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An essay by George William Curtis


Title:     Honor
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

These are very precious words of Lovelace:

"I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honor more."

And Francis First's message to his mother after Pavia, "All is lost but honor," is in the same key. Yet honor has been as much travestied as liberty, and the crimes committed in its name are as many. Falstaff's is a sharp antistrophe: "What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air." But for that whiff of air how many noble lives have been sacrificed!

Alexander Hamilton knew his own time, and he decided that his refusal of Burr's challenge would be regarded as cowardly, and destroy his prestige and influence. We may say that a morally greater man would nevertheless have dared to refuse it, but we must also consider that Hamilton knew the popular estimate of his own standard of life, and would naturally test his conduct by that standard. He was a soldier and a man of the world of the eighteenth century. Dr. Nott, the echoes of whose famous sermon on Hamilton's death still linger in tradition, might have declined to fight and been justified. He was a clergyman, and popular feeling excused him from resorting to the field of honor. But it is very doubtful if it would have excused Hamilton.

He might have urged that Burr had no right to make his demand. But Hamilton knew that he had spoken most strongly of Burr, and he knew that Burr knew it. He thought Burr an unprincipled and dangerous fellow, and he said so plainly. But there was the familiar preface to Hamilton's explanation of the charges against him as Secretary of the Treasury. Could he take the lofty height of moral principle? Or could he stand upon the technical punctilio of the duel? His honor, by which he meant the consistency of his life and the standards that he acknowledged, seemed to him to allow him no alternative, and he was slain by the necessity of what is unquestionably a false sense of honor.

A man's honor, in the sense that we may attribute to the lines of Lovelace, is his most precious possession. But it is something which is wholly in his own keeping, and is not at the mercy or whim of another. He can soil it, but except himself the whole world cannot smirch it. If a man had told Dr. Channing that he lied, or had dashed a glass of wine in his face, the honor of Dr. Channing would still have remained unsullied, not because he was a minister, but because of a reason which is equally applicable to all other men--because of his moral rectitude and courage. That a ribald tongue railed at him for lying when he had spoken the truth could not affect him except with pity or wonder. Even if the charge were true and he had told a lie, he would, indeed, have soiled his own honor, but the railer would not have touched it.

This view assumes that honor is something else than notoriety, which in turn is something very different from fame or character. Notoriety is current familiarity with a man's name, which is given by much mention of it arising from any kind of conduct. Reputation is favorable notoriety as distinguished from fame, which is permanent approval of great deeds or noble thoughts by the best intelligence of mankind. But honor is absolutely individual and personal. It is conscious and willing loyalty to the highest inward leading. It is that quality which cannot be insulted. This is the sublime instinct of which Lovelace sings. I could not so much love thee, Lucasta, purest of the pure, if I did not love purity more. Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed magis amica veritas.

The ordinary talk about honor is a parody of this spiritual loyalty. A man seizes another by the nose at a public table, or he slaps his face in the street, or he tells him in the sacred precincts of the club that he lies, or he posts him as a coward, or he insults his wife or daughter--such a man invites summary retaliation, and he generally gets it. But there is no question of honor involved. "Suppose your nose pulled at the opera," said a gentleman at the club, discussing the ethics of honor--"your nose, you know," he said, with horror, and unconsciously holding his own forward--"what could be a more unspeakable insult?" "Yes," answered his protagonist; "but does a man carry his honor in his nose?" Nature has provided instincts and weapons for the defence of our noses. But she has not made the nose the citadel of honor, nor has she left honor at the mercy of a sot who may choose to drench it with wine.

There was a quarrel the other day between two men, one of whom had said that the way in which the other had done something was not the way of a gentleman; the other replied that he would not stand being called ungentlemanly. There was a closing and grappling, and then one whipped out a pistol and began firing at the other, who took to the street, and most naturally but inconsiderately dodged behind innocent citizens in the street to avoid the bullets. The pursuer fired as opportunity served, while the pursued dashed into a hotel to borrow a pistol to return the broadside. Stanley might have seen such a performance in the Mmjumbo regions on the shores of Lake Nyanza or the banks of the Zambesi, but what had it to do with honor? Is that what Lovelace loved more than Lucasta? Is that what King Francis--more's the pity if this were the thing--did not lose at Pavia!

Our honor is solely in our own keeping. To have your nose pulled is not to be dishonored, but so to behave that it deserves pulling. But, Alcibiades of the clubs, remember that it is not the pulling which makes the dishonor.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

And Cassius also says what bears a very different interpretation from that which he designed:

"Well, honor is the subject of my story.
I cannot tell what you and other men
Think of this life; but, for my single self,
I had as lief not be, as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself."

Fear of yourself, fear of your own rebuke, fear of betraying your consciousness of your duty and not doing it--that is the fear which Lovelace loved better than Lucasta; that is the fear which Francis, having done his duty, saved, and justly called it honor.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Honor