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

On a more basic level, shame can be an intense feeling of embarrassment and inferiority.  Romance languages express this feeling by using derivatives from the Latin verecundia:  vergogna (Italian), verguenza (Spanish), vergogne (French).  This sense of shame is an expansive category as Julio Caro Baroja points out in his historical account of Spanish honor.

"Verecundia shows itself not only as chastity and modesty, as the blush which lewd speech or actions bring to the face, but also as respect for parents and elders, which prevents one from doing certain things in their presence, and as humility, reserve, and respect for the laws and their representatives."

Modern children, for several generations have been rigorously indoctrinated by parents, teachers, and pastors into a blind contempt for all the social distinctions that once made shame a potent moral and social force, but most of us have, on more than one occasion, experienced feelings of shame for ourselves and for others caught in embarrassing circumstances.  Even the great exceptions, celebrities who live in a realm beyond all moral distinctions, frequently are forced to pretend to be sorry for delaying a plane or insulting a waiter.

Shame and the subjective sense of honor are based on social conventions, but they are not entirely divorced from moral considerations.  Aristotle, in discussing happiness (Eth. Nic. I.5), rejects the common belief that it consists in wealth or honor, but he does think that honor, properly conceived, is connected to virtue: “Men, it seems, seek to obtain honor in order that they may be certain of their goodness; at least it is by prudent men [that is, men of practical wisdom who know how to behave] that they wish to be honored, and among those who know them, and on the ground of their virtue.”  The respect we receive from respectable people reassures us of our own worth.  Aristotle is careful to make this stipulation because in Greek the basic notion of honor is characteristically clear, without the pseudo-Christian varnish of hypocrisy that tends to darken over time.

Hypocrisy is, in the main, a positive force for disciplining the wild appetites of men, women, and children living within a community with shared notions of right and wrong, but when an entire society lives by an ethic of hedonism and self-assertion—as North Americans do—but pretend to be good Christians or liberal humanitarians, the hypocrisy can have the effect of preventing conventional people from aspiring to any morality higher than pushing their way to the center of the trough.

Honor for ancient Greeks was time (pronounced tee-may)—the price or value a man’s peers or society in general places on him. Indeed, the very word time was—and still is—a common word for value or price.  Among the Sarakatsani (shepherds in northern Greece),

"The basis of social reputation for a family is the recognition that it has honour (time), a word which is also used in Greek to describe the monetary price, or value, of an object or service.  Time expresses the notion of worth whether this is an economic value in a market or social worth evaluated from a complex of competing groups and individuals."

The Sarakatsani were at least nominally Christian and regarded it as dishonorable to swear a false oath in the name of God, but their understanding of honor is at some points hardly distinguishable from the code of Achilles and Odysseus.  Nonetheless, the Christian Scriptures are far from repudiating the principle of time.  Time, while it was used in the ordinary Greek sense of “price,refers also to the honor not accorded to the prophet in his own country [John 4:44] and to the respect owed to believers [Rom 2:10] and to those in authority or to whom it is due [Rom 13:7]. Jesus, in being set lower than the angels, has received honor. [Heb. 2:9].

As in both ancient and Modern Greek, the New Testament uses the adjective timios (honorable) to describe things of great price or value, whether precious stones [1 Cor. 3:12] or the faith itself [1 Pet. 1:7] and the blood of Christ [1 Pet. 1:19], but also applies it to honorable people and their activities.  Gamaliel is of honorable repute [Acts 5:34], but so is marriage [Heb. 13:4].  If we were justified in drawing any conclusions from these passages, we might say that Christ and his Apostles accepted the conventional view of honor in both senses and were willing to apply the term to the highest human things of which they could conceive.

The most concrete manifestation of human honor in the sense of price/repute is the price that had to be paid to relatives for a man killed or mutilated.  This custom was certainly known to early Greeks: Ajax refers to it in his rebuke of Achilles in Iliad IX,

"Achilles is savage and remorseless; he is cruel, and cares nothing for the love his comrades lavished upon him more than on all the others. He is implacable-and yet if a man's brother or son has been slain he will accept a fine by way of amends from him that killed him, and the wrong-doer having paid in full remains in peace among his own people." [Samuel Butler]

Haggling over the payment for homicide is portrayed as an aspect of the City at Peace depicted on the shield of Achilles.  Blood price—what the Anglo-Saxons called wergeld was extremely important to Germanic people.  Different social classes required different prices.  Preserving the language of buying and selling, we may refer to this aspect of honor as “social worth,” but we have to postpone discussion of blood money to the chapter on blood feuds.

