The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


The honor of the world can give you no honor. - THEODOR FONTANE.

We have seen that the Renaissance and Baroque "honor-dramas" of Italy, Spain, France, and England were primarily concerned with "objective" honor and that Germany contributed little to this tradition. Germany's first notable honor-drama was not a tragedy involving the loss of one's good name, but rather a comedy dis­cussing the relative value of personal and public honor. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a leader of the Enlightenment in Germany, wrote his Minna von Barnhelm soon after the Seven Year's War, which ended in 1763. Its hero, Major von Tellheim, has been dismissed from the Prussian army at the close of the war with suspicions cast at his previous conduct. During the war he had been stationed in the conquered province of Saxony, where he won the respect and affection of the occupied populace by his leniency in exacting contributions. He not only exacted the least amount permitted him but even advanced a large sum of his own money to mitigate the collections. However, at the close of the war his leniency is attributed to bribery, and the Prussian authorities refuse to return the funds he has advanced.

Feeling his honor impugned, Tellheim thinks he has no right to claim his fiancée, a beautiful Saxon heiress whose heart and hand he won through the nobility of his character and conduct during the occupation. When he fails to write her after the war, the fiancée, Minna von Barnhelm, comes to Berlin to look for him; and by chance she stops at the very hotel where he has been lodging. Preferring a solvent guest, the avaricious host removes Tellheim's belongings to a less desirable room and lets his suite to the young lady. As the play opens, Tellheim's man of all work, Just, is cursing the host for evicting such an honorable man.

And an honorable man Tellheim is, in every sense of the word, as several people in the play attest. The meaning of ehrlich is some­what clarified by the fact that he is elsewhere called brav and edel and is included in the term honnête-homme. It is further clarified by being attributed to Tellheim's former sergeant-major, Werner, who is elsewhere called "excellent" (vortrefflich) and who shows many of the admirable character traits shown by Tellheim. Werner uses the word in saying that, if they were "honorable fellows and good Christians", they would go fight the Turks; and the host uses the word in assuring Minna that he has acquired Tellheim's ring in the most honorable manner. Riccault de la Marlinière, a rather question­able French adventurer, states that his fellow gamblers are "honor­able people" (ehrlike Leut), but apparently he is referring to the proverbial honor among thieves.1 In any case, it is clear that Lessing uses the word ehrlich to mean socially and morally respectable, that is to say honnête, as the French translation of 1772 consistently renders it.

Tellheim's nobility of soul is revealed not only by what the others say, but even more by his generous acts. In spite of his financial embarrassment, he has refused to touch a large sum of money entrusted to him by Werner. He also refuses to allow the widow of an old colleague to pay a debt owed him by her late husband, and he tries to convince her that her husband owed him nothing. Later he destroys the receipt and even tells Werner that the debt has been paid. He likewise refuses money from Just, whom he once supported in a hospital at his own expense. Unlike his predecessors in chivalric literature, Tellheim gives anonymously and from his scarcity, rather than from abundance. Minna reveals Tellheim's true character when she says that he is brave but never speaks of bravery and that he would never regret a good deed because of its bad consequences.2 That he is above seeking revenge is revealed when he protects the host from Just, who wants to thrash him for insulting his master.

Tellheim does not treasure his reputation for his own sake. Werner tries to persuade him to accept his money by warning that people will talk about him if he falls into debt; yet Tellheim replies that he does not care if people know he has no money. He refuses the money on the grounds that it is wrong to borrow money if you are not sure you can return it.3 In other words, Lessing indicates that Tellheim is motivated by feelings of right and wrong, not by the opinions of people.

1 Tellheim is ehrlich (Minna van Barnhelm, I, 1; II, 2; III, 12). brav (III, 5), edel (III, 12). and an honnête-homme (IV, 2). Werner is ehrlich (IV, 8) and vartrefflich (III, 4). ehrliche Kerls und gute Christen (I, 12). ehrlichste Weise (II, 2). ehrlike Leut (IV, 2).

2 "Sie sind der Mann nicht, den eine gute Tat reuen kann, weil sie üble Folgen für ihn hat" (IV, 6).

3 "Man muss nicht borgen, wenn man nicht wiederzugeben weiss" (III, 7).

Tellheim believes that one should be a soldier only in order to serve his country or a cause, even though the authorities think soldiers fight for their own glory rather than out of duty. He con­fesses to Minna that he became a soldier not only because of political principles but also because of his belief that every honorable man should test his mettle in danger; and he assures her that his only desire is to be a quiet and contented person as soon as the war is over.1 Thus, we see that Tellheim is the very paragon of an honorable man, in the Christian-Stoic sense of this term.

