The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


Page 2

It is easy to see how this pagan­ Stoic view fitted Luther's belief that good works should be an incidental result of faith rather than a means to attain reward. Perhaps it is significant that, since Luther, most praise of dis­interested virtue and honor have come from either Protestant or agnostic thinkers.

Although Luther could recognize the value of disinterested honor and virtue, not all Protestant thinkers could do so. Sir Thomas Browne, a young English doctor with a theological bent, expressed the difficulty of being honest merely for the sake of virtue. In his Religio Medici of 1634 he states that only memory of the Day of Judgement can make us "honest in the dark" and "virtuous without a witness." Citing the Latin adage that virtue is its own reward, he states that is "is but a cold principle, and not able to maintain our variable resolutions in a constant and settled way of goodness. I have practiced that honest artifice of Seneca, and, in my retired and solitary imaginations to detain me from the foulness of vice, have fancied to myself the presence of my dear and worthiest friends, before whom I should lose my head rather than be vicious; yet herein I found that there was nought but moral honesty, and this was not to be virtuous for his sake who must reward us at the last. I have tried if I could reach that great resolution of his, to be honest without a thought of heaven or hell; and, indeed I found, upon a natural inclination, an inbred loyalty unto virtue, that I could serve her without a livery; yet not in that resolved and venerable way, but that the frailty of my nature, upon an easy temptation, might be induced to forget her. The life, therefore, and spirit of all our actions is the resurrection, and a stable apprehension that our ashes shall enjoy the fruit of our pious endeavours: without this, all religion is a fallacy, and those impieties of Lucian, Euripides, and Julian, are not blasphemies, but subtile verities, and atheists have been the only philosophers."1 In other words, he endorses guilt culture as the most effective guardian of personal morality.

Notwithstanding Isaac Barrow's previously cited defense of external honor as an incentive to good deeds, he too concluded that conscience is a stronger spur; for "a man of honour" is surely "the best man next to a man of conscience."2 Schiller, with historical acumen, expressed the sixteenth-century Puritan belief that Christian conscience was a stronger incentive than external honor. In his drama Maria Stuart, Burleigh subtly and treacherously suggests to Paulet, who has custody of the Scots Queen, that it would be expedient if she were to die an apparently natural death; and he assures him, "Your reputation will remain clean." To that the old Puritan answers "But not my conscience."3 William Cory, the previously cited nineteenth-century scholar, said that the sentiment of honor "is a lay thing; it is a rival of the priestly sentiment of saintliness."4 Here it appears that Cory is using the word "honor" in the sense of disinterested response to duty or absolute moral law, as championed by Cicero, Seneca, St. Martin,

1 Browne, p. 393 (Sect, XLVII).

2 Barrow, p. 84.

3 "Euer Ruf bleibt rein", - "Nicht mein Gewissen" (Maria Stuart, I, 8, vv, 1062),

4 Cory, p. 460.

Luther, Kant, Fichte, and Bismark. Because such morality is independent of public opinion and fear of punishment, it represents a stage of civilization apart from shame culture and guilt culture. For want of a better word it might well be called a "duty culture". Just as shame culture could also have been called "honor culture" in the primitive meaning of the word "honor", duty culture could be called "honor culture" in its later Stoic-subjective meaning.

Although all good Christians were taught to expect reward or punishment in heaven, the pagan-Stoic belief in disinterested goodness never entirely died. To be accepted as a popular ideal, it did not require the philosophical justification of Kant's Critique of Morals so much as a weakening of Christian dogma. As we have seen, Major Tellheim acted virtuously without hope of recognition from God or man. Sometime after the middle of the nineteenth century Theodor Fontane expressed the idea of inner honor in a little poem, the gist of which is: "The honor of this world can't give you any honor. What exalts and maintains you in truth must live in you yourself. If you lack the supports of genuine inner pride, then it will profit you little, even if the world applauds you. To the vain you may grant fleeting praise and ephemeral fame. However, let the most sacred thing for you be to be able to stand up to your­self."1 Shakespeare had expressed a similar sentiment some two and a half centuries earlier, when he let Polonius say, "To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."2

1 "Es kann die Ehre dieser Welt Dir keine Ehre geben, Was dich in Wahrheit hebt und hält, Muss in dir selber leben. Wenn's deinem Innersten gebricht An echten Stolzes Stütze, Ob dann die Welt dir Beifall spricht, Ist all dir wenig nütze. Das flüchtge Lob, des Tages Ruhm Magst du dem Eitlen gönnen, Das aber sei dein Heiligtum: Vor dir bestehen können" (Gedichte von Theodor Fontane, Stuttgart, 1910, p. 24).

2 Hamlet I, 3, vv. 78-80.

As we have seen, Sir Thomas Browne questioned whether virtue for its own sake was a strong enough incentive to make us honest in the dark, and in this he touched on a problem which was to be recognized by German writers too. Moral autonomy, like that practiced by Tellheim and preached by Fichte, is a sufficient safeguard in the case of a truly virtuous man. But who is to judge whether he is truly a virtuous man? Who is to decide whether his moral decisions are honest or whether they represent rationalization or wishful thinking? Lessing, whose Tellheim could do the right purely for the sake of doing the right, had previously created a character who did not deserve this moral independence and would have been a better man if he had been more concerned with public opinion, as Aristotle would have demanded. In his youthful comedy, The Treasure, an otherwise inconspicuous little work of 1750, Lessing portrayed a thoroughly selfish character who prided himself on being independent of his neighbor's opinion. When a friend tells Philto that people call him an old deceiver, cheat, and bloodsucker because he refuses to give his ward her rightful dowry, Philto says that he does not mind their invective as long as he is convinced that they are wrong.l This is clearly a case where he should have listened to the public conscience, since he had no inner conscience of his own. Just two centuries later Hans Fallada created another character who prided himself on his moral autonomy, also without any right. Erwin Sommer, a chronic alcoholic, has been arrested for attempting to kill his wife. When his lawyer tries to save him from a "dishonoring prison sentence", the depraved sot says he does not fear this punishment, since his honor lies only in himself.2

