Flannery O'Connor, the southern writer and insightful armchair philosopher, once agreeded with a friend that Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida is "odd" but "inspired."1 It is, to be sure, a difficult play. It lacks the unity of many of his other dramas and comedies in that it consists of two interrelated plots that give the play, at times, an appearance of being disjointed. Nor does the play achieve satisfactory closure: the play concludes with a kind of anti-climax and the audience is left uncertain of its moral teaching. It is certainly not a comedy and although it is a kind of tragedy, it lacks the classic elements of that genre.
W.H. Auden called this an experimental play, the kind of activity that creative geniuses such as Shakespeare can afford to engage in, activities outside of the their usual proven endeavors. The play at first glance seems thoroughly modern in the sense of being existentialist, if not nihilistic: it offers the reader a distasteful presentation of the sordid side of love and war, with no easily apparent redemption to rescue the actors nor the audience from the play's despair.2
The hope that normally would redeem a tragedy is difficult to find; on the contrary, the play leaves the reader not with hope but disquiet in respect to two important human enterprises, love and war. As Agamemnon observes, "The ample proposition that hope makes / In all designs begun on earth below / Fails in the promised largeness" (I:3:4-5). Indeed, the unpleasant lessons of Troilus and Cressida are subtle, and they must with effort be drawn out as one might coax a stain from a piece of fabric. It is difficult to find heroes in the play, tragic or otherwise. Instead, "Agamemnon is a fool, Achilles is a fool, Thersites is a fool, and . . . Patroclus is a fool" (II:3:56-7). Troilus is the central character in this play, and through his misunderstanding of honor in love and war, he, more than any other individual, approximates a tragic hero. Troilus' problem is two-fold: his most conspicuous is a kind of naïve idealism in his attitude to both love and war. He confesses this to Cressida, although in his view, what the audience would interpret as tragic naiveté Troilus presents as sincerity. In this, Troilus follows a predictable pattern of human nature: those guilty of dangerous idealism are clueless as to the vicious character of their self-defined "virtue." He fashions himself as one who is "'plain and true,'" but his character falls short of his shallow ideal.
Whiles others fish with craft for great opinion,
I with great truth catch mere simplicity;
Whilst some with cunning fild their copper crowns.
With truth and plainness I do wear mine bare. (IV:4:102-105)
Troilus second tragic flaw is his passion; it rules him, whereas his passion should be subordinate to the intellectual virtues, namely prudence.
The play does not presume to treat the whole of the Trojan War, instead it "Leaps o'er the vaunt and firstling of those broils, / Beginning in the middle, starting thence away / To what may be digested in a play" (Prologue 27-29). The story of the siege of Troy is one of the foundational works of western civilization, and its figures Achilles, Hector, Ulysses, Ajax, and others are usually portrayed as larger than life. In this play, however, they are ruthlessly stripped of their heroic pretensions. Thersites, the slave of Ajax, and "a slave whose gall coins slanders like a mint," is a kind of one-man chorus for the play (I:3:193-4). His bitter and mocking commentary serves "to match us in comparisons with dirt, / To weaken and discredit our exposure" (I:3:194-50). He is listed in the Dramatis Personae as "a deformed and scurrilous Greek; Ajax calls him a "bitch-wolf's son," a "whoreson cur," and a "a stool for a witch" (II:1:10). But if Thersites is a kind of chorus, he also unofficially plays the part of the Fool, attacking the pretensions and value assumptions of those around him; for this reason, Achilles repeatedly calls him a "fool" when he comes to the aid of the dim-witted Ajax, who is withering under the attack of Thersistes sharp tongue (II:1:1ff).
The play illustrates a situation in which military values are misued; specifically, I discuss here the way in which the concept of "honor" becomes distorted. The word "honor" and its related terms "dishonor," "shame," "fame," and "glory" appear frequently enough in the play so that one may reasonably argue that honor and the difficulties thereof was on Shakespeare's mind when adding this late play to his dramatic corpus. As we shall see, honor itself, despite prevailing opinions to the contrary, is not a virtue, rather it should be a reward for virtue. If the pursuit of honor is not guided by the virtues of courage, magnanimity, humility and prudence, then honor becomes distorted, contradictory, and as a military value even dangerous.
