1801
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Sense of Honour, a Prize Essay, Recited at Oxford, 1801.

The Life of Reginald Heber D.D. Lord Bishop of Calcutta. By his Widow. With Selections from his Correspondence, unpublished Poems, and Private Papers. 2 Vols.

Bp. Reginald Heber


A saintly man and devoted reader of Spenser defines honor in accord with Christian morality and argues (against Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws) that honor is part of the human character and may be found under all kinds of government. While Spenser and poetry are not mentioned, Sir Philip Sidney is upheld as the very type of honor; he "displayed a still more noble self-denial, no duty or even charity forbade his quenching his own intolerable thirst before he sent the water to the dying sentinel. There is, there must be, in such acts of glory, a pleasure superior to all external dangers; a high and almost spiritual exultation, elevated above the region of external pain!"

Reginald Heber, later Bishop of Calcutta, knew John Wilson at Oxford; his essay makes an interesting comparison with Wordsworth's comments on chivalry in "Letter to Mathetes" (Mathetes was John Wilson) published in The Friend No. 20 (1810). Heber's Oxonian admiration for the middle ages recalls Thomas Warton, while his theology anticipates the Keble, Newman, and the Oxford Movement; he was later an associate of Robert Southey at the Quarterly Review.

Walter Scott: "Remembering the ecstatic feelings with which I visited Oxford more than twenty-five years since, I was surprised at the comparative indifference with which I revisited the same scenes. Reginald Heber, then composing his Prize Poem, and imping his wings for a long flight of honourable distinction, is now dead in a foreign land — Hodgson and other able men all entombed. The towers and halls remain, but the voices which fill them are of modern days" 21 November 1826; in Journal (1891) 312.

John Wilson: "The year after he had taken his degree, he, almost of course, gained the University Bachelor's Prize for the English Prose Essay. The subject was well suited to his peculiar powers, and the "Sense of Honour" found in him a temperate and charitable Christian advocate, who vindicated its high character as a great principle of morality, but showed its necessary subjection to conscience and religion" Blackwood's Magazine 24 (November 1827) 620.

Robert Chambers: "While his poem of Palestine was universally admired, and all looked forward to the maturity of a genius so rich in promise, Heber continued his studies with unabated industry. He made considerable progress in mathematics and in the higher classics. In 1805 he took his degree of B.A., and the same year gained the prize for the English essay; the subject, The Sense of Honour. He was elected to a fellowship at All Souls college, and soon after went abroad, travelling over Germany, Russia, and the Crimea. On his return he took his degree of A.M. at Oxford" Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:407.

W. Davenport Adams: "Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta, (b. 1783, d. 1826), published Poems (1812); The Personality and Office of the Christian Comforter (1815); an edition of the works of Jeremy Taylor, and numerous essays in The Quarterly Review; besides his Oxford prize poem called Palastine" Dictionary of English Literature (1878) 273.




In deciding on the merit of any principle of action, two material questions will arise. The one, whether the motives themselves are consonant to reason and religion; the other, whether the effects are generally conducive to the happiness of mankind. For though good may accidentally proceed from evil, the evil is not, therefore, justified; and when on the other hand, good does not follow, we must presume, with equal reason, that the principle itself is vicious or mistaken.

In conformity to these rules, it will be proper to examine, first, the nature and propriety of a sense of honour, and then submit its merits to the final test of tried and general utility.

To arrive at a knowledge of the first, little more, perhaps, is necessary, than calmly and dispassionately to look round on the practice of the world, and appeal to our own reason and experience for the causes of what we see and feel. If we separate our ideas of honour from their political trappings and accidental varieties; if we reduce its laws to their simple and original principles, we shall find that they have all a common and manifest dependence on that sort of educated self-love which, when excessive, we stigmatize by the name of pride, as we do its opposite extreme by the reproach of meanness.

I call it educated, because it is not, like the appetites, immediately derived from the bodily wants or propensities, (the only senses which are, properly speaking, natural,) but from an acquired and artificial combination of these, which it seems the earliest business of education to produce, to stimulate, and apply. It would, in fact, be easy to show that this principle, like every other, is generated by the external operation of pleasure or pain; and that pride, honour, and ambition, with all their kindred habits, are little more than a very simple modification of hope.