Nevertheless, despite his steadfastness of character, Tellheim is the victim of linguistic ambivalence. As an officer and a gentleman, he is dedicated to the ideal of honor, even though uncertain of its meaning. His own actions are motivated by an innate sense of right and charity; yet he can not escape the traditional belief that only a man with a spotless reputation has a right to court an honorable woman. In other words, his trouble is actually semantic: he uses the word Ehre in both its subjective and objective meanings, without distinguishing between the two contrary concepts.

Like other people in the play, Tellheim uses the word "honor" with objective meaning as in "to have the honor" or "to promise on my honor". In trying to explain to Minna why he cannot marry her, he reminds her that he is no longer the vital and glory-seeking (voller Ruhmbegierde) man for whom the barriers of honor and fortune were open; and in this case Ehre means fame and reputation. On the other hand, when Minna refuses to accept this argument, he sends her a letter in which he has written everything that honor commands him,2 and in this case die Ehre clearly means moral rectitude or inner conscience. Nevertheless, he immediately uses the word again in its external sense by contending that he is unworthy of her because his honor (i.e., reputation for rectitude) has been impugned.

1 "Man muss Soldat sein für sein Land oder aus Liebe zu der Sache" (III, 7).
"Die Grossen haben sich überzeugt, dass ein Soldat aus Neigung für sie ganz
wenig, aus Pflicht nicht viel mehr, aber alles seiner eignen Ehre wegen tut" (IV, 6). "dass es für jeden ehrlichen Mann gut sei, sich in diesem Staude eine Zeitlang zu versuchen, um sich mit allem, was Gefahr heisst, vertraulich zu machen und Kälte und Entschlossenheit zu lernen" (V, 9). "nun ist mein ganzer Ehrgeiz wiederum einzig und allein, ein ruhiger und zufriedener Mensch zu sein" (V, 9).

2 "die Ehre haben" (IV, 6); "auf meine Ehre" (III, 7); "voller Ruhm­begierde. .. Schranken der Ehre..." (II, 9); "was mir die Ehre befiehlt" (IV, 6).

When Minna tells Tellheim that Riccaut has brought word of his vindication, Tellheim does not believe it and avers that he will starve rather than leave the city before he receives justice.

"I don't want mercy," he says. "I want justice. My honor..."

"The honor of a man like you," Minna interrupts, alluding to his sense of integrity.

"No, my dear young lady," he answer heatedly. "You can probably judge right well about all things, but just not about this. Honor is not the voice of our conscience, not the testimony of less righteous..."

"No, no," Minna answers, to help him out of his hopeless confusion. "I understand. Honor is-honor."

"In short, young lady, - you didn't let me finish. - I wanted to say: if they insult me by holding back what is mine, if my honor does not receive the most complete satisfaction, then I cannot be yours, my lady; for I shall not be worthy of it in the eyes of the world. Fräulein van Barnhelm deserves a blameless (unbescholten) husband. It is a despicable love that does not scruple at exposing its object to contempt. He is a despicable man who is not ashamed to owe his entire fortune to a young lady whose blind affection..."1

At this point Minna interrupts his outmoded argument by turning her back; and then she returns his ring. When she has departed, Franziska, her lady's maid, tells Tellheim that Minna has lost her good name and been disowned by her rich uncle for coming to him. Now that Tellheim is rich and blameless and Minna is poor and dishonored, she refuses his renewed courtship with all the arguments that he has given her. Hearing her repeat his arguments point by point, he realizes the absurdity of his exaggerated sense of honor. When she adamantly refuses to hold him to his word now that she has lost wealth and honor, he even threatens to refuse his belated justice which people have dishonored by such an insulting suspicion. When Tellheim has finally suffered enough torment and seen his errors, Minna reveals that her misfortune was a ruse. Minna, who is motivated chiefly by love, refers to honor almost only in her parody of Tellheim's argument. On one occasion she declaims 'against men's concern for the "specter of honor".2

An English translation of Lessing's comedy appeared in 1799 with the title The School for Honor ; and that is just what it is. In addition to Minna's instruction on the true meaning of honor, there are other lectures on the subject. Franziska condescendingly asks Just why Tellheim has dismissed all of his more glamorous servants and retained only the worst one. When Just answers that perhaps he was the most ehrlich, Franziska replies that one is not much if one is merely ehrlich . Thereupon Just teaches her a lesson by telling how all the others have robbed or deserted their master or ended in prison. The valet, for example, is now enjoying great honor after stealing his master's complete wardrobe. Thus Franziska realizes that she has disparaged Ehrlichkeit too much.3

1 "Die Ehre ist nicht die Stimme unsers Gewissens, nicht das Zeugnis weniger Rechtschaffenen…" (IV, 6).

