Properties of Blood, I.6: In Defense of Honor, Part B

The Sense of Honor

I could not love thee, dear, so much,

Loved I not honor more.

Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Lucasta” used to be one of those poems that everyone had to commit to memory, and these last two lines constituted the most oft-quoted reference to the principle of honor in English literature.  Lovelace was a young man of good family, whose loyalty to his king and church first sent him to war, later put him in prison, and ultimately plunged him into poverty.  He had left Oxford with an M.A. and was about to serve under Lord Goring in the so-called Bishop’s War that was a prelude to the English Civil War.  The argument of the brief poem is simple:  He must abandon this chaste lady and go to war in order to deserve her love.  Students today must find it difficult to understand either term, love or honor, now that “love” means sex and “honor” is a primitive justification for murder invoked by Muslims. Still men have killed for honor as well as for love, and these violent affairs have frequently engaged the willing participation of educated men.

Dueling had been common in Europe and in the Northeastern United States in the early 19th century, but by the time of the War Between the States, in which both Colonel Cash and Colonel Shannon served, dueling and feuding were regarded as a distinctly Southern phenomenon, a survival of Medieval barbarism into a world dominated by industrial capitalism and political liberalism.  The northern states were shocked by the persistence of dueling in the South.  In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain affects a Connecticut Yankee disdain for customs he had been brought up to respect, and he blames Walter Scott for retarding progress in the South, where:

“The genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.”

As a Confederate deserter who got rich by fooling and flattering Yankees, Sam Clemens had his personal reasons for ridiculing the South.  He must not have read much Scott, because, if he had, he would have realized how inaccurate and unfair was his characterization of Scott’s imagination.  Had Twain read Scott’s long “Essay on Chivalry,” he would have agreed with the cold-eyed and dispassionate historical account of the abuses encouraged by the unwise unwholesome blending of spiritual justification with military ambition.  Twain also must have known that the fashion for dueling predated Walter Scott by many generations, and that the custom flourished in countries less influenced by Scott than Britain and the United States-—France, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Russia.  But he was right that there was something a bit pre-modern, even Medieval in the Southern cult of honor.  Karl Schurz, who had left Germany after the failure of the leftist uprisings of 1848, had reached a similar conclusion about Southern culture over two decades previously.  In 1860, Schurz warned slaveowners that they were a dying breed:

“This is the world of the 19th century.  The last remnants of feudalism in the old world are fast disappearing…  Look around you, see how lonesome you are in this wide world of ours…and in this appalling solitude you stand alone against a hopeful world, alone against a great century, fighting your hopeless fight—hopeless as the struggle of the Indians agains the onward march of civilization.”

Perhaps the term “feudalism” is  excessive and romantic,

but it is a useful codeword that suggests that to a great extent class relations in the South (as in the Mediterranean world) remained personal, rather than abstract, and that a respect for order and tradition was being maintained in Mississippi, when it was being lost in Massachusetts and had never really existed in the northern parts of Ohio and Illinois.

Karl Marx, reporting on the War Between the States, strongly disagreed with any interpretation of Southern society in feudal terms.  The sectional conflict that erupted into war in early 1861 was between two systems of bourgeois capitalism, and Southerners who claimed to be paternalistic or put on Medieval airs were deluding themselves.  Marx regarded the war as important, because once the industrial bourgeoisie of the North subjugated the less progressive slaveowners in the South, it could inaugurate the next phase of the revolution that was leading, inexorably, to a global state in which all distinctions of class, wealth, religion, and nationality would disappear, a situation more or less realized today in the international order controlled to a great extent by the United States and its satellites.

Despite the accuracy of Marx’s prophecy, Schurz had a better understanding of the South than than Marx, who failed to grasp the social and cultural implications of the South’s economic system—a mistake not made by his disciple Eugene Genovese.

It was not the South per se to which Schurz and Marx objected but all institutions and traditions that stood in the way of global revolution.  Some were peculiar, such as slavery was to the South and a dwindling number of places or the Catholic Church in the Estates of the Church that were being attacked, during the same period, by revolutionary Kingdom of Italy; and some were universal, such as the “patriarchal family” and the sense of honor.  Although the object of this discussion is not to analyze, much less defend Southern peculiarities, the hatred that the “Southern way of life” inspired—and continues to inspire—make it an appropriate place to begin the exploration of honor.

