INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY
Studying the First World War's origins, James Joll (1918-1994), Professor of International History at the University of London, offered this insight: "In the late 20th century we perhaps find it easier to conceive of foreign policy as being motivated by domestic preoccupations and by economic interests than by ... considerations of prestige and glory. It does not necessarily follow that the men of 1914 thought in the same way as we do." (1) To recapture that age which ended during the First World War, this essay analyzes the meaning of "honour" as a staple of European political philosophy. The significance of the "word of honour" is then located in the context of European courtly society, where a king's honour is explored in relation to that of his country and in the "international of kings" that was the European States' system until 1917-18. Attention is then directed to discourse about "honour" and "interest" as rhetoric of British foreign policy. It is suggested that the idea of honour was at that time consciously exploited for political ends. Examples are used to show that countries actually fought for honour, which is portrayed as one of the causes of the First World War, and directly relevant to Great Britain's decision to confront Germany in 1914. Thereafter, focus shifts to "national honour" as recognized by public international law, breach of which then met the sanction of dishonour. Attention is paid to wartime interest in a new legal paradigm and its reception by the governments in London and Washington. This is followed by a description of the architecture of the 1919 peace settlement, which embodied a new law-based order, antithetic to both honour and aristocratic diplomacy. Finally, the shift from honour to law is tested by looking at the discourse used at the League of Nations when Hitler unilaterally denounced key treaty provisions.
A. What is Honour?
An answer comes from French magistrate, parliamentarian, historian and aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859):
(1) It first signifies the esteem, glory, or reverence that a man receives from his fellow men; and in this sense a man is said 'to acquire honour' (conquerir de l'honneur). (2) Honour signifies the aggregate of those rules by the aid of which this esteem, glory, or reverence is obtained. Thus we say that 'a man has always strictly obeyed the laws of honour'; or 'a man has violated his honour'. (2)
According to German archivist and military historian Karl Demeter: "Honour can be either a condition or a reflex, subjective or objective: it can be purely personal or it can be collective." (3) Similarly, University of Chicago anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers observed: "Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgement of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride." (4) Honour is a manifestation of what U.S. political philosopher Francis Fukuyama describes when he points to man's desire for recognition: "People believe that they have a certain worth, and when other people treat them as though they are worth less than that, they experience the emotion of anger. Conversely, when people fail to live up to their own sense of worth, they feel shame, and when they are evaluated correctly in proportion to their worth, they feel pride." (5)
Honour's significance is something the 21st century grasps poorly, because as honour, the concept is now virtually obsolete and the "vocabulary of honour has acquired archaic overtones in modern English." (6) De Tocqueville shrewdly perceived that honour's obsolescence parallels the eclipse of aristocracy: "The dissimilarities and inequalities of men gave rise to the notion of honor; that notion is weakened in proportion as these differences are obliterated, and with them it would disappear." (7) Thus, the shift from an aristocratic to a bourgeois culture caused aristocratic honour to fade in favour of middle-class public opinion--the latter perhaps featuring as frequently in modern political discourse as did the former in previous times. (8) However, an important subset of what was once called honour survives today in the narrower concept of prestige among States. (9) In a detailed examination of the goals of foreign policy, French political scientist Raymond Aron (1905-1983) argued: "Political units are in competition: the satisfactions of amour-propre, victory or prestige, are no less real than the so-called material satisfactions, such as the gain of a province or a population." (10)
The Duke of Wellington probably never said "the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton," but elite education in Europe specifically tried to inculcate a cult of honour, in part to support the officer corps. (11) Thus, honour was identified as an essential component of "the genius for war" by Prussian soldier and writer Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831):
