Thursday, January 3, 2013

Honor, by Julian Pitt-Rivers

The following article on the subject of honor  was written by the great British anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers (1919 - 2001) and published in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences,  volume 6 (1968), pages 503-11. It does a remarkable job of describing the complexities and contradictions of the concept.

The notion of honor has several facets. It is a sentiment, a manifestation of this sentiment in conduct, and the evaluation of this conduct by others, that is to say, reputation. It is both internal to the individual and external to him--a matter of his feelings, his behavior, and the treatment that he receives. Many authors have stressed one of these facets at the expense of the others; however, from the point of view of the social sciences it is essential to bear in mind that honor is simultaneously all of these, for both its psychological and social functions relate to the fact that it stands as a mediator between individual aspirations and the judgment of society.

Like the other self-regarding sentiments, honor expresses an evaluation of self in the terms which are used to evaluate others--or as others might be imagined to judge one. It can, therefore, be seen to reflect the values of the group with which a person identifies himself. But honor as a fact, rather than as a sentiment, refers not merely to the judgment of others but to their behavior. The facets of honor may be viewed as related in the following way: honor felt becomes honor claimed, and honor claimed becomes honor paid. The payment of honor involves the expression of respect which is due to a person either by virtue of his role on a particular occasion, as when a guest is honored in accordance with the laws of hospitality, or by virtue of his status or rank, which entitles him to a permanent right to precedence marked by honorific insignia, expressed in modes of address and titles and demonstrated in deference. Honor is also exchanged in mutual recognition: in salutations and the return of invitations and favors.

The same principles that govern the transactions of honor are present in those of dishonor, though in reverse: the withdrawal of respect dishonors, since it implies a rejection of the claim to honor and this inspires the sentiment of shame. To be put to shame is to be denied honor, and it follows that this can only be done to those who have some pretension to it. He who makes no such claim has nothing to lose; he cannot be denied precedence if he prefers to go last. Those who aspire to no honor cannot be humiliated. Honor and dishonor, therefore, provide the currency in which people compete for reputation and the means whereby their appraisal of themselves can be validated and integrated into the social system--or rejected, thus obliging them to revise it. Hence, honor is not only the internalization of the values of society in the individual but the externalization of his self-image in the world.

The sentiment of honor seeks validation, but from what quarter? From God or from the conscience of the person himself? From friends or from kinsmen? From persons in authority or from the crowd? Public opinion, allegedly the arbiter of reputations, arbitrates with anything but a firm hand, since it varies according to the activity and the context. Consensus is not easily established in a complex society; individual views differ, and different groups have different standards. The significance of the acts of public honor and the granting of dignities is, therefore, this: they place the seal of public recognition on reputations that would otherwise stand in doubt and endow them with permanence. It is the function of authority to impose consensus, and it does this with regard to the worth of persons: it converts prestige into status.

Theories of honor have varied greatly as to the relative importance which they accord to different qualities, and this is due to the different social contexts and reference groups from which they derive.

Honor as a moral concept. Honor is commonly considered by moral philosophers to be a state of the individual conscience and, as such, equivalent to the absence of self-reproach. It relates to intentions rather than to the objective consequences of action, and a man is therefore said to be the only judge of his own honor. If he knows his intentions to be "above reproach," then he is indifferent to the comments of others, who cannot evaluate the quality of his motives. He is committed by his honor to the fulfillment of duties that are recognized as attaching to social roles. The casuists recognized honor as a personal responsibility and admitted the defense of honor as a licit form of self-defense which could excuse actions that would otherwise be sinful. Nevertheless, the churches have always considered that, in the evaluation of his own motives, a man is bound to refer to their authority, which claims for itself the right to define honor in terms of religious virtue.