What made Southerners so willing and even eager to fight for their own honor and the honor of their families and kinfolks?  A commonly accepted interpretation is that there is a “strain of violence” in the Southern character, an irrational arrogance created by slavery, patriarchal family structures, and alcoholism.  This is, more or less, the argument put forward by Bertram Wyatt Brown in Southern Honor, a highly praised book that has influenced most subsequent discussion of dueling in the South.

Brown blames the cult of honor on several causes: patriarchy and slavery, primarily, that encouraged an overbearing sense of self-importance and sensitivity to slights.  When this sensitivity was exacerbated by excessive whiskey-drinking, the results were explosive.  The argument is attractive to progressive minds that believe that every day in every way things are getting better and better, so long as superstition (that is religion), provincialism (that is, attachment to place), and patriarchy (that is, respect for women and the commandment instructing us to honor our parents), but it is divorced from all anthropological and historical context.  It is not just Southerners who were keen on defending their honor.  To name only a few parallels:  Medieval and Renaissance Europeans, Comanche Indians, Frenchmen in the 18th and 19th centuries, and American military officers from all sections of the country.

The pages of English literature are dotted with references to honor and to duels fought in honor’s defense.  Thackeray’s’ Rawdon Crawley (Vanity Fair) was a duelist, as were his Barry Lyndon and  George Washington (The Virginians).  Dickens has a comical duel—The Great Winglebury Duel, and much of the story of Nicholas Nickleby turns on the evil Mulberry Hawk’s desire for revenge on Nicholas and the duel in which he kills Lord Verisopht.  Conrad’s novella “The Duelists” (made into a 1977 film) is one of his masterpieces.  As a soldier, Ben Jonson is said to have killed a man in single combat in the Netherlands, and, when he was imprisoned for his part in Eastward Ho! and in danger of losing his ears, his mother sent him the poison by which he might avoid the disgrace.The Russians are, perhaps, preeminent, in the literature of dueling.  It is enough to mention Eugene Onegin, whose author Alexander Pushkin, died in a non-fictional encounter.

In several plays Shakespeare portrays men who were bent on defending their honor:  Bolingbroke in Richard II, his son Henry V, Hamlet (his fencing match with Laertes is fought in dead earnest by his antagonist), most of the younger male characters in Romeo and Juliet.  Now, were Shakespeare and Marcel Proust (who fought a duel at the end of the 19th century) slave-holding savages raised to be drunken bullies in patriarchal plantations?  Perhaps Brown has and other critics of Southern violence have asked the wrong question.  It is not Southerners who are unique or unusual in defending their honors but modern men who have entirely rejected honor and the duty to defend it.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

15 Responses

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    ” But he was right that there was something a bit pre-modern, even Medieval in the Southern cult of honor. ”

    This cannot be repeated often enough in our time. Whenever I hear some distinguished American comparing Moslem practices to the Middle Ages, I quit listening knowing full well that by making such a statement they know absolutely nothing about either. The South was the last of the American cavaliers and it can never be understood without the Medieval Knight or at least the noble look of a man on horseback. True, Sir Walter Scott was anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic ( in our usage of those terms today) but so what, at least he knew something about real Englishman and admired what was best about them.

  2. Dot says:

    “What made Southerners so willing and even eager to fight for their own honor and the honor of their families and kinfolks?”

    Rather than a “”strain of violence”” I suggest courage. Courage because the people who would become Southerners, the Germans, Irish and Scotts, came down from the Northern states into a strange land. It took courage to do that, and during the American Revolution it was they who added confusion to the English because of their manner of fighting. That manner of fighting contributed to winning the American Revolution.

    Fast forward to the 21st century and I wonder if we have lost courage. Instead the media has done a good job instilling anxiety and fear into our lives.

