Friday, August 23, 2013

The Point of Honor

The following essay appeared in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1861, pages 695-699.
THE POINT OF HONOR.—It has been said truly that in the history of nations decoration takes precedence of dress, and the passion for ornament shows itself before the desire for comfortable clothing. Painting and tattooing are older than flannel and silks; and in many a savage tribe the men, and even the women, would far sooner appear in public undressed than unpainted. In cold countries there mast, of course, be much greater regard for warm clothing; yet even there, and nearest to the icy pole, it will be found that the expense given to ornament is far beyond that given to comfort, and all uncivilized tribes invest most of their capital in trinkets. It would be easy to throw contempt on this flashy taste as a piece of disgusting barbarism, did not something of the same kind show itself in our boasted civilization, and were it not evident that not only in dress, but in education, what is ornamental is thought far more fondly of than what is useful. We may own and lament the fact, and, like Herbert Spencer and his school of utilitarians, we may lay down a new code of positive science and solid utility, without making any great headway against the prevailing current. We find a very occult, yet very obstinate and mighty, force working against us, and, like a strong wind or tide, overturning the solid walls that we had been so carefully rearing. We may, indeed, think that we have overcome the passion for display by doing away with some absurd fashion, yet are we not generally startled to find that the old folly appears in a new form, and the painting and tattooing break out in some new modes of tinting the skin, or bedizening the person, or flourishing the hands or feet or talents. Even the most imperious appetites can be made to wait on display, and the savage will bear starvation and pain that he may prove his courage and hardihood to his enemy, and the dainty belle will curtail her sleep, her rations, and even her breath, to win the delicacy or grace that may enable her to distance a rival's pretensions.

We are ready to confess to a considerable disappointment at the slow progress of the common-sense school, and at the obstinate vitality of most of the follies that we had been taught to look upon as on their last legs. The schoolmaster is indeed abroad; but the dancing-master, hairdresser, milliner, tailor, and jeweler are close at his heels, and seem sometimes to get the eye and ear of his pupils more thoroughly than he, and to hold it when some of his lessons are forgotten. In some way almost all persons show the same craving for some kind of display, and long before ample provision is made for the necessaries, to say nothing of the comforts, of living. The family is ready to make sacrifices for ornament. The servant-girl, who has not money enough saved to buy a bedstead and bureau to furnish the best room for her expected house, is sure to have a silk dress and flashy bonnet to walk to church with her beau; and the laborer, who finds it hard to pay his rent, tries hard to hire, if he can not buy, a piano for his daughter's ambitious fingers. Enter into any house, and you will see marks of the same instinct, according to the prevailing degree of culture; and the most judicious family that you know will be likely to have articles of no small cost that serve no substantial use. In the matter of dress surely the taste for ornament is never weary, and not the beauty or duration of the material, but the newness of the fashion, gives the costume its value and charm. Manners and accomplishments follow the same rule; and it is by no means the best sense or the highest virtue that wins and wears the highest social honor.

This word honor opens the whole secret; and evidently it is not any magical quality in the things themselves, but the idea that is attached to them, that gives such ornaments their value; and we start altogether in the wrong unless we take it for granted that we have a natural passion for honor, which makes us willing to do and bear almost any thing rather than not appear well in the eyes of our neighbors. The point of prudence is a great element in life, but the point of honor, in a certain sphere, is greater. If prudence is the law of business, honor, or what is called such, is the law of society; and all the circles and lines of etiquette, like the axioms of geometry, begin with a point of honor. Much as is said of this subject at seasons of excitement, as when a duel or a war is on the carpet, we are convinced that it is little understood, and that many of the greatest mistakes are made, and highest opportunities overlooked, from ignoring the nature and power of the prevailing ideas of honor. Sometimes the gravest questions of public interest turn more upon social sensibilities than upon financial or territorial values; and there are matters that men are far more ready to fight about than gold or lands—nay, for which they are willing to sacrifice gold and lands.

