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359. The taming power of the small (IX)

As it turns out, honour is connected to self-respect. Men have self-respect and women have self-esteem; or, to put it another way, women are concerned about how they feel about themselves whereas men are concerned about whether or not they have lived up to certain obligations that they have set themselves—their mission, essentially. As with most sex issues, this also maps onto the left-right divide; the more feminine left talks about self-esteem—perhaps less than it used to do, but it is still there. A leftist activist once suggested to me that young men join the army and enjoy militaristic comics and films because of “low self-esteem”; and I could vaguely see a social worker giving the same explanation for a young man who had been caught burning down a bus shelter or similar petty crime. In short: “Girls with low self-esteem” versus “No self-respecting man would do that.”

Self-respect amounts to autonomous action, responsible action—it amounts to the ability to make and keep agreements with yourself, to set part of the psyche apart and have that as a “boss” or “driver” who forces the rest of the organism to keep agreements that have been made; and this requires you to accept reality. All men are self-made men in this sense; although their personalities are fixed they have to construct a character in a way women do not. Obviously, you work with the material you have to hand and so some men will build a palace, others a modest home, and some a cardboard shack.

Ironically, one of the better essays about self-respect was written by a woman, Joan Didion; except that it is more or less about a quality women cannot have; and to want it is anomalous—Didion, with her admiration for her pioneer stock, and, well, interest in self-respect is a woman inclined to the right; she has no natural children, she is a pseudo-man. Although Didion writes on self-respect very well it is more that she writes about something she does not possess and cannot possess; so she writes about sobbing when she puts down the telephone and about the fallout from intra-family feminine recriminations. Yet no man—no self-respecting man—sobs when he puts down the telephone, at least not in the narcissistic and hysterical way Didion means. So when she discusses self-respect it is always as a quality she can never have and does not really need. Do you really need a self-respecting woman? Is it even possible to say that and have it make sense?

So honour is a by-product from self-respect; if you have a lot of self-respect you have a lot of honour, lines you will not cross combined with a stoical acceptance as regards reality; if you cannot accept the current situation, you cannot act autonomously within it or have any self-respect. Of course, in our day the wider idea of honour has vanished; it has been melted down with everything else and, as noted, even to speak about it seems silly.

According to my old anthropology class, “honour” is primitive and unnecessary in modern societies with laws and police forces—anthropology is pretty much a communist subject, so…Honour is barbarian and pre-modern; ultimately, self-respect is as well—the state would prefer that you worry about your self-esteem, how it looks and feels.

However, the tribes are dead—outside Afghanistan, anyway—so rather in Nietzsche’s line honour today tends to be idiosyncratic. Those who are capable, those men who are capable, have to make out their own arrangement and there is no guarantee that everyone will put the same limits in place; there is no tribe to which to appeal. “He has his own peculiar code of honour.” That is a phrase that might as well apply to everyone in modernity—unless you seriously subscribe to those “core values” every workplace outlines at the HR induction, though nobody has slit their wrists over their failure to uphold diversity, equality, and inclusion; such honourless values.

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