Be that, however, as it may, it is unquestionable that, by whatever means we acquire it, the habit of self-respect is productive of very remarkable and advantageous effects on the human mind. So much may, at least, be inferred from the general sentiments and experience of the world. Even those who abound the most in unmeaning invective against what they call pride and the selfish principle, are themselves obliged to submit to the uncontroulable laws of human nature and human feelings. If not in theory, at least in practice, by endearments, by distinctions, and by rewards, they, too, find it necessary to train up youth to the desire of praise, and teach them to feel the luxury of self-approbation.

For praise and external distinctions are only so far agreeable as they confirm us in our own esteem. All, indeed, that they really inform us of, is, that we are justified in entertaining high thoughts of ourselves, and may reasonably expect from the world that love, that reverence, and all those other advantages which we are taught to consider as the peculiar birth-right of merit. In the first stage of this habit of self-respect, it is from an anticipation of these advantages that all our pleasure is derived, till, at length, the combination of ideas becomes less perceptible, and, from the satisfaction which we habitually feel on receiving it, the promissory note is itself considered as sterling.

Applause and personal distinction seem, on their own account, desirable.

Having thus ascertained its leading principles, the definition of a sense of honour is easy and obvious. Honour, then, is a pleasurable reflection on our own merit, occasioned by the knowledge of our claim on the love and reverence of the world. It differs, indeed, from virtue, as the hopes on which it is founded are more gross and more uncertain; but it agrees with it, both as deriving, like virtue, its immediate reward from the heart, and as, when well directed, producing, for the most part, a similar effect on the conduct. I say when well directed, because it must occasionally happen, that by a faulty, or too narrow perception of utility, the stream of honour may be poisoned at its very source, and a local or mistaken interest preferred to the broad principles of general justice and expediency. It is thus we must account for that unavoidable difference of sentiment which some have endeavoured to illustrate by distinctions of true and false honour, but which, as it leans not on positive but relative merit, is, by its nature, as variable as the wants and wishes of mankind, and receives a bias from every indefinite circumstance of time, of climate, and of government. When well directed, however, (and its direction is very seldom entirely pernicious,) few arguments should seem necessary to prove the advantage of a reward thus cheap, a motive thus effectual.

If we were only roused to action by the prospect of immediate gratification, and the pressure of immediate pain, virtue alike and enterprise were at an end. We see it daily and hourly in those in whom the faculty we are now discussing is faint or extinguished. Their views are short and indistinct; their hopes and wishes grovelling; their actions without vigour; and the whole system of their energies paralyzed by a sullen and indolent content. But thus, by a happy and even imperceptible combination of ideas, our desires are extended to a larger field; our self-love acquires a nobler appearance, and for our own sake (if I may be allowed the expression) we are induced to disregard ourselves.

It is true, that this, correctly speaking, is the appropriate province of reason; but in the weakness and short-sightedness of human nature, we cannot but discover the force and utility of this species of auxiliary impulse of which the motive is always at hand, and which derives a never-failing influence from the very consciousness of our own existence.

We must not, however, confound a sense of honour with the indolent and lonely pride of the Epicurean divinities. Self-respect, without reference to the rest of mankind, either never existed at all, or only where the understanding has been impaired. Founded originally on the opinion of others, to that opinion it must always appeal, and must purchase by courtesy, by kindness, and by self-denial, that friendship and applause which alone can confirm and justify the secret exultations of the heart.

Nor can this deference to the feelings and understandings of our fellow-creatures be considered as a slavish or imprudent submission. While we acknowledge the occasional blindness of popular sentiment, let it not be forgotten that its general tendency, especially upon subjects connected with private morals, has been always favourable to virtue. I know not whether we are to ascribe this fortunate agreement to the dictates of long and universal experience, or whether we must not rather seek its cause in that artless instinct of morality, that native perception of right and wrong, which would, if real, identify without a rhetorical figure, the voice of the people with the voice of God.

