Monday, October 02, 2006

A Question of Honor

Sir Jason contributes this excellent posting....

Max: The Aunchless happend peacefully...lets at least
be grateful for that.

Captain von Trapp: Grateful!...You know Max sometimes

I don't think I know you.
(The Sound of Music)

It didn't matter either way. There was no possible way the Austrians could have resisted. In a way he may have agreed with Max. Max spoke with reason, as it is called and the Captain would hardly have wished ill on his neighbors. Yet there was another part of him, the "von" part, the old school aristocrat, that would have rather Austria be turned into a battle-stricken ruin then have it submit meekly. It may not have meant a thing but at least it would have made a point.

How do I know this? Because that's exactly how I would have felt. And I'm not even a "von". What is it that makes us think this way? What makes us so often desire to do the opposite of what is materially speaking the logical thing to do? Among animals there is no worry about this-once the big dog has proven he is bigger the little dog pays homage and neither seems to think it odd.

Among humans it is not so. The very act of submitting to a bully is considered dishonorable. The Austrian decision may have been more morally correct. Yet the Austrians were despised. By contrast the Finns who still had a fierce and old-fashioned sense of nationalism did resist the Russians. They have more respect. The fortune of war was in Finland's favor-barely. Specifically they killed so many Russians that the Russians decided Finland wasn't
worth the bother. Yet they could not calculate that they could do so. They fought on instinct. And for once instinct was right. But it had no reason to expect to be so.

Another example is the Zionists. Aaron Wolf, while he was in the IDF, said that one of the chief motivations of recruits was to elaborately demonstrate (not in so many words) that "your girlfriend lives only a few miles from here". What was not said was that they could ship all their girlfriends to America. Which brings a second unspoken motive: that Jews had taken it for long enough and a boyfriend that would leave his girlfriends protection to "goyim" may not be worth having. And a girlfriend who hadn't enough loyalty to Israel to stay might not be worth having either. In other words, they were fighting at least in part-perhaps a large part- for honor. They may not have admitted it, but that was what they were doing.

Defining honor is difficult. It is not the same as morality. Though the demands of each are similar enough that it is possible to be moral and honorable at the same time (more or less each way) they are different. Honor has to do with status. Yet it is not quite the same as pride. It is invisible and we often don't know we are motivated by it. Perhaps the best definition might be that it is a given groups "psychological police force". Like the state's police it can pose a danger of tyranny, but it also at other times prevents us from being more evil then we might be. The state's police always has physical force as it's ultimate insurance. Honor works against the malefactors self-esteem. One might condemn this as unchristian. Indeed it is-it calls pride to fight against other sins. On the other hand it also provides a less ponderous enforcement mechanism. Which is one of the more obvious paradoxes of this phenomenon. And James Bowman, the writer of
Honor: A History, explores this thing called honor, this thing that makes us admire the foolhardy Finns, and sneer at the sensible Austrians, or grieve over them as Captain von Trapp did. It is a book that deserves reading.

Honor takes many forms. Schoolboy honor(thou shalt not snitch, thou shalt protect your little brother, thou shalt not seem desirous of the favor of Authority), criminal honor(thou shalt not betray the family even if thou art the brother of Michael Coreleone). Arabs constantly talk of western/Zionist "Imperialism" even though history and present behavior would tend to
indicate that they are hardly ones to talk. What the Arabs really mean of course is, "We lost the last war and are real steamed about it". However if their PR people say that to westerners it would be embarrassing.

And despite all the official reasons given for the "War on Terror" the one not given is, "teach them a lesson"(though it is obvious enough a reason to be supported by a good many Americans). However some elements remain the same. Unchastity in a woman is unforgiveable and so is cowardice in a man. Islamists are extreme and exotic in their demands in this regard. The ideal of chastity sometimes has no relation to actual behavior. One woman in Pakistan who had been raped pleaded on the basis of Islamic law to the Imam-and found sympathy. She found no sympathy in her own tribe which considered her a stain. If they had assassinated the perpetrators it would have looked to Western eyes like frontier justice-it is the fact that no claims of justice are recognized at all that seems and in fact is odd. The same goes with the concept of "courage" which can mean "blow up little Esther and run when big brother, Yoni comes." Of course terrorists see western military honor, which is compatible with accepting immeasurable superiority of force-but not compatible with harming those traditionally considered noncombatants as being odd. Which hardly means we are wrong and they are right-or even that we are both wrong. It does mean that we have
different ways of seeing things.

