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Comments on Brad DeLong: Eugen Weber: The ups and downs of honor:

bob_is_boring said...

"It shows no sense of sportsmanship, no fair play, no chivalrous treatment of opponents" Been awhile since I read The Iliad -- and I know the prime target of this sentence was Roland, but the author levels the same claim at Homer -- but this is, well, not true. IIRC Books 7 and 8 both have instances of all of the above; the Big Name Heros perhaps not so much (they are mostly dicks anyway) but the sides agree to, e.g., declare a temporary truce to bury the dead, etc. Just sayin'.

Elfsternberg said...

So, @Bob_is_boring, would you argue then that Pinker is essentially right, that the invasion of dignity over honor is the greatest reduction in violence in our history? It seems to me that Pinker's thesis is pretty strong here.

Codeandculture.wordpress.com said...

It's not quite fair to Homeric culture to imply that it celebrates Achilles spiking the football with Hector's corpse. To the contrary while the narrator does sympathize with Achilles's sulking in rage against Agamemnon over Briseis, we are clearly not meant to sympathize with the war crimes (killing prisoners, mutilating corpses, etc) of his aristeia, which like other aspects of his behavior (neglecting his bodily needs) is meant to show the excess of his rage against Hector over Patroclus. That said, Weber is basically correct that this is an alien culture that celebrates brutality, piracy, and kidnapping/rape.

Gene O'Grady said...

Mr. Boring has a point, but it's more significant that if you read the whole Iliad (and don't just indulge in cheap paraphrase) you realize that Achilles at least comes to question the values of the culture and in the last book realize that common humanity is more important than honor. Also, and I don't intend to lecture on this, the range of the Greek word time is not adequately covered by the English honor.

Bloix said...

The opening of the Illiad is much worse than Weber portrays it. Achilles and Agamemnon are quarrelling over which one gets to rape a sex slave.

A H said...

I just finished Robert Ferguson's excellent history "Vikings" and in it he describes the ideal viking hero as having "Youth, sharpness of wit, bravery and vanity". What struck me was how unashamed the vikings were of their savagery, they were pirates and proud of it. Interestingly Ferguson speculates that one of the causes of the start of the viking age was when Roland's boss, Charlemange, ethnically cleanses saxony in order to get rid of the heathens there.

agorabum said in reply to Codeandculture.wordpress.com...

Agreed, Achilles dragging Hector's corpse is his low moment. Everyone on both sides feels that it is pretty bad form, especially since Hector put up a fair fight. And Achilles later apologizes, in a sense. Also, don't forget that the entire war started because of the Gods - Hera is jealous over the beauty of Zeus's bastard daughter. It's tough enough to be good down below when we're all the playthings of such petty and capricious gods...

Gene O'Grady said in reply to Bloix...

Bloix is usually a perceptive commenter, but he (she?) seems not to have read the part where Briseis (note: a patronymic, not a name) speaks for herself about Achilles and Patroclus.

Matt McIrvin said in reply to reason...

It's interesting in that he's writing in 1999, at a time when general violence had just declined with startling speed all over the world, and it didn't really look like the US was about to leap into a couple of endless wars either. Yet the article seems to take it as a given that the time of illusory peace has ended and humanity is descending into old-fashioned thuggery.

Allen Hazen said...

Homer's Greece was not a state. There were no institutions to appeal to: you couldn't take your grievances to apublic service review board, you couldn't even sue. So in some ways the life of the elite-- of petty kings (even Agamemnon ruled over a tiny fragment of present-day Greece) and princes who led the war bands-- was more like that of modern gangsters than like that of modern politicians or civil servants or army officers.

At which point the importance of honour begins to make more sense. The "Wrath of Achilles" was about something vital: in taking away his captive, Agamemnon wasn't showing Achilles "respect": worse, he was being disrespectful in public, in full view of all the other capi.

Look up the number of American politicians and military officers in the first half of the 19th C fought duels. I think there is something similar going on.

ilsm said in reply to Allen Hazen...