Perhaps the most difficult task of the historian or the traveler is precisely in this direction; and in manners, as in language, it is not so hard to understand the usages that refer to universal ideas and wants as those that turn upon local idioms and etiquette. Any eye may see what the Hindoos or Chinese eat and drink and wear, but it takes a philosopher and historian to understand the manner in which they do it; and the Hindoo's ablutions, and the China woman's nails and feet set forth a social as well as a religious creed. We do not so readily perceive the peculiarities of our own manners and customs, and are apt to acquiesce in familiar usages as having their own reason in themselves; and nothing would probably surprise a thoughtful man more than a full and fair exhibition of the social usages that he complies with in their relation to what is absolutely good and true. The subject is, indeed, quite subtle, yet not by any means unreal; and every honest attempt to give a just measure of honor must bring us nearer, if it can not reach, the mark. The illustration with which we introduced this article helps us to a definition of this ethereal essence. The painting or tattooing which the Indian prefers to comfortable clothing evidently affirms the great social instinct, and claims admiration at the eyes of his neighbors, while a dress chosen merely for comfort concerns only his own private individuality, and would be just as useful to him in this way if he were the only person on earth. The physical wants, such as for food, drink, warmth, and shelter, are in themselves wholly private, and they become social in the best sense only when they are connected with taste and refinement, and more or less effectively appeal to the sense of the beautiful, with its attendant claim to respect . Thus every ornament on the person or the table asserts a social creed, and exacts its share of social honor. It is a symbol of the faith that the man cares for something more than his private appetites, and insists upon standing well with his neighbors.

If we interpret fairly the various decorations that so distinguish the condition and reveal the ambition of men, we shall see that they practically set forth their claim to respect, and that they do this in a manner according to the claimant's circumstance or character, as craving or commanding favor. A coat of arms, for example, is regarded as the sign of a man's or a family's honor, and it is certainly considered as representing the respect which the wearer claims from the community on account of the services or merit common to himself and his ancestry. It is the part of honor for him to vindicate his title to such regard, while it is the part of justice for him to concede whatever is due to his neighbor's name or worth. May we not say that honor, as a sentiment, is a due sense of our worth in the eyes of our neighbor, while justice is a due sense of our neighbor's worth in our own eyes? Thus honor claims at once reputation and character, and not content merely with possessing worth, it insists upon vindicating it before others. A man of true honor, indeed, will insist, first of all, upon being right in his own purposes and deeds, and when conscious of such rectitude he is sustained against all calumny; yet even then he protests against the wrong done him, and is moved to do and suffer much to vindicate a worthy character by a worthy reputation. He claims thus not only his own good opinion, but his neighbor's, and the very generosity of his nature, instead of making him keep his conscience to himself, will move him to open it to his neighbor, and so establish a broad fellowship of interior goods. He is, of necessity, a public-spirited, humane man, and can not live to himself alone. Allowing generously all worth in his neighbor, he expects a fair recognition of his own; and as his plane of life rises, the higher is the style of respect that he gives and takes. The most devout characters in religious history are found true to this spirit, and it is one of the essential traits of a Christian to depend upon a social fellowship, a friendly communion, in which his worth is appreciated as much as it is appreciative. Of course we have no disposition to approve the captious, irritable temper that is always on the watch for insults, and forever demanding notice or apology. Such temper begins at the wrong end, more sensitive as to reputation than character, and so bent on whitewashing the surface as to fail to purify the interior. But let a man purify the interior, and he will not be tempted to leave the surface unclean. True honor begins with character, and works thence outwardly into reputation. False honor affects to begin with reputation, and vainly hopes to work thence inwardly into character.