There are two sides to war: one side has recently been celebrated by the spate of books on World War II that glory in the unambiguous heroic efforts in Europe and the Pacific. These books include Stephen Ambrose's Band of Brothers, James Bradley's Flag of Our Fathers, and Tom Brokaw's aptly titled The Greatest Generation and its sequels. But there is a darker, existentialist experience of war in which purpose is lost and effort becomes meaningless. The monotonous brutality of the Verdun campaign of WWI provides just such an illustration, in which, according to one report, the endless slaughter that transpired in the stalemate at the French/German border was likened to human sacrifices to the ancient pagan god Moloch. More than 300,000 men were killed at Verdun, out of more than 700,000 total casualties. The author writes, "By any standards, the figures are formidable: almost one death a minute, day and night, for the ten months that the battle lasted, all over an insignificant strip of land. In another genre, that of cinema, the counterpoint to Saving Private Ryan is the nihilistic Apocalypse Now.3
There are several factors that can contribute to such as disturbing experience of war, beginning with the justice of a conflict itself; but in this play, Shakespeare suggests that a misunderstanding and misapplication of the concept of honor can lead to such military angst. But first, it is appropriate to note how Shakespeare depicts confusion over honor and dishonor in the enterprise of love; indeed, it is the concepts of honor and dishonor that ties the plays two concurrent themes together.
Judging from its title, Troilus and Cressida would seem to be a tragic romance, like Antony and Cleopatra or Romeo and Juliet. But Troilus and Cressida is really a story of infidelity: the unfaithfulness of Helen to Menelaus, which precipitates the Trojan war, and then the infidelity of Cressida to Troilus, which takes up the story's central narrative. And "romance" in the play is portrayed as being a pretentious kind of lust. The play is saturated with ribald allusions. The language of the play is replete with references to "whores" and "lechery." Cressida, the supposed romantic heroine, does not marry her beloved, as she would in a different kind of play instead, she only sleeps with him, and their tryst is enabled by her uncle Pandarus, whose very name suggests "Pander," an Elizabethan term for a pimp. The central relationship is thus reduced to a prostitute, her procurer, and her eager lover hardly the stuff of great traditional romance. Troilus complains, "I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar" (1:191). Pandarus not only sullies romance, he is willing even to prostitute military reputation in the interest of his pandering. When trying to interest Cressida in Troilus, she is distracted by Helenus. Pandarus, equivocates when she asks about the latter, afraid her affections will stray in the wrong direction.
CRESSIDA: Can Helenus fight, uncle?
PANDARUS: Helenus? No-yes, he'll fight indifferent well. . . Helenus is a priest. (I:2:214-15, 217)
At the end of the conversation, Cressida rightly remarks, "You are a bawd." (I:2:261).
The play's most tawdry instance of romantic dishonor occurs in Act III, Scene 2, when Troilus and Cressida realize their sexual tryst, made especially perverse by Pandarus' orchestration of the same, which he undertake first by ripping away Cressida's (admittedly thin) sense of modesty:
"Come, come, what need you blush? Shame's a baby.
Come draw the curtain, and let's see your picture.
So, so, rub on, and kiss the mistress.
Later Pandarus, inpatient that the two lovers do not satisfy their and perhaps his vicarious lust immediately, interposes himself yet again into their intimacy by demanding, "What, blushing still? Have you no done talking yet? "(III:2:45,48).
Cressida herself adds a tawdry tone to the scene with her brash sexual challenges to Troilus. She asks, not once but twice, "Will you walk in, my Lord?" and then taunts him further when she notes, "They say all lovers swear more performance than they are able, and yet reserve an ability that they never perform, vowing more than the perfection of ten and discharging less than the tenth part of one. They have the voice of lions and the act of hares, are they not monsters" (III:2:86). Though she pledges herself to Troilus, she is later unfaithful, and consequently receives the legacy she herself had invited "As false as Cressid' (III:2:182). As she is preparing to depart to the Greek camp in exchange for the Trojan prisoner-of-war, Antenor, Troilus senses she will be untrue to him given her first opportunity and so he urges her repeatedly to "be true" until they can arrange, through bribery of the Greek guards, to meet again.