In many accounts of honor, emphasis is laid on the importance of  seeking honor only from people who are our peers.  We all care for what others think of us, but if we are mature, we should only care about the opinion of people who deserve our respect.  This is not always easy.  The ridicule of social inferiors can cause embarrassment in the wealthy, powerful, and famous, and even virtuous men and women experience shame, when their motives are misunderstood or misrepresented. We all too often confuse the demands of conscience with peer pressures.

If it is a mistake to cultivate the respect of inferior people, then, even if they offer insults, a gentleman—however that notion is defined—is obliged not to fight a duel with a procurer of women, a financial manipulator who charges interest on loans, or a social worker.  Indeed, it is a mark of weakness to worry about the good opinion of inferior men.  Shakespeare’s Iago—a man driven by envy and desire for esteem— expresses a common sentiment:

Good name in man and woman…

Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Who steals my purse steals trash; tis something nothing,

Tis mine, twas his, and has been slave to thousands

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed.

The more purely ethical or conscience-driven aspect of honor is a bit more difficult to define, because it is rooted in a man’s sense of his own virtue.  There is obviously a subjective element, here, since half the inmates of a prison would say that they are no worse than the judges who sent them there or the politicians who made the laws.  And even if we set aside such delusions, we shall always be prepared to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.  That is partly what is meant by the term self-love, and when Christ tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, He partly meant that we should extend to others the same benefit of the doubt we grant ourselves.

While the Greeks spoke a great deal about social worth—time—they also spoke of megalopsychia, which is translated (by way of Latin) into English as magnanimity—greatness of soul.  Magnanimity is not simply a matter of social worth or aristocratic lineage, but an excellence or virtue that is revealed in noble actions.  Nonetheless, it cannot be divorced entirely from honor, if we are to accept the verdict of Aristotle [Eth. Nic. IV], who regards it as a great virtue:

The magnanimous person is concerned especially with honours…however, not even towards honour does he bear himself as if it were a very great thing.  Men who are well-born are thought worthy of honour, and so are those who enjoy power or wealth; for they are in a superior position, and everything that has a superiority in something good is held in great honour… but in truth the good man alone is to be honoured; he, however, who has both advantages is thought the more worthy of honour. But those who without virtue have such goods are neither justified in making great claims nor entitled to the name of 'proud'; for these things imply perfect virtue.

Some anthropologists (Ruth Benedict, for one) have tried to separate notions of guilt from the sense of shame and even have distinguished between cultures based on guilt from those based on shame and honor, but they are, as usual, barking up the wrong tree, especially in the case of the Greeks, as Douglas Cairns has argued decisively.  Honor, guilt, and shame are different aspects of the same cluster of moral sentiments, which includes what a man thinks he is worth—what others think of him and how they act towards him—and an acute awareness of whether he has been properly treated according to his desserts.

I am far from suggesting that this cluster of sentiments does not vary within different societies and in different historical periods.  Traditions and institutions rooted in the sense of face are as diverse as those derived from sexual instincts.  Nonetheless, the fact that a few societies (particularly our own) have developed exotic forms of sexual behavior and marriage does not at all vitiate the obvious fact that the marriage of one man and one (or several) women is the norm on which human societies converge.  A few stray cases of societies practicing polyandry or mass promiscuity are no more telling than the cases of criminal misbehavior within a single society.  In exactly the same way, there is a convergence on norms of shame and honor.  At some times and places, honor may require violence; in others a lawsuit or an exchange of barbed insults and verses.

In magnanimous people, honor and the sense of shame coincide with the moral code of a society, but in many societies—including the society of adolescent American males—someone may have a strong sense of personal honor and yet be willing to lie, cheat, and steal.  The Homeric hero Odysseus is not only a robber, as his circumstances sometimes requires, but an inveterate liar; nonetheless, his patron goddess Athena  regards him as among the best of men.  Odysseus does not lie to his peers at the siege of Troy but to the stranger he meets in his travels.  When he is treated properly as the guest of Alcinoos, King of the Phaeacians, he gives the true account of who he is and what he has done, and, returned to Ithaca, he is warned by the goddess that he has to curb his propensity to making up stories. As a stranger in trouble, he was justified in lying as he was justified in robbing, but among guest-friends and his own people, he must be truthful.