All these permutations are wonders to behold. But James Bowman discusses at length what might be called "hippie honor", which makes it dishonorable to care about ones honor. Though of course as it is expressed by telling one another how stupid others who do care about honor are, one might wonder if they have just invented a new and less culturally productive form of
honor.

And there is the relationship between Christianity and honor. Originally the ideal of the West's ruling classes was not all that much different from that of Michael Coreleone. However it gradually was forced to modify itself until it became something different from what it was. It became more and more like to morality until the differences could be forgotten. But the
difference remained. The fact is that we should not care about our status as Christians but only care to honor God. On the other hand one might argue that that change still retains some elements of the old honor code-it may be undignified to be a slave, but it is not undignified to be a faithful vassal. Nontheless the only honor we have is what God gives us. And it
seems that God does not like us to think of ourselves in this way either. I like to think of myself as God's vassal-but it is embarrassingly often that we are told that we are, "sheep". Sheep are happy animals, they do no sin and have no care. But they also have no honor and not desire for it. I would prefer "hound dog"-but sheep!

But human societies are human and pride will always be a part of them. Whether it is better for people's souls to take pride in being virtuous it is better for society. If there is no honor, there remains only virtue and force. Virtue is never available to any in complete form, and even in partial form is to much to expect. Honor, which has caused much suffering is at the same time necessary for are survival. But what honor code will it be?

Finally, honor, though it can be a distraction from morality, can also lead to it. Someone who is taught by honor to do acts that please those whom he respects, can learn to do them for their own sake. Which is another paradox. James Bowman discusses these topics. Whether you finally agree with his conclusions or not, the book is worth the read.

15 comments:

  1. What makes us so often desire to do the opposite of what is materially speaking the logical thing to do?

    Our sense of honor is certainly very strong, extremely strong in some. One of my favorite movies is Zulu, the Hollywood version of one of Great Britain's most famous battles, Rorke's Drift. One watching the movie for the first time, and unfamiliar with the story, may well wonder (as I did) why the Brits chose to stay and fight for a isolated, unimportant way station in the face of overwhelming odds, when it would have been much more "logical" to pack it up and git while the gittin' was good.

    Honor. The result was one of Great Britain's favorite battles, hundreds dead, and not a thing settled. But honor had been upheld, glorfied, in fact. And this story has been repeated countless times in human affairs, and not just in battle, as Sir Jason so brilliantly illustrates.

    Can the results of this preoccupation with honor be why pride is usually listed as the first and worst of the seven deadly sins? Can it be why humility is at the core of all of the teachings of our Christ?

    Sir Chuck

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  2. Of course pride though it is a factor may not be the only factor. Another concept what might be called "brotherhood" is also there. The desire to please ones fellows must be suppressed sometimes but is not in itself bad. More thoughts on a complex topic. I may have more later