Nor is it only by an appeal to our hopes and wishes, that a sense of honour maintains its influence. Shame, which may be defined the sorrow of pride, is a feeling so strange and terrible, that, while every other suffering may be endured with firmness, or thought of with indifference, this is the only punishment which no strength can sustain, no power avert; to which the greatest are not superior, and of which the boldest will confess their fears.

Such are the rewards and such the penalties of a sense of honour; the extent of their power may he estimated by their effects. Whole years, nay, whole lives of labour and misery are spent, not only with cheerfulness, but delight, in compliance with these extraordinary feelings. Other principles of action have some one peculiar object of which the attainment or frustration will conclude at once their hopes and anxieties. But of honour alone can it be said, that its pursuits and pleasures are alike interminable. When every other motive or argument is exhausted — when no other human hope or fear can apply, our daily experience proves that the sense of honour can subsist in its utmost vigour. When Caesar despaired of life, he expressed by his gestures a wish to fall with dignity. But it is not only in such characters as Caesar that we recognize its wonderful influence. It may be traced in every desire, every thought that looks to the applause or advantage of posterity; in public or private monuments; in the cares of a funeral; and all those other solicitudes which extend to a period when we shall ourselves be no longer sensible of pleasure or pride. Nor can there be a greater evidence of the efficacy of these exalted motives, than that the "feeble perception" of them which fancy can afford, (for this is all that a dying man can feel,) is superior to the keenest apprehensions and warmest propensities of our nature.

But honour is not satisfied with a pre-eminence over every other feeling; it is not enough that, when human laws oppose its rules, that very prohibition is considered as an additional motive. It goes still farther; it is always endeavouring to excel and transcend itself. When Bayard, "the fearless and unblamed," was bleeding to death amidst the ruins of France, what restrained him, since he had done his utmost duty, from accepting the assistance and compassion of the rebel Bourbon? And when our own brave Sidney, in circumstances almost parallel, displayed a still more noble self-denial, no duty or even charity forbade his quenching his own intolerable thirst before he sent the water to the dying sentinel. There is, there must be, in such acts of glory, a pleasure superior to all external dangers; a high and almost spiritual exultation, elevated above the region of external pain!

Self-respect, in short, is the most powerful and one of the most useful of our mental habits; it is the principle to which the noblest actions of our nature may be most frequently traced; the nurse of every splendid and every useful quality. How far it may be occasionally abused, or how far it may be itself consistent with the principles of our holy religion, are questions which have long been disputed with violent and fanatical acrimony. The first objection I am neither prepared nor inclined to deny. To imperfection every human invention is liable; nor can it be considered as a subject of blame, that even our best institutions are only a choice of evils. But that a sense of honour is contrary to the spirit of religion, though Mandeville (perhaps insidiously) admits the charge, appears, (to say no more of it,) a hard and hazardous assertion. It will, indeed, be readily allowed, that there is only one motive which can deserve the name of virtue; but to condemn as illegal or impious every other desire or principle, would be in opposition to all the wants and feelings of mankind, and would, by an inevitable inference, lay the axe to the root of civil government itself. Like every other law, the laws of honour are occasioned by the wants and vices of the world. Like them, too, they must derive their influence from the weakness of our nature. The perfectly virtuous man, if any such there be, needs no such stimulus or restriction; but for our sake, for his own, let him not withdraw from us, who are not so fortunate, those salutary restraints and penalties which fence our virtue by our passions, and unite in the cause of human happiness the powers of this world and the next. For a politician neither must nor can destroy the propensities he attempts to guide. He must take mankind as he finds them, a compound of violence and frailty; he must oppose vice to vice, and interest to interest, and, like the fabled Argonaut, accomplish his glorious purpose by the labour of those very monsters who were armed for his destruction.

But why, after all, should we affix the reproach of wickedness or folly to feelings in themselves useful and necessary? feelings intimately connected with our nature, and which abuse alone can render criminal; feelings, in short, which are the foundation and support of all human authority, and which he, therefore, (with all humility be it spoken,) He Himself has not disdained to sanction, whom civil government adores, as her Author, in whom kings reign, and princes decree justice.

