What Was the Overarching Sociological and Philosophical Purpose Behind the Stoic-Christian Honor Code?
All honor codes are created to motivate society’s members towards behavior that the group believes will fulfill its needs and ensure its health, happiness, and security. It accomplishes this by shaming individuals who don’t meet the code’s standards, and rewarding those who do, giving special amounts of praise and privileges to those who don’t just keep the code, but excel it.
In Victorian society, unlike in the primitive honor cultures we have discussed previously, raw survival was no longer the most pressing need. And justice – carried out in primitive times in a reflexive, eye-for-an-eye fashion — was increasingly administered by professional law enforcement and legal systems.
Thus, with those very basic needs taken care of, Victorian society turned to a higher aspiration for their honor code: progress – both moral and material. For the Victorians, the two types of progress went hand in hand. They believed that just as they had used human intelligence to channel the powers of steam and electricity, and had engineered ways to master their physical environment, so too could each individual harness his latent powers in order to master himself. Each man could morally progress as far as he determined to go.
Personal progress and material progress fed each other in a loop. As Altick puts it, “The well-being of society was derived from the spiritual health of its individual members.” In other words, Victorians believed that the more that individuals lived the virtues outlined above, the better and stronger the whole society would become. Conversely, each man who slipped into immorality played a role in sapping the whole nation’s strength (some even considered moral laxity treason during times of war). Men were motivated to follow the code to attain the status of a respectable gentleman, to avoid being shamed and maintain the opportunities open only to those with an honorable reputation. The more he excelled at the code, and the more he cultivated ambition, industry, discipline, and so on, the higher a gentleman rose in the ranks of society and the more status he gained. And the more men strove for status, the greater the economic and technological progress society experienced as a whole. Just as in the primitive tribe, but now with a new set of traits, what was good for the individual man was good for the group as a whole.
Was Stoic-Christian Honor a Public or Private Honor?
In the previous posts in this series, we talked about how the decline in traditional honor is rooted in its shift from being external and public to inner and private in nature. Traditional honor was based solely on your having a reputation worthy of respect and admiration in a group of equal peers, while inner honor is judged only by the man (and perhaps God) himself.
Despite Stoic-Christian honor’s addition of many other character traits and moral virtues to the simple primal standards of strength, courage, and mastery (and it was an addition, not a replacement – courage was still part of the honor code for a Victorian man), the Victorian honor code remained largely public in nature. Remember the definition from Julian Pitt-Rivers I shared in the first post: “Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride.” While the claim to pride for a Victorian gentleman rested on moral virtues rather than physical prowess, the process was the same for him as it was for primitive man – it began with an inner claim to excellence, but that claim had to then be recognized by one’s peers. You couldn’t act like a scalawag, and say you were a gentleman – no one else would recognize your claim to that title. Others watched and judged your behavior, and middle and upper class men, at least of a little eminence, had a public reputation. A slip in morality or the breaking of decorum could bring public shame, and ostracization from social and professional circles.
Boys in both private and public schools were taught to be gentlemen, and the older boys supervised and checked the behavior of the younger. According to Sally Mitchell, these peer mentors learned “to give orders in a way that would not arouse resentment and to internalize a sense of responsibility.” In the athletic arena, young men dedicated themselves to the concepts of teamwork and “fair play,” and upbraided those who violated the code of sportsmanship.