Somewhat different is the view of honor which derives it from civic virtue, for here it is ratified not by religious doctrine but by the market place. Popular acclaim comes in to qualify, if not to guide, the judgments of the individual conscience, and honor becomes the reputation for virtue. (This was Aristotle's view.) But once the notion of reputation is admitted as a constituent of honor, its value as a purely moral concept faces ambiguities: a potential conflict emerges between the dictates of conscience and the facts of recognition. This is brought to the forefront by those moralists (not by any means confined to churchmen) who have upbraided the code of honor of their day from the standpoint of morality. Public opinion cannot be trusted to confirm even the most modest man’s claim to civic virtues or even to accord reputation on that basis at all. It is apt to give its applause to more spectacular qualities and to pay honor to other sorts of excellence. With regard to dishonor, it is yet more capricious, for here its great weapon is ridicule, which seldom employs a moral criterion at all, but destroys reputations on the grounds of a man's pretentiousness, foolishness, or misfortune, not his wickedness. As Moliere observed, one would rather be Tartuffe than Orgon. Public opinion, in its sympathy for the successful, betrays the notion of honor as a purely moral concept.

Honor as precedence. In contrast to the moral view of honor, which relates it to merit—whether religious, civic, or professional--other writers have insisted upon its factual aspect. For example, Hobbes (Leviathan, chapter 10) saw no more in honor than the achievement of precedence and the competition for worldly honors. Honor, in his view, is not a matter of sentiment and aspirations (since all men would like to be honored), but one of individual preferment, to the attainment of which virtue is quite irrelevant.

It is, moreover, from this aspect that the word honor derives etymologically: it first applied to grants of land or the privilege of levying taxes ceded by a sovereign to his eminent servants and supporters. Royal favor was, therefore, not only the "fountain of honor," as in the view of many later political theorists, but literally the origin of the word. As might be expected, honor was particularly to be earned through military prowess, and originally, it should be noted, it conceded not only social dignity but economic advantage as well.

Honor in this sense accorded precedence. This, however, is not only conferred by royal statute but derives from social interaction at every level in a society; the claim to honor depends always, in the last resort, upon the ability of the claimant to impose himself. Might is the basis of right to precedence, which goes to the man who is bold enough to enforce his claim, regardless of what may be thought of his merits.

Worldly honor validates itself by an appeal to the facts, submitting always to the reality of power, whether military, political, social, or economic and whether it rests upon the consensus of a community, the favor of superiors, or the control of sanctions. For this reason courage is the sine qua non of honor, and cowardice is always its converse. This fact is inherent in its nature and not merely the heritage of a class which once earned its status, or so it claimed, through feats of arms. The mottoes of the nobility (which may serve as a gloss upon their conception of honor) commonly emphasize not only the claim to prestige and status but, above all, the moral quality necessary to win and to retain them; when "all is lost save honor," this at least has been preserved, and while this is so, a return of fortune is always possible. Willingness to stand up to opposition is essential to the acquisition, as to the defense, of honor, regardless of the mode of action that is adopted. No amount of moral justification validates the honor of a coward, even where retaliation to an affront is ruled out on moral grounds; to turn the other cheek is not the same thing as to hide it. Indeed, in terms of the code of honor, turning the other cheek is simply a means of demonstrating contempt. Christian forgiveness cloaks a claim to superiority that cannot but irritate the sensitivities of the forgiven, for it not only implies disdain, it attempts to alter the rules whereby honor is achieved or lost.

However well courage may promote the claims of the courageous, the fact of triumph is ultimately what counts. The distribution of the spoils is the privilege of the victor; where claims to precedence conflict, the decision goes to the big battalions. It is the fact of precedence that establishes the right to command and the privilege of speaking first or last. In this sense, therefore, honor and leadership imply one another, for both are subject to the reality of power.

Honor as a personal attribute. Since honor is felt as well as demonstrated, it is allied to the conception of the self in the most intimate ways. It is a state of grace. It is liable to defilement. It is linked to the physical person in terms of the symbolic functions attached to the body: to the blood, the heart, the hand, the head, and the genitalia. Honor is inherited through the "blood," and the shedding of blood has a specially honorific value in transactions of honor--the stains of honor, it was said, could be cleansed only by blood. The heart is the symbol of sincerity, since it is thought of—in the European tradition at least--as the seat of the intentions and therefore the home of the true self, which lies behind all worldly disguises. The right hand is the purveyor of honor: it touches; it shakes or is shaken; it is kissed or waved; it wins honor, for it wields the sword and pulls the trigger. The head is the representation of the self in social life, that by which a man is recognized, that which is placed in effigy on coins, and that which is touched in salute, crowned, covered or uncovered, bowed, or shorn. The private parts are the seat of shame, vulnerable to the public view and represented symbolically in the gestures and verbal expressions of desecration. In their association with the excretory function they are the source of pollution, yet as the means of procreation they are intimately connected with honor, for they signify the extension of the self in time. Sexual purity is, therefore, often regarded as the essence of honor in women, whose feminine status precludes their striving for it by might. The body as a whole is especially associated with honor, since physical contact implies intimacy and makes explicit the honorific relationship with another, whether to express attachment, obeisance, or contempt.

