One way of defining honor is as a susceptibility for having a certain set of dispositions and the likelihood that certain emotive states will be evoked in certain settings. Honor is above all the keen sensitivity to the experience of humiliation and shame, a sensitivity manifested by the desire to be envied by others and the propensity to envy the successes of others. To simplify greatly, honor is that disposition which makes one act to shame others who have shamed oneself, to humiliate others who have humiliated oneself. The honorable person is one whose self-esteem and social standing is intimately dependent on the esteem or the envy he or she actually elicits in others. At root honor means “don't tread on me.” But to show someone you were not to be trod upon often meant that you had to hold yourself out as one who was willing to tread on others. The style of honor did not mean you were reluctant to give offense because you knew the other would retaliate, it meant that you had to look not at all fearful about giving offense.
Honor was more than just a set of rules for governing behavior. Honor permeated every aspect of consciousness: how you thought about yourself and others, how you held your body, the expectations you could reasonably have and the demands you could make on others; it determined the quality of your marriage and the marriage partners of your children. It was your very being. For in an honor based culture there was no self-respect independent of the respect of others, no private sense of "hey, I'm quite something" unless it was confirmed publicly. Honor was then not just a matter of the individual; it necessarily involved a group, and the group included all those people worthy of competing with you for honor. Your status in this group was the measure of your honor, and your status was achieved at the expense of the other group members who were not only your competitors for scarce honor but also the arbiters of whether you had it or not. In other words, your good standing depended on the judgments of your enemies. Your good standing was also aided by friends, not so much because of their judgment of you, but because you had them. Having friends was a sign to others of your honor and only the honorable had friends. Of course friends constituted the possible class of future enemies and in that sense their judgments mattered.
Although the honorable man might be emulated, the mathematics of honor usually meant you could never be just like someone else without taking what he had, appropriating his status to yourself. For the most part, people acted as if the mechanics of honor had the structure of a zero-sum or less-than-zero-sum game. The shortest road to honor was thus to take someone else's, and this meant that honorable people had to be ever-vigilant against affronts or challenges to their honor, because challenged they would be. The man or woman beyond challenge was no longer in the game of honor, but in the world of lords and kings who conferred honors on retainers and courtiers who competed with one another for honor as measured by the honors conferred on them by a superior. And if some people got too big to play the game, others became too small. The person who could or would not respond to challenges eventually lost all honor and thus all his moral being by being condemned to the invisibility of the pariah or servant.
Honor goes hand in hand with shame. In a culture of honor one can be shamed only if one has honor, if one is a member of the group competing for honor. Shame is, in one sense, nothing more than the loss of honor. Shame depends on the failure to measure up to the external standard imposed by the honor group. Like honor, it depends on the judgment of others, although it can be felt without the actual presence of the judging group. One can feel shame even when no one is looking, for the judgment of others is already congealed within the social norms internalized by the person feeling shame. The honorable person is socialized to entertain the sentiment and sensibility of honor; one judges oneself as harshly as one would judge others, even perhaps more harshly. A player in the game of honor suffers shame for shameful deeds. Not to feel shame for such acts would type one as shameless, as a person of no honor. To the extent that a person's very social being is dependent on one’s being honorable, one must palpably feel the loss of honor, that is, shame. The person who does not subscribe to the norms of honor will not feel shame for having violated them even if real third parties try to make him or her feel so. This invulnerability is simply an aspect of the social quality of shame. Shame requires membership in a society, a community of people sharing norms of right action and caring deeply about what others in their community think of them.
Nothing is more honorable than reclaiming one's honor, than paying back affronts, humiliations, and shames. One of the many little paradoxes of honor is that the honorable person must not only be shamable, he must also occasionally suffer shame or remain forever untested. We can imagine, however, a regime in which a person is so dominant that no one would risk shaming him, where he could, in the proverb of the Kabyle, “sleep and leave the door open.”
