Friday, July 22, 2011

23rd July 2011

The value of honour

The Murdoch family keep on saying ‘sorry’, but the popular feeling is that they should be saying they feel ashamed. That, however, suggests they have a sense of shame in the first place.

For Homer’s heroes, shame (aidôs) and its counterpart honour (timê) were the two most powerful forces that controlled their behaviour on and off the battlefield. Aidôs was an emotion, derived from heroes’ image of themselves, that was acutely responsive to the way other people thought about them. The major difference with our world is that Homeric aidôs was prospective. It was not what you felt after you had failed; it is what you summoned up to ensure you did not fail. ‘Put aidôs in your hearts’, Homeric heroes urged on their men, as they went into battle. ‘I shall not retreat like a coward’, said Trojan Hector to his wife Andromache. ‘I would feel aidôs before the Trojan men and long-gowned women if I did.’

The root of the word timê was financial — your positive value to the world you lived in. This lay in serving your society (and so yourself) by winning on the battlefield. It was desire for timê, accrued over a lifetime, that gave the heroes the chance of winning the greatest prize of all — kleos, the reputation that lived on after their death.

People’s reaction to Murdoch’s sleazy empire is equally Homeric. The word is nemesis — the anger a man feels at someone’s failure to feel due aidôs at what is understood to be shameful behaviour. This gets to the heart of the outrage felt at Murdoch and his journalists. For them, timê lay in getting the big headline story, irrespective of the consequences for anyone’s feelings. There was no glimmer of aidôs holding them back — why should there be, when the timê they desired was getting the scoop in the first place? Was that not their job?

That is the world of Murdoch and the rest of them — a world without aidôs except in its own self-serving, journalistic terms.

As for the police, whose timê is surely defined by their commitment to the lawful conduct of society, words almost fail.

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