The aspects of the spirit of honor depend much upon the man's circumstances and disposition. Thus honor is receptive or communicative, yielding or commanding, according as it is found in servant or master, courtier or king. Sensitive men, like delicate plants, live in the dew and sunshine of patronage; while proud men challenge notice, and, like oaks, are ready to wrestle for the mastery with the winds and the lightnings. We find these distinctions of character constantly under our eye, and among a dozen of boys at school you will find that most of them live in the breath of general opinion, and wish to hear what others say and do as others do, quite unhappy at standing alone, and sometimes heart-broken at being made the butt of a jest; while there are apt to be two or three dashing fellows, who never stop to ask what others think, but go straightway to their mark in spite of the clamor of the whole class, and even of the expostulations and threats of teachers. The ringleader, however, in his way, is as eager for honor as the sensitive little fag whom he bullies and flatters by turns. Sometimes we see these two classes of character seated side by side in a manner illustrative of their idiosyncracies—as when some harebrained scapegrace procures a fast and fiery horse, and takes some quiet crony to ride, and holds the reins in royal style, while his demure companion, in his own way, enjoys the daring fun that he would never presume to originate. In fact, the probable delight that so many take in fast horses is far less in the pleasure of the movement than in the sense of power, and the whip is the cheapest sceptre that our lords of creation can flourish.

The distinction between the sensitive and exacting forms of honor shows itself in every sphere of life, throughout all grades of natural temperament, social condition, intellectual and moral culture. It is very important to note it carefully, and to train each mind according to its need, and not treat the trailing vines as we treat the steadfast oaks. Some children are best governed by judicious praise, and j others by just self-reliance. A breath of affectionate interest will send gentle Mary to her task with buoyant step and dancing pulses, while her brother Bob might call that style of speech too namby-pamby for him, and is stimulated far more by being put on his own manly pluck, and told to lead off in study or in play after his own fashion, and let the other boys see how the thing is to be done. Something is to be said in favor of these two styles of character, for each has its own merit. We think, however, that, under good training, the sensitive, dependent nature has its full share of promise, and although exposed to suffer mortification and indulge in vanity, it may be trained to the peace of a steadfast principle and the fortitude of a loyal service. Perhaps the pliant, loyal class of men furnish more good, serviceable material than the domineering class. Certainly, as we look back upon our own life and times, we must own that many sensitive, dependent characters have done far more than was ever expected of them, and that they have a wonderful faculty of assimilating themselves to the most elevating influences within their reach; while no small number of high-spirited youths, who seemed born to command, have wrecked themselves by overambition or self-will. It is wise, then, to appreciate both types of character, and to try to help the other, seeking to soften the kingly will by something of the courtier's pliancy, and to stiffen the courtier's sensitiveness by a little of the royal pride. Society certainly is complete only when the elements are found in tolerable harmony, and the true gentleman, as his name denotes, has gentleness and manhood combined in his composition. The feminine portion of the social world helps him on in this schooling, and toward women he is the suitor, even when toward men he is entitled to be imperious, for in the drawing-room the king is only the head courtier. The king can not use a higher sanction than the honor of a gentleman; and when used in the highest sense, it implies all gentleness and all manhood, promising to be at once true to the faith and the service, with a mind open to the best influences and a will faithful to every obligation. The honor of a gentleman is not of private interpretation or policy, but of public and universal worth. It commits him to principles dearer to him than his ease or his life, compelling him to protect the feeble who confide in him, and obey the superiors who have just rule over him. In every bearing of his temper and conduct, it is determined by the supreme law, by the supreme truth, and the supreme right. It opens upward into the higher light and higher power, and alike in his sense and his will he gives proof of his gentle manhood.

