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In the first sustained comparative analysis of this elusive notion, Frank Stewart writes that none of these ideas is correct. Drawing on information about Western ideas of honor from sources as diverse as medieval Arthurian romances, Spanish dramas of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the writings of German jurists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and comparing the European ideas with the ideas of a non-Western society—the Bedouin—Stewart argues that honor must be understood as a right, basically a right to respect. He shows that by understanding honor this way, we can resolve some of the paradoxes that have long troubled scholars, and can make sense of certain institutions (for instance the medieval European pledge of honor) that have not hitherto been properly understood.
Offering a powerful new way to understand this complex notion, Honor has important implications not only for the social sciences but also for the whole history of European sensibility.
If we are to judge by the citations to be found in the works of the anthropologists, there is not a great deal to read about honor. Julian Pitt-Rivers, "perhaps the leading authority on honor," writes that before the social sciences recognized the existence of honor in the mid-1960s, "the little that was published on this subject was limited to studies of the history of the concept in literature and some tendentious articles in encyclopedias"; and there is nothing in the work of his colleagues that would indicate otherwise. But is it really so?
Even if we confine ourselves to the literature in European languages, the answer is clearly no. It does not matter, perhaps, that Pitt-Rivers makes no mention of the philosophical work on the subject, for most of it is not very distinguished. And he can be forgiven for ignoring the compositions of the Italian honor theorists of the sixteenth century, which he may view as outdated. But there is also an immense juristic literature on honor, and to overlook this is inexcusable, not only because it is so voluminous, but also because it is so good. Indeed, the most intensive and sophisticated discussion of honor in any European language is probably to be found in the writings of the German lawyers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Yet though far more work has been done on honor than the anthropologists seem to realize, it would be wrong to pretend that the subject is in anything but a primitive state of development. The analytic literature on honor (apart from the work of the jurists) is limited and mostly unimpressive, while the descriptive studies, though often very good, cover only a small part of the ground. The history of honor has not been traced in any detail for even one of the major languages, or the major countries, of Europe; the subject lies in a vast twilight, broken only by a few bright, but narrow, beams of light.
In these circumstances it is not surprising that comparative work on honor has scarcely begun. We know, for instance, that 'face' is important in China, and we are told that "honor (meiyo; literally 'glory of the name') [is] a fundamental concept which has regulated Japanese society in various ways since ancient times." But little has been done to bring such East Asian notions into a clear relationship with the more familiar ideas of Western Asia and of Europe. And there is an even more obvious deficiency in the anthropological literature. A large part of it, both ethnographic and theoretical, deals with honor among the peoples of southern Europe; but anthropologists have not made any serious attempt to compare southern European honor with honor among the peoples of northern Europe, even though honor was of great importance in the Germanic world and is the subject of an extensive literature. My ignorance of the relevant languages has prevented me from reading the Far Eastern sources, but in what follows I shall make some use of that part of the northern European literature that is written in English or in German.
Modern descriptive studies of honor can be divided into two classes, the field studies and the armchair studies. Field studies are those based on information that the author collected at first hand from the subjects; the rest are armchair studies. In principle both approaches can be used in a single work, but in practice there is little overlap between the two types. The armchair studies are almost always based on texts produced by the people whose concept of honor is under investigation: medieval Spanish laws, French Arthurian epics, Icelandic sagas, treatises on ethics from the Spain of Phillip 11, seventeenth-century English dramas, eighteenth-century court martial records, or whatever. These studies usually allow us a high degree of control over the author's work; provided that the original texts survive, we can, if we are ready to take the trouble, distinguish clearly between the author's ideas and those of the subjects as they appear in the texts. Almost all armchair studies give exact references to their sources, and many of them also quote those sources extensively.
Field studies can also employ texts produced by the subjects: Tore Nordenstam, for instance, in his book Sudanese Ethics (1968), bases his discussion of honor on interviews (in English) with Sudanese Arab students. These interviews were recorded on tape, transcribed, and published in his book. Like all texts, these have their limitations and must be treated critically; but they allow us at least to hear the voice of the Sudanese themselves, even if they are speaking to a foreigner in a foreign language.