Because honor centers in the physical being, a person's presence bears a particular significance, as Simmel observed when he spoke of a sacred aura surrounding each individual. Whatever occurs in a person's presence obliges him to react in one way or another, positively or negatively, for he cannot hide his cognizance of it: he is inescapably a party to what he witnesses, and his will is thereby committed. This is important because the essence of the social person comprises his will and (as the moralists understood, though in a different context) his intentions. Hence, apologies for an affront normally take the form of denying the intention, thereby making the affront in a sense fortuitous because not willed. The true affront to honor must be intended as such. For the same reason oaths are binding only if freely sworn and, like the rites of the church, are invalid if devoid of good intention. The oath commits the honor of the swearer by guaranteeing his intentions, for it is not dishonoring to deceive another man, only to "break faith"--that is to say, to rescind an established commitment, for this implies cowardice. This is underlined by the mottoes of the aristocracy (so often devoted to the theme of steadfastness), the broken weapons which clutter up their arms, and the defiant invitations to fate to put them to the test. This emphasis on intention or will marks an essential point: the essence of honor is personal autonomy. All men are bound by certain irrevocable ties, but the man of honor cannot otherwise be committed; he can only commit himself. To be forced by whatever circumstance to revoke his intentions once they are committed is to abnegate his personal autonomy. Thus, the concept of honor is tied to precedence, for to command over others enhances it, while obedience restricts it.

Collective honor. The group possesses collective honor, in which the individual members participate. It affects their honor and is affected by their behavior. The honor of a collectivity is vested in its head and in symbolic representations; flags, crests, coats of arms, badges, uniforms, and all the insignia whereby members of the group are recognized are the objects of a greater or lesser degree of reverence and are treated as though they possess honor in themselves. In the anthropological language of an earlier generation, such objects have mana, a concept that also expresses the idea of honor when it is applied to individuals or to parts of their person.

While some types of groups are joined voluntarily and may be left in the same way (or may expel one of their number), membership in other groups is ascribed at birth. In the latter type of group, honor is bound up integrally, for the group defines a person's essential nature. The family (and in some societies the kin group) and the nation are the most fundamental of these collectivities, and thus traitors to their fathers or their sovereigns are the most execrable of all. (Parricide and regicide are sacrilegious but homicide is not.) The family is the repository of personal honor, for honor is hereditary, not merely in its aspect as social status but also with regard to the moral qualities which attach to it. Therefore, the dishonor cast on one member is felt by all.

Male and female honor are clearly differentiated with regard to conduct. A moral division of labor operates within the family, especially in the Latin countries: the aspect of honor as precedence becomes, according to this system of values, the prerogative of the male, while honor as sexual purity is restricted to the female. Hence, sexual conquest enhances the prestige of men; sexual liberty defiles the honor of women. (Congruently, a high value is attached to virginity in unmarried girls.) The defense of female purity, however, is a male responsibility, and men are therefore vulnerable to dishonor not through their own sexual misconduct but through that of their womenfolk--that is to say, members of the same nuclear family, including mother, wife, unmarried sister, and daughter.

Hence, sexual insults that impugn the honor of men refer not to them but to their women.

The aspect of honor that is associated with social status descends preferentially in the male line--as hereditary titles, for example--but in its moral aspect a man's honor comes to him primarily from his mother, and further, his sister's honor reflects upon his through their mother. However, if a man inherits his honor in this way, he is, above all, actively responsible for the honor of his wife, and the cuckold (expressed in the Mediterranean by an analogy with the he-goat) is the paragon of dishonor, equal only, if in a different way, to the traitor. It should be noted that the cuckolder is exculpated: though he represents the cuckoo in the analogy on which the word is based, the title is reserved for the man whose marital right is usurped (and the same transposition is performed in the symbolism of the Mediterranean by endowing the wronged husband with the horns). Although the cuckolder may be thought immoral, he bears no stigma of dishonor. Once more dishonor goes to the defeated, and ridicule is visited on the defiled one rather than on the guilty. This code of honor is attenuated to the degree that women are regarded as independent of male authority.