We win a clearer idea of the spirit of manly honor when we consider it in connection with some of its leading objects. These are mainly of two kinds, according as they are more external or internal, circumstantial or characteristic. The circumstances upon which honor is most frequently based are wealth and position, especially when these are the gift of birth or inheritance; since, when these are acquired, they indicate traits of character and have an intellectual and moral significance beyond circumstances. We are not ready to ascribe honor to wealth or family in themselves considered, yet we can not deny that great power attaches to both circumstances; and the man who begins with fortune and name has far less to do than his poor and obscure neighbor to secure and enjoy a very high social worth. He is born inside of the fortress, and certainly has a much easier battle than he who has to take the fortress by storm, or build another for himself. At the same time we are compelled to Fay that no honor attaches to wealth and birth so long as they are mere circumstances and put forth no honorable characteristics. Honor is a quality, and it is not made merely by the addition of quantities. If one dollar of itself has no honor in it, a million has none, and the worth of wealth is measured precisely by the worthy qualities evinced in the acquisition or use of it. The millionaire, as such, has indeed a name, but not always an honorable one, and it is very rare that the richest men in a community are held in the highest respect. It is very desirable, indeed, that a generous man should have means to carry out his spirit, and a certain air of freedom and humanity goes easily with a large purse in liberal hands. There is something, moreover, in poverty that exaggerates the private wants and keeps down the nobler and more universal instincts and ideas. A man who is at his wit's-end to pay his rent or to get his bread is not easily in the heroic vein, and is tempted to shifts that his better nature despises; and Sidney learned at tables of plenty, not in hovels of wretchedness, the magnificent courtesy that led him to take the cup of water from his own parched lips and give it to the fainting soldier at his feet. Yet, if self-sacrifice, not courtly elegance, be the measure of honor, then the poor are entitled to their full share; and no man can have been a just observer of the life of the people who are not favored with riches, without ample proofs that the noblest qualities adorn the humblest homes. We expect little good, indeed, from squalid poverty; but the common lot, with its constant limitation, its daily necessity of helping others by its own toil, is the great nursery of true honor—the brown earth from which all stately growths proceed. In fact, when noble families spring, as they all have done, from the common people, they are obliged to send their sons back to the same hardy school to save them from degenerating; and the discipline of the camp, the navy, and the field are an imitation of the old track woods or sea-faring life, from which our best blood traces its pedigree. It is hard, indeed, to be poor; but poverty is a good tonic, and the noblest men have tasted fully of its bitterness. It sadly stints the honor that measures itself by tasteful habits and lavish generosity; yet it may help the higher honor that schools the will in self-denying virtue, and enables the possessor to give—what Dives does not own—an electric force that is a better treasure than hoards of gold. Without such gift from minds thus disciplined, inherited wealth is full of dangers —more fruitful in shame than in honor.

Birth is thought a surer ground of respect than wealth, and is often able to command wealth; and in the Old World and the New the scion of a good family without a penny is thought an even match for the daughter of a vulgar millionaire. Yet we have inglorious examples of the degeneracy of gentle blood in successive generations; and the man who trusts mainly in his blood builds upon the sand, since he ignores the very force upon which his ancestry rose to name. He can not live upon their respectability long unless he has their energy, and he can not have their energy unless he learns it in a sterner school than the Herald's College, or the looking-glass, or in the study of his own pulse and complexion. We are well aware of the clannishness of what are called old families, and are glad to find them studious of the lives of their worthy founders. Yet we are quite as well aware of the utter nothingness of their claims to self-sufficiency, and of the undeniable fact that they would generally vanish out of sight were it not for the new life that rises up from the people to protect them; and the best honors of every age are generally won by men whose nobility does not need the voucher of an ancient parchment. We believe, indeed, in the education of race through successive generations, and in the continuous and associate life and growth of loyal virtues. But this education all good citizens share; and even in a conservative country like England the men who have done most to keep alive the name of loyalty are not the titled heirs of coronets. The great Commoners, such as Pitt, Burke, Peel, and Wellington, have been the masters of English loyalty; and character, not the circumstance of birth, has given the British empire its great conservatives. The traditional honors of a nation culminate in its leading thinkers and heroes; and these, when born to name and fortune, are more honored by the new birth of spirit or genius than by the first birth of blood and gold.