In order to appreciate the squalid dimension of love in this play, it is sufficient to watch the character of Pandarus and Cressid as if Helen herself were not wench enough to steal all of love's loveliness. As Diomedes explains of Helen,
She's bitter to her country. Hear me, Paris:
For every false drop in her bawdy veins
A Grecian's life hath sunk; for every scruple
Of her contaminated carrion weight
A Trojan hath been slain. (IV:1:70-75)
Honor, the Military, and Thucydides
There seems to be no more conspicuous nor important value in the military than that of honor. In the modern armed forces, one would think especially of the Marines, who in their anthem pledge to "keep our honor clean." Honor was a key if rarely defined motivation for the South during the American Civil War. The man most respected by both sides of the conflict, Robert E. Lee, confessed that he would do everything in his power to save the Union except sacrifice his "honor." On the other side of the conflict, Brigadier General William Haines Lytle based his opposition to the South's secession on "honor."4
The intellectual heritage of honor dates back to the earliest discussion of military conflict. It is a conspicuous theme in the Greek military historian Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars, where he explains that nations go to war out of "fear, self-interest, and honor."5 Honor also figures prominently in Perciles' famous "Funeral Oration," also included in Thucydides' history. In the early stages of the Peloponnesian Wars, the conflict between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, Pericles took occasion to honor those Athenians who had already died in conflict, and by so doing, motivate all of Athens to persist in the war in the interest of protecting Athens' growing empire. Thucydides begins,
Most of those who have spoken before me on this occasion have praised the man who added this oration to our customs because it gives honor to those who have died in the wars; yet I would have thought it sufficient that those who have shown their mettle in action should also receive their honor in an action, as now you see they have, in this burial performed for them at public expense, so that the virtue of many does not depend on whether one person is believed to have spoken well or poorly. (my emphasis)6
He remembers "our ancestors, since it is both just and fitting that they be given the honor of remembrance at such a time."
When the power of the city seems great to you, consider then that this was purchased by valiant men who knew their duty and kept their honor in battle, by men who were resolved to contribute the most noble gift to their city. (my emphasis)7
Thucydides emphasizes the notion, also found in Aristotle, that honor is an "external good," like wealth or pleasure, and he agrees with Aristotle that honor is superior to the other two. He notes that "the love of honor is the one thing that never grows old, and useless old age takes delight not in gathering wealth (as some say), but in being honored."8 Such honor is a reward men and women receive, not so much for what they say as for what they do. He explains, "Thus I have delivered, according to custom, what was appropriate in a speech, while those men who are buried here have already been honored by their own actions."9
Aristotle on Honor
Although Aristotle classes honor with wealth and pleasure as external goods, he, like Thucydides, indicates that honor is the superior value, the one most worthy of pursuit. He writes, "A consideration of the prominent types of life shows that people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor; for this is, roughly speaking, the end of the political life." Aristotle continues, "If, then, he deserves and claims great things, and above all the greatest things, he will be concerned with one thing in particular. Desert is relative to external goods; and the greatest of these, we should say, is that which we render to the gods, and which people of position most aim at, and which is the prize appointed for the noblest deeds; and this is honour; that is surely the greatest of external goods." According to Aristotle, the man of character should make the attainment of honor and the avoidance of dishonor his special concern, at least before consideration of other external goods.10
Aristotle then notes the unpredictable nature of honor, since its bestowal is dependent upon others; for that reason, he declines to equate honor however refined its pursuit may be with happiness itself, since, for him, the attainment of happiness must be an autonomous pursuit. A surer source of happiness, he concludes, is virtue.
But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honour rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something of one's own and not easily taken from one.11
Hence an important virtue in regulating the pursuit of honor is the important quality of magnanimity, megalopsuchia, or the state of having a "great soul." The defect of this virtue, that is the state of disdaining honor is the vice of "undue humility," or what might be called "false modesty," a lack of proper ambition. Those who go too far in the opposite direction are guilty of "empty vanity."12
Properly understood, then, the desire for honor is an inducement to virtuous behavior, for it is virtuous activity that ought to be rewarded with honor. Honor, Aristotle teaches, "is the prize of virtue, and it is to the good that it is rendered. For that reason, "It is chiefly with honors and dishonors," then, that the magnanimous man is concerned.13
There is an even more pragmatic function of the pursuit of honor in that it will prompt a kind of magnificence from those with the resources to fund public works and institutions:
And the magnificent man will spend such sums for honour's sake; for this is common to the virtues. Magnificence is an attribute of expenditures of the kind which we call honourable, e.g., those connected with the gods votive offerings, buildings, and sacrifices and similarly with any form of religious worship, and all those that are proper objects of public-spirited ambition, as when people think they ought to equip a chorus or a trireme, or entertain the city, in a brilliant way.14
The Trojan Battle Deliberations (Act II, Scene 2)
The Trojan's extended debate over the future of the war begins with King Priam announcing an offer from Nestor of the Greeks, an offer that includes a restoration of the honor of the respective armies,
'Deliver Helen, and all damage else-/ As honour, loss of time, travail, expense, Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed / In hot digestion of this cormorant war-/ Shall be struck out.' (my emphasis: II:2:2-6)
The king feels that the proposal should be given consideration because he then turns to the illustrious Hector to ask his response. Hector recommends compliance with the Greek request, since Helen doesn't belong to Paris nor the Trojans:
Let Helen go.
