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

Opponents of dueling have made many valid arguments against staking life and honor on swordsmanship or marksmanship, and not all of them went so far as Twain in deriding the very notion of personal honor.   Before evaluating the arguments on both sides, we should have some understanding of what this honor is that would cause a man to risk death.  In the 21st century, honor has little meaning in vernacular English.  It can hardly be used without quotation marks or an ironic intonation of the voice.  This was not always so.  Once upon a time, one could take for granted an understanding of that word even by people who could not put their understanding into words.  “Mine honor is my life,” declares Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in Shakespeare’s Richard II, “both grow in one;/ Take honour from me, and my life is done.”  Mowbray may be a lying traitor, but Shakespeare’s play, turns on the rights of noblemen (including lying traitors!) to defend their honor.

For the common English sense, we can turn to Dr. Johnson, who in his Dictionary points out several uses of the word.  He distinguishes the more subjective or social sense that emphasizes public opinion, social rank, and reputation from the more objective sense of nobility of soul, magnanimity, scorn of meanness.  The subjective aspect is often rendered by phrases like “What will people say?” or Lady Bracknell’s “Come, dear; we have already missed five; if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.”  Honor as public opinion is close to the original Latin use of honos, which comes also to cover more concrete manifestations such as a dignity or public office, hence cursus honorum (the sequence of high offices an ambitious Roman might expect to hold).

Honor, in the sense of repute, has two sides.  If a man has honor among his peers, then he must act in such a way as to deserve their respect.  In book 12 the same Glaucus and his chief Sarpedon are preparing the assault on the wall the Greeks have built to defend their camp.  Sarpedon [310 ff.] tells his young friend that it is their duty as noblemen to be in the forefront.  Why else, he asks, are they honored at banquets, given the first seats, the best good and drink and treated like gods?  “If we could avoid this war and live forever without growing older, I would not myself fight in the forefront or send you to the fight where men when glory.  The fact is that thousands of deaths press upon us, which no mortal can escape.  Let us go and gain glory for or selves at other man’s expense or give him the glory.”  This is true noblesse oblige, a moral code, rooted in the ultimate facts of life and death, that justifies the aristocrat’s privileges.

Honor in the more objective sense entails a high moral character.  A man of honor in this sense is an honest man, one who fulfills his commitments and does not flinch from conflict. He acts, in other words, in such a way as to deserve and maintain the respect of people entitled to give respect.

While this distinction is useful in principle, few of us, in reality, can clearly differentiate between our personal sense of nobility and what others may say or think about us.  Julian Pitt-Rivers puts this neatly in his definition of honor as “the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society.”  Of course, as Christians or as modern rationalists we can pretend to take no notice of what other people say, but few of us can get away with this ruse, at least not for very long.

Often we find that “what people say” corresponds to our own code of behavior, as reluctant as we are to subject our own actions to objective scrutiny.  As I tried to show in the chapter on the individual, what we think we are is mostly the product of what parents, mentors, and friends have taught us to think.  And yet, impossible as it seems, we sometimes find that our “conscience” can be in conflict with what people say, that virtue is at odds with social convention.  “People say” that a man should not cheat on his taxes, but people may not know that the exactions of the Internal Revenue Service are making it difficult to pay for a sick child’s medical bills.  “People say” that a man should serve his country in war, if called upon, but people may not know that I may have quite good objections to a war I regard as unjust or aimed at a people to whom I am related by ties of blood or affection.

So far I have may have been giving the impression that a regard for personal honor is restricted to men, but that is not at all the case.  It is true that honor, in the sense of a manly defense of one’s social position or reputation is an aspect of virility, the honor of women is bound up with their chastity.  But, if women are required to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, when a woman’s honor is assaulted by the rapist, the seducer, or the slanderer, it is the duty of the men in her life—her father, her husband, her brothers to avenger her honor by killing him.  This chapter, however, is concerned with personal honor, which, although it cannot be separated entirely from the honor of a family or group, is the primary focus of chapters three through six.  Accordingly, honor killings, as they are known in this restricted sense, will not be taken up until the next volume.

Uneducated feminists (not an entirely redundant expression) regard all talk of honor as a projection of patriarchal attitudes invented to justify male dominance, but it is a strange sort of conspiracy that has managed to take over all civilized societies—ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel, Medieval Europe, to say nothing of India, China, Japan, and the Muslim world.  What is even stranger is the modern refusal to take any lessons from the historical experiences of the human race.  As a result we are like the people Cicero described as children, for not knowing what had been done by their ancestors.  Modern readers in the Anglosphere have a hard time understanding Euripides’ Andromache, who boasts that she was never spoken of.

For ancient Greeks, honor was bound up with their consciousness of what constitutes proper behavior towards others and not just others in general but toward specific classes of human beings:  parents, siblings, spouses, kinsmen, rulers.  English does not have a single good word for this sense of reverence toward people to whom we owe reverence.  The Greek word aidos, often translated as “shame,” means both the proper treatment we are expected to give to such classes of persons and our consciousness of having done or not done the right thing and of having been treated rightly or wrongly according to our station in life. In Homeric Greek, the sense of aidos, when experienced in relations with inferiors, is often accompanied by pity for their misfortune, while the same sense, when inspired by superiors, is accompanied by fear.  I am not sure that things have changed all that much in three millennia.

This sense of honor and the reverence that is due is not just a Greek thing.  For the Roman aristocrat, his dignitas was the sum of his social worth: the offices he held, the esteem he was shown by  his fellows, the honors and commands he received.  Julius Caesar, by his own account and by those of his friends and his enemies, plunged the world into civil war in order to preserve his dignitas.  And if we want to cast the net further, honor is at the heart of the Confucian ethical system and the Japanese Samurai Code of Bushido (6th principle).

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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

4 Responses

  1. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    I have often read that a Roman military hero would have someone whispering in his ear that he was merely a man, not a god, when he was being honored and cheered by the crowds. Is that accurate?

  2. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    When experts give advice to groups and organizations interested in what they know and think, they often receive a small stipend called an honorarium to primarily cover their expenses. When the Clintons, and others like them, are paid massive sums for a speech is the money called an honorarium or merely a bribe?

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    That was the custom, as I recall, in the triumph, which had to be granted by the sovereign authority, whether Senate or late the Princeps. Greeks and Italians generally have larger-than-life egos, and each culture had proverbial wisdom and institutions to remind people not to go too far. For the Greeks, it was the Delphic proverbs–“Measure is best,” “Know they self,” etc., and at Athens the institution of ostracism, while at Rome it was the powerful set of stories of self-sacrificing patriotism, the annual rotation of offices, and the many festivals honoring the dead.

    I always felt that the word “honorarium” was only for honorable work, that is, work that conveyed honor. A shoemaker or bootblack gets a payment or fee or tip, while the writer or diplomat or cleric receives and honorarium. Some European languages distinguish between stipend and wages, the former being calculated on an annual basis, the latter by the hour.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Thank you for your kind response, Dr. Fleming.