December 25, 2020 at 4:13 pm |

    Excellent festive reading….cheers!

  5. ‘British private schools create a class culture of a kind unknown in the rest of Europe. The extreme case is the boarding prep school, which separates children from their parents at the age of eight in order to shape them into members of a detached elite. In his book The Making of Them, the psychotherapist Nick Duffell shows how these artificial orphans survive the loss of their families by dissociating themselves from their feelings of love. Survival involves “an extreme hardening of normal human softness, a severe cutting off from emotions and sensitivity”. Unable to attach themselves to people (intimate relationships with other children are discouraged by a morbid fear of homosexuality), they are encouraged instead to invest their natural loyalties in the institution.

    This made them extremely effective colonial servants: if their commander ordered it, they could organise a massacre without a moment’s hesitation (witness the detachment of the officers who oversaw the suppression of the Mau Mau, as quoted in Caroline Elkins’s book, Britain’s Gulag). It also meant that the lower orders at home could be put down without the least concern for the results. For many years, Britain has been governed by damaged people.

    I went through this system myself, and I know I will spend the rest of my life fighting its effects. But one of the useful skills it has given me is an ability to recognise it in others. I can spot another early boarder at 200 metres: you can see and smell the damage dripping from them like sweat.’


  6. Very interesting and provocative piece. Indeed, the clichéd responses (it would be too generous to call them critiques) it provoked are almost as informative as the article itself. Thank you.

  7. Roger Kent Miles | December 25, 2020 at 11:41 pm |

    Beautifully written. The system described within the piece, built an Empire. Those who have mocked the system, have destroyed the Empire and brought the nation to a feeble status. The same forces are at play in America. Sad.

  8. Down Tradden | December 26, 2020 at 2:31 am |

    @ Boozy

    Haha. And for all that Boris didn’t pick up that the vowel sound in ‘deal’ is a dipthong, and not two separate distinct vowels.

  9. Down Tradden | December 26, 2020 at 2:35 am |

    @ Yuca

    All true. Yet, in war time, that kind of guy is sadly required. Don’t forget that there were two world wars in a period of 50 years, and had it not been for the Americans the British would have lost.

  10. Brilliant post. There is much truth in it.

    I had the good fortune to meet a man named John A. Washinton at a Hotchkiss School alumni (a child of mine attended) event in Washington, DC, about ten years ago. He departed this year at 100 years of age (I recall he was Class of 1938). https://farrmiller.com/team/john-a-washington/

    I bring this up relative to this post because Mr. Washington said pretty much the same thing to me about Hotchkiss when it was a boys’ school. When he attended, most were the sons of “captains of industry” and at school to get molded into men of character – future leaders.

    On a more somber note, it is tragic what has been done to the Boy Scouts (now Scouts BSA, or something like that).

  11. Charlottesville | December 26, 2020 at 2:48 pm |

    “Deference, Discretion, Modesty, Gratitude and Grace.” It’s hard to argue with that. I think they are traits that, with faith, courage and kindness, sum up what we all should aspire to. The Christian understanding of love, I think, embraces them all. Esteem others more highly than yourself, as St. Paul advised. Easier said than done, of course, but excellent advice nevertheless.

  12. @BC
    It’s just a shame that the Scouts abandoned discriminatory policies, took steps to protect scouts from the large number of pedophiles among its troop leaders, and sought to stop bullying of younger scouts by thuggish older members.

  13. Jonathan Mitchell | December 27, 2020 at 8:40 am |


    Hear! Hear!

    Now if we could only get fraternities too to abandon discriminatory policies and stop bullying of younger members by thuggish older members.

  14. @Berkeley
    Please assure me these schools have not descended into the pit of challenging academics and positive reinforcement. We don’t need young people who can think for themselves for gosh sakes.

  15. @Berkeley
    Your hopes came true!

  16. The private school experience has always fascinated me. I graduated from a small-town public high school in Texas, which is a long, long way from an elite private school.

    It’s obvious that a private school education is better than a public one. However, I think there is something to be said for attending a school that is ethnically and economically diverse as mine was. I think you learn some things about people that aren’t in the textbooks.

  17. @whiskeydent, agreed with ethnic and economic diversity. That said, I promise you that my prep school (Mr. Press and I share an alma mater) was vastly more ethnically diverse than your small town high school ever was. This was in the mid-90s, and both it and comparable schools have only become more diverse.

  18. whiskeydent | January 3, 2021 at 2:48 pm |

    That’s good to hear about today’s prep schools; I know many have recruited students of color based on (gasp!) merit. I was comparing my public school to the class-riven and anti-intellectual private schools described in the piece. I find the British schools particularly offensive because, after all, it was that class system that helped spur the colonies to rebel and create a nation in which “all men are equal.”

  19. whiskeydent | January 3, 2021 at 2:51 pm |

    “…created equal.”

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