A definition of integrity (integer mean 'oneness') comes from the Roman legionnaires' salute "integer", which meant I am one with the emperor, good, bad, as evil as he may be I am one with the emperor. The Romans taught the modern gangsters, and republicans how to run a cabal. The boss is always right, what Chauvinism means. Feudalism worked only the Roman legion was replaced by professional war bands, sustained by the serfdom rather than slavers and denarii (later empire fiat/tin money). Because it is loyalty/integrity to the boss that matters above all else.

When integrity is defined by the crooked................. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity". WB Yeats. Note, because of the possibilities of crooked 'integrity', loyalty to immorality, a US commissioned officer's oath does not include obeying orders. While it includes supporting and defending the constitution.

C T said...

Interesting, very interesting. Perhaps a more international perspective could have been taken, if we think of The Water Margin and The Three Kingdoms they also feature much ruthlessness and "honor". But the 108 are rebels, thugs in the eyes of their regime, so maybe that's a bad comparison. One could also contrast with Monkey, the great comic novel, whose heroes are still perceivable as good, Triptikata ridiculously so. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that laughter is a more noble and immortal goal than honor. :)

Maynard Handley said in reply to

Codeandculture.wordpress.com... Let's be honest here. The sin of Achilles, like his medieval counterparts, isn't that he treats people like dirt, it's that he treated his upper class "equals" like dirt. Neither Homer nor Turold are much upset by aristocrats doing what they like to anyone else who isn't part of their narrow circle.

We have the same sort of thing today when we are told that "15 Americans died in a bomb blast in Iraq" or whatever. But we have made some progress. The circle has been widened from aristocrats to "countrymen" (and for most purposes a larger concept like "westerners") and there are plenty of people willing to complain every time we do see things phrased this way.

Even 60 years ago, we weren't at this level: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rx-7C760fwg

Kaleberg said...

I've always been skeptical about honor and honor in warfare. Honor is an aristocrat's concept from the good old days when the ruling class could do whatever it wanted to those outside the class, and the violation of honor was in the common man or woman fighting back. Honor is at the heart of conservative morality, and it is a nasty, evil thing. I could never get into the old honor of the samurai ethos or the honor of the mounted knight garbage. Give me a bunch of recruits off the street with long poles like the Swiss or mass produced automatic rifles and to hell with the equestrians.

I have nothing against integrity, or kindness, or efficiency, or having a sense of right and wrong, but honor has nothing to do with integrity or kindness or efficiency or right and wrong. It's a vicious, nasty, oppressive class thing.

ezra abrams said...

Isn't longing for the lost golden age of one' youth a sure sign that one is an alta kocker ? (I would say limp AK, but thats redundant) Not only that, there are at least, imo, two errors in the quoted extract: The iliad doen't open with a quarrel between Agemmemnon and Achilles; it opens with the prideful Agamemmnon refusing to due penance for his sins (abducting Apollos priestes); this pride leads the Honest Achilles into dispute. And Achilles may boast over Hector' corpse but that boasting is madness that dooms Achilles; it is not something that is pictured as a positive

In some ways, homer is quite close to us: the trojan war , at heart, is cause the studly young Paris goes for the babe with the hot bod over the smart and powerful women, who, naturally, get pissed. The odessey is about spousal constancy and faith; surely these topics are something we can all agree are relevant today. iirc, in the 1970s, the Times had a letter from a couple who had vacationed in Spain, staying at a small hotel. The last day, the man is settling the bill (I have the impression that many people were hanging around the desk, perhaps it was in the same space as the breakfast room) There is a dispute over the bill; finally, the American pays, saying, we were told the Spanish are a people of honor; apparently, we were misinformed. Deathly silence The enraged propreiter rips up the bill, and throws the money at the American....

nkv said...

Will honor set a leg? --- Sir Falstaff I Henry IV

mch said...

Gene O'Grady and ezra abrams, and one or two others here, provide some useful correctives to Weber's misleading observations about the Iliad. For a very accessible and insightful introduction to the Iliad, I recommend a book by another California academic (a classicist at UC Davis), Seth Schein's The Mortal Hero. Economists in particular might be interested to know that Homeric "honor" is extricably bound to questions about distribution of goods.

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