    Sir Jason

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  3. To be fair, at Rorke's Drift, retreating was arguably more dangerous then fighting-it might have been more difficult to keep pursuit away and march at the same time and there would have been vulnerable places in the formation. If they stood where they were there was no place they could be caught off guard.
    Pride in the theological sense, and honor are closely related. However as I said there are other attributes to it. Honor is also about fraternity, "We are men, thou and I", as is said in King Soloman's Mines. Like a formal fraternity an informal one needs obscure rules to provide a mystique. The honor code provides this. Pride in it's raw form is about status and status alone. It probably is the main cause of human strife. Not every one who thinks about honor thinks in those terms though. What they often think about primarily is "measuring up"-to be able to say "we are men thou and I". In a sense they are "courting" honor like a woman-and many people find it more pleasant to pursue honor then morality. Which is one reason there are more honorable people then saintly.
    However if honor is not exactly pride, it is certainly not humility. One of the hardest commandments to obey is "turn the other cheek". However this is less because of anger then because of unwillingness to accept a reduction of status. It is not are desire that the one who strikes us be repaid, so much as the desire that we should redeem ourselves by being the collector.
    Collective honor is different from individual honor in a way because for a group it can be the same as self-defense and we are not commanded to turn other peoples cheeks. Thus a ruler's jealousy of his country's honor is not necessarily bad. In our modern times facinated with polysylabic globodygook as a sign of importance we call it "maintaining a detterant". Similarly a husband and father should be to some degree jealous of the honor of his family, a big brother should protect a little brother and so on.
    However all these things are very easy to take to excess and often are. Stateing the exact line is difficult but the more blatant versions are obvious and unfortunatly quite common. And of course being to jealous gives suspicion of having good reason to worry about ones honor. A braggart is dishonorable as well as immoral at least in the West(not all honor codes are like that-remember Baghdad Bob anyone?).
    A commentator on the book at Amazon defined honor as natural assertiveness regulated and channeled. In our natural state we would drag women off with a club on our shoulder, no doubt saying,"Ugh, what's in your wallet?" However the code of honor commands us to open doors for ladies.
    I think the proper attitude to honor for a Christian should always be ambiguous. Doing good for the sake of a reward, even such an amiable reward as the approval of comrades, can never be as good as doing good for it's own sake. However a lesser good can still be a good. However some of the things honor demands are definitely not good. We are not to avenge ourselves, and avengeing others is presumptuous except on rare occasions. The line between innocent desire to be liked and respected, and prideful vanity is thin. Honor can be a supporter of a Christian-like other earthly desires. However like them it can be a stumbling block. A good name is a gift from the Lord. At the same time worrying to much about our good name is wrong.

    Sir Jason the honorable, glorious, chivalrous, well-spoken of, and humble

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  4. Can the results of this preoccupation with honor be why pride is usually listed as the first and worst of the seven deadly sins? Can it be why humility is at the core of all of the teachings of our Christ?
    ______________________________

    Sir Chuck brings up an important point. That certainly is at least one reason.

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  5. Another example is the Zionists. Aaron Wolf, while he was in the IDF, said that one of the chief motivations of recruits was to elaborately demonstrate (not in so many words) that "your girlfriend lives only a few miles from here".
    ________________________
    Specifically they showed maps of what the hypothetical borders of Israel would be if Israel had lost instead of won. Obvious but effective.

    Sir Jason

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  6. James Bowman in fact does wonder whether honor and Christianity are compatible and is more pessimistic about that then I am.
    However I notice that the elements of our society that remember honor best are also the ones that remember religion best-note southerners, appalachians,latinos.
    I would say that honor is an earthly ideal and like many such is sometimes in alliance with and sometimes in opposition to Christianity. The Jane Austen-Horatio Hornblower type of honor is more compatible with Christianity then most honor codes(compare the mafia code, and the warlord code) and remanants of that still exist.
    The best example of that relation is in details. A Christian would agree that it is a good habit to open doors for ladies and leave good tips. If he was challenged to a duel he should refuse and accept the ridicule*.


    *When Alexander Hamilton was challenged by Aaron Burr he said he intended to deliberatly miss but he felt awkward about not appearing at all. Of course he did miss and the less "repressed" Burr did not.

    Sir Jason

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  7. In any case honor plays a role which the law is to clumsy to play. Take what is called "sexual harrassment". In old times it was simply known as "insulting a lady" and it was known exactly how far it could be taken instinctively-something the law can't really get.
    One of the main disadvantages in those days was that injustice could be done if the perpetrator was stronger then the victim's reliatives-if the victim was a slave or servant for instance. However injustice is also done by the present system's clumsiness. Which I suppose shows that nothing is perfect in human affairs.
    It is worth thinking about whether it is a healthy thing for society for the claims on a persons duties to be simplified. It is obviously intolerable for the state to be the only hold-especially if without religion, or honor(preferably both)the state becomes increasingly percieved as the biggest protection racket. That these many claims are often contradictory can force him to think and provides balance. In Islam religion, law, and honor are almost if not quite the same thing. In Communism and Naziism the state is theoretically all. In Germany interestingly enough the most prominent anti-nazis were often "vons" who of course knew that Hitler was not only evil but vulgar. By contrast the lower classes supported the Nazis and the middling sort had their security to worry about(having a prickly middle class is a luxury of geography).

