What Is Honor?

What Is Honor?: A Question of Moral Imperatives

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    What Is Honor?
    Book Description:

    What is honor? Has its meaning changed since ancient times? Is it an outmoded notion? Does it still have the power to direct our behavior? In this provocative book Alexander Welsh considers the history and meaning of honor and dismisses the idea that we live in a post-honor culture. He notes that we have words other thanhonor, such asrespect,self-respect, and personalidentity, that show we do indeed care deeply about honor. Honor, he argues, is a continuing process of respect that motivates or constrains members of a peer group. Honor's dictates function as moral imperatives.

    Surprisingly, little systematic study of the history of honor in Western culture has been attempted. Offering a welcome remedy, Welsh provides a genealogy of approaches to the subject, mining some of the most influential texts of the Western tradition. He rereads with fascinating results the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Mandeville, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith, and others. With a sharp focus on the intersection of honor and ethics in both literature and philosophy, Welsh invites new and constructive debate on a topic of vital interest.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14830-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Plan of This Book
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  6. 1 On Moralities of Obedience and Respect
    (pp. 1-8)

    What is honor? If we limit ourselves to the ways in which the word is ordinarily used today, this is not a difficult question.Honoris a measure of esteem and commendation, often a formal award for higher-than-usual achievement.To honorindividuals is to single them out on the grounds of merit or because of the position they hold. But this is not an easy question to answer if byhonoris meant a compelling motive to take action, or to refrain from certain actions, as the word was often used until, say, about the time of World War I....

  7. 2 Help from Anthropology and Psychology
    (pp. 9-22)

    To flesh out these working hypotheses, we can do well to turn to anthropologists who have made honor the subject of their research, albeit usually among other peoples. Thus, Julian Pitt-Rivers began an important anthropological overview of the subject, “Honour is the value of a person in his owneyes, but also in the eyes of his society” (1965, 21). That’s my emphasis on his metaphor in the first part of his predicate; in the second the eyes of the group are both metaphorical and functioning organs of sight. Everything hinges on that also—so much so that I would...

  8. 3 Respect in the Ethics of Aristotle
    (pp. 23-39)

    In quest of honor lore, Renaissance and Enlightenment writers typically unearthed classical literature and classical ethics. The moderns, perforce aware of their Judeo-Christian heritage (Bowman, 2006, 47–51) and its leanings toward a morality of obedience, to some extent saw the classics as representative of a different culture. Their efforts made it commonplace for educated people in the West to read Greek and Roman texts as discontinuous with but nevertheless relevant to experience of the present.

    Among the most revered and influential texts are those by Aristotle and Cicero. The Greek philosopher and Roman statesman were obviously very much concerned...

  9. 4 Cicero’s Mediation of the Same
    (pp. 40-49)

    Teachers, parents, and elders who expect to be obeyed in most things can and do instruct the young in the morality of respect as well. They frequently mix commands with advice about the kinds of behavior that will be demanded of the young by their peers. The Cicero who composedDe Officiisas a letter of advice to his son was a model teacher of this sort. This work, thought to be the last from Cicero’s hand, is far from being a series of commands to anyone. It consists of observations about social life that the recipient will likely be...

  10. 5 Shakespeare’s Recourse to Roman Honor
    (pp. 50-66)

    The first of the plays closely based on Plutarch,Julius Caesarwas performed at the Globe theater in London in 1599. The timing itself calls for comment, since Shakespeare had to have learned of the principals in the story as a schoolboy, and North’s translation of Plutarch’sLives of the Noble Grecians and Romanshad been available for twenty years (Brower, 1971, 204–38). The same theatrical season saw the completion of the highly successful tetralogy of English history plays known as the Henriad: namely,Richard II, both parts ofHenry IV, andHenry V. These history plays, which treated...

  11. 6 His Antony, Cleopatra, and Coriolanus
    (pp. 67-83)

    All of Shakespeare’s tragedies afterJulius Caesarare occupied with honor in one way or another.Hamletitself can be read coherently as a play about honor (Dodsworth, 1985). His last truly great tragedies,Antony and CleopatraandCoriolanus, were again based closely on Plutarch and, though radically different from one another in poetry and theatrical effect, afforded Shakespeare a renewed opportunity to study and portray onstage actions driven by honor.

    Both in its celebration of autonomy and in its dramatization of shame,Antony and Cleopatrais Shakespeare’s most resplendent show of honor—and rather less about love than legend...

  12. 7 Honor by That Name in Mandeville and Montesquieu
    (pp. 84-96)

    The Enlightenment looked to classical themes—ancient history, classical philosophy and literature—just as fervently as the Renaissance did. Plutarch’sLivesbecame more than an occasional source; before the commencement of the nineteenth century selectedLiveshad become common school texts. In hisConfessions(1764–70, 1:9), Jean-Jacques Rousseau tells us that he read Plutarch aloud to his father when he was just seven years old. Needless to say, Aristotle and Cicero continued to impress the philosophes, with the additional urgency that, for most, morality was now to be defended independently of the commands of God.