Nordenstam is a philosopher, not an anthropologist. Anthropologists usually go about their work in a very different way. When they produce descriptive studies of honor, they deal mostly in generalizations, and tend to present their conclusions without giving any very clear idea of the evidence from which they were derived. Verbatim quotations from the subjects, in the subjects' own language, are few, and examples of honor in action-for honor is a matter of deeds, not just of words-are no more common. Pitt-Rivers' descriptive work on honor in an Andalusian village is an early example of this method; his approach was adopted later by many others. One of the main drawbacks of this method is that it makes it difficult or even impossible to distinguish between the author's own ideas and those of his subjects.
In general it is evident, despite their discreet silence on the subject, that the field studies are based on rather small amounts of information, and the difference in this respect between them and the more extensive of the armchair studies can hardly be exaggerated. Barber 1957, perhaps the most remarkable of all the armchair studies, is based on analyses of over five thousand occurrences of the noun 'honor' in the English drama of the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century; and while this is an exceptionally large body of material, works such as Farès 1932, Gehl 1937, and Robreau 1981 deal at least with hundreds of examples. The armchair studies also on occasion deal with large quantities of case material: one scholar analyzed about a thousand disputes involving honor that were tried between the sixteenth and the nineteenth century in the Basque province of Vizcaya, while another dealt with some 340 prosecutions for insult in the district of Andernach (West Germany) during the years 1950-60.
It is perhaps worth thinking for a moment about what would be involved in a reasonably thorough descriptive study of the notion of honor in our own society. I suppose we would expect its author to understand all the subtleties of the English language, to make extensive use of written materials (notably newspapers and popular fiction), to monitor radio and television broadcasts, to distribute questionnaires, and to record what people say when they talk (preferably not only in interviews) about honor. An anthropologist working in an alien culture is, of course, limited in many ways; but we should beware of lowering our standards simply because the culture being described is not our own. We may have to be content, faute de mieux, with superficial or dubious information, but we should at least not delude ourselves into believing that it is adequate or reliable.
This essay, to the extent that it is descriptive, is a field study, or rather a preliminary report on a field study. Bedouin honor is a complex topic, and not every aspect of it is discussed here. I hope to deal with the subject more fully in a two-volume account of Sinai Bedouin law currently in preparation. In that same work there will also be an account of how the data were collected. It is intended that all the materials on which this ethnographic work is based-field notes, tape recordings, genealogies, census records and so on-will eventually be made available to those who wish to consult them. Some of what is asserted in the present essay can already be checked against a body of texts produced by the Bedouin themselves and published in Stewart 1988-90. In that same book will be found references to a few other texts that were published in articles.
Most descriptive studies of honor-whether the author worked in an armchair or in the field-can be classed as either lexical or conceptual. The lexical approach is to study the use of one or more words in the language of the people whose notions of honor are being investigated. Barber (1957) confines himself to a single noun, but most authors, like Hu (1944), Herzfeld (1980), Robreau (1981), and Martin (1984), investigate a small number of closely related terms. The conceptual approach is to start from some general idea of what honor is, and then to examine its particular features in a certain society. Gehl 1937, Jones 1959, and Abu-Lughod 1986 are examples of this method. Now the author of a lexical study may claim with some plausibility that her work can be done without worrying too much about the notion of honor in general. But when the author of a conceptual study fails to offer a definition of "this most elusive of social concepts," then the result is apt to be a certain lack of focus. It may not be clear why some things count as honor and others do not, why certain things are grouped together and others excluded from the grouping. Neither Gehl nor Jones explains what he means by honor, and the work of the latter in particular suffers as a result. Abu-Lughod, in contrast, does offer something like a definition, if not of 'honor, at any rate of 'code of honor: She writes that "the ideals or moral virtues of Bedouin society together constitute what I refer to as the Bedouin code of honor." But this in turn raises new questions; for instance, do the ideals or moral virtues of every society constitute a code of honor, or is there something special about Bedouin ideals or moral virtues that makes them a code of honor? And if there is, what is it?
In the descriptive part of this book I shall use a mainly lexical approach; but since this is primarily a comparative (or analytic) study, I begin with a sketch-and it will soon be evident that it is no more than a sketch-of a concept of honor that can be applied cross-culturally.
