The Great Conversation: Honor

The Code of Honor—A Duel in the Bois de Boulogne, Near Paris (Godefroy Durand, 1875)

The idea of honor takes two forms. These are conveniently indicated by the double meaning of the Greek word δόξα (doxa), which comes from a verb meaning “to seem, appear”; δόξα can mean opinion in some contexts and glory in others. If you will, it can indicate “how things seem to me” and “how I seem to others.” In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the very term orthodoxy is thus punningly translated both as “right belief” and “right glory.” Along similar lines, honor can signify either the respect other people pay someone, or the inner sense of integrity that guides a person without reference to what others think.

When a civilization stresses the former meaning, certain social effects tend to follow. Sociologists sometimes call these societies honor-shame cultures. They enforce social norms by putting a high premium on what people think of you, rather than on what you may think of yourself. Japanese and Chinese culture are recognizable honor-shame cultures; Western portraits of Asians being preoccupied with honor can be a little cartoonish, but the idea of “face” remains culturally powerful in the Far East. The importance of not losing face drives people to be courteous, modest, hard-working, and public-spirited. Protecting one’s reputation is paramount, and doing things to win fame or glory is, at minimum, a natural and acceptable way to behave.

This stands in contrast to what are called guilt cultures. Guilt cultures seek to inculcate interior standards of behavior, appealing to a person’s conscience more than to public shame or honor. Guilt versus innocence is the key dichotomy in this system. Enforcement often relies on transcendental rewards and punishments—transcendental in the sense that they come in the afterlife, are intangible, or often both. This system gives us proverbs like Integrity is what you do when nobody’s looking: the value of fame is diminished, often to vanishing point, and traits like ambition often get classified as sins. The culture of most of Europe and its colonies, partly thanks to the influence of Christianity, is usually identified as a guilt culture.

I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
lov’d I not Honour more.

Richard Lovelace, “To Lucasta, Going to the Warres”

But we should not take a one-sided view. The honor-shame conception is present in European history as well. Jewish, Greek, and Roman sources from antiquity all place an accent on public codes of conduct that stress honor and good repute, sometimes alongside guilt-based codes. The plot of Æschylus’ brilliant Oresteia trilogy hinges upon the conflict between two contradictory shame-code imperatives—to avenge one’s father, and not to harm one’s mother—and resolves the tension by shifting to a reasoned ideal of justice.

Moralists’ tropes in Christian literature do trend toward the honor-as-integrity angle, partly by an intense scorn of fame. Some of this comes from reflecting on how brief human life is, and on how small the earth is—according to Ptolemaic astronomy, the earth was for practical purposes a mathematical point of no size, next to the whole of the universe. (This trope continues in our culture today, which often seeks to cow human ideas of our greatness with the vast expanse of the cosmos.) It is intriguing to note that, in a mixed Christian and post-Christian age, this concept of honor is part of the ethical system that both “sides” have strongly maintained.

The Medieval code of chivalry also had a strong honor-shame element: winning glory in battle, especially in defense of a noble lady or for the honor of the Church, was a very good thing. But chivalry too was complex, a complexity that the fates of the Round Table reflect. Most of Arthur’s knights fail the quest for the Holy Grail, and in their failure they turn on one another; the realm is lost to civil war. Honor as the opposite of shame prompts daring, but also leads to conflict, envy, and hatred. Of the handful who retain their nobility, most (Percival, Bedivere, Lancelot) become hermits, leaving earthly glory and companionship behind to cultivate honor as the opposite of guilt—and the greatest of all, Sir Galahad, is assumed into heaven with his achievement of the Grail.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Book IV, part 3
Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde
Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces on “the Great Conversation,” on topics like language, law, and theology; or take a look at more recommended reading from the bookshelf of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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