Honor and the sacred. The connection between honor and the sacred does not derive simply from the ambition of the church to stand as the arbiter of honor, a role that it has never entirely succeeded in achieving in the popular view, but rather from the sacred nature of honor itself, which, as the essence of the social personality and the personal destiny of the individual, stands in a preferential relation to the deity; a man's true self is known only to God, from whom nothing can be hidden and in whose eyes honor is ultimately vindicated, Honor is committed by invoking the sacred, whether in the form of a conditional curse witnessed by the spiritual powers or by implicating any other agency from which honor derives. The appeal to the sacred acts as a guarantee that the swearer will accept his shame under the prescribed circumstances. Hence, even in modern law courts oaths are required. The commitment of honor to the sovereign derives also from the fact that he stands, as divinely authorized ruler, in a preferential relationship to the Deity, a conception that has survived centuries of rebellion and even the passing of the monarchy altogether in many instances. Sacredness attaches to the notion of legitimate rule, regardless of the doctrine in which this is expressed. For this reason republics have tended to conserve the sanctifying rituals of the monarchies they superseded.

Honor and social status. The distribution of honor in communities of equals, whether local groups or specialized institutions, tends to relate to eminence, recognized virtue, and age. However, in a stratified society it accords with social status, and as such, it is more often ascribed by birth than achieved, Thus, medieval society was ranked in terms of honor, from the aristocracy, who had the most--on account of their power, their valor, and their proximity to the king--to those who had none at all, the heretics and the outcasts, those who indulged in infamous occupations or had been convicted of infamy.

Honor is hereditary, as we have seen; the excellence that once brought honor to the forebears is credited to their offspring, even though it may no longer be discernible in their conduct. Titles and property, the honorific and effective forms of hereditary power, endow the social system with continuity in this regard; honor is ascribed. Yet, the supposition of excellence derived from birth is constantly betrayed, and a conflict therefore emerges between the criterion of prestige derived from personal worth and that which looks to social origins. This has provided one of the favorite themes of European literature from the twelfth-century Poem of the Cid onward, a theme which is matched in popularity only by its counterpart: the role of money rather than excellence in the acquisition of honor. The ideal unity of honor is apt to fragment when it strikes the facts, and the different bases for according it become opposed to one another.

Moreover, the criteria by which honor is bestowed have greatly varied in time: occupation and religious orthodoxy were once important, although they are no longer. With the evolution from a system of legal status to a class system, economic privileges ceased to be attached to status, and the contrary came to be true. In the modern world the criteria appear to be changing again: titles can no longer be purchased and wealth gives way to fame as the measure of reputation--a fact not unconnected with the development of the communications industry. The theater, which was once a dishonorable occupation, now presents candidates for the British sovereign's Honours List, which also finds a place for jockeys and football players.

The struggle for honor is palliated by a provision that saves society from anarchy. Indeed, this struggle is not only the basis upon which individuals compete but also that on which they cooperate. Here the notion of steadfastness is crucial, whether it binds together those who recognize their mutual equality or those whose relationship is one of patron and client. The reciprocal demonstrations of favor, which might be called mutual honoring, establish relationships of solidarity. The notion of a community of honorable men replaces the competition for honor; reputation attaches to honesty, and the steadfastness that honor enjoins is seen in financial reliability and contractual faith--the "honoring" of a check or bond displays this sense. Honor then comes to be the guarantor of the credit system. This notion of honor was, in particular, the ideal of the Puritans, who attempted to suppress all its competitive and flamboyant aspects in favor of equating it to conscience (only to see them reemerge triumphant with the Restoration, whose literature pays more tribute to cuckoldry than that of any other period in the English language). The relation of the puritan ethic to capitalism, first stressed by Max Weber and R. H. Tawney, restricts competition to the field of wealth and, while giving financial probity a prime place in the notion of honor, makes financial success the arbiter of prestige. Under such conditions social status inevitably becomes increasingly an economic matter, to the exclusion of all other criteria.

