This post continues where we left off in DEFINITIONS OF HONOR — PART 2. Here we will discuss how we Americans define honor.
American Notions About Honor
We all have an ideology of some sort. Our ideology consists of our basic beliefs or guiding principles. Most of us base our ideological beliefs upon a religious belief in God or gods. Thus, we may be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a pagan and so forth. Since each religion teaches something different about how we came to be and what we should do with our lives, each has different merits. Some religions teach beliefs that make their adherents dangerous to other people. Some urge their adherents to love other people. Some bind nations together in harmony. Others promote despotism.
We respect and honor the behavior of those who most earnestly and successfully practice our own beliefs. Therefore, our religious beliefs affect what behavior we choose to honor. Because America is largely a Christian nation, Christianity dominates our People’s notions about what behavior we should honor. Moreover, because Christianity teaches us to love God and each other, our religious beliefs promote harmony. Citizens expect and honor charity and kindness from each other.
Nonetheless, even though most Americans of the 1830’s practiced Christianity quite sincerely, other beliefs also colored their notions of honor. Perhaps the most important was their belief in pragmatism.
Date: circa 1864
1 : a practical approach to problems and affairs <tried to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism>
2 : an American movement in philosophy founded by C. S. Peirce and William James and marked by the doctrines that the meaning of conceptions is to be sought in their practical bearings, that the function of thought is to guide action, and that truth is preeminently to be tested by the practical consequences of belief
— prag·ma·tist \-mə-tist\ adjective or noun
— prag·ma·tis·tic \ˌprag-mə-ˈtis-tik\ adjective
Given today’s usage, the word pragmatism has a most appropriate origin.
pragmatic 1540s, from M.Fr. pragmatique, from L. pragmaticus “skilled in business or law,” from Gk. pragmatikos “versed in business,” from pragma (gen. pragmatos) “civil business, deed, act,” from prassein “to do, act, perform.”
Many of us like to think of ourselves as practical and therefore pragmatic. Therefore, when someone calls us a pragmatist, we usually consider it a compliment. Yet if we intend to uphold our religious beliefs, we cannot allow our pragmatism to overrule our religious beliefs.
The Americans make a no less arbitrary classification of men’s vices. There are certain propensities which appear censurable to the general reason and the universal conscience of mankind, but which happen to agree with the peculiar and temporary wants of the American community: these propensities are lightly reproved, sometimes even encouraged; for instance, the love of wealth and the secondary propensities connected with it may be more particularly cited. To clear, to till, and to transform the vast uninhabited continent which is his domain, the American requires the daily support of an energetic passion; that passion can only be the love of wealth; the passion for wealth is therefore not reprobated in America, and provided it does not go beyond the bounds assigned to it for public security, it is held in honor. The American lauds as a noble and praiseworthy ambition what our own forefathers in the Middle Ages stigmatized as servile cupidity, just as he treats as a blind and barbarous frenzy that ardor of conquest and martial temper which bore them to battle. In the United States fortunes are lost and regained without difficulty; the country is boundless, and its resources inexhaustible. The people have all the wants and cravings of a growing creature; and whatever be their efforts, they are always surrounded by more than they can appropriate. It is not the ruin of a few individuals which may be soon repaired, but the inactivity and sloth of the community at large which would be fatal to such a people. Boldness of enterprise is the foremost cause of its rapid progress, its strength, and its greatness. Commercial business is there like a vast lottery, by which a small number of men continually lose, but the State is always a gainer; such a people ought therefore to encourage and do honor to boldness in commercial speculations. But any bold speculation risks the fortune of the speculator and of all those who put their trust in him. The Americans, who make a virtue of commercial temerity, have no right in any case to brand with disgrace those who practise it. Hence arises the strange indulgence which is shown to bankrupts in the United States; their honor does not suffer by such an accident. In this respect the Americans differ, not only from the nations of Europe, but from all the commercial nations of our time, and accordingly they resemble none of them in their position or their wants.
In America all those vices which tend to impair the purity of morals, and to destroy the conjugal tie, are treated with a degree of severity which is unknown in the rest of the world. At first sight this seems strangely at variance with the tolerance shown there on other subjects, and one is surprised to meet with a morality so relaxed and so austere amongst the selfsame people. But these things are less incoherent than they seem to be. Public opinion in the United States very gently represses that love of wealth which promotes the commercial greatness and the prosperity of the nation, and it especially condemns that laxity of morals which diverts the human mind from the pursuit of well-being, and disturbs the internal order of domestic life which is so necessary to success in business. To earn the esteem of their countrymen, the Americans are therefore constrained to adapt themselves to orderly habits—and it may be said in this sense that they make it a matter of honor to live chastely.
On one point American honor accords with the notions of honor acknowledged in Europe; it places courage as the highest virtue, and treats it as the greatest of the moral necessities of man; but the notion of courage itself assumes a different aspect. In the United States martial valor is but little prized; the courage which is best known and most esteemed is that which emboldens men to brave the dangers of the ocean, in order to arrive earlier in port—to support the privations of the wilderness without complaint, and solitude more cruel than privations—the courage which renders them almost insensible to the loss of a fortune laboriously acquired, and instantly prompts to fresh exertions to make another. Courage of this kind is peculiarly necessary to the maintenance and prosperity of the American communities, and it is held by them in peculiar honor and estimation; to betray a want of it is to incur certain disgrace.
I have yet another characteristic point which may serve to place the idea of this chapter in stronger relief. In a democratic society like that of the United States, where fortunes are scanty and insecure, everybody works, and work opens a way to everything: this has changed the point of honor quite round, and has turned it against idleness. I have sometimes met in America with young men of wealth, personally disinclined to all laborious exertion, but who had been compelled to embrace a profession. Their disposition and their fortune allowed them to remain without employment; public opinion forbade it, too imperiously to be disobeyed. In the European countries, on the contrary, where aristocracy is still struggling with the flood which overwhelms it, I have often seen men, constantly spurred on by their wants and desires, remain in idleness, in order not to lose the esteem of their equals; and I have known them submit to ennui and privations rather than to work. No one can fail to perceive that these opposite obligations are two different rules of conduct, both nevertheless originating in the notion of honor. (from here)
The Americans of the 1830’s honored hard work and material success. Because of their pragmatic notions about honor, these Americans honored those who obtained wealth. They understood that the success of one person benefitted every other person in the community. Because of their Christian beliefs, these Americans also insisted that everyone engage in honest work. They thought how we obtain wealth more important than obtaining wealth.