Monday, February 19, 2007

Honor in Western Civilization

In our last post we discussed honor in Arab culture. A few brief remarks on the notion of honor in Western culture makes for an interesting contrast.

The dynamic of honor and shame originates in the tribal need to bind the individual to the group’s norms; it dominates in more primitive orders but still has a subsidiary role in all societies. In Ancient Sparta, a warrior was expected to return from a battle either with his shield or on his shield – implying that victory or death were the only honorable options. Fleeing a battle was a shameful act punished by ostracism, banishment, or even death.

For the Greeks, honor was purposeful; it had survival value for the individual or the group to which one’s fortune was bound. Honor in the Ancient sense meant honors bestowed by others. The Greek word, timê, means “the good opinion of others and the display of it in prizes, awards, and political offices.” [Joe Sachs p206] This concept excludes an individual’s personal honor resulting from the act of fidelity to one's ethical norms. Sachs notes that for the Greeks “the word honor always implies something external … it is called the greatest of external goods” by Aristotle. [1123b]

In the ethical systems of Plato and Aristotle, honor (the esteem of others) wasn’t the highest good . Aristotle argues [Book1:5] that honor fails the test of ultimate good: “it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something proper to a man and not easily taken from him.” This is accord to the modern sense that ethics and integrity are internal; fame, approval, and popularity are positive but can not substitute for the cultivation of one’s own character.

Aristotle describes in detail the nature of a self-respect, proper pride, and noble character of the “great souled” or “magnanimous” man – inadequate English translations of the Ancient Greek term megalopsuchia. This Ross translation [Book4:3] uses the word pride for a proper self-opinion of an honorable man in the sense of personal self-worth, self-esteem, and “greatness in every virtue.” Aristotle faults those who seek honor for the wrong reasons or take pride in the wrong matters or accepting honors without being worthy. For Aristotle the “great soul” is self-sufficient in character.

What did Aristotle think of shame? “Shame should not be described as a virtue; for it is more like a feeling than a state of character. It is defined, at any rate, as a kind of fear of dishonor, and produces an effect similar to that produced by fear of danger. … The feeling is not becoming to every age, but only to youth. For we think young people should be prone to the feeling of shame because they live by feeling and therefore commit many errors, but are restrained by shame; and we praise young people who are prone to this feeling, but an older person no one would praise for being prone to the sense of disgrace, since we think he should not do anything that need cause this sense.” [Book4:9]

The primitive honor/shame dynamic is replaced by an ethical worldview centered on the cultivation of individual character. The self-sufficient character of virtue, self-realization, and proper moral pride is not driven by the fear of dishonor that drives primitive tribal societies. The Hellenic philosophic outlook brings man to a level of moral maturity appropriate to a great civilization. This is our heritage.