It is mental and moral worth that is the ground of honor; and complex as may be the scales of social merit, and difficult as it is to adjust wisely the various orders of claims, the human mind is evidently approximating to such adjustment, and in the face of all books of peerage, and laws of etiquette, and votes of academies, it is deciding that those men are most worthy of honor who put the greatest and best powers to the greatest and best uses. We surely are not content with any less comprehensive definition, nor are we willing to leave out of the estimate any element of human worth. Intellect, energy, affection, all belong to humanity, and they bear their true fruit only when put to true uses. The use made of them is the test, but not the sole test of their value; for without original endowments there would be no powers to use, and it is wholly vain to deny honor to original endowments, and to take account merely of personal fidelity. A man who is half idiot deserves praise for doing as well as he can with his half-wit; but who would think of ranking him in the list of honor by the side of Newton or Shakespeare? The endowments of mind and will, before they are carefully used, are to be honored in themselves as good gifts, for the sake of God the giver, apart from any ascription of merit to the receiver; and we surely reckon without the host, if in the distribution of honors we forget the source whence they proceed, whether from a temporal or an eternal throne. Whether from the hand of God or man great powers and responsibilities win respect, and when used faithfully we estimate the fidelity not only in itself but in relation with the authority to which it is rendered and the amount of talents employed. In all relations of life the representative wears something of the honors of his principal, and it is right to see in every good or great man not only his own merit, but the truth and grace of the God who endowed and guided him. We do instinctively insist, however, that all shining gifts shall be used in a spirit in keeping with themselves, and we can not honor for a moment the selfishness that separates itself from the life of the community or the race, and lives only for its own private ends. We expect a great poet to have a living, but we deny inspiration and fame to every line in which he seemed thinking of his bread and butter. We allow that a great philosopher like Bacon may have an eye to his own emolument, but we deny that any bribes can stand between him and the truth of nature to which he sacredly gave himself. We are ready to believe that a soldier or statesman may seek to himself a fortune; but we refuse all honor to him the moment he ceases to identify his interest with his country, and to be willing to share in her struggles and calamities. We arc not unwilling that a preacher should have a good salary; but we refuse to listen to him the moment that we think him bent solely on his pay, and indifferent to the truth and the people. In short, we insist upon a certain largeness of mind and effort, a certain humanity as the ground of honor; and however private may be the candidate's sphere, we refuse him the palm unless he evinces traits that are essentially generous and universal in their bearing. We can not honor a man for keeping a clear and correct account-book of his business, for this is the part of common prudence; but we look with very different feelings on the books of Washington, when we know that he entered scrupulously every item of expense during the wars of liberty, that the nation might refund only the outlay and might receive his priceless services as a free gift. Something of the same spirit may, indeed, enter into all the daily work of life; and we can not refuse any man honor who lives for the highest aims, and eats his broad with a patriot's loyalty or a Christian's faith. All gifts and all acts are to be judged by the relation's in which they stand; and the sovereign power, whether human or divine, gives its own dignity to whatever it animates with its motive. True nobility is decided not by nearness but by fidelity to the throne; and, in this view, the distant workman at his loyal post may be nobler than the adroit courtier who belies the royal ear. So all the manual arts are to be judged in reference to the liberal professions, and the ruling idea that animates all toil is to be the criterion of its dignity."

Every form of society tends to establish its own scale of rank, and to frame its own code of honor. However strange or ridiculous the distinctions may in some cases appear, they originate in powerful causes if not in sufficient reasons; and if we marvel at the Hindoo castes, the Hindoo may equally marvel at our own, wholly at loss to understand on what principle it is that in a country without hereditary rank there are so many indefinable social grades; and in some of our cities the quality of the family depends upon the more or less quantity of butter or sugar sold by the merchant, or by the street or square of his residence. Our social code it is very hard to embody; yet it is not wholly formless, and the peace of American families turns in no small degree upon the point of social honor. Every festive party abounds in real or imagined slights, and there is more diplomacy by far in our private domestic relations than in our foreign affairs. The estimate put upon the various names upon our visiting lists would puzzle Metternich or Antonelli to analyze; and many a nice question of propriety is handled with a shrewdness that Talleyrand might admire. Perhaps the great difficulty with us comes from adjusting the different codes of honor to each other. We have some remains of the feudal code, with its hereditary distinctions; and one is amazed as well as amused to find at what a bounty some very commonplace people hold their blood and coat of arms, and remember pedigrees that the whole world has forgotten. This often clashes with the mercantile code, and it is a difficult point to decide how much money is an offset to ancient blood or established dignity. Then, too, there is a professional code, whether military, civil, or scholastic, which estimates honor from its own aspect, and fixes intellectual and social standing accordingly.