Having thus ascertained that the sense of honour, like other secondary motives, is consonant to the nature of mankind, and by no means averse to the influence or doctrines of religion, the question of expediency is all that now remains for discussion. If it appears from further inquiry that, in the effects produced by their actions on society, good predominates, for unmixed good must not be expected, we may reasonably pronounce them not only innocent, but, in a subordinate degree of virtue, laudable.

It is thus that the other modifications of self love, ambition, emulation, and the like, have in all ages of the world been not only tolerated, but, under certain restrictions, encouraged and even praised. To a similar or greater indulgence, a sense of honour may undoubtedly lay claim. It possesses, in no small degree, the advantages of the habits we have now enumerated, without an equal participation in the abuses attendant on either of them. It is true, its resemblance to ambition is so remarkable, that even Montesquieu himself has been deceived by the similarity. Yet, notwithstanding their kindred origin, they are mental habits between which a wide difference may undoubtedly be observed. Honour is chiefly conversant about the means; ambition disregards them in comparison of the end. The ambitious character is a conqueror thirsting after the dominions of another; the man of honour will expend all his energies, his happiness, and life itself, in defence of the fame he has already acquired. the pleasures of the one consist in pursuit; of the other in possession. The first, like an ardent gamester, is careless of his former acquisitions, and risques them all in the hopes of more; the other, proudly satisfied with his present reputation, broods over it with a miser's fondness. Were it possible to blend these characters in one, the hero would be perhaps complete; or, to speak more justly, a sense of honour is what the ambitious man wishes to believe that he feels.

Nor are their effects on society less different than the modes of their existence. As the motives of honour are more pure, so is its sphere of action more extensive. Ambition is generally, perhaps fortunately concentrated in a single pursuit; but a sense of honour enters into all the occurrences of life, and gives point and ornament to the least as well as the greatest. "Delectat domi, foris non impedit. Peregrinatur nobiscum, rusticatur." It is at once the parent of loyalty, and the preserver of freedom. In the camp or convent its influence is equally valuable; it adds tenfold delight and security to the endearments of a private, and is the sturdy guard of virtue through the dangers of a public life.

To such a guard as this, indeed, must innocence, in the present imperfect state of human virtue, be often indebted for its safety. The best intentions of the most blameless heart, might often lead, by unsuspected and imperceptible windings, to the brink of misery. It is decency, it is regard for character, and a sense of our rank in the world, which fence off the avenues of guilt, and not only resist, but resent the first approaches of pollution. Never may false philosophy, or mistaken religion, succeed in eradicating that virtuous self love, that pure and salutary pride, which defends the peace of families, and the morality of nations; the distinctive mark, the main support of the amiable and exalted character of a European female.

But if such are its effects on the character of individuals, as a rational and political principle its influence is still more conspicuous, and still more valuable. For there, its excesses are less perceivable, and its faults (for to faults it is certainly liable) become like the darker tints in a landscape, constituent and useful parts of the beauty and harmony of the whole. Experience, indeed, has shown, that in every nation popular honour has been the greatness of the public. A steady preference of glory to gain; a strict, yet not distrustful care of liberty; a lofty forbearance towards their weaker neighbours, and all unyielding firmness against the encroachments of the more powerful: these, with those other wholesome prejudices, which none who ever felt them would desire to lose, are some of its more illustrious characteristics. Such was the temper of the Athenians of old; and of the Hollanders, in the seventeenth century, who consented to ruin their country rather than disgrace it. Such was the ruling principle of the Roman nation throughout the long history of their freedom and greatness; and such has been (and may we never entirely lose it!) the source of British grandeur and prosperity. Nor are those minuter features to be overlooked which appear in the private maimers of the people, in their amusements and literature, in their buildings' and more perhaps than all, in the popularity of those pursuits in which praise rather than profit is the expected reward.

For where, in a state, private luxury is excessive, and public magnificence small, where neither in the buildings, nor in any other distinguished work posterity is at all regarded, where minute convenience succeeds to grandeur, and minute interest to ambition, let us beware how we extol the wisdom or prosperity of that country. There is not a more deadly poison to public greatness, or public virtue, than that false and hollow moderation, which, under a specious name, contracts and envenoms the force of self-love, and concentrates all our faculties in the pursuit of short-sighted gain, or individual accommodation.

