The Northern Way

Honor in German Literature


The preceding chapters have investigated ancient Germanic ideas of honor and have shown how they were subsequently modified by Christian and classical teachings. They have shown that, for all practical purposes, the transformation from external to internal honor was completed by the mid eighteenth century and was universally accepted as an ideal before the end of the nineteenth. This study will stop at this point, because a brief reconnaissance into twentieth-century literature has revealed no significant changes or new departures in meaning. Moreover, the mass of evi­dence to be sifted and the lack of historical perspective would tend to make all judgements both difficult and dubious.

In tracing the gradual development of the old German word êra into its modern derivative Ehre, this study has shown how the slight change in pronunciation was accompanied by a far more radical change in meaning: a shift from denoting respect, deference, prestige, rank, or superiority to denoting admirable conduct, personal integrity, or innner sense of right and wrong. Honor changed completely in essence; yet it remained constant in function; in both cases it was a spur to virtue, that is to say, an incentive to good and a deterrent from evil. The ancient Teutons admired men who showed courage in battle through a sense of honor, in its original meaning of concern for good reputation. Nineteenth­ century Germans also admired men who did good deeds through a sense of honor, but in its altered meaning of disinterested obedience to absolute moral law.

The chief catalyst for this transformation was the Christian faith, which first convinced the Teutons of a divine law transcending the opinions of men. Through promise of reward and threat of punish­ment, the Church gradually persuaded the converts to practice, or at least to acknowledge, a code of behavior incompatible with their traditional ethos. In presenting their ethic of humility, the mission­aries combatted the native idea of honor and damned it as the sin of pride. Being a good of the world, honor was no fitting reward for virtue, but rather an obstacle on the road to salvation. Nevertheless, despite their nominal acceptance of Christianity, medieval laymen tried to reconcile the two conflicting codes. While most clerics damned worldly honor as a snare of the devil, some saw in it a tool for Christian purpose and recognized it as a desirable value, but only in so far as it was won through righteous deeds. The word honor gradually expanded its meaning to include not only the esteem won through good works, but also the disposition leading men to perform them. But even then the clerics taught that such good works and disposition were of value only as long as they aimed at heavenly rewards.

Three basic attitudes toward traditional honor persisted side by side throughout the Middle Ages and down to modern times: retention, rejection, and revaluation. The ancient warrior code of honor, a love of fame and fear of shame, was retained as a vital social force, especially in aristocratic and military circles and was expressed perhaps most blatantly in class pride and point of honor. Worldly honor was generally rejected by clerics and occasionally by secular writers, particularly Catholic ones, as late as Brentano, Droste-Hülshoff, Stifter, Lenau, and Grillparzer. Honor was revalued, in imitation of Cicero and Seneca, first by the clergy and later by the early bourgeoisie, who were excluded from the honor code of the ruling classes. Eventually, as the bourgeoisie became economically and socially dominant, their idea of honor was preached as an ideal for all classes, even for royalty.

During the Age of Enlightenment many intellectuals questioned supernatural reward and punishment for honest and dishonest acts and began to cherish honesty as an absolute good. Thus they reached a stage of moral development similar to that formulated by Cicero and Seneca nearly two millennia earlier. At first glance this would suggest that the many intervening centuries did no more than raise the barbarians to the cultural level of the Romans whom they had submerged; yet this was not the case. The disinterested virtue taught by Cicero and Seneca was an individual matter, possibly more philosophical and theoretical than felt and practiced, and certainly limited to a small number of intellectuals. By the mid nineteenth century, on the other hand, disinterested virtue was the accepted, even if not always practiced, ideal of the German people at large. When presented in Sudermann's play, Cicero's austere concept of honor was comprehensible to the general theater public.

Although the Stoic ideal of inner honor was universally accepted in nineteenth-century Germany, primitive notions of honor still lingered in actual life and appeared often in realistic literature, albeit with moral censure. Writers still described the virtues of the old Germanic shame culture; but they usually presented them as vices and expected the reader to criticize pride of birth, wealth, and power, scorn for weaklings and inferiors, and delight in personal superiority. Once the hallmark of noble and magnanimous hearts, concern for other people's opinions was now condemned as a petty character fault, an indication of retarded moral development. In­stead of being "affairs of honor" duels appeared as stupid survivals from a barbaric age, as brutish combats that favored the better shot rather than the better man.

For the sake of brevity, this study has been restricted to honor in German literature, as if German ideas on honor differed essentially from those in neighboring countries. As the excursions into other European literatures have shown, German ideas on honor are actually part of a general European complex, a complex of ideas that can be distinguished more sharply according to professional group or social class than according to nationality. As von Trask states, there are actually as many kinds of honor as there are social strata: in matters of honor and disgrace a German and a French officer would probably understand each other better than either would understand an artist, lawyer, or peasant of his own nation­ality.

It is safe to say that modern Western ideas on honor are a heritage from pagan Greece and Rome, tempered by Christianity. While all Occidental nations have contributed to these concepts of honor, France was perhaps the main clearing house and usually the chief contributor to their development. This is obvious for the age of chivalry, when French and Provencal culture were models for all genteel European life and literature; and it is also evident for succeeding centuries and especially for the Age of Enlightenment. Perhaps Germany contributed most in helping to internalize honor. German inwardness, including the internalization of honor, was closely related, as both cause and result, to medieval mysticism, humanism, protestantism, pietism, enlightenment, philosophical idealism, and, above all, to popular education and the dissemination of Greek and Roman ideas on the honorable life.

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