  3. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    A question about honor in Eastern cultures, like the Chinese for example. I think that the Shaolin monks had a code of honor, but they did not use their Kung Fu to defend their personal honor, but the honor of their order and temple. I also think they were trained to have no personal ambition and to do nothing to disgrace themselves, which would reflect badly on all monks. When necessary to engage in combat, they were also taught to do the minimum amount of “damage” needed to resolve the issue and to kill only if unavoidable. Is this accurate?

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I now very little about the Shaolin monastery, but I have the impression that many modern historians regard the accounts of its traditions as more legendary than historical. I am in no position to judge. The point you raise, though, goes well beyond a Zen Buddhist school of martial arts. While this chapter is almost solely concerned with the defense of personal honor, membership in a community or corporation also makes demands, e.g., the vendetta–to be discussed later–or chivalry or even a college or boarding school.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you for your response, Dr. Fleming. I am looking forward to your continuing discussion.

  6. Bagby says:

    In my political science class today, I had my students discuss Weaver’s essay entitled “Individuality and Modernity,” in which he talks of the modern emphasis on function to the detriment of status. My students had a difficult time imagining what status looked like until one student mentioned that some ethnic groups have special scholarships directed towards them. Of course, this wasn’t what Weaver had in mind, but it was an example of status.

    A more constructive example of status came when we talked about the connection of status to the home and to place. In the home, I explained, one knows who one is in relation to one’s own family, and the identity is connected with duty. I am the husband. I am expected to answer the door, be the handyman, and other things. I am aware of filling the role well or filling the role poorly. Good performance in the role brings honor in the community. Earning respect in one’s community is one of the most fulfilling things in life.

    I had another opportunity to talk about honor while teaching Oedipus Rex yesterday. We came across the scene where Oedipus recounts the drunken Corinthian who questions his parentage, and I told my students that this may have been an instance of an insult like ‘bastard’ or ‘SOB’. My students questioned why Oedipus took the insult seriously, the implication being that they would not take such an insult seriously. I remarked that this sort of thing used to be taken deadly seriously, and referenced their knowledge of bar fights in westerns, which they were aware of. They blinked when I told them this was an affair of honor that people stopped taking seriously only recently. This has something to do with the decline of the technical use of the word ‘bastard,’ I told them. Some of my innocent 10th graders were not aware of the word’s meaning, although they knew it was used as an insult.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Good points, all. The slur on Oedipus’ background can be construed as an insult to his mother, which Greeks today would take almost as seriously as they did 2500 years ago. I have not read the Weaver essay or at least do not recall reading it. In English-language scholarship, the locus classicus in Maine’s Ancient Law, a brilliant and original work that has been largely and wrongly set aside in the past generation or two. One can quibble over many of his particular points–though perhaps not so many as is believed–but his overarching argument about the legal transition from status to contract is as valid as it is significant. Your students’ insight is also valid: Today, status–whether that of minority of of celebrity or of journalists–has returned in force, though in rather an ugly fashion, much as the principles of inequality of wealth and social status quickly reemerged in Communist countries.

  8. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    It is not surprising that “bastard” has fallen out of use because, as I implied in another comment, many children, through no fault of their own, are bastards because their parents are not married.

  9. Allen Wilson says:

    It is interesting and seems quite appropriate that the renewed series on jerks is now appearing alongside the installments on honor. It would seem that the decline of the one is the rise of the other.

    Some things I had on my mind during the discussion on the previous installment, but perhaps more appropriate to the theme of this installment: in regards to defining what honor is, and as my uncle said as well, what should we think of the honor of someone who notches a pistol after each kill, until he himself is killed? Perhaps one may enjoy it too much and thus not really be honourable? Also, was it possible for certain types, who may just have loved the thrill of the duel or the kill itself, to work the system, so to speak, by giving or claiming insult intentionally? I’m thinking here of how more everyday things such as good manners, so essential in any good society, can be used by the psychopath on the woman he meets at the bar, not long before burying her dismembered body in the woods. “Oh, he was such a nice man, and he had such good manners, so polite!”

    Also, concerning other ideas of honor in other cultures, there is the case of Musashi, who, challenge having been given, went to meet another samurai, and, before the other samurai was ready, charged him with an oar and beat him to death with it. That’s not my idea of honor, but then I’m not a samurai, and in any case Musashi was thinking more in terms of strategy. What he did would be perfectly acceptable in wartime combat, and the samurai did not seem to make the same distinction between such combat and dueling which we make in the west.