However, there was a shift to a greater emphasis on one’s personal conscience during the Victorian period. The Victorians simply picked up what the Renaissance thinkers had begun in championing the importance of sincerity — it wasn’t enough to simply act like a good man, you had to actually be a good man deep down. A man who achieved this congruence of outer behavior and inner virtue, adherents to the Stoic-Christian honor code argued, not only earned the approbation of others but enjoyed the satisfaction of a free and clear conscience. A Victorian man needed to get in touch with his conscience more than his predecessors, because increased geographic mobility and travel meant that, unlike his primal brethren, he had a good chance of finding himself outside his honor group and among strangers – or with no supervision at all. For a Victorian gentleman, this was a great test of one’s honor – would you keep your word and maintain your standards when no one was watching? (Contrast this standard with the advice that traditional honor-ist Thomas Jefferson gave to his nephew decades prior to “ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”)
The popular adoption of university honor codes during this period perfectly encapsulates the tension between private and public honor for the Victorians. University honor codes celebrated the ideal that simply by giving one’s word of honor, a student could be trusted to do the right thing – academically or otherwise – even when someone wasn’t looking over his shoulder. Yet, at the same time, some of these codes made it a provision of honor that if a student saw a fellow student cheating or otherwise doing something dishonest, he was obligated to turn him in – sometimes even tolerance of a violation was considered a violation itself. We moderns who have entirely lost the concept of public reputation and judgment, have questioned whether turning someone else in is truly honorable (and some students at the time grappled with this question too). I would personally posit that the provision made in some honor codes, such as that of the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy, which allows the observer of the violation to confront the accused without formally reporting him, aligns with the principles of traditional honor to a greater extent.
Oftentimes, when a modern man thinks about honor, his mind turns to the ideals of honesty and integrity, duels (we’ll get to those next time), university honor codes, “women and children first,” and a well-mannered, Stoic uprightness. What they think of, in other words, is the honor code of the Victorian Era. Stoic-Christian honor is still indelibly imprinted on our cultural consciousness for several reasons. First, the Victorian era represented the birth of the modern mindset, and its honor code developed in response to technological, sociological, and economical factors that are still with us today; the effort to deal the seemingly fast and ever-changing pace of life, the consequences of anonymity, and the pursuit of personal progress and professional goals still resonates with our own sensibilities. Second, the Victorian era represented the last manifestation of honor as a societal culture, not simply as a private concept. Third, many of the ideals of the Stoic-Christian honor code continue to have deep appeal (and often pop up here on AoM), the reasons for which I will discuss in the final post in this series.
Though the Victorian code had much to recommend it, it did not last – stumbling into the 20th century and finally expiring after the First World War. Although the stereotype of ridiculously repressed and prudish Victorians paints far too narrow a view of a much more diverse group, in overzealous hands, the honor code did indeed become priggish and austere – focused only on the don’ts rather than moderation and positive virtues. It was used by some more as a stick of judgment with which to swat others, than a personal yardstick for one’s own behavior. There was enormous pressure to conform to the code, and as the celebration of individualism – of following one’s own convictions and desires — increased in the 20th century, and shame became a negative, the Stoic-Christian honor code would be tossed aside as far too constraining.
Further, despite the (at least marginally) coherent picture we have tried to describe here, the Stoic-Christian honor code was never universally adopted by all men. Born of the middle class, while it had an enormous influence on Western societies that extended both to the upper and lower classes, its penetration to the latter was minimal. For the urban working class, honor still resembled the primal variety, with disputes settled with fists and status based on physical prowess and strength. And even those in the middle and upper classes struggled to reconcile what felt like a very manly urge to be aggressive and rowdy, with the ideal of being a refined and restrained gentleman, who was above such things.
This struggle between competing ideas of manly honor is vividly illuminated against the backdrop of the diverging societies and values of the American North and South. And so that is where we will turn next time. Then we tackle the evolution of honor in the wars of the 20th century, followed by the decline of honor during the countercultural movement and its modern state. I think. Maybe even all this week, so we can actually have time for working on other posts, and showering. Maybe. I assure you that the rest of the posts in this series will be shorter and pithier, so I hope you will continue on with us.
We shall leave you with a piece from a Victorian poet, Robert Nicoll, that couldn’t better sum up his contemporaries’ views of honor:
“I ask not for his lineage,
I ask not for his name;
If manliness be in his heart,
He noble birth may claim.
I care not though of world’s wealth
But slender be his part,
If yes you answer when I ask,
‘Hath he a true-man’s heart?’
I ask not from what land he came,
Nor where his youth was nursed;
If pure the spring, it matters not
The spot from whence it burst.
The palace or the hovel
Where first his life began,
I seek not of; but answer this—
‘Is he an honest man?’
Nay, blush not now; what matters it
Where first he drew his breath?
A manger was the cradle-bed
Of Him of Nazareth.
Be nought, be any, everything,
I care not what you be,
If yes you answer, when I ask
‘Art thou pure, true, and free?”