Since the first sword was drawn about this question,
Every tithe soul 'mongst many thousand dismes
Hath been as dear as Helen I mean, of ours.
If we have lost so many tenths of ours
To guard a thing not ours, nor worth to us
(Had it our name) the value of one ten,
What merit's in that reason which denies
The yielding of her up? (II:2:15-24)
Troilus, though, argues for staying the war's mindless course, using as his rationale a rigid conception of honor that knows no compromise. He responds,
Fie, fie, my brother!
Weigh you the worth and honour of a king
So great as our dread father in a scale
Of common ounces? Will you with counters sum
The past-proportion of his infinite
And buckle in a waist most fathomless
With spans and inches so diminutive
As fears and reasons? Fie, for godly shame! (my emphasis, II:2:25-32).
Helenus recognizes the fallacy of Troilus' logic and rebukes him,
No marvel though you bite so sharp at reasons,
You are so empty of them. Should not our father
Bear the great sway of his affairs with reason,
Because your speech hath none that tell him so? (2:2:33-36)
Troilus, though, cannot see beyond a jingoistic appeal to honor, showing no appreciation of the prudential virtue that would, through reason, evaluate his present application of honor. He accuses Helenus of cowardice as he continues,
You are for dreams and slumbers, brother priest;
You fur your gloves with reason. Here are your reasons:
You know an enemy intends you harm;
You know a sword employed is perilous,
And reason flies the object of all harm.
Even more dangerous, Troilus refuses his comrades the opportunity reasonably to judge his comparatively blind adherence to soldierly honor and machismo.
Nay, if we talk of reason,
Let's shut our gates and sleep. Man hood and honour
Should have hare hearts, would they but fat their thoughts
With this crammed reason; reason and respect
Make livers pale and lustihood deject. (II:2 37-50)
Troilus seems incapable of reasonable self-evaluation. He stubbornly insists upon his mindless Rambo-like pursuit of honor, demonstrating that he has no place for philosophic principle. He only appeals to rank relativism as he argues, "What's aught but as 'tis valued? (II:2:52).
Hector pounces upon Troilus' illogic. He denies Troilus such a nihilistic moral position by insisting that moral worth is in no way subjective based only on individual whim. He says, "value dwells not in particular will: / It holds his estimate and dignity / As well wherein 'tis precious of itself. And then with an allusion to Jesus condemnation of the Pharisees, Hector continues, "/ As in the prizer. 'Tis mad idolatry /To make the service greater than the god." (II:2:53-57)
As earlier noted, although the play's dual themes of love and war are distinct, they are not unrelated, and it is the theme of honor and dishonor that provides a seam between the two. At this juncture in these battle deliberations, Troilus rather abruptly introduces into the discussion his romantic aspirations for Cressida. He announces, with hyperbole, "I take today a wife"; yet he reveals that this choice is driven by his baser instincts his sight and hearing (representing all his senses, including touch), with no place for principle. He asserts that his "election / is led on in the conduct of my will / My Will enkindled by mine eyes and ears, / Two traded pilots 'twixt the dangerous shores / Of will and judgment." His senses guide the voyage of his decision, while his "judgment," that critical intellectual virtue, is apparently subordinate to his cruder faculties. For that reason, it is not surprising that his rationale for keeping Helen is also sensual. The Trojans should retain her because her "youth and freshness / Wrinkles Apollo's, and makes state the morning." She is a "pearl" that has "launched above a thousand ships. (II:2:93).
By this forced logic, Troilus is able "to stand firm by honour," though by this time his sense of honor has grown suspect. Troilus employs vocabulary reminiscent of Aristotelian-Thomistic moral psychology, yet, the hierarchy of his faculties and passions is all in disarray since his passion drives his will. Consequently, Troilus' vision is fatalistic, because driven by the passions, to which he is enslaved in both love and war, he laments, "How may I avoid, / Although my will distaste what it elected" (II:2:61-67).