Later Greeks (such as Sophocles) were troubled by the wily Odysseus, whom they contrasted with the dull-witted but sincere Ajax, but the conflict between honor as “preserving face” and honor as “behaving morally” did not disappear in the time of Sophocles, and it has has not yet gone away, even in America, where celebrities caught in a disreputable act have to make public apologies.

Shame and honor cannot be eliminated, because it is an observable part of human nature to seek the approval of others, whatever ugly reality we may acknowledge about ourself when we are alone.  One aspect of our search for esteem is clearly the endless human pursuit of preeminence.  The Greek shepherds described by J.K. Campbell are motivated by self-regard that makes them sensitive to the slightest reproach or insult, whether true or false, because if another man hints at my disgrace, it can only be because he wishes to treat me as his inferior:

"When a man appears to insult you, you do not pause to consider whether he may have misunderstood what you previously said, you do not in charity accept his apology…You consider only your honour and the consequences his remarks are likely to have if you do not act."

While young men resort to violence in these circumstances, older men with greater responsibilities cultivate cleverness, which involves both quickness of mind and “the skill to plot with guile and lie with effect.”  Colonel Cash’s lies and taunts, while incompatible with Christian morality and the code of the gentleman, would not have struck these Greek shepherds as anything but proper—provided they were successful.

Honor has virtually disappeared from the modern English vocabulary, but, as James Bowman has pointed out in a book of literary essays on the subject, we have—as a South Carolina Senator once declared of slavery—eliminated the word but not the thing, at least not entirely.  At some level we still celebrate courage and decency, though the acts of courage that received the greatest plaudits are usually those in defense of some leftist principle like toleration or compassion.  We still care very deeply about what people think and say of us, and troubled adolescents, if they feel neglected or bullied, commit suicide with increasing frequency, if media reports are to be believed.  Grownup men and women, facing the ridicule of their peers for their immoral, illegal, or merely foolish acts, can escape from public ridicule by moving, but social media have created new vehicles for inflicting shame and ridicule.

The power of gossip may have escaped from the laboratory of the village green and gone viral on the internet, but one can always abandon Facebook or Twitter.  Pre-modern men and women, unless they went on Crusade or into a convent, could not so easily escape.  The exception today, perhaps, are people in elite professions, where certain kinds of scandals may permanently harm the career of a physician, scientist, or clergyman.  This is the exception that proverbially proves the rule, because honor flourishes in face-to-face societies of people who acknowledge each other’s right to pass judgment.  If honor truly is “the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society,” then honor—and its ally shame—will never be able to reassert its claims, until

We may think we have escaped them, but the old laws always reassert themselves.  If you fail in showing respect for me as a gentleman, say, you have stained my honor, and in some societies, this stain can only be washed away with blood.  Even in fifth century Athens, where dueling was unheard of and street-fighting a serious legal offense, Aeschylus wrote of blood-guilt as a physical pollution that could only be cleansed in another round of bloodshed.

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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

2 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    This installment probably answers the questions I was asking a couple weeks ago in a previous one as well as such questions can be answered. It seems that much of what we understand as honor, at least in our own culture, is something that we can’t readily define, but we know it when we see (or feel) it. If this is so, then we have lost much in the last hundred years or more, in creating a culture without something which we now can’t recognize if we see it because we didn’t grow up in a culture than can recognize it in the first place.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Mr. Wilson,

    I think you are on to something. An old college teacher of mine once described the American culture as something like this:

    “The immediate (practical) purpose of drinking a cup
    of coffee is to wash the biscuit down; the proximate
    (ethical), the intimate communion of, say, cowboys
    standing around a campfire in a drenching rain, water
    curling off their Stetsons, over yellow slickers,
    splashing on the rowels of spurs, their faces creased
    with squinting at the sun, drawing the bitter liquid
    down their several throats into the single moral belly
    of their comradeship. The remote (political) purpose
    of coffee at the campfire, especially in the rain, is
    the making of Americans — born on the frontier, free,
    frank, friendly, touchy about honor, despisers of
    fences, lovers of horses, worshippers of eagles and
    women. Nations have their drinks: the English, tea,
    the Irish, whiskey, the Germans, beer. Drinking coffee
    from a can is us. The ultimate purpose is mystical. To
    drink a can of coffee with the cowboys in the rain is,
    as Odysseus said of Alcinous’s banquet, something like perfection.”