Today the mention of the word “honor” probably brings one thing most readily to mind—dueling. To Americans, the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr is probably the most famous, followed by Andrew Jackson’s duel over his wife’s reputation. Duels were fought over honor, or so the story goes. And honor itself is an outdated concept, a relic of times when women were expected to wave handkerchiefs at knights riding off to battle.
But the word honor actually has two different definitions. And the earlier one may encourage us to look more kindly on the days of those kerchief-waving women. Aristotle offers a definition in Rhetoric: “Honor is the token of a man’s being famous for doing good.” Honor is about reputation, about being respected by other people. Of course, Aristotle is by no means saying that good conduct is not important. Good conduct, or at least conduct that your countrymen perceive as good, is the key to honor. But your good conduct must be seen.
And what are the results of honor? According to Aristotle, they include “sacrifices; commemoration, in verse or prose; privileges; grants of land; front seats at civic celebrations….” And so on. Do good, and someone may write a poem about you. That is the pagan ideal of honor—not the ideal of image-obsessed pagans, but of those who were serious-minded citizens.
To choose King Arthur as the opponent to Aristotle may seem unfair—to King Arthur. But Aristotle’s high paganism needs, perhaps, something a little less high and rational to effectively counter it. And the Arthurian legends, while not irrational, do not exactly adhere to the form of a proper syllogism or enthymeme. Knights are required to do some things and forbidden to do others on a seemingly arbitrary basis. They are expected to adhere to an extremely high code of morals. And they spend very little concern over improving their reputations.
Multiple knights confess to shameful deeds that no one else need have known about. When Sir Gareth comes to Camelot, rather than claim his privileges as a nobleman and the brother of Sir Gawain, he works in the kitchen and refuses to tell anyone his real name. Gawain himself marries what he believes to be an ugly hag in order to keep his word, although it horrifies the other nobles. And the list goes on.
In the Arthurian legends, honor is not reputation; it is character. Aristotle separated honor and virtue, although he recommended both. But to the people who passed down the stories of King Arthur, honor and virtue had become one.
As anyone who studies medieval history knows, there were few kings who lived up to this ideal. Yet it was an ideal. Christianity had truly changed European culture. Even today we are not immune from its effects. There are very few people today who would start a discussion on reputation the way Aristotle did—by saying that reputation is what other people think of you. It is, of course. But, says Christianity, it is not worth pursuing for its own sake.
I’m inclined to doubt the notion that duels were fought mostly over honor of the second definition. Did people fight over reputation? Yes; Andrew Jackson did. But those duels cannot be fairly blamed on people who read too much King Arthur. Hamilton and Burr were not going off on an Arthurian adventure. They were fighting about who-insulted-whom. And that, whether according to Aristotle or King Arthur, is not honor.