Honour's role in the international states' system.

Author:Hertz, Allen Z.


Studying the First World War's origins, James Joll (1918-1994), Professor of International History at the University of London, offered this insight: "In the late 20th century we perhaps find it easier to conceive of foreign policy as being motivated by domestic preoccupations and by economic interests than by ... considerations of prestige and glory. It does not necessarily follow that the men of 1914 thought in the same way as we do." (1) To recapture that age which ended during the First World War, this essay analyzes the meaning of "honour" as a staple of European political philosophy. The significance of the "word of honour" is then located in the context of European courtly society, where a king's honour is explored in relation to that of his country and in the "international of kings" that was the European States' system until 1917-18. Attention is then directed to discourse about "honour" and "interest" as rhetoric of British foreign policy. It is suggested that the idea of honour was at that time consciously exploited for political ends. Examples are used to show that countries actually fought for honour, which is portrayed as one of the causes of the First World War, and directly relevant to Great Britain's decision to confront Germany in 1914. Thereafter, focus shifts to "national honour" as recognized by public international law, breach of which then met the sanction of dishonour. Attention is paid to wartime interest in a new legal paradigm and its reception by the governments in London and Washington. This is followed by a description of the architecture of the 1919 peace settlement, which embodied a new law-based order, antithetic to both honour and aristocratic diplomacy. Finally, the shift from honour to law is tested by looking at the discourse used at the League of Nations when Hitler unilaterally denounced key treaty provisions.

  1. What is Honour?

    An answer comes from French magistrate, parliamentarian, historian and aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859):

    (1) It first signifies the esteem, glory, or reverence that a man receives from his fellow men; and in this sense a man is said 'to acquire honour' (conquerir de l'honneur). (2) Honour signifies the aggregate of those rules by the aid of which this esteem, glory, or reverence is obtained. Thus we say that 'a man has always strictly obeyed the laws of honour'; or 'a man has violated his honour'. (2) According to German archivist and military historian Karl Demeter: "Honour can be either a condition or a reflex, subjective or objective: it can be purely personal or it can be collective." (3) Similarly, University of Chicago anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers observed: "Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgement of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride." (4) Honour is a manifestation of what U.S. political philosopher Francis Fukuyama describes when he points to man's desire for recognition: "People believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people treat them as though they are worth less than that, they experience the emotion of anger. Conversely, when people fail to live up to their own sense of worth, they feel shame, and when they are evaluated correctly in proportion to their worth, they feel pride." (5)

    Honour's significance is something the 21st century grasps poorly, because as honour, the concept is now virtually obsolete and the "vocabulary of honour has acquired archaic overtones in modern English." (6) De Tocqueville shrewdly perceived that honour's obsolescence parallels the eclipse of aristocracy: "The dissimilarities and inequalities of men gave rise to the notion of honor; that notion is weakened in proportion as these differences are obliterated, and with them it would disappear." (7) Thus, the shift from an aristocratic to a bourgeois culture caused aristocratic honour to fade in favour of middle-class public opinion--the latter perhaps featuring as frequently in modern political discourse as did the former in previous times. (8) However, an important subset of what was once called honour survives today in the narrower concept of prestige among States. (9) In a detailed examination of the goals of foreign policy, French political scientist Raymond Aron (1905-1983) argued: "Political units are in competition: the satisfactions of amour-propre, victory or prestige, are no less real than the so-called material satisfactions, such as the gain of a province or a population." (10)

    The Duke of Wellington probably never said "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton," but elite education in Europe specifically tried to inculcate a cult of honour, in part to support the officer corps. (11) Thus, honour was identified as an essential component of "the genius for war" by Prussian soldier and writer Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831):

    Of all the noble feelings ... in the exciting tumult of battle, none ... are so powerful and constant as the soul's thirst for honour and renown, which the German language treats so unfairly ... in the words Ehrgeiz (greed of honour) and Ruhmsucht (hankering after glory).... Has there ever been a great Commander destitute of the love of honour, or is such a character even conceivable? (12) But, Clausewitz caustically criticised courtly 18th century generals so taken with "the conception, Honour of Victory" that they failed to exploit their triumph by vigorously pursuing the enemy. (13)

    Proposing the Legion of Honour's creation, Napoleon remarked (May 4, 1802): "I do not believe that the French people love liberty and equality. The French are not changed by ten years of revolution. They are what the Gauls were, proud and frivolous. They believe in one thing: Honor!" (14) Similarly, Swiss historian Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (1818-1897) observed that honour "has become, in a far wider sense than is commonly believed, a decisive rule of conduct for the cultivated Europeans of our own day, and many who still hold faithfully by religion and morality are unconsciously guided by this feeling in the gravest decisions." (15)

    The same bourgeois experience was recently described by Yale University historian Peter Gay who indicts 19th century honour-fixated societies for spawning hatred:

    Touchiness on the great matter of honor was extreme. All significant aspects of life--rites of passage, social intercourse, the choice of a mate, orders of rank and precedence, even commercial transactions--were meticulously regulated and subject to obsessively enforced rituals. Affronts, whether real or trumped up, had to be avenged with the most extreme remedies at hand.... Men felt compelled to display and continuously reaffirm their manhood from the time they were striplings, to prove their hardihood, their sheer physical strength, and their tenacious endurance of the bodily suffering that their risk-seeking lives necessarily entailed. For societies living by heroic codes, prestige was the cherished aim, pain the necessary test, disgrace a perpetual threat; autonomy was sacrificed to the good opinion of others. (16) B. Was Honour a Staple of Political Philosophy?

    "Honour" was until the 20th century a central construct in European sociopolitical thought and a commonplace in works of law and political philosophy. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine public servant, diplomat and political writer. Following a 14th century trail blazed by Petrarch, (17) Machiavelli deplored Christianity's emphasis on humility and heaven. He instead urged individual virtu (manliness, courage, pluck, fortitude, boldness, valour, steadfastness, tenacity) (18) to gain honour and glory--perhaps man's highest pleasure. (19) Machiavelli's writings reveal honour's several faces which are generally linked to virtu. According to U.S. political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973):

    For Machiavelli, the honorable is that which gives a man distinction or which makes him great and resplendent. Hence extraordinary virtue rather than ordinary virtue is honorable. To possess extraordinary virtue and to be aware of one's possessing it is more honorable than merely to possess it. To have a sense of one's superior worth and to act in accordance with that sense is honorable. Hence it is honorable to rely on oneself and to be frank when frankness is dangerous. To show signs of weakness or to refuse to fight is dishonorable. To make open war against a prince is more honorable than to conspire against him. To lose by fighting is more honorable than to lose in any other way. To die fighting is more honorable than to perish through famine. (20) Although Machiavelli was outstanding in stressing dissimulation and even brutality, he was entirely with his contemporaries in seeing honour, glory and fame as the prince's ultimate goal. (21)

    The image of the "gentleman," including the cult of honour, was a Renaissance icon. (22) Italian historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) included many references to honour, good name, reputation, dignity, greatness, glory and fame in his celebrated Ricordi composed over the years from 1512 to 1530. (23) The emphasis on honour was also natural for Emperor Charles V who was steeped in chivalry as Grand Master of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece. When chided for failing to follow Julius Caesar in fully exploiting victories, Charles replied: "The ancients had only one goal before their eyes, honor. We Christians have two, honor and the salvation of the soul." (24) In entrusting Spain to his son Philip II, Charles advised (1543) Philip "to take as examples all those who have made good their want in age and experience by their courage and zeal in the pursuit of honour" and to study as "the only means by which you will gain honour and reputation." (25)

    Some years later, French...

To continue reading