What is an honourable life?[*]
Asking a question is not the same, of course, as having the answer. Still, if it is true what they say, that half of the answer is already in the question, I would like to pause to try to understand what this half answer might be.
So what is an honourable life? How is honour understood and how is it brought into one’s life? Is this a question about how one chooses one’s values? How one honours them? Or how one is seen to be honouring them by some authority or group? And if I formulate these concerns in personal terms – what is the honourable life for me? what are my values? how do I honour them? – would these be more honest or simply more solipsistic questions?
There are marked differences, in the possibility and interest for such questions, between where I was born and where I have come to live. Starting life in communist Romania, in the 1970s, my social universe was wholly permeated by ethical and moral concerns. The regime claimed that its raison d’être was to correct a series of fundamental wrongs – exploitation, inequality, poverty, and backwardness. Moreover, one could have no higher purpose than helping to achieve such goals for all. And indeed, life did get better and easier for a lot of people as a result of massive industrialisation and urbanization. But having used terror to wrest political power and then destroy the old society, the new order could never be quite legitimate. Simplified assumptions about right and wrong, the closure of the public space for individual expression were hindering, rather than bringing about the promised communist utopia.
By the time I took up my hard won place at the University of Bucharest, in 1988, the grip of communist parties on their societies in Eastern Europe was beginning to slip. I also came to believe that an economic-political system that could not feed its people could not last much longer. I was concerned, and said so to some of my ideologically inclined tutors, that they were not preparing us to lead after the regime’s collapse. I had absorbed the expectation that had been set up for us by the regime itself that as highly educated elites, we had a responsibility to provide direction – informed and capable direction. And this would be even more important once the façade of order and organization provided by the communist government disappeared.
However defective the practice, the regime aimed to inculcate in us the belief that fundamentally, noblesse oblige, and privileges had to be earned and justified. Ironically, submitting the regime to this test seemed to provide its most conclusive condemnation: such were the corruption of its officials, the abuses of its bureaucracy and the distortions and waste in the economy, it deserved to be removed. But I thought that for my generation, born after the terror of the 1950s and 1960s, the generation for whom all the sacrifices had been made, it was important to try to find a better notion of the greater good.
Postgraduate education and professional life in the UK, becoming an immigrant and a scholar of global business and politics have complicated my perspective. Inevitably, I am more aware now of the range of experiences of honour, historically, and across the globe. At one end of spectrum, we seem to witness a seeming dissolution of standards, cultural relativism, post-modern insouciance and wry acceptance that the dominance of neo-liberalism has brought the end of social responsibility as we knew it. For instance, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello document how the new spirit of capitalism has eroded social ties to the extent that the poor can only get poorer, as ‘those who do not gamble lose all the time, even more assuredly that those who do’.
The sentiment is echoed in many cultural productions. To take just one example, in Yours for the asking, a play from 1973, staged recently by the Orange Tree Theatre in London, the Spanish playwright Ana Diosdado points out the dispiriting consequence of the loss of autonomy and control by most workers, through the character of Celia. An employee at a women’s magazine, Celia articulates in frustration the cynical result of lack of power in the face of corporate interests: ‘Since we don’t have any honour, we might as well cover our behinds.’
At the other extreme, in quite other regions of our global, simultaneous, heterogeneous world, honour can be felt as a matter of life and death. In her essay on honour killings, “A piece of white silk”, in London Review of Books, Jacqueline Rose shows compellingly how, in certain cultures, the honour of a family or a man can be valued more than a human life. Killing a woman to end talk of her supposed disgraceful or shameful acts is meant to honour the perpetrator, a father or a brother, even though in fact language and the possibility of slander never stop being a source of fear. A woman’s duty is to carry the honour of her family in her body, and she is expected to be chaste, obedient and faithful at all costs, even as she is told that being a woman is in itself a shameful thing. These are the places where the birth of a daughter may be greeted by cutting down a tree, while that of a son is welcomed by planting one.
In her recent novel, Honour, Elif Shafak imagines the trajectory of a family across generations, space and culture, from a village near the River Eupharates in 1945 to contemporary London. When the murder of the mother by her son, for supposed infidelity, occurs, the reference to honour to justify it is given the ring of a presumption and ready stereotype. In the world of the novel, rather than the fanaticism of a Muslim young man, it is that ineradicable element of human destiny, unlucky chance, that finally, fatefully, tips the balance and turns an unconscionable stabbing into actual murder. Perhaps optimistically, Shafak implies that this is a version of a universal story about difficult personal emotions: a youth coming of age in a disintegrating family.
Grappling with Shakespeare and Othello, Toni Morrison’s Desdemona mentions the word honour twice and it has a pivotal role. Brought back to life in the world of spirits, centuries after the consummation of her Shakespearean fate, in Morrison’s telling Desdemona understands young Othello’s need to exchange a life of wild and barbarous struggle for survival for the honourable pursuit of military valour in the service of the state. Here honour dignifies and at the same time hardens violence. For our times, however, Desdemona, and the opera, seek to move us to a place where honour no longer has a role to play.
Kwame Appiah, in his book The Honour Code, explores the ambiguities and the dynamic potential in the idea of honour. He suggests that attachments to particular understandings of what is honourable can loosen up. These changes may be seen as moral revolutions, as with the abandonment of practices such as duelling, slavery or the binding of women’s feet in China. Holding oneself to a certain code of honour may be a positive constant, a source of personal and collective resilience, while the content of the code itself ought to evolve.
A subplot in the popular costume drama Downton Abbey illustrates how this might occur. Towards the end of the second series, among the many upheavals in the wake of World War I is the choice of the youngest daughter of the aristocratic family, Lady Sybil Crawley, to marry the family chauffeur. The union appears unnatural both to her family and to their servants. And yet, the feelings do shift, when, in a private conversation with the patriarch, the young suitor finally articulates the nub of the matter. His reproach, the reproach that breaks the resistance is that “You think you have a monopoly on honour”. In effect, he seems to suggest, while some might behave as though honour is natural only to them, no human being could justifiably be excluded from the circle of honourable people, if dignity and self-respect is what they aspire to and live by.
[*] Configurations of political economy provide the context in which cultural understandings of self-worth, self-respect, and personal honour can evolve, of course. I am grateful to Simon Marriott (1970 – 2015), Director and Founder of the Society for Curious Thought, for his interest in these reflections and for his kind editorial help. I republish this piece here in his memory.