He has violated Ulysses dictum on the importance of degree, which in turn follows the Platonic teaching in the Republic that the workings of the soul should observe the same order as those who govern, guard, and maintain the city. For Plato, those capable of the coolest reason should be entrusted with the greatest decisions and those gifted with the greatest passion should guard the city, subordinate to the leadership of the most consistently reasonable. In the same way, the human soul should be ruled by reason, with passion in its employment to give strength to virtue. But in Troilus' soul, the spirited soldier-like faculties have staged a coup d'etat, keeping reason under a kind of house arrest. Even after the prophetess Cassandra interrupts the deliberations forecasting disaster for the Trojans if they stay their present course, Troilus is unmoved. Hence, Hector, now exasperated, considers Troilus as the same kind of "firebrand" as Paris who stole Helen in the first place. Hector exclaims to Troilus,
Now, youthful Troilus, do not these high strains
Of divination in our sister work
Some touches of remorse? Or is your blood
So madly hot that no discourse of reason,
Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause,
Can qualify the same? (II:2:113-118)
Troilus' defense, by now predictable, is to appeal once again to his misguided sense of honor, and in this case, his logic falls one step level lower than before as he uses this idea of honor to justify a tautology in which morally questionable acts are justified by the honor to which one aspires. So, Troilus speaks of the goodness of a quarrel / which our several honours all engaged / To make it gracious" (my emphasis; II:2:123-5).
And thus, Troilus' logic must now follow to the twisted path to which his sensual inclinations and his distorted courage have led him: "O theft most base, / That we have stol'n what we do fear to keep! / But thieves unworthy of a thing so stol'n, / That in their country did them that disgrace / We fear to warrant in our native place!" (II:2:93-4) At this point, Troilus justification for keeping Helen is simply because she has been stolen and to let her go now would make the Trojans poor thieves!
While Troilus is driven by his passion, Hector argues reasonably from natural law. He explains, "Nature craves / All dues be rendered to their owners" (II.2.161) In this he offers a concise definition of justice, which is nothing more than a matter of those receiving what they are due. In this case, Menelaus is due is Helen, his wife, and so Hector continues, "Now, / What nearer debt in all humanity / Than wife is to the husband?" (II:2:161) Justice, in turn, is rooted in natural law, which keeps the passions subordinate to reason as it is exercised through the intellectual virtues, as Hector explains, "There is a law in each well-ordered nation / To curb those raging appetites that are / Most disobedient and refractory." And so these "moral laws, / Of nature and of nations speak aloud / To have her back returned." (II:2:200).
Unfortunately, Hector does not have the will to maintain his position and so he relents by agreeing to keep Helen. Hector's intellectual reversal constitutes a kind of philosophical tragedy in the play. Troilus, then, triumphantly reasserts his flawed, passion-driven logic by reminding the confused Hector, "but, worthy Hector, / She is a theme of honour and renown, / A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds." Hector seals his capitulation to Troilus, "I am yours, You valiant offspring of Priamus." (my emphasis, II:2:207-8)
Ulysses so-called "Speech on Degree" begins by Ulysses observing "how many Grecian tents do stand / Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions." (my emphasis, I:3:79-80). This hollowness is meant as a philosophical emptiness, or a "nothingness." This military nihilism seems to be the result of a moral vacuum of leadership, or better said, a moral vacuum within leadership. Ulysses argues,
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
Th'unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this center
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order.
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In nobel eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other, whose med-cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad. But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture!" O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick. (I:34:81-103)
In this passage, Ulysses, implies that, when moral leadership is not present nor recognized, then the means by which "evil" is corrected, and by which the standards of "good and bad" are maintained and enforced, are absent. Ulysses speech should not be understood merely as an apologetic for hierarchy; instead, it is meant in the Platonic sense that hierarchy must be respected so that those with the wherewithal to lead moral and intellectual virtue may do so. If they do not, then life becomes disordered like so many planets out of their orbit. Military enterprises may spin out of control, "beyond good and evil," no longer having the signposts of right and wrong. Leaders with the prudence character to recognize and enforce those signposts cannot be found. Without "degree", "man is reduced to the level of beasts."15
When society, military or civil, evolves into such a state, nothing is left to guide it than a kind of Nietzschean will to power, and in drawing this conclusion, Ulysses guides the argument back to the doorstep of the leader, since he is the one who will exercise this will to power.