Nor is political insignificance the only danger to be apprehended. When a nation has once lost its self-respect, when that strong shoot is destroyed which overtopt and kept down the more noxious weeds, the meanest and most hateful passions assume a certain rankness of luxuriance. The laws supported only by fear, are borne at first with murmuring, and at length evaded or despised, and all those horrors follow which invariably haunt the decay and twilight of nations.

These are no imaginary pictures; both the one and the other are confirmed by the uniform experience of ages. For the influence of a sense of honour is not, as Montesquieu was tempted to suppose, confined to any peculiar form of government; much less can we assent to his arbitrary assignment of patriotism exclusively to republics, and to monarchies the distinct and appropriate impulse of honour. We know that, call it by whatever name, a sense of honour is apparent in every page of the histories of Greece and Switzerland. We know also, we know and feel, that the subject of a monarchy is not insensible to the warmest love for his country. The author of the Spirit of the Laws was misled by a variety of appearance, which results not from the form, but from the extension of society. Where that is small and concentrated, self-respect immediately terminates in patriotism. When, however, the circumstances more extended, we seek in the distinctions and classes of mankind, in the prejudices of every person and rank, some intermediate point, some resting place of esteem, more attainable by our views, and more nearly affecting our hopes and fears.

But though all the symptoms of honour are visible in the histories of Greece and Rome, they are, it cannot be concealed, very differently modified from those which now prevail, and have for many centuries prevailed in Europe. The causes of this variety are so familiarly known that they require but little discussion. So much, however, must be observed, as, that extravagant as some parts of the modern code may seem, or (as in the conspicuous case of private warfare) unchristian, yet in the more general lines of character, in refined courtesy, in openness of courage, in loyalty, and generosity to enemies, the ancient ideas of honour were far inferior.

The sullen and stately demeanor of the lofty disciple of Aristotle, his slow pace, his solemn tone, and the pompous cadence of his periods would now be hardly considered as legitimate signs of magnanimity. And while the meanest soldier would now shudder at the practices of ancient warfare, the triumphs of even a Scipio himself must shrink and fade before the lustre of our Edward at Poitiers. If, indeed, there are any who still continue to doubt the efficacy of honour, let them look to a period when no other law maintained the interests of society, let them look to the chivalry of the middle ages. It is in fact, in such times as these, it is in the season of anarchy and peril, that this principle is peculiarly triumphant. And when it is considered that a large, perhaps the greatest part of the original conquerors of the Western empire were voluntary and casual adventurers; when we take into the account the nature of their warfare, their ignorance and insubordination, their dissolute and mercenary habits, and the total absence of any local or patriotic attachment; when such was the situation of Europe, what else could have been expected but a total and immediate return to the crimes and miseries of a savage life?

Yet so far from this being the event, we may view with wonder the virtues and the refinement which succeeded. Nay, more, to this period of ignorance and confusion we owe no inconsiderable share of our present blessings; from this corrupted soil sprung the fairest shoots of European freedom; from this chaos arose those goodly frames of polity, of which our own country still retains the last and proudest remnant. Such were the glorious effects produced by a sense of honour, as nourished and guided by the institutions of chivalry. For that this was the principle whereon those institutions depended, is apparent from all those contrivances to feed and elevate self-respect, those forms and ceremonies, those distinctions and ornaments, which were, in fact, the very essence and secret spring of their power.

The untamed and haughty warrior regarded with contempt the menace of impotent laws and a feeble sovereign; nor was he suited, either by temper or capacity, to attend to long declamations on the dignity of the moral sense, or the beauty of social virtue. But when he was told that cruelty was unworthy of a brave man, and that a knight should disdain a falsehood, when he was moved to virtue by his own admiration of himself, he heard a language which he understood, and an argument suited to his habits and desires. In every part of this wonderful fabric is a similar process visible. It is displayed in that rigid minuteness of courtesy which, however romantic it may seem, yet by the habits of benevolence it produced, was the cause of far greater advantages than the marshalling a procession, or preserving the harmony of a banquet. We discover it in that refined and delicate intercourse of the sexes, of which the ancients had no idea; in the constancy of their attachment, and the zeal, I had almost said piety of their attentions. It may be seen in that dignified humanity which so admirably tempered their native courage; which, in the warmest contests, and most inveterate feuds, preserved them untainted by that dark and atrocious revenge so disgraceful to the character of the ancient world. Even their single combats were surely preferable to the poisonings and murders of Rome, and in the "arms of courtesy," the preparation of the lists, and the other precautions against bloodshed, we must acknowledge that a true knight as he was, "without fear," so was he almost "without reproach."

