There is a remarkable difference between the civil laws, those jealous guardians of life and property, and the laws of what is called honour, which particularly respects the opinion of others. Honour is a term which has been the foundation of many long and brilliant reasonings, without annexing to it any precise or fixed idea. How miserable is the condition of the human mind, to which the most distant and least essential matters, the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, are more distinctly known than the most interesting truths of morality, which are always confused and fluctuating, as they happen to be driven by the gales of passion, or received and transmitted by ignorance! But this will cease to appear strange, if it be considered, that as objects, when too near the eye appear confused, so the too great vicinity of the ideas of morality is the reason why the simple ideas of which they are composed are easily confounded, but which must be separated before we can investigate the phenomena of human sensibility; and the intelligent observer of human nature will cease to be surprised, that so many ties, and such an apparatus of morality, are necessary to the security and happiness of mankind.
Honour, then, is one of those complex ideas which are an aggregate not only of simple ones, but of others so complicated, that, in their various modes of affecting the human mind, they sometimes admit and sometimes exclude part of the elements of which they are composed, retaining only some few of the most common, as many algebraic quantities admit one common divisor. To find this common divisor of the different ideas attached to the word honour, it will be necessary to go back to the original formation of society.
The first laws and the first magistrates owed their existence to the necessity of preventing the disorders which the natural despotism of individuals would unavoidably produce. This was the object of the establishment of society, and was, either in reality or in appearance, the principal design of all codes of laws, even the most pernicious. But the more intimate connexions of men, and the progress of their knowledge, gave rise to an infinite number of necessities and mutual acts of friendship between the members of society. These necessities were not foreseen by the laws, and could not be satisfied by the actual power of each individual. At this epoch began to be established the despotism of opinion, as being the only means of obtaining those benefits which the law could not procure, and of removing those evils against which the laws were no security. It is opinion, that tormentor of the wise and the ignorant, that has exalted the appearance of virtue above virtue itself. Hence the esteem of men becomes not only useful but necessary to every one, to prevent his sinking below the common level. The ambitious man grasps at it, as being necessary to his designs; the vain man sues for it, as a testimony of his merit; the honest man demands it, as his due; and most men consider it as necessary to their existence.
Honour, being produced after the formation of society, could not be a part of the common deposite, and therefore, whilst we act under its influence, we return, for that instant, to a state of nature and withdraw ourselves from the laws, which, in this case, are insufficient for our protection.
Hence it follows, that, in extreme political liberty, and in absolute despotism, all ideas of honour disappear, or are confounded with others. In the first case, reputation becomes useless from the despotism of the laws; and in the second, the despotism of one man, annulling all civil existence, reduces the rest to a precarious and temporary personality. Honour, then, is one of the fundamental principles of those monarchies which are a limited despotism ; and in those, like revolutions in despotic states, it is a momentary return to state of nature and original equality.
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