    A very good little book which I believe should be on the short list of “Books Everybody Should Have to Read Whether They Want to or Not” is Jeff Cooper’s “Principles of Personal Defense”. It deals with principles rather than technique, much the way some books on military strategy do. Laid beside John Lyde Wilson’s dueling code, we see the progression of our society from a civilized honor based culture to a lawless society of thuggery. Wilson’s book, once so needed, is now but a relic, while everybody had better learn Cooper’s principles, much more so now than when the book was written back in the late seventies. To quote Cooper on whether we should hesitate to kill a criminal in defense if necessary: “There are plenty of decent people in the world. Criminals we can do without”.

    What does it say about modern Southerners in general, that we take slights and slanders against our ancestors almost daily, but we keep taking it. Sometimes some of us go and fly battle flags at rallies, but yet still we watch the movies, watch the biased “news”, and we don’t openly boycott, etc. We all have to keep a job and make a living, that’s understood, but still….

  10. Allen Wilson says:

    Didn’t the duel between Lee and Laurens used to be in junior high American history books? I saw it mentioned with an illustration in one from around 1960. But it wasn’t there when I was in high school in the 80’s. So much had changed in the school history books by that time, and if memory serves, honor was ridiculed or belittled if mentioned at all, and of course was just a Southern delusion.

  11. Allen Wilson says:

    Speaking of Schurz, at Chickamauga, my great-great-great grandfather’s brigade was on the receiving end of an attempted flanking by what I believe was the 9th Ohio, but in any case was an almost 100% German brigade made up of the same kind of proto-Nazis and proto-Bolsheviks that Schurz was. We lost about half our men, which is infuriating since those German socialists had no business coming her to attack us in the first place, but on the other hand, we killed about half of them, and that was about 500 fewer of them in the world, which was a good thing I think, and doubtless the world was a better place without them in it.

  12. Robert Reavis says:

    Book VIII of Plato’s Republic suggests the transition from a culture of honor to wealth, or from timocrat to oligarch occurs when the meaning of citizenship is diminished and can be purchased, when wealth is accumulated without regard for consequences to the honorable yeoman, when acquiring large sums of money becomes the objective of living, the recently debunked Marxist experiment of man’s purpose in life being to work,( jobs, jobs, jobs, ) instead of working to live, not ora et labora but solo labora! Or as Janis Joplin sang it in the blues version just recently — a few decades ago, ” Oh Lord won’t you by me a Mercedes-benz, /my friends all drive Porches/ I must make amends. Prove that you love me and buy the next round,….Oh Lord won’t you buy me a colored TV, dialing for dollars is trying to find me, etc… The Law of prayer determines the law of belief and we are way past praying for oligarchs who were in many ways, very decent men. No, we are closer to the point where we now pray for tyrants.

  13. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I recommend Cooper’s The Art of the Rifle if you own and shoot long guns. I just picked up a copy of Kevin R. Davis’s Citizen’s Guide to Armed Defense, which I learned of from Gun Test magazine, published by people I respect. (I have purchased many firearms based on their tests and recommendations.) Apparently, Cooper was one of Davis’s instructors and is listed in the book’s dedication. This looks like a good guide if you have armed yourself to defend your family and home.

  14. Allen Wilson says:

    Mr Van Sant, thank you for the recommendations. I’ve been out of the loop on newer books the subject for a long time and was not aware of these two books.

  15. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    You are welcome, Mr. Wilson. Cooper’s book was published in 1997, but is still available, I believe. Davis’s book was published last year. I have subscribed to Gun Test for many years, although my last firearm purchase was quite awhile ago. It has good information on other items of interest to gun owners, such as ammunition, holsters, sights, and gun care products.

    Incidentally, I was the duty range safety officer at my NRA-affiliated gun club today. We have various ranges to accommodate bullseye pistol, action pistol, small bore, high-powered rifle, trap and skeet, and archery. We also have a plinking range for informal shooting. We also conduct state approved firearms safety and hunter safety training, and a junior rifle program for young people.