There’s a couple passages that struck me, while I was reading G. K. Chesterton’s All Things Considered recently:
“All injustice begins in the mind. And anomalies accustom the mind to the idea of unreason and untruth. Suppose I had by some prehistoric law the power of forcing every man in Battersea to nod his head three times before he got out of bed. The practical politicians might say that this power was a harmless anomaly; that it was not a grievance. It could do my subjects no harm; it could do me no good. The people of Battersea, they would say, might safely submit to it. But the people of Battersea could not safely submit to it, for all that. If I had nodded their heads for them for fifty years I could cut off their heads for them at the end of it with immeasurably greater ease. For there would have permanently sunk into every man’s mind the notion that it was a natural thing for me to have a fantastic and irrational power. They would have grown accustomed to insanity. For, in order that men should resist injustice, something more is necessary than that they should think injustice unpleasant. They must think injustice absurd; above all, they must think it startling. They must retain the violence of a virgin astonishment.”
And here’s the other:
“Before we congratulate ourselves upon the absence of certain faults from our nation or society, we ought to ask ourselves why it is that these faults are absent. Are we without the fault because we have the opposite virtue? Or are we without the fault because we have the opposite fault? It is a good thing assuredly, to be innocent of any excess; but let us be sure that we are not innocent of excess merely by being guilty of defect.”
Now, the first passage talks about injustice, and we’ve been talking about honor over the last few weeks.
Just so, and I think the second passage is the bridge for us there. I’ve posited many times in the past that virtue exists as a golden mean on a continuum between two equal and opposite vices. Nor can I take credit for this idea; it’s fundamentally Aristotelean in origin. And I posed the question last week: if shame is one of the anti-virtues opposing honor, what then is the other one?
Well, nobody offered an answer, so I’ll put forth my own.
When we talk about honor, when we analyze what it means to have honor, we really need to be asking ourselves whether we have honor because we lack shame, or whether we are mistaking the opposite fault for honor instead.
Definition of shameless
- having no shame about things generally considered unacceptable : insensible to disgrace, a shameless braggart
- showing lack of shame : the shameless exploitation of the natives
Which brings us back to the example of Battersea. In order practice honor, it’s not simply enough to be cognizant of the existence of shame, and to strive to avoid it. We must also be cognizant of being shameless, and strive to avoid it as well. Honor rests between the two, and in some ways is the manifestation of the healthy practice of the two. Honor isn’t simply about countering shame with braggadocio, or about countering shamelessness with crushing guilt; rather, it’s about refusing both vices in the proper ways. It’s about admitting fault and even regret when it is warranted, and about acknowledging praise when it is rightly given.
And to keep on the path of honor, we’re required to have not just an informed understanding of its opposite vices, but also look on them as being more than just things which are unpleasant or to be avoided. We need to understand them in the fullness of their absurdity; we must understand why it’s no less insane to be consumed by shame over a misdeed than it is to be a shameless braggart about same.
Trinsic (Positive) from the Ultima 9 Soundtrack