Probably the most frequent and fatal disputes arise from questions of honor rather than of interest, and most wars arise from sensitiveness on the score of national glory. The matter in dispute may be in itself comparatively trifling; but a brave nation can not allow its position to be damaged by taking any insult tamely, and must, at least, prove its own spirit by resistance. In view of this danger, the cautious language of diplomacy is well worthy of our study; and certainly our journalists, and even our preachers, would gain vastly in temper if they were as careful to avoid offense as our public ministers. It is especially worthy of note that, where two nations of different institutions and even languages and faiths enter into negotiations, every effort is taken to avoid whatever may seem insulting; and even when war is declared, the declaration is so worded as not to put any obstacle in the way of future peace. It would be well if this pacific policy could be followed in our own sectional disputes; and we believe that much of our trouble comes not only from rival interests, but from different codes of honor. Our Northern people chiefly follow the mercantile code, while our Southern neighbors go more by the military code. The mercantile code insists chiefly upon honesty, and values veracity mainly in its bearings upon trade; the military code insists most upon courage, and values veracity mainly in its social and official relations. The merchant has, of course, his ideal of honor, and much of his business rests upon personal confidence, yet his habits lead him to measure damages mostly by costs. The soldier lives wholly in professional confidence, and generally having small property, he resents the least suspicion of his courage or fidelity as a blow at his vitals. So the merchant tends to satisfy his wounded honor by a lawsuit, while the soldier challenges the offender to mortal combat or strikes him down by a blow. Southern life has a mingling of the feudal with the military code, and family pride combines with the habits of the plantation and the camp to make the people peculiarly sensitive and high-spirited. Evidently many of our editors and orators are ignorant of their temper and usages, and offend them bitterly without being aware of it. Some of the sharpest provocations have undoubtedly been given thus unawares; and it is the rhetoric rather than the logic of some of our vehement debaters that has raised so much bad blood. The same mistake has been made in the opposite quarter, and, probably without knowing it, our neighbors have wounded us to the quick by flings at our industry and manners. It is in the region of the nerves that the sensibility is most quick; and while the muscles, like our material interests, are the most prominent and bulky, the delicate and invisible nerves are the seats of sensation. We can carry a great load on our backs or in our arms, but a little weight agonizes our fingers and toes. We have probably confounded the muscles with the nerves to a very considerable extent, and have been treading upon each other's toes and wondering that the process was not pronounced more amusing or desirable. A new day might come if a more considerate and chivalrous tone were adopted, and if a single powerful organ of national opinion could call the disputants to order before the tribunal of courtesy, justice, patriotism, and humanity. We need a court of honor more than a court of law; and if our statesmen and States had learned to respect each other's rights and characters duly, the nation would stand on wholly different footing both at home and abroad.

This whole subject we regard as having very close and important bearings upon education; for the young are moved quite as much by what they are taught to regard as honorable as by what is good or true or useful. If we would know what our children are likely to be and do, consider what they are praised for and what they are practically encouraged to do. If virtue is praised in cold generalities and self-will is commended by obvious admiration, there can be little doubt as to which will win the upper hand. Honor is the breath of social life, and every growth of humanity opens upward if it opens at all. The little child and the aged man can not live out of its atmosphere, and the difference between the good and the bad is not only in the bent of their mind, but in the spirit of their fellowship. To try to educate a child to do without human favor and to live within his own soul and his God, might, perhaps, save him from some follies; but it might expose him to some peculiar forms of pride and selfishness, and surely would excommunicate him from that humanity apart from which no man can see the true God. The best culture, like the best faith, dethrones false honor to put the true in its place, and the most perfect society is that which best appreciates and encourages all substantial worth.

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