(Roughly) Daily

“Regard your good name as the richest jewel you can possibly possess”*…

 

Argument over a Card Game by Jan Steen

Before people had an image, they had their honour. For much of history, little was more valuable than individual honour. ‘Better to die 10,000 deaths than wound my honour,’ as a character in Joseph Addison’s Cato, A Tragedy (1712) put it. In his bestselling Of Domesticall Duties (1622), William Gouge declared: “a good name is a most pretious thing.”

Despite the persistence of the word and a loosely related idea, the concept of honour, as earlier eras understood it, is so foreign to moderns that it can be hard to grasp. A stereotyped account holds that in early modern England a man’s honour was associated with a willingness to use violence to defend his name, while for women honour was about the maintenance of a proper sexual reputation.

But this is a very thin and misleading idea of honour in early modern England. Personal letters and diaries of elites indeed reveal a preoccupation with honour, a sense of its almost inestimable value. They also reveal that honour wasn’t just about violence among elite men or sexual propriety among elite women. Honour concerned one’s whole person. Likewise, it was less a static, overarching code of behaviour than a loosely defined concept with an array of meanings that could be variously privileged, one over another, with fluidity depending upon the needs and objectives of an individual in a given situation…

On the complicated business of living an honorable life: “The early moderns had their work cut out curating their honour.”

See also: “Ye of ‘Bad Faith’.”

* Socrates

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As we wax nostalgic for a time when honor mattered most, we might send conflicted birthday greetings to a man whose life illustrated the early modern to modern transition from honor to image; Fritz Haber was born on this date in 1868.  The recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for his invention of the Haber–Bosch process, a method used in industry to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas– thus enabling the production of more, more affordable, and more effective fertilizers, which in turn allowed millions to avoid starvation– Haber is equally well known as the Father of Chemical Warfare for his pioneering work developing and weaponizing chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I, especially his actions during the Second Battle of Ypres.

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Written by LW

December 9, 2017 at 1:01 am

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