    For moral philosophy, however,...

  13. 8 Leveling Down in Enlightenment Fiction
    (pp. 97-113)

    It was as a law unto itself that honor came to be both celebrated and criticized in the fiction of the period. For flights of honor and triumphs over love itself, we think mainly of French neoclassical drama and heroic drama of the Restoration stage in England; but novelists also figured the word large, and for explorations of the subject, experiment, redefinition, and the extension of this motive to different classes of society, much study can profitably be devoted to prose fiction. Montesquieu maintained the importance of honor for the modern state, yet arguably the subject would never have attained...

  14. 9 Coming of Age in Neoclassical Drama
    (pp. 114-126)

    What is enlightenment? Kant’s “Answer” to this question, in an essay less direct than cogent, compared enlightenment to an individual’s emergence from minority. Since minority is the “inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another,” all children are minors until they grow up and become independent. Kant’s animus is directed against drawn-out minority that is “self-incurred,” which he puts down to “lack of resolution and courage” and even “laziness and cowardice.” At present it would seem that “only a few” people succeed, “by their own cultivation of their spirit, in extricating themselves from minority and yet...

  15. 10 And How Rousseau’s Emile Comes of Age
    (pp. 127-137)

    The fate of fathers in Rousseau is to be eclipsed by their remarkable heirs, or sidelined by other officious males who can speak more directly for the author, or both. This is so even forJulie; or, The New Heloise(1761), in which the heroine’s utterly dutiful bowing to her father’s wishes dictates the plot of five out of six parts of the novel.Julieis a long epistolary novel: to have a true voice, a character must be one of the letter writers, yet the Baron d’Étange is allotted a single epistle, of not much more than a hundred...

  16. 11 Kant’s Engagement with Honor
    (pp. 138-150)

    Honor was manifestly an important consideration in Kant’s lifetime, though he and many of his contemporaries were persuaded that the violence associated with honor in the past, and which persisted in the practice of dueling, ought if possible to be avoided. In what follows, I shall be arguing that some of what seems original or different in Kant’s moral philosophy may be traceable to conceptions of honor rather than religion or earlier philosophy. Recently, J.B. Schneewind’sThe Invention of Autonomy(1998) has given an admirable and comprehensive account of the theological as well as the philosophical traditions that paved a...

  17. 12 Parallels to Kant’s Moral Philosophy
    (pp. 151-167)

    Since I have been so rash as to name Coriolanus the most Kantian of Shakespearean heroes, let me begin by remarking some uncanny resemblances between that Roman’s thinking and Kant’s moral philosophy. “He that has but effected his good will / Hath overta’en mine act” (1.9.18–19), Coriolanus can say, and he means that sincerely, regardless of how much each individual soldier has achieved. All who have fearlessly tried their best are equal in this company. Kant’s emphasis on the moral agent’s deeds—to use the word that Renaissance writers use to bring will and act together—is similar, and...

  18. 13 Respect and Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator
    (pp. 168-182)

    Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant were almost exact contemporaries. The latter seems to have readThe Theory of Moral Sentiments(1759) shortly after its translation into German in 1770; Jean-Jacques Rousseau does not seem to have read it at all. Smith’s moral philosophy and Kant’s were quite complementary as far as honor is concerned. The Scottish philosopher did not contribute anything as near to the spirit of honor as Kant’s categorical imperative, his emphasis on the will and autonomy, and the privilege of belonging. But Smith too was a philosopher of the Enlightenment, andThe Wealth of Nations, the first...

  19. 14 Adam Smith and Recent Social Science
    (pp. 183-198)

    As its full title suggests,An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nationswas a pragmatic, searching, and at bottom empirical study of British and European society as Adam Smith was acquainted with it, a thoughtful rather than programmed account of how this society held together. Given his attention to commerce and manufacturing, banking and monetary systems as well as agriculture, there was bound to be more emphasis on class difference than inThe Theory of Moral Sentiments, which so takes for granted the homogeneity of interests among moral agents that the author could be addressing...

  20. 15 Coming to Terms with Honor in Philosophy
    (pp. 199-212)

    In his essay “The Politics of Recognition” Charles Taylor attempts to come to terms with some contradictory desiderata of multiculturalism. “With the politics of equal dignity, what is established is meant to be universally the same, an identical basket of rights and immunities; with the politics of difference, what we are asked to recognize is the unique identity of this individual or group, their distinctness from everyone else.” I accept that these anomalies are experienced by real people and are not just intellectual puzzles. But how true is the premise that two hundred and more years ago in the West...

  21. Works Cited
    (pp. 213-222)
  22. Index
    (pp. 223-228)