Of all the noble feelings ... in the exciting tumult of battle, none ... are so powerful and constant as the soul's thirst for honour and renown, which the German language treats so unfairly ... in the words Ehrgeiz (greed of honour) and Ruhmsucht (hankering after glory).... Has there ever been a great Commander destitute of the love of honour, or is such a character even conceivable? (12)
But, Clausewitz caustically criticised courtly 18th century generals so taken with "the conception, Honour of Victory" that they failed to exploit their triumph by vigorously pursuing the enemy. (13)
Proposing the Legion of Honour's creation, Napoleon remarked (May 4, 1802): "I do not believe that the French people love liberty and equality. The French are not changed by ten years of revolution. They are what the Gauls were, proud and frivolous. They believe in one thing: Honor!" (14) Similarly, Swiss historian Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (1818-1897) observed that honour "has become, in a far wider sense than is commonly believed, a decisive rule of conduct for the cultivated Europeans of our own day, and many who still hold faithfully by religion and morality are unconsciously guided by this feeling in the gravest decisions." (15)
The same bourgeois experience was recently described by Yale University historian Peter Gay who indicts 19th century honour-fixated societies for spawning hatred:
Touchiness on the great matter of honor was extreme. All significant aspects of life--rites of passage, social intercourse, the choice of a mate, orders of rank and precedence, even commercial transactions--were meticulously regulated and subject to obsessively enforced rituals. Affronts, whether real or trumped up, had to be avenged with the most extreme remedies at hand.... Men felt compelled to display and continuously reaffirm their manhood from the time they were striplings, to prove their hardihood, their sheer physical strength, and their tenacious endurance of the bodily suffering that their risk-seeking lives necessarily entailed. For societies living by heroic codes, prestige was the cherished aim, pain the necessary test, disgrace a perpetual threat; autonomy was sacrificed to the good opinion of others. (16)
B. Was Honour a Staple of Political Philosophy?
"Honour" was until the 20th century a central construct in European sociopolitical thought and a commonplace in works of law and political philosophy. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was a Florentine public servant, diplomat and political writer. Following a 14th century trail blazed by Petrarch, (17) Machiavelli deplored Christianity's emphasis on humility and heaven. He instead urged individual virtu (manliness, courage, pluck, fortitude, boldness, valour, steadfastness, tenacity) (18) to gain honour and glory--perhaps man's highest pleasure. (19) Machiavelli's writings reveal honour's several faces which are generally linked to virtu. According to U.S. political theorist Leo Strauss (1899-1973):
For Machiavelli, the honorable is that which gives a man distinction or which makes him great and resplendent. Hence extraordinary virtue rather than ordinary virtue is honorable. To possess extraordinary virtue and to be aware of one's possessing it is more honorable than merely to possess it. To have a sense of one's superior worth and to act in accordance with that sense is honorable. Hence it is honorable to rely on oneself and to be frank when frankness is dangerous. To show signs of weakness or to refuse to fight is dishonorable. To make open war against a prince is more honorable than to conspire against him. To lose by fighting is more honorable than to lose in any other way. To die fighting is more honorable than to perish through famine. (20)
Although Machiavelli was outstanding in stressing dissimulation and even brutality, he was entirely with his contemporaries in seeing honour, glory and fame as the prince's ultimate goal. (21)
The image of the "gentleman," including the cult of honour, was a Renaissance icon. (22) Italian historian and statesman Francesco Guicciardini (1483-1540) included many references to honour, good name, reputation, dignity, greatness, glory and fame in his celebrated Ricordi composed over the years from 1512 to 1530. (23) The emphasis on honour was also natural for Emperor Charles V who was steeped in chivalry as Grand Master of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece. When chided for failing to follow Julius Caesar in fully exploiting victories, Charles replied: "The ancients had only one goal before their eyes, honor. We Christians have two, honor and the salvation of the soul." (24) In entrusting Spain to his son Philip II, Charles advised (1543) Philip "to take as examples all those who have made good their want in age and experience by their courage and zeal in the pursuit of honour" and to study as "the only means by which you will gain honour and reputation." (25)