The honorable person did not become dishonorable the moment he suffered a shame. He was dishonored but not dishonorable; he suffered shame but he was not shameless. We should distinguish between the experience of shame of the person shamed as a part of an expected continuing exchange of somewhat hostile social reciprocities and the experience of the person shamed as a result of a judgment by others and confirmed by himself that he simply cannot meet the standards of a fully moral and respectable being. The first shame is the shame of the honorable man suffering a dishonor in the game of challenge and riposte; the second shame is the shame of the person finally adjudged to be an inappropriate player in the game. This latter is the person who feels shame as self-loathing and despair, although to those who judged him so utterly shamed he is seen to have lost the capacity to feel shame. This is another paradox of honor and shame. The most deeply felt shame is that of the person who is finally adjudged incapable of experiencing honorable self-doubt. He is shameless. The honorable person feels shame too, but with a different admixture of accompanying emotions. In place of self-loathing sits anger, indignation, apprehension, and no small amount of anxiety. For this person, the pain of self-loathing is held mostly in abeyance and remains ready to descend with full weight only when he has shown himself incapable of riposte. A clock started running the moment the shame occurred. It was now his turn to move, to show himself a person of honor. Honor was not to be reclaimed with indecorous haste. Vengeance was to be savored. Too quick a vengeance was only slightly more honorable, it was said, than never taking it at all. As the Old Norse proverb would have it: “Only a slave avenges himself immediately, but a coward never does” (Grettis saga chap. 15). If, however, requital never came and no honorable reconciliation had occurred in the meantime, the clock ran out. This was a serious matter, and it could, if it led others reasonably to assume a general incapacity to avenge the next offense, bring about a kind of social death as one passed from the ranks of the shamable to the oblivion of the shameless. Even those who had built up a lot of social credit and for whom the presumption of honor worked to great effect could not risk too many discomfitures of this sort.
The acquisition and possession of honor had its costs. Acquiring honor meant having to step on a few toes and thus assuredly gave rise to specific enmities, but the simple fact of having honor meant incurring envy and hence eventually enmity from people with whom you may not have had any prior hostile dealings. Yet these costs were the very joys of honor. What, after all, was honor if not the ability to elicit envy in others, the ability to extract from them a judgment of your superiority? In this regard, La Rochefoucauld's "The mark of a special achievement is to see that those who most envy it are compelled to praise it" is almost tautological, for it is the envy itself that is the initial judgment of the praiseworthiness of the other.
Honor says you should not fear eliciting envy and in fact rewards it by making it honorable. The honorable person, above all, could not appear fearful. And although honor and prudence could coexist, the ability to behave prudently often had to be earned at the price of having a reputation for occasionally behaving grandly and imprudently. People of honor knew the difference between foolhardiness and courage, but failures of courage were very seldom excused. It was one thing to avoid flaunting your position by obnoxious behavior toward others and quite another to avoid excelling out of fear for the consequences of excellence. Honor could have no truck with such pusillanimous people. If in the sagas people do not consciously limit their designs because they wish to avoid the envy of others, they are still treated to counsel warning them of the problems the envy of others will bring them (Njals saga chap. 32). People were thus not unaware of the costs of provoking envy, but their tragedy was that they could not avoid provoking it if they succeeded in the game of honor. The field in which envy operates, much of this discussion assumes, is bounded like the field of the honor game. If disparities among the players are too great there could be no honor game. As other anatomists of envy have noted, envy is something that exists among near equals or among people in proximate social standings. David Hume sums it up:
A common soldier bears no such envy to his general as to his sergeant or corporal; nor does an eminent writer meet with so great jealousy in common hackney scribblers, as in authors, that more nearly approach him.... The great disproportion cuts off the relation, and either keeps us from comparing ourselves with what is remote from us, or diminishes the effects of the comparison.Jonathan Swift is more succinct:
We all behold with envious eyes
Our equal raised above our size.
Friday, September 6, 2013
Honor as Discussed by William Ian Miller
The following passages are quoted from William Ian Miller's book Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence (1995):