2 "Gespenst der Ehre" (IV, 6). A few verses earlier she uses the word Ehre in the sense of moral duty: "Und wenn unsere Stände die geringste Emp­findung von Ehre haben..." She uses Ehre in its objective sense, in parodying Tellheim, in Act V, Scene 9.

3 "ein ehrlicher Kerr' (III, 2); "man ist auch verzweifelt wenig, wenn man weiter nichts ist als ehrlich" (III, 2); "sich alle Ehre machen" (III, 2); "Ich setzte die Ehrlichkeit zu tief herab" (III, 3).

Franziska herself expresses a view acceptable to King Solomon but not to most of the medieval court poets, when she says that beautiful women are most beautiful when unadorned. Tellheim also expresses a view contrary to most medieval poets when he says that Minna is not one of the vain women who see in their men only their rank and dignity (Ehrenstelle); for her attitude would have been unworthy of Brunhild or Kriemhild. Whereas the noun Ehre appears most often in its objective sense, the verb schämen appears most often in a subjective sense. That is to say, it usually means to be " a shamed" rather than "shamed". Tellheim tells his colleague's widow she should not be ashamed of her misfortune; and Franziska calls Just unverschämt because of his rudeness. In parodying Tellheim Minna says it is a base creature that is not ashamed to owe her entire fortune to the blind affection of a man.l

It is to be noted that Lessing expressed no social satire, except for following dramatic tradition in having the inn-keeper an avari­cious and dishonest character. Werner calls Just a sumpter-soldier (Packknecht) when the latter suggests that the two of them thrash the host to avenge the insult to Tellheim, since the host is not capable of giving the major satisfaction. However, here it is the cavalryman's scorn for baggage personnel, not any prejudice on the part of the poet. The "dishonorable people" have been entirely forgotten; in fact Franziska, who is very much of a lady, is the daughter of a miller on Minna's estates.2

As we have seen, honors had been the wage of the soldier since the time of Aristotle. When Major Tellheim belittles this incentive, he speaks as an individual and not as a typical warrior of his time.

In fact one might say that he is speaking for his creator, Lessing, who was no man of war but a man of God, albeit a rather enlight­ened one. Although Tellheim's king, Frederick the Great, swore by Cicero's De Officiis, he still found it advisable to spur his troops onward with promise of glory and eternal fame, as at the battle of Kolin in 1757.3 About a half century later, in 1810, the Prussian dramatist Heinrich von Kleist attributed post-Kantian motives to Colonel Kottwitz, an officer serving Frederick's predecessor at the battle of Fehrbellin in 1675. Like Tellheim, this conscientious warrior denies that he is ready to shed his blood just for reward, be it money or honor,4 even though such incentive would have sufficed for his Germanic ancestors. Kleist could admire such an attitude in others; yet fame was the goal of his own life,5 which he ended because of his failure to gain recognition as a poet.

1 "Wenn wir schön sind, sind wir ungeputzt am schönsten" (II, 7); "Ehren­stelle" (V, 9); "Vor mir dürfen Sie sich Ihres Unglücks nicht schämen" (I, 6); "unverschämt" (II, 6); "Es ist eine nichtswürdige Kreatur., die sich nicht schämet..." (V, 9).

2 "Packknecht" (1,12); "Mein Vater war Müller-.." (II, 2).

3 When his guards hesitated, he called, "Ihr Racker, wollt ihr ewig leben?"

4 "Schütt ich mein Blut dir, an dem Tag der Schlacht, Für Sold, sei's Geld, sei's Ehre, in den Staub?" (Prinz von Hamburg, V, 5, vv. 1588-1589).

When Tellheim states that he wrote what honor dictated, he is using the word in a sense that this study has conveniently but arbitrarily termed "post-Kantian". That is to say, honorable acts are performed disinterestedly and purely through a desire to do the right thing. Of course it is to be noted that Lessing wrote his comedy more than twenty years before Kant formulated his "categorical imperative". Kant himself did not associate his moral imperative with the word "honor",1 but it is easy to see that succeeding gener­ations often used the word "honor" to designate a disinterested fulfillment of duty in answer to absolute moral law.