Some years later, French lawyer and political philosopher Jean Bodin (1530-1596) divided social rewards into the profitable and the honourable, with a preference for the latter: "For as a generous and noble minded man doth more esteem honour than all the treasure of the world; so without doubt he will willingly sacrifice his life and goods for the glory he expects--and the greater the honours be, the more men there will be of merit and fame." (26) This was consistent with the understanding of French magistrate and essayist, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592): "Of all the delusions in the world, the most fully accepted and most universal is the seeking for fame and glory, which we espouse to the point of giving up wealth, repose, life, and health, which are real and substantial goods, to follow that airy phantom...." (27)
In late 16th century England, Shakespeare's plays put relatively strong emphasis on "honour." (28) And, in the same English context, Oxford University Regius Professor of Civil Law, Alberico Gentili (1552-1608) included a chapter on "conflict between what is honourable and expedient" in his Three Books on the Law of War: "Honour (honestas) is so highly valued that it takes precedence over what is lawful, and may even be sought at the expense of a certain amount of injustice. For the sake of honour (honestatis caussa), says Augustine, we should give up what is lawful but would be advantageous only to a part of mankind." (29) A generation later, Dutch diplomat, lawyer and father of international law Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) discussed, with reference to wartime, "with what meaning a sense of honour (pudor) may be said to forbid what the law permits." (30)
English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was preoccupied with honour (31) which he carefully defined:
The manifestation of the value we set on one another is that which is called honoring and dishonoring. To value a man at a high rate is to honor him, at a low rate is to dishonor him. But high and low, in this case, is to be understood by comparison to the rate that each man sets on himself. (32)
French lawyer, political philosopher and aristocrat Charles de Montesquieu (1689-1755) identified honour as the key principle distinguishing monarchies, from republics on the one hand, and from despotisms on the other. (33) Honour was portrayed as monarchy's actuating spring because nobles serving the king, were motivated by the quest for position and precedence. But, Montesquieu also saw honour as a common code limiting the power and guiding the conduct of king and noble alike: "There is nothing so strongly inculcated in monarchies, by the law, by religion and honour as submission to the prince's will; but this very honour tells us that the prince never ought to command a dishonourable action, because this would render us incapable of serving him." (34)
German philosopher and mathematician Christian Wolff (1679-1754) provides rich evidence showing that the 18th century was incapable of describing the international system without referring to honour's vocabulary. Setting out the "duties of nations to themselves and the rights arising therefrom," his systematic treatise includes substantive paragraphs on "the necessity of not bringing disgrace on one's nation," "zeal for the reputation (fama) of one's nation," "what fame (gloria) is," "the fame (gloria) of a nation," "the desire for fame (gloria)" and "how far this applies to the ruler of the State." (35)
"Which man is insensible to the attractions of glory? It is the last passion of the sage. Even the most austere philosophers cannot uproot it. What are exhaustion, troubles and dangers in comparison with glory? It is a passion so mad that I cannot at all conceive how it does not turn everyone's head." (36) These were the words of Prussia's King Frederick the Great (1712-1786) who believed:
A good prince's true merit is to have a sincere attachment to the public good, to love his country and glory: I say 'glory' because the happy instinct which animates men with the desire for a good reputation is the real principle of heroic actions; it is the soul's nerve, awakening it from lethargy to carry it towards useful, necessary and praiseworthy enterprises. (37)
As early as 1790, British parliamentarian and political writer Edmund Burke (1729-1797) denounced the French Revolution's "grim and bloody maxims" as antithetical to a unique European notion of honour drawn from medieval chivalry. For Burke, "the spirit of a gentleman" was fundamental to Europe's civilization:
It was this which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power, it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners. (38)
C. The "Word of Honour" and Courtly Society
Keeping a promise as "word of honour" was similar, but not identical to the pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept) of natural and canon law, which for a long time were less effective than honour in encouraging treaty compliance by successors. As long as there was a sense in which treaties remained the contracts of kings, performance profited from dynastic honour as a recognized framework for a son's feeling bound by his father's treaty. This consciousness of family obligation alleviated difficulties about succession to natural law promises and transcended the limitations of the oath, by which a king could imperil his own soul, but not that of his son.