As we shall see, by the middle of the nineteenth century German dramatists could assume that their audiences would agree that the best judge of a man's value is his inner voice, which is in no way dependent upon the opinions of other people. Therefore when, in the first year of the twentieth century, Frank Wedekind let the hero of his one-act play The Court Singer doubt this maxim, it is clear that he is a despicable character. While speaking to an old man who has devoted his life to composing music, but without success, the ignoble young opera singer says, "The measure of a man's importance is the world, and not the inner conviction that he has appropriated through years of brooding."3 The public at large would have tended to agree, theoretically at least, with Wilhelm Röntgen's contra­dictory view on the subject. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize in that same year, the famous scientist said, "In comparison with the inner satisfaction over a successfully solved problem, any public recognition loses its significance."4 Our court singer, who can not

1 "Ich kann es niemanden verwehren, das Nachteiligste von mir zu denken, oder zu sprechen; genug, wenn ich bei mir überzeugt bin, dass man mir unrecht tut" (Lessings gesanznzelte Werke, Leipzig, 1912, II, p. 183). In a previous comedy, Damon, Lessing had created another morally autonomous but unjust person. Oronte, the frequent and intentional bankrupt, ridicules Ehre, even though he has no conscience to take its place (op. cit., I, p. 361). . "

2 entehrende Gefängnishaft"; "Meine Ehre liegt allein bei mir" (Hans Fallada, Der Trinker, Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg, 1950, p. 289).

3 "Der Masstab für die Bedeutung eines Menschen ist die Welt und nicht die innere Ûberzeugung, die man sich durch jahrelanges Hinbrüten aneignet" (Der Kammersänger, Scene 8). One might almost suspect that Wedekind had read Hobbes's cynical remark: "For let a man (as most men do,) rate them­selves at the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others" (Leviathan, X). Wedekind would probably have agreed with Montaigne: "A man's value and estimation consists in heart and will: there lies his true honour" (The Essays of Montaigne, trans. E.J. Trechmann, Oxford, 1927, Chapter 31).

4 "Verglichen mit der inneren Befriedigung über ein erfolgreich gelöstes Problem verliert jede äussere Anerkennung ihre Bedeutung" (cited in M. Spann & C. Goedsche, Deutsche Denker und Forscher, Appleton, New York, 1954, p. 91).

Our court singer, who can not appreciate such an inner reward, is clearly a scoundrel. This is later proved when his former mistress kills herself in his room; for his only concern is that the affair will make him miss his train to Brussels, where he has a singing engagement. He does not wish to break his contract, because no one will engage an artist who is kontrakt­brüchig .l Here his dilemma and his motivation are much like those of Rüedeger, Iwein, and the noble heroes of the chansons de geste ; yet the modern audience is not supposed to find it noble of him to put his professional reputation before his affection or compassion.

The preceding chapters have shown how German secular poets gradually shifted from wholehearted endorsement of worldly honor to skepticism and finally to open opposition. By the mid eighteenth century some writers like Lessing could argue that true honor was inner integrity, rather than external appearance, as Cicero and Seneca had claimed so long before. In 1847, Ernst Mortitz Arndt, a patriot and educator of his nation, wrote: "Honor? What the world usually understands by this word: titles, orders, gold, etc., that is a very petty, transitory thing. But the honor of honesty, that is something much higher. It is German honor, the honor of an entire great nation."2 By the beginning of the twentieth century inner honor was universally extolled by German poets. The re­maining chapters of this study will show how the new attitudes toward honor affected the literature of the late eighteenth and of the nineteenth centuries. It will be noted that, whereas most poets extolled disinterested performance of duty and compliance with absolute moral law, very few of them used the word Ehre to desig­nate this virtue. Instead they generally used the words Ehrlichkeit and Ehrsamkeit and reserved the word Ehre to denote objective honor or status.3

1 Der Kammersnger, Scene 7.

2 "Die Ehre? Was die Welt meistens linter diesem Namen versteht: Titel, Orden, Gold, usw., ach, das ist ein gar kleines, vergängliches Ding; aber die Ehre der Ehrlichkeit, das ist etwas viel Höheres, es ist eben deutsche Ehre, Ehre eines ganzen grossen Volkes" (from Lipperheide, p. 133).

3 Objective honor is the only meaning given for Ehre in as recent a thesaurus as Karl Peltzer, Das treffende Wort, 3d. ed., Thun, 1955, p. 150: "Ehre ­Anerkennung, Lob, Preis, Ansehen, Auszeichnung, Rang, Ruf, Ruhm, Wertschätzung, Würde, - Achtung, Ehrenplatz." Compare this with: "honor: A high excellence of character tending particularly to respect of the unpro­tected rights of others; (honesty, respect for the property rights of others.)", Morrow's Word-finder, ed. P. Hugon, New York, 1927, p. 157.

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