Honor is always bound to wealth and possessions, for they provide an idiom in which to express relationships of relative inequality. Thus, hospitality, charity, and generosity are highly honorific; provided that they derive from free will, they gain as expressions of magnanimity. Beneficence transforms economic power into honor. However, honor is thus gained at the potential expense of the recipient. By doing someone a favor you humiliate him unless he may reciprocate. Hence comes the necessity for the return of hospitality and for accepting its return. The Northwest Coast Indians of America carried this principle to its limits in the potlatch, in which the demonstrations of largesse and the destruction of property were performed with the open intention of humiliating a rival. Through the challenge to reciprocate hospitality, they expressed their hostilities and as they put it, "fought with property."

Honor is the backbone of the system of patronage. He who admits his inferiority and accepts patronage is not dishonored by attaching himself to a superior. On the contrary, his honor is enhanced by participating, through this attachment, in his patron's honor. The honor of a patron is equally enhanced by the possession of clients; he gains prestige in return for the protection that he affords to those who recognize his power. Honor accrues through being paid and is lost through being denied where it is due. By giving it away, you show that you have it; by striving for it, you imply that you need it. This is the meaning of magnanimity.

The struggle for honor takes place, therefore, only where precedence is both of value and in doubt. Competition for it has understandably been more acute in the higher reaches of society, where family pride and also the practical importance of precedence are greatest (this can be clearly seen, for example, in the descriptions of the French aristocracy in the memoirs of the duke of Saint-Simon). It must not, however, be thought that there is no competition for honor in plebeian communities. The agonistic quality of personal and kin-group relations in the villages of the Mediterranean is most striking, especially among pastoralists, whose unstable fortunes urge them to compete. This competition occurs, nonetheless, within a framework of moral values that public opinion upholds. The point of honor, whether among the aristocracies of former times or the modern Greek shepherds or Arab peasants, imposes a code for the distribution of honor that contains conflict within boundaries set by the ethical code of the community.

The point of honor
In the courts of Renaissance Italy there arose a code of behavior which regulated the exchange of honor and the competition for it and whose ultimate sanction was the duel. This code spread, not without changes and adaptations, throughout Europe and America and persisted in many places into the twentieth century. A flow of published works four centuries long defined the modes and pretexts for taking offense, the formalities of challenge and the duel, and the circumstances in which honor could be judged to be lost or redeemed. A veritable jurisprudence of honor was elaborated, which makes explicit certain fundamental characteristics of the concept.

The point of honor, as this code of behavior was called, was confined to the upper class. The honor of a man could not be impugned by someone who was not a social equal--that is, someone with whom he could not compete without loss of dignity. The impudence or the infidelity of an inferior could be punished, but honor was not attained by reacting to the action of an inferior. Thus, honor was impregnable from below. Willingness to enter a duel depended upon the recognition of equality of class (but not of rank).

An affront depends upon being made public, for repute is lost only in the eyes of others. Hence, it was even sometimes maintained that no affront could be given in a purely private conversation. On the other hand, against public ridicule there is no recourse, since an affront must be performed individually to be resented by an individual. The act of resentment is always an individual responsibility; whether or not a man wishes to accept humiliation depends upon his own will. According to the code of honor, an insult could only be resented by the recipient himself, unless he were impeded from doing this because of age, sex, infirmity, or clerical status. Even then it could be resented only by a close kinsman--that is, one who participated in his honor. Briefly, the duel decided quarrels between individuals who competed for precedence and repute in the eyes of a public composed of their social equals. It was even at one time suggested that by destroying the honor of another man one might add to one's own, just as knights once added to their fame by their victories in single combat.

The affront placed honor in jeopardy, a state of threatened desecration from which it could only be saved by the demand for satisfaction. By showing his readiness to fight, a man restored his honor to a state of grace. Honor, however, was indifferent to the result of the duel, which demonstrated only the prowess of the victor and the choice of fate. The form of the act of resentment which constituted a challenge was the mentita, "giving the lie." Since deception was not in itself considered dishonorable behavior, it seems anomalous that the accusation of lying constituted the paramount indictment of honor. However, first of all, the accusation constituted a counterinsult and bound the man who delivered the original insult to issue the challenge, thereby permitting his antagonist to gain the choice of weapons. Yet, other than as a tactical device, this form of challenge relates to the obligation to tell the truth: one is under no obligation to tell it to an inferior; one owes it to a superior. (Children are required to tell the truth to adults who feel no reciprocal duty.) To lie to an equal is an affront, since it represents an attempt to treat him as an inferior. On the other hand, lying could be interpreted as the subterfuge of one who lacked the courage to tell the truth or to act openly. The mentita, therefore, committed the response of the accused person, since failure to respond confirmed this implication of cowardice, while honorable response invalidated it at the cost of making manifest the intention to insult.