And thus, too, was that lofty spirit of independence, which claimed en almost regal dignity, turned to the maintenance of public order. Their freedom was restrained by fealty, and to loyalty submission itself became a pride. Yet, if that authority which they thus adored, had imposed any order inconsistent with honour, they proved at once that it was the principle which swayed them, and not the form; that they obeyed themselves, and not their sovereign. When the Governor of Bayonne was commanded to bear a part in the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve, "Let your orders," he replied, "Let your orders be such as we are able to perform." His great soul, says Montesquieu, conceived a base action to be an impossibility. To this same elevation of principle we may also trace that strong, though untutored zeal for Christianity, which, imperfect as it certainly appears, was no small advantage in the peculiar dangers of the time.

Nor though the bigotry of the feudal ages has been much insisted on, can we find in the general habits of the people much of that illiberal hatred with which they have been charged. The Saracens, in particular, seem to have been regarded with no ungenerous animosity, and in their histories and romances we often find distinguished mention of a Saladin, a Palamedes, or a Sultan of Olifarne. But in this, as in most other points, the spirit of chivalry had a constant reference to a love of glory, and what they believed the interests of the Christian religion. "For as the priesthood was instituted for the divine service" (they are the words of Alonzo the Fifth of Portugal) "so was chivalry for the maintenance of religion and justice. A knight should be the guardian of orphans and widows; the father of the poor; and the prop of those who have no other support. They who do not act thus are unworthy to bear the name."

These glorious instances of the virtue of our ancestors, while they ought to excite our warmest emulation, evince that even the absurdities of a chivalrous sense of honour had no small effect in softening the ferocity, and refining the manners of the world. They do more; they prove that a great and beneficial change had been accomplished (a change to effect which honour was by itself incompetent) by the influence of that pure religion, which superstition might obscure, but could never entirely efface.

We have not attempted to follow the sense of honour through all its principal bearings, its nature, its propriety, its effects on individuals, and above all, on nations. It appears that in every age, and under every form of government, it has been productive of great, though not unmingled happiness and glory. In the remarkable period of chivalry, we have seen it supplying the place of law, of civilization, and philosophy; and elevating the rude warriors of the north to virtues which the Greeks and Romans were unable and unworthy to comprehend. It has, how ever, been admitted, that, while we gaze at the advantages, we are not to overlook the danger; and that self-respect can claim no good effects unless moderate in its degree, and wise in its direction.

To obtain this desirable end, no means are so effectual as a deep and steady conviction of the perfect insignificance of every human motive, when put in competition with the eternal claims of reason and virtue.

To a religious sense, indeed, the very praises of a sense of honour must prove its inferiority. Excellent and noble as it sometimes appears, we can only give it credit as a useful secondary motive, a powerful human engine, which derives all its value from being employed in the cause of virtue. Even when well directed there is always room to apprehend, that dignity may degenerate into punctiliousness, and honour into a selfish and lazy pride. Its direction is, however, of most importance; and when we consider that this must entirely depend on the desires or prejudices of those on whose opinion we form our own, we cannot expect in such local and variable laws, a steady criterion of right or wrong, or a code of general morality.

As an auxiliary impulse it may be allowed; as a final object never. There are, it must always be remembered, there are occasions when the friendship of the world must be rejected and despised. In the mist and obscurity of our voyage, we may be allowed the aid of human invention, and may steer our course by the time piece or the compass; but let us not, as we value our safety, let us not forget to correct and regulate their imperfect authority, by a constant reference to those Celestial Lights, whose truth no man can impeach, and whose laws are the laws of eternity.


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