With honour, the context was neither natural nor canon law, but rather a related socio-religious norm emerging from the ethical and aesthetic ideals of the late Middle Ages, when--according to Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945)--the "thought of all those who lived in the circles of court or castle was impregnated with the idea of chivalry" and "permeated by the fiction that chivalry ruled the world." (39) Pertinent here is the emphasis which medieval chivalry had placed on vows, steadfastness, "keeping faith" and "remaining true to one's word." (40) This phenomenon was understood by De Tocqueville who perceptively saw the link with the key medieval institution of allegiance: "Every man looked up to an individual whom he was bound to obey; by that intermediate personage he was connected with all the others. Thus, in feudal society, the whole system of the commonwealth rested upon the sentiment of fidelity to the person of the lord; to destroy that sentiment was to fall into anarchy." (41) Huizinga was understandably surprised that Belgian lawyer Ernest Nys (1851-1920), after so much study of international law's history, (42) had missed the key contribution of chivalric ideas--including "fidelity to one's given word." (43) Huizinga was convinced by 14th century sources that "the system of chivalric ideas as a noble game of rules of honor" was linked to international law: "The origins of the latter lay in antiquity and in canon law, but chivalry was the ferment that made possible the development of the laws of war. The notion of a law of nations was preceded and prepared for by the chivalric ideal of honor and loyalty." (44)
The enduring focus on honour was reflected in the European obsession with reputation. For example, scrupulous treaty performance was seen as giving rise to "true grandeur and solid glory" by Charles Rollin (1661-1741), classical historian and former Rector of the University of Paris. (45) The importance of keeping promises was also affirmed by Francis Osborne, Duke of Leeds, who resigned (April 21, 1791) as Foreign Secretary after parliamentary pressure prompted Prime Minister William Pitt the younger to cancel planned naval demonstrations against Russia. Because the help of the warships had already been promised to Prussia's King Frederick William II, Leeds saw personal and national honour lost by Britain's volte-face. (46) In 1864, future Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (as MP Lord Robert Cecil) emphasized: "One promise is as good as a hundred, and one disregarded promise casts upon the escutcheon of a country disgrace which is only increased in degree by multiplied repetitions." (47) Evidently, this was a sentiment understood by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911) who opined:
Aside from the duty imposed by the constitution to respect treaty Stipulations when they become the subject of judicial proceedings, the court cannot be unmindful of the fact that the honor of the government and the people of the United States is involved in every inquiry whether rights secured by such stipulations shall be recognized and protected. (48)
Lying for reasons of State was similarly condemned roundly by 18th century diplomat Lord Malmesbury:
No occasion, no provocation, no anxiety to rebut an unjust accusation, no idea, however tempting, of promoting the object you have in view, can need, much less justify, a falsehood. Success obtained by one is a precarious and baseless success. Detection would ruin, not only your own reputation forever, but deeply wound the honour of your Court. (49)
This rhetoric exemplifies the imperative of honouring both truth and promises that was a key ingredient of the chivalric archetype, perpetuated and transformed by the "courtly-aristocratic" society, which held sway in Europe until mostly swept away during the First World War. (50)
D. Was the King's Honour Nationalized?
By the 18th century, the very old notion of the king's honour had mingled with the closely related idea of the honour of the State or nation. (51) According to De Tocqueville: "In some nations the monarch is regarded as a personification of the country; and the fervor of patriotism being converted into the fervor of loyalty, they take a sympathetic pride in his conquests, and glory in his power." (52) For example, King George III explicitly identified his personal honour with that of Britain--a sentiment seconded by the pseudonymous Junius: "The king's honour is that of his people. Their real honour and real interest are the same." (53) This link was no less compelling for soldier-diplomat and adventurer, Sir Robert Wilson who (1826) urged Parliament "to uphold with a strong hand the honour and interest of the Crown, which in this country are inseparable from the honour and interest of the people." (54) Similarly, Lord Salisbury said on Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's death: "The honour of the Crown and the honour of the country were in his mind inseparable: and in comparison to them, questions of internal policy occupied a secondary rank." (55)
Christian Wolff had already taught that "the ruler of a state ought to direct the royal acts to the glory of his nation (gloria Gentis), consequently to do nothing to diminish or destroy it." (56) For him, fame (gloria) meant "ein grosser Nahme" (a great name): "Fame (gloria) is primarily and of itself attributed to the nation, because it is considered as a single person, which has its own actions dependent upon intellectual and moral virtues; but even more is it attributed to it, because the renown (laus) of individuals is passed over to it on account of acts or deeds which are considered as those of the individuals." (57) Similarly, Charles Jenkinson (later 1st Lord Liverpool) was in 1758 comfortable declaiming: "Great and wise governments have always been jealous of national glory: it is an active principle, which properly cultivated, operates in virtuous actions through every member of the State. To preserve this in its purity is the duty of everyone who loves his country." (58)
It was entirely natural for France's new National …