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 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 the 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? – are these 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. 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, backwardness. But having used terror to wrest political power and then destroy the old society, the new order could never be quite legitimate. Life did get better and easier for a lot of people as a result of massive industrialisation. However, 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, I came to believe that an economic-political system that could not feed its people would not last much longer. I was concerned, and said so to some of the more ideologically inclined tutors, that they were not preparing us for the moment after the 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 organisation provided by the communist government disappeared. Thus, however defective the practice, in principle, the regime proposed that fundamentally, noblesse oblige, and privileges had to be earned and justified. 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. 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 student of global politics have complicated my perspective. I am more aware now of the range of experiences of honour, historically, and across the globe. At one end of spectrum, the emphasis is on a seeming dissolution of all standards, cultural relativism, post-modern insouciance and wry acceptance that the dominance of neo-liberalism means that the time of social responsibility has gone. For instance, for Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, 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’. In Yours for the asking, a play from 1973 by the Spanish playwright Ana Diosdado, Celia, an employee at a women’s magazine explains in frustration at the 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, honour is felt as a matter of life and death. In her essay on honour killings, “A piece of white silk”, in the London Review of Books, Jacqueline Rose shows compellingly how, in certain cultures, honour, that of a family or a man, and obedience to it 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, but 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 a shameful thing. The birth of a daughter may prompt the cutting down of a tree, while that of a son is welcomed by planting a tree.
Honour is mentioned twice in Toni Morrison’s Desdemona. 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 and the opera seeks to move us to a place where honour no longer has a role to play.
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 has the ring of a mere slogan wrest from the welter of difficult personal emotions: a youth coming of age in a disintegrating family. Instead, it is an ineradicable element of human destiny, unlucky chance that finally, fatefully, tips the balance and turns an unconscionable stabbing into actual murder.
Kwame Appiah also emphasises 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. Such changes may be seen as moral revolutions, as with the abandonment of practices such as duelling, slavery or the biding 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 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 the World War I is the choice of the youngest daughter of the aristocratic family, Sybil, to marry the family chauffeur. The union appears unnatural both to her family and to their servants. And yet, the dynamic does 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 argue, 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.