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
The everything include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself. (I:3:116-124)
Ulysses describes the horrid condition that is the consequence of this degeneration:
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking. (I:3:125-126)
Eventually, the leader will be unable to maintain his position if it is based on nothing more than the will to power; moreover, the failure of authority occurs throughout the military hierarchy as The general's disdained / by him one step below, he by the next, / Exampled by the first pace that is sick /Of his superior, grows to an envious fever /Of pale and bloodless emulation. (I:3:127-134). Nestor praises Ulyssess' insight by concluding, "Most wisely hath Ulysses here discovered / That fever whereof all our power is sick (1:3:138-9).
Thucydides describes the nihilistic environment that evolved in Corcyra during that island's civil war. "War is a violent teacher," says Thucydides: it teaches people not only to be vicious, but to mask their vices with fine-sounding names." The course of this civil war was "cruel," Thucydides continues, as conventional notions of right and wrong were turned on their head, and people engaged in a kind of "double-speak" to justify rhetorically their behavior.
Civil war ran through the cities; those it struck later heard what the first cities had done and far exceeded them in inventing artful means for attack and bizarre forms of revenge. And they reversed the usual way of using words to evaluate activities. Ill-considered boldness was counted as loyal manliness; prudent hesitation was held to be cowardice in disguise, and moderation merely the cloak of an unmanly nature. A mind that could grasp the good of the whole was considered wholly lazy. Sudden fury was accepted as part of manly valor, while plotting for one's own security was thought a reasonable excuse for delaying action. A man who started a quarrel was always to be trusted, while one who opposed him was under suspicion."16
Matters were now judged relatively, with no more secure moral grounding that the shared misbehavior of the citizens. No one, Thucydides observes, "thought much of piety": "And the oaths they swore to each other had their authority not so much by divine law, as by their being partners in breaking the law." For that reason, "Evildoers are called skillful sooner than simpletons are called good, and people are ashamed to be called simpletons but take pride in being thought skillful." Consequently, once this confusion over right and wrong was complete, evil-doing became unrestrained: "Thus was every kind of wickedness afoot throughout all Greece, by the occasion of civil wars."17
Honor, Courage and Magnanimity
As Aristotle teaches, honor is in need of virtue so that it might be pursued, accepted, and bestowed "honorably." Three virtues are especially important in helping one to act in this way. They are courage, magnanimity, and prudence. Courage is the virtue most evidently associated with honor and is present in the most ordinary pursuits of honor: the soldier on the front line, the marine protecting his buddies in the amphibious assault. The honor in this case is the honor of the moment, of the hour, of the day even of the mission. This honor can only be obtained, generally speaking, if the soldier can successfully manage his fear. Aristotle explains,
What is fearful is not the same for all men; but we say there are things fearful even beyond human strength. These, then, are fearful to every one at least to every sensible man; but the fearful things that are not beyond human strength differ in magnitude and degree, and so too do the things that inspire confidence. Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will face them as he ought and as the rule directs, for honours's sake; for this is the end of virtue" (my emphasis).18
Magnanimity, the virtue that strikes a mean between false humility and boastfulness is necessary for the right pursuit of honor. Here we find the quest for honor occurring on a higher plane. This is the honor of the general and of the admiral who aspire to a career crowned by honor, bestowed in promotion to the highest ranks, symbolized more by stars on one's shoulder than a grateful companion in the trench. Magnanimity understood in this sense enables the individual to accept those honors due him, but not to chase after such recognition in an unseemly way. Aristotle teaches that the magnanimous man will not crave honor inordinately, any more than he would crave other external goods such as wealth or pleasure. He writes
...the [magnanimous] man is concerned with honors; yet he will also bear himself with moderation towards wealth and power and all good or evil fortune, whatever may befall him, and will be neither over-joyed by good fortune nor over-pained by evil. For not even towards honor does he bear himself as if it were a very great thing. Power and wealth are desirable for the sake of honor (at least those who have them wish to get honor by means of them); and for him to whom even honor is a little thing the others must be so too. 19
For the deserving individual to maintain the proper attitude toward honor is at times a tricky balance, for he knows he deserves it, and even more, he seeks it, but only in a balanced manner. Aeneas offers the admonition that he who bestows his own honor has negated its value when