    Sir Jason

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  8. re: Hamilton and Burr -

    Yeah, that's the problem with human "codes of honor." Honor to one is stupidity to another.

    James Bowman in fact does wonder whether honor and Christianity are compatible and is more pessimistic about that then I am.

    Biblical references to honor usually are related to humility, not pride. The more humble one is, the more they should be honored. Certain references that relate honor to warcraft have negative connotations:
    "Saul has slain his thousands, David his tens of thousands." The honor extended to David by the masses only resulted in the escalation of animosity of Saul to David.

    I couldn't even find honor acclaimed to Joshua, only to the things God had worked through him. The problem with the modern sense of honor is that it claims God's credit for man. Thus,
    one could make the argument that only God is worthy of honor...Wait, that's a praise song, isn't it?

    Sir Chuck, not at all worthy of honor

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  9. Honor as pride is certainly intolerable. I don't think it is wrong to be pleased at others respect-necessarily.
    The Bible does say in several places to honor human figures "your father and mother", "kings and all who are in authority".
    In any case honor whether it is ever compatible with Christianity is ambiguous like all earthly things and while less evil in any case, that can sometimes make it a greater temptation at the times when it is a temptation for it is then more attractive.

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  10. A good way to put it is that I don't think it is impossible to be both a gentleman and a Christian. But sooner or later one has to give place.

    Sir Jason

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  11. There is also the negative point that pride goes both ways. You won't find many saints at the officers mess of the Queens own xyz's but you will also find few pharisees. It is better to be righteous then to be honorable but better to be honorable then to think oneself righteous.

    Sir Jason

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  12. As I said I think honor is about pride to some extent. But it is at least as much about brotherhood. A really prideful man-to reach for a stereo type a mad artist who takes every momment to scorn the community standards-including the artistic ones, for no particular reason then to display his scorn, is a far different person then one who habitually follows the claims of honor.*
    Moreover honor, like "the Law", can be a schoolmaster. I first got a glimpse of what "love thy enemy" meant by reading about Hornblower dining with French Captains, and Yankee and Johney trading good natured insults and exchanging coffee for tobacco. Of course the servant of a rival cause is not really your "enemy" necessarily but only your opponent. However it gave a glimps into something. It also showed how to handle disaggreement in an appropriate manner-as I told sir chuck in the tale of Lt Genishta
    and the von Lutkens.

    Sir Jason the Christian who still appreciates what can be learned from a gentleman


    *One can get like that about honor as well as with Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai. On the other hand Nicholson had kept his men alive and healthy all this time, and if he went mad in the end he had enough excuse seeing as he had been a Japanese prisoner for two years. One might note that the antiheroic protagonist may have said,"you and Nicholson are of a kind-all you care about is how to die like a gentleman when what really matters is how to live like a human being." However he was a detestable person who seldom knew how to do either.

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  13. Thanks for the excellent thoughts on honor, Sir Jason. You've given me another topic to consider...watch for the follow-up post "A Matter of Honor".