Fichte, the second great German idealist philosopher, definitely associated sense of honor and sense of duty by saying, "There is something that means more to me than anything else and to which I subordinate everything else, from the upholding of which I will not let myself be deterred by any more practical consequence, for which I would sacrifice without hesitation my entire worldly welfare, my good name, my life, the entire welfare of the universe, if it should conflict with it. I shall call it honor. I by no means place this honor in the judgment of others about my actions, even if it were the unanimous judgment of my contemporaries and of posterity, but rather in that judgment which I myself can form about them."2 By this he seems to have meant about what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Galatians. "But let each one test his own work, and thus he will have glory in himself and not in another."3

1 In a letter from St. Omer of 26 October 1803 he wrote, "Der Himmel versagt mir den Ruhm, das grösste der Glüter der Erde; ich werfe ihm, wie ein eigen­sinniges Kind, alle übrigen hin. Ich kann mich deiner Freundsehaft nicht würdig zeigen, ich kann ohne diese Freundsehaft doch nicht leben: ich stürze mich in den Tod." Cf. "I could not love thee, Dear, so much..."

2 Cf. "Die Ehre des Mannes besteht darin, was die Leute denken, des Frauen­zimmers aber, was sie sprechen" (Anthropologie, 1798, cited from Lipperheide, p.132).

3 "Es gibt etwas, das mir über alles gilt, und dem ich alles andere nachsetze, von dessen Behauptung ich mich durch keine mögliehere Folge abhalten lasse, für das ich mein ganzes irdisches Wohl, meinen guten Ruf, mein Leben, das ganze Wohl des Weltalls, wenn es damit in Streit kommen könnte, ohne Bedenken aufopfern würde. Ich will es Ehre nennen. Diese Ehre setze ich keineswegs in das Urtheil anderer über meine Handlungen, und wenn es das einstimmige Urtheil meines Zeitalters und der Nachwelt sein könnte, sondern in dasjenige, das ich selbst über sie fallen kann" (I. H. Fichte, I.G . Fichtes Leben und literarischer Briefwechsel, Leipzig, 1862, II, p. 45).

4 "Opus autem suum probet unusquisque, et sic in semetipso tantum gloriam habebit et non in altero" (Galatians, 6, 4).

For all its pompous verbosity, Fichte's definition, which appeared in 1795, well illustrated the ideal accepted by the following century. Bismark followed this tradition in 1881 by saying, "My honor stands in no one's hand but my own, no one can heap it on me. My own honor, which I carry in my heart, suffices me fully, and no one is judge of it and no one can decide whether or not I have any."1

However, this egocentric definition of honor was by no means new, having enjoyed uninterrupted continuity since Cicero asked whether one should do something expedient but wrong if it would remain unknown to the Gods and men.2 St. Paul described such inner­-directed pagans with the words: "When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them."3 In the sixth century St. Martin of Braga, following Seneca, expressed Cicero's view by saying that it does not matter if no one else sees the acts of your mind and body, since you yourself see them.4

Even Martin Luther, despite his theocentric orientation, was not averse to extolling a disinterested love of virtue, "If you ask a chaste man why he is chaste, he should say, not on account of heaven or hell, and not on account of honor and disgrace, but solely because it would seem good to me and please me well even though it were not commanded."5

1 "Meine Ehre steht in niemandes Hand als in meiner eigenen, und man kann mich damit nicht überhäufen; die eigene, die ich in meinem Herzen trage, genügt mir vollständig, und niemand ist Richter darüber und kann ent­scheiden, ob ich sie habe" (Bismark's speech to the Reichstag on 28 No­vember 1881, cited from Reiner, p. 49).

2 "si id dis hominibusque futurum sit semper ignotum, sisne facturus" (De Officiis, III, ix).

3 "Cum enim gentes, quae legem non habent, naturaliter ea quae legis sunt faciunt, eiusmodi legem non habentes ipsi sibi sunt lex; qui ostendunt opus legis scriptum in cordibus suis, testimonium reddente illis conscientia ipsorum, et inter se invicem cogitationibus accusantibus aut etiam defendentibus" (Romans, 2, 14-16).

4 "Nam nihil differt, si nemo videat, cum ipse illos videas" (St. Martin, Formula, 4, 53).

5 cited from John H. Randall, The Making of the Modern Mind, Houghton Mifflin, 1940, p. 139.

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