Untimely Observations

More on Honor...

To supplement this ongoing discussion on the topic of honor, I'd like to share this paragraph concerning 14th Century ideas about honor. It refers to an excellent treatise on chivalry, written by the accomplished knight Geoffroi de Charny. (More on him shortly...)

Honor to a modern person may mean a rather general sense of being a decent man or woman -- keeping one's word, never cheating. Indeed, chivalry conveys this quality (under the label of loyalty) in the Middle Ages. Then -- and throughout much of early history, however -- honor obviously conveys a much more assertive and even prickly sense. Honor is best won at someone else's expense through force; it is the fruit of a highly physical process. The great deeds to which Charny regularly refers involve edged weaponry. He is not, of course, praising men of mere brutality, nor berserkers wiping foam from their quaking lips. Such characteristics would scarely form the man of worth he upholds as the ideal. Yet we would equally miss the point if we imagined prowess as a purely mental or emotional quality, operating in a world unstained by blood, sweat and tears. The increasing physicality of combat, the muscular energy and the rising bodily risks entailed in joust, tourney and war are precisely what Charny values.

-- Richard W. Kaeuper, "Historical Introduction" from A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry, by Geoffroi de Charny

Here, again, honor is found in a balance between the brutal and the moral, the ethical, the civilized. The modern, gender-neutral, egalitarian usage of honor is ahistorical and essentially meaningless. This feel-good, universally attainable "honor," loosed from the metaphor of manly endeavor and combat, becomes a vague sense of positive feelings and associations -- an Oprah-ism, a completely subjective "warm fuzzy."

The word honor is used because people like the sound of it, because its history makes it sound impressive and gives it a certain cachet. Anyone who endures hardship with dignity, who conducts themselves pleasantly, who is honest, who has integrity, who does good deeds...can now be likened to a triumphant warrior in shining armour.

Cultural honor can emcompass a great deal, and the concept of honor evolves in every culture, but it can't include everything anyone subjectively deems "good." Why even use the word at all, if it refers to something wise and knowing moderns find distasteful?