Failure to react to a slight was open to two conflicting interpretations. Either it implied cowardice and the acceptance of humiliation, which entailed the loss of honor, or it implied contempt, the denial that the author of the slight possessed sufficient honor to affront, that is, a denial of his equality. In the latter case the author, not the victim, of the slight was dishonored. Disregarding a slight could even be treated as magnanimity, on condition that the insulted person possessed the right to forgive or to overlook--that is to say, that he was indeed superior. On the other hand, to pick quarrels over nothing, to exploit the humiliation of others beyond the point that public opinion recognized as legitimate in order to establish precedence, was considered dishonorable, for it spelled lack of magnanimity. It was the court of public opinion that judicated between rival interpretations of the failure to react to a slight; in the last resort, a man was dishonored only at the point where he was forced to realize that he had been, where his shame was brought home to him. Those who possessed impregnable honor could afford not to compete for precedence, but to show those magnanimous qualities which are associated with it in the figurative senses of the words that denote high status; nobility, gentlemanliness, etc. Words which denote low status imply the contrary of magnanimity: meanness, villainy.

Although the point of honor was much criticized from the moral viewpoint, it provided a means of settling disputes. It did not permit the unbridled use of violence. Once satisfaction was accorded, the quarrel could not rightfully be taken up again. In this way it can be contrasted with the moral obligation to seek vengeance in order to redeem honor and with the state of feud that this commonly leads to. The point of honor was, therefore, a pseudolegal institution governing the sphere of social etiquette where the law was either not competent or not welcome.

Honor and the law
The code of honor associated with the duel appeared in history at a time when the state was endeavoring to suppress private violence; dueling was made illegal, as well as condemned by the church, almost from its inception as a formalized mode of settling disputes. Yet, the duel was also, in some ways, a continuation of an earlier tradition. The right of knights to prove their worth in single combat was at one time inherent in the right to bear arms, and jousting provided a festive occasion on which to do so (though it finally developed into a sport). During the Middle Ages the private encounter was also recognized as a form of legal process. The judicial combat allowed for the settlement of disputes by remitting the decision to divine judgment; it was a form of ordeal.

With the development of the legal system and the increased centralization of power, sovereigns aspired to take the settlement of disputes out of the unpredictable hands of the Deity and submit it to the adjudication of courts, The courts, however, are ill-designed to fulfill the requirements of the man of honor, in that, first of all, they oblige him to place his jeopardized honor in the hands of others and thus prevent him from redeeming it for himself--the only way in which this can be done. The legal process involves delay (prejudicial to its state), expense (unwarranted for one who would settle accounts at once and for nothing), and publicity, which aggravates instead of mitigating the affront which is the cause of the dispute. Moreover, honor is not commutable into payment, so the compensation that courts impose offers no valid satisfaction. Finally, the settlement of a dispute in court excludes the possibility of demonstrating personal worth through the display of courage. The law has never, therefore, appealed to adherents to the code of honor, even where it has provided a means of redress against the kind of conduct that constitutes an affront. This it cannot easily do in any case, since it operates according to a different reasoning. Thus, although in all the countries of Europe legislation against dueling was passed repeatedly from the sixteenth century onward, the custom continued, with a large measure of connivance from the judicial authorities, until the twentieth century.

Although all the countries of Europe use the concept of honor in their ceremonial pronouncements, it is explicitly recognized only in the laws of the countries of southern Europe, where honor appears not only as a factor in the cultural background of court proceedings but also as a legal concept. In these countries the legal codes define the jural significance of honor. However, honor relates to conduct as a disculpating factor by making otherwise reprehensible behavior justifiable in terms of the legitimate motive which derives from the sense of honor. The right of a man to defend his honor is far more clearly recognized in the judicial procedures of southern European countries than in Anglo-Saxon law, which generally requires the demonstration of material damage for an affront to be actionable.