Chapter Two The Nature of Honor
When an anthropologist or historian identifies something in a non-Western society as honor, the meaning is simply that the thing so identified is more or less the same as what is called 'honor' in ordinary English (or Ehre in ordinary German, or chest' in ordinary Russian, etc.). In other words, the common Western notion of honor is applied cross-culturally. I believe that this practice is not misconceived; for instance, as I have already indicated, I think that scholars have been justified in translating the Arabic word 'ird as 'honor: But the Western notion of honor has never been analyzed in a satisfactory fashion, so that when we say, for instance, that 'ird means 'honor, it is still far from clear exactly what 'ird is. I therefore begin with a brief analysis of the Western concept of honor, or at any rate of part of it. Since honor no longer plays much part in our thinking, I shall draw my illustrative material mostly from the past. But the past in question is fairly recent, and its ideas about honor are quite familiar to us.
Most of us, I suspect, feel that a single thing is being referred to in such phrases as the following: "men and women [...] with high standards of honor and duty" "an attack of outraged honour," "under the obligation of honour," and "we have satisfied our honour." I believe that a single underlying idea is indeed involved in all these cases. But this is a case that needs to be argued. For certainly when one looks at the way the word 'honor' is used, one finds it referring to things apparently quite different from each other. Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples from the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The first one comes from The Naval Treaty. A copy of a secret treaty between England and Italy is stolen from the desk of Percy Phelps, an official at the Foreign Office. He says, "I turn to you Mr. Holmes, as absolutely my last hope. If you fail me, then my honour as well as my position are forever forfeited." Subsequently, something occurs which leads Phelps to suspect that an attempt may have been made on his life. He says to Holmes, "I begin to believe that I am the unconscious centre of some monstrous conspiracy, and that my life is aimed at as well as my honour." Towards the end of the tale, when Holmes has recovered the lost document, Phelps says to him, "You have saved my honour."
Why is Phelps's honor in danger? There is little in the story to suggest that he may be suspected of having acted dishonestly, but the circumstances under which the theft occurred were such that an accusation of negligence against Phelps would not be entirely absurd. It seems that if the document is not recovered, then he will be seen as having betrayed a trust in that he was negligent when it was his duty to act with the utmost care. But even if he was negligent, his having been so does not entail the loss of his honor: for if he was negligent, then he was negligent irrespective of whether the treaty is recovered. What determines whether Phelps retains his honor is evidently not what kind of person he is, or what he did or failed to do. The honor that Phelps fears that he will lose is something outside himself, something, it might seem, in the attitude of others towards him, or in what they believe about him.
Consider now another Holmes story, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs. A reclusive old man, Mr. Nathan Garrideb, is visited by an American who represents himself as one John Garrideb, a person Nathan has never heard of. The American relates an extraordinary tale to the old man, the essence of which is that if the two of them can find a third person by the name of Garrideb, then they will all three share in a large fortune. Nathan writes to Holmes seeking his help. The American-who is of course a crook-learns of this and, much perturbed, himself goes to see Holmes, evidently in order to find out what Holmes intends to do. Later the same day Holmes visits Nathan, and the following dialogue occurs (the first speaker is Holmes, the second Nathan):
"Did he [the American] tell you of our interview today?"
"Yes, he came straight back to me. He had been very angry."
"Why should he be angry?"
"He seemed to think it was some reflection on his honour. But he was quite cheerful again when he returned."
What the American seemed to think was a reflection on his honor was the letter that the old man wrote to Holmes. The American at first feared that Nathan was suspicious of his story and had asked Holmes to investigate it. In the interview with the American, Holmes had indicated to him that this was not in fact the case, that Nathan had merely asked him to track down a third Garrideb, and so the American was quite cheerful when he returned to Nathan.
The kind of honor referred to here looks quite different from Phelps's honor. Phelps's honor lay outside Phelps, it seemed to be something to do with how others viewed him. The American's honor, in contrast, is closely tied to him; apparently it is something like his integrity or his veracity or his moral character. Just how intimately this kind of honor is identified with its bearer can be seen from another passage in the story. During their interview, the American tells Holmes that he feels bad about the fact that Nathan got in touch with Holmes. In response, Holmes reassures the American about the contents of Nathan's letter. He says, "There was no reflection upon you." This evidently means much the same as if Holmes had said, "There was no reflection upon your honour."
Excerpted from Honor by Frank Henderson Stewart Copyright © 1994 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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