Sunday, September 19, 2010


Better to die ten thousand deaths, Than wound my honour.
--18th century English playwright Joseph Addison

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Giles Corey, a victim of the Salem witch trials. His  story is told in Robert Ward’s opera The Crucible, based on the famous Arther Miller play. I will tell the tale below, but first, let’s consider the virtue his story brings to mind: Honor.

The Random House dictionary describes Honor as “integrity in one’s beliefs and actions”--implying a certain Fidelity to those beliefs, even in the face of threats (thus also Courage). It takes Discipline and Steadfastness in behavior, ladled over a heavy base Self-Possession.

If you barged into the kitchen while we cooked up a serving of Honor, you might sniff the air and say, “What’s in the oven? It smells... military!” You’d be right. Many of the traditions that feature Honor as, well, an honored virtue (ahem) are warrior traditions: The Asatru runic virtue Sowulo translates as such; so does the Lakota virtue Wayuonihan (also translated as Honesty or Integrity), and the Bushido samurai warrior principle Meiyo. Thorn Coyle’s Pentacle of Autonomy (sometimes called the Warrior Pentacle) also features the virtue of Honor.

Curiously, I thought we’d find Honor amongst the knightly virtues, but neither the Duke of Burgundy nor the Knights of St. John list Honor amongst their principles. They do list qualities, like Purity, that might substitute. And, importantly, the Knightly codes of conduct incorporate a hefty dose of Humility.

Does Honor necessarily involve the threat of violence? Psychologist Richard Nisbett in his 1996 book Culture of Honor suggests that societies that emphasize Honor rather than Law tend to be nomadic, or at least in settings where enforcement of law is weaker (like the Wild West). The prospect of violent vengeance for insults ensures the peace. That might explain Honor’s absence from Knightly codes, since Knights presumably acted to enforce the Law (we can debate whether they actually did so somewhere down the road).

This also explains why we distinguish Honor from Pride1. It’s not always easy to tell the difference, but to take a warriorlike stab at it: Pride has to do with the self, whereas Honor upholds principles beyond the self. When we act with Honor, we not only do credit to ourselves and our reputations; we connect with something transcendent, an Order in the universe.

At least a pinch of Humility, in my humble (ahem) opinion, must flavor the recipe for Honor, but in some cultures that ingredient may be forgotten entirely. This shows why the greatness of Honor can be confused with Pride, the greatness of our self (small “s”)--to the point that Jewish rabbis actually declared Mitrachayk Min HaKavod - literally, “keeping far from Honor”-- one of the 48 middot (virtues) necessary to attain Torah (Jewish wisdom). Later this year, we will talk about Megalopsychia (Magnanimity), one of Aristotle’s virtues from the Nicomachean Ethics, which so mixes up the greatness of the Self with the greatness of self that modern Western people might no longer regard it as a virtuous quality. We might call it being “Stuck Up.”

What can the story of Giles Corey tell us of Honor? During the Salem witch trials, Corey, a local farmer and full member of his church, was falsely accused of practicing witchcraft, along with his wife Martha. Because he did not recognize the legitimacy of the trial, Giles refused to enter a plea of any kind. As described in Wikipedia:

According to the law at the time, a person who refused to plead could not be tried. To avoid persons cheating justice, the legal remedy for refusing to plead was "peine forte et dure". In this process the prisoner is stripped naked, with a heavy board laid on their body. Then rocks or boulders are laid on the plank of wood. This was the process of being pressed to death... After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, "More weight."

Finally, after 48 hours of torture, Corey called out “More weight!” one final time, and died. (I find it interesting that in a setting in which the force of law failed, Corey transcended this with Honor, which recognizes a higher Order.)

Few of us in life will find our conscience tested to the point of torture and death. But often the world does not need to throw that much at us before we cry out, “No more!” Sometimes I think giving in to fear is all that it takes for Honor to collapse like a poorly-cooked souffle, or a house on a flimsy foundation. Courage may be the secret ingredient to Honor. So today, meditate on the virtue of Courage. Make it a base on which to manifest your Honor. If you wish to do more, turn your mind to today’s prisoners of conscience, and consider donating to a group like Amnesty International working to free them.

May we see the gates of Honor, and perhaps make a home there. 

1 I will note here that in several traditions, Pride is a virtue, whereas in Christian traditions it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins. A consideration of this paradox awaits us further down the road...

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