Thursday, April 4, 2024


            It might have been when I was taking Latin in high school that I came across the word “gravitas,” or it might have been from a history teacher in our Humanities course who was talking about Roman values. And the term may have stayed with me because the letter v, in Latin, is pronounced like our w, so I could feel superior to those who mispronounced it. Nevertheless, gravitas is an important concept.


            Gravitas means a kind of seriousness, with suggestions of weight (gravity), dignity and importance, along with restraint, dignity, moral rigor and commitment to the task. The Romans considered it to be an essential quality for a leader. In fact, a recent article referred to Biden’s “presidential gravitas,” though I suppose some might attempt to apply the term to Trump.


            And this week on “American Idol” one of the judges said that a singer-contestant should sing with more gravitas (mispronounced). It does me good to think about what this might mean. More soul? More sincere? Hearing a number of these young singers, most of them singing about heartache, I think I know gravitas when they deliver it.


            So, gravitas is a good thing – one of the ancient Roman virtues. But what if you don’t really have it and you want to attain it? Or, perhaps more simply, you want to appear to have it? I suppose the main thing you can do is stay calm and reasonable – as the Roman stoic philosophers advised. Don’t lose your temper, and don’t get distracted into frivolity. Get the job done, seriously. For some reason I think it helps to be a large person, probably tall (as I happen to be). I believe the Romans only applied the term to men, since leaders at the time happened to be men. What women today demonstrate gravitas? Suggestions welcome. And, come to think of it, what men?


            Perhaps the closest we have to the term gravitas is the slang term “heavy” – not in the sense of being overweight, or a tough guy, but as serious and intense (according to my Urban Dictionary). Good to be heavy, right?


            Of course, you may very well not want to achieve gravitas. After all, people with gravitas don’t sound like a lot of fun to be around – or so I’m told. An alternative, I think, is to be a “blithe spirit,” a term taken from Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” which begins:


Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from Heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.


This was how to live according to Romantic poets: Feel the deep feeling and out comes the spontaneous song! Forget about duty or discipline, forget about reason, dignity, accomplishing noble tasks and all that Stoic gravitas crap. Of course, the problem here is that as a blithe spirit you may awaken in the middle of the night and post some embarrassing stuff on social media. But still, who can object when you are pouring out your heart? My guess is that it works better for birds than for real people, though some poets, artists and musicians may disagree.


            So, where does that leave us? Probably best to let other people, those “in charge” (whatever that means), be the ones with serious, disciplined, responsible character. Time for me to get serious about becoming more of a blithe spirit.



  1. Gravitas for Dummies (CliffsNotes version): (1.) Stand up straight. (2.) Don't say ANYTHING.

  2. I like the idea of becoming a blithe spirit. Having 12 years of Catholic education influences my comment.