The constancy required by honor prefigures the law's demand for regularity; both establish a commitment upon the future. Nevertheless they differ in the way they commit the future, for honor demands fidelity to individuals, law to abstract principles. Therefore, where they exist together, they are liable to conflict, for one relates to persons and is centered in the will; the other aspires to reduce persons to legal categories, which involves attacking the fundamental principle of personal autonomy. The man of honor is a law, but a law unto himself. Wherever the authority of law is questioned or ignored, the code of honor re-emerges to allocate the right to precedence and dictate the principles of conduct: among aristocracies and criminal underworlds, schoolboy and street-corner societies, open frontiers and those closed communities where reigns "the Honorable Society," as the Mafia calls itself.

Honor in literature
As we have seen, the different aspects of honor are liable to come into conflict with each other and to present individuals with an unenviable choice. This was the theme of the Spanish theater of the "Golden Century" in which concern for honor had become exacerbated. The dramatists presented this theme in the form of tragedy in an aristocratic setting while the novelists tended to treat it with comic satire in a plebeian context. Hence, the teatro de honor concerns such matters as marital honor, honor as precedence, honor as social status, civic virtue represented by plebeian honor, female purity, fidelity to the king, the duty to redeem honor by vengeance, the difficulty of hiding dishonor, and the power and perfidy of public opinion. The Spanish dramatists were, on the whole, critical of aristocratic honor and sometimes betrayed a reformatory intention, while the satires of the novelists frequently attacked the very notion of honor itself, contrasting it with the real power of money. The greatest and most savage satire on honor is assuredly the Lazarillo de Tormes, which antedates Falstaff's famous tirade by nearly half a century.

Every ruling power claims the right to distribute honor; to lay down the principles by which it is to be won is the essence of authority and the process of legitimation. Authority, like honor, is allied both to the sentiments and to the reality of social status and looks both to the possession of force and to popular consent, for authority is, as it were, the judicial aspect of honor, whose transactions and rituals set the seal of legitimacy upon the social order, making its commands appear necessary and right. The king can do no wrong. His word imposes consensus. Yet, if what is done in his name is unpopular, it does not escape criticism. His legitimacy is eventually brought into question. The frailty in authority qualifies its sacredness by exposing it to the danger that a counterconsensus will emerge to brand as infamous the fount of honor. The withdrawal of consent reveals the Achilles' heel of authority; the loss of respect foreshadows delegitimation.

Therefore, the polemics with regard to the nature of honor mirror the social conflicts of their age, for they reflect the interests of different groups and classes striving to impose their evaluations of behavior. The polemics both reflect and promote the struggle between these groups. The facts of power decide the moral arguments. Through its social function as a mediator, honor dictates the modes of allegiance that obtain throughout the social structure, and each particular notion of honor favors a certain faction. Hence, the aristocracy and the church adhered to quite different definitions of honor throughout the history of modern Europe. The new middle classes had a different notion of it, again, as Speier (1935) has pointed out. Different classes differ in their concepts of honor, and the concepts of rural communities differ from those of the city, though not always in accordance with that romanticized image of Arcadia which has stirred the literary imagination ever since Horace. A particular code of honor must be seen against its social background in order to be understood.

Modern urban society accords precedence largely on an economic basis. The independence of women has relieved men to some extent of their responsibility for them and, thus, of their vulnerability through them. The power of the law and the range of its competence have greatly increased, thus eliminating the possibility of winning honor through physical courage, save in certain sports and in war. The power of personal patronage has declined in favor of impersonal and institutional allegiances. The vocabulary of honor has acquired archaic overtones in modern English, yet the principles of honor remain, for they are not, like the particular conceptions in which they are manifested, the product of a given culture at a given time, but universal principles of social action that may be found clothed in the idiom of head-hunting, social refinement, financial acumen, religious purity, or civic merit. Whatever the form the principles of honor may take, they serve to relate the ideal values of a society to its social structure and to reconcile the world as its members would see it with the world as it is.

Julian Pitt-Rivers


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  1. Dear Paul,

    Do you have a reference for this article? Where was it published in?

    1. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 6 (1968) 503-11