21 March 2011

The mark of a dishonorable person

A preoccupation with honor reveals a wish to make society something noble, touched by the divine. 
A nation could transfer to the aristocracy the charge to bring honor to the people and to lead the community in the ways of God's will. To accomplish that, society entrusts in its class of nobles and royals and priests and ministers the right to make law and to pass law and to take law into their own hands. A desire for collective nobility entrusts the law into those who would steward that nobility. The law, in such a system, serves nobility and divinity. 
The measure of nobility is glory. So honor is less about fame and reputation and more about nobility and some sort of correspondence with divinity. 
Honor is the stuff of our collective dreams. The cultural meaning of electoral rivalry and economic competition is the honor that comes with prevailing in trial by combat. 
The modern-day conservative movement has taken the sport and the honor out of both electoral and competitive jousting by tilting the playing field and shifting the rules of the game in their favor. Electoral duels should be won by the rival with the most heart, not with the best skills in skewing the rules in their favor. That's the problem with the use of steroids in professional sports. It masks the element of courage and of nobility of character behind chemical enhancements that in effect alter the rules of the game. A sense of fair play is the measure of one's virtue. 
"To tilt the playing field for the sake of winning at all costs is to sully one's conscience before sullying one's honor, which, according to Montaigne, is the mark of a dishonorable person." (Honor: A History, James Bowman, 2006; page 63). 
In Romeo and Juliet Tybalt is a professional duellist who wins trials of honor not with an excess of heart but with an excess of skill. That play is about the excesses of honor in the too-ready willingness to duel to decide honorifics. Trial by combat is thus undermined by too mcuh professionalism, which takes the sport out of the game. 
Trial by fire is still a valid test. The Cheney administration's failure to win the war in Iraq or to protect the homeland from the after-effects of Katrina supports the notion that their electoral victories were not cleanly won. 
Shakespeare modernized the matter of honor in his time. We want such a one in our time, but it won't be Samuel Beckett. 

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