    Sir Chuck

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  14. Honor and morality both overlap and diverge-sometimes in complicated ways. For instance giving a great feast is a very honorable thing to do. It also can show love for ones fellow man. However ministering to lepers shows more love. In some codes welching on gambling debts is worse then welching on business debts. Morally both are welching and the second is at least less foolishly gained. And one of the chief flaws of the honor code is occupational snobbery. That is the glorification of one occupation(OK so far) and the despising of others. Specifically it was once felt that any occupations but war, civil service, clergy, and estate management were unworthy. And the efficiency of these occupations was hindered by a second flaw* which is romanticism of technique, and hostility to change. The last flaw is less acute in Westerners then in many.
    Yet I must point out again that honor-while not humility-is not quite the same as raw pride. It also includes loyalty to others and sometimes a romantic desire to be honorable for the pleasure it gives. Another way to express honor is in noting a phenomenon which many psychologists and the general consensus of laymen are aware of. Men express friendship through competition which is a very complicated paradox and hard to understand. Honor is one of the venues in which they compete. In fact it is a formalization of that competition. Thus it does not require pride to want to be honorable-simply humanity. However one can become proud of his honor*. Just as in the same way one can be proud of his athletic prowess without invalidating sports.

    *pride is a troublesome word. In the theological sense it is always sin However, it can actually mean patriotism or something like it. If you say you are proud of your country/school/regiment/family/whatever
    can mean you are an insufferable snob. Or it could mean that one loves and respects the above and paradoxically is humble before them. And even if you are literally proud of that, you are at least less far gone then if you are proud of your dear little self. But categorising can obscure the fact that such things are usually mixed. Usually when you say you are proud of your whatever you mean some mixture of both.

    Sir Jason the Thoughtful

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  15. And despite all the official reasons given for the "War on Terror" the one not given is, "teach them a lesson"(though it is obvious enough a reason to be supported by a good many Americans). However some elements remain the same. Unchastity in a woman is unforgiveable and so is cowardice in a man. Islamists are extreme and exotic in their demands in this regard. The ideal of chastity sometimes has no relation to actual behavior. One woman in Pakistan who had been raped pleaded on the basis of Islamic law to the Imam-and found sympathy. She found no sympathy in her own tribe which considered her a stain. If they had assassinated the perpetrators it would have looked to Western eyes like frontier justice-it is the fact that no claims of justice are recognized at all that seems and in fact is odd
    ______________________________
    According to an essay in the CIA archives the difference is that tribe was looking on honor as a commodity-not as a "code of honor".
    Wealth, power, and sometimes survival can be determined by reputation in places like that. In the West only the state is required by circumstance to think in those terms and an efficiant state is taken for granted. No tribe needs a "blood-avenger" for instance because that is the state's job and it's right to rule is dependant on it.
    In countries without an efficiant state those sorts of duties are perhaps necessarily usurped by local chieftains.
    This brings some understanding of some odd customs. "Blood money"(compensation for a homicide in goods-wergild in anglo-saxon)seems crass until one realizes that the point is not the money but the infringement. If a chief lets a rival tribe get away with it he hasn't protected his people properly, and if he strikes back violently it will cause a blood-feud so "wergild" is the compromise.
    This also explains some traits I have sometimes thought distasteful in Arabs-boasting before battle, whining in defeat, assuming their own right to violence, and denying the rivals right to respond. The reason is that the pressure of pride is far more intense. In the West it is considered cowardly and dishonest to not admit one's flaws to oneself(as well as inefficiant as this is a good way to lose the next war-or baseball game), and unchivalrous to prey on the weak or deny respect to an enemy who accepts these same values. In countries like that it is more important to maintain a fearsome reputation. In point of fact the Western inhuman cold-bloodedness is often more frightening then emotional boastfulness and in fact the Arabs may unconsciously agree in that point. But "custom is king of all", as someone or other says.
    The contrast is of course not a monolith and in any case the CIA report seemed more then a little patronizing. Westerners and Arabs often behave in a manner appropriate to that attributed to the other.
    However the basic point is that in many countries honor is as much a commodity as a "code of honor".In the West only governments and criminals are forced to think like that for survival reasons.
    This also explains some of the political turmoil in the west. If citizens don't understand Arabs, a lot of them don't even understand the position of their own government.
    All this presents Arabs as rather distasteful and barbaric people. Well of course they are sometimes. So to even things out I will say that they have long been enterprising traders and explorers over land and sea, and have built great civilizations. At the momment they are at rather a downturn, but so goes life.

    Sir Jason


    Sir Jason

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