Friday, September 13, 2013

Eugen Weber on "The Ups and Downs of Honor"

Eugen Weber was a professor of modern European history at UCLA.  This past week, Brad DeLong, directed us to Weber's utterly fascinating essay published in The American Scholar back in 1999, on The Ups and Downs of Honor.  

The essay makes fascinating background reading for Syria, protestations of Obama's "fecklessness", or the daily evidence of shortage, in general, of integrity and honor in our Congress.  It's a fascinating look at the honor of thieves, honor among the high, the low, the mythic, the real:
The oldest poem in our Western tradition opens with a quarrel about honor. The Greeks, who have spent several years besieging Troy, take time off to sack a neighboring city. From the plunder, a girl, the daughter of the priest of Apollo, has been allocated to the Greek commander, Agamemnon, king of kings. When the girl's father comes to plead for her return, Agamemnon refuses the rich ransom he offers. So Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks, and Agamemnon is forced to hand her over. To save face, he confiscates another captive maiden who has been bestowed upon Achilles, the greatest fighter among the Greeks. Achilles has a big ego and a quick temper, but he cannot resist, because Agamemnon can call on more men than he can. So he does the next best thing: he drops out of the siege and goes to sulk, while the rest of the Greeks get walloped.

Many have read the book or seen the movie, but few have fathomed that the function of this tragedy, as of many others, is to glorify and heroicize ugly motives and ugly deeds. If we look at it afresh, without the respect due to a classic, we will discover that the Iliad, chapter 1, presents two gang-leading thugs, Achilles and Agamemnon, facing each other down, trading threats and insults over loot and women, and that the whole poem turns on plunder and pride and the sport of killing.

Similar sentiments move another heroic figure, Roland--a reckless young fool who accepts combat at odds of ten to one; who refuses to call for help when only reinforcements can prevent annihilation; who sacrifices his men, his friends, and himself; and who endangers the interests of his lord and country in order to satisfy an ideal that even his best friend does not accept. Yet Roland's values were widely admired for centuries. It was of Roland that the minstrel sang to the troops of William the Conqueror before the Battle of Hastings, and it was to Roland that the Crusaders looked for inspiration, as did Pizarro's men in Peru as late as the early sixteenth century. 
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And, after picking on my namesake, he picks on my profession:  
The legal profession, for example, which had been much concerned with the nobility of its calling, found other fish to fry. In 1908, the American Bar Association's Canons of Professional Ethics had bound lawyers to use only "fair and honorable means." In 1969, the ABA junked the Canons because it was "designed for an earlier era" and full of "quaint expressions of the past." One of the quaint expressions that it dropped was "honor." Perhaps the ABA had assimilated the spirit of Emerson's sally: "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."
When it comes to drawing conclusions, Weber does not shy away.  There is nothing like the long view of a historian to sober us up about what's at stake ....
The period during which a few Western societies managed to persuade themselves that their security was assured as long as law and order were guaranteed by that idealized monopolist of violence--the state--has proved brief. What is coming back is the original, violent, practical model that a lot of reasonable, law-abiding people had come to consider as obsolete as chastity. These days, over growing patches of what had slowly, painfully, precariously become a civilized world, older and more primitive conditions are returning. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold"; the authority of what we call authorities is questioned or ignored; bodies and institutions that are supposed to secure security contribute to insecurity--either by failing to act or, in countries where corruption is prevalent, by effectively erasing the line between criminals and police.
That is where, that is when, the codes and the mentality of old-fashioned honor re-emerge to dictate principles of conduct. Retaliation looks more effective than reprieve. Experience teaches that if you give way, more people push you. The logic of violence is crude but simple: violent reaction against transgression deters others who might follow suit. And there's little evidence that litigation affords a better chance of justice or satisfaction than forceful direct action does.
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We are back in the realm of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Roland, a realm of small communities and face-to-face relations in hostile surroundings, where men prey and plunder as much for prestige as for material gain, where bands of young warriors like those that Tacitus described in ancient Germania--gangs held together by interest in booty, hope of fame, and fear of shame--gather around a leader selected or self-selected for enterprise and ferocity. Material conditions, appropriate ideological codes, and shortage of alternatives explained it then and explain it now.
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Yeats wrote this after the First World War and during the Irish civil war, but his words apply to other darkling ages when other barbarian gangs destabilized decaying civilizations; and they apply as well to the centuries of convalescence from chaos, when expedients were being turned into rules once more to create the norms that we were brought up to think of as normal. The rules are seeping out again, aggression is reasserting itself as the better part of valor, and a new kind of honor that looks disturbingly like the old kind of honor is seeping back in.
Read the whole thing, it's well worth the time.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps venality, corruption, disingenuousness, and "situational ethics" work better in society than integrity and honor. Integrity comes from a belief that somehow one has the"correct" answers and as someone who once espoused very radical beliefs, I can tell you that I wasn't always right.
    The US/Russia smoke screen on Syria is a "gentleman's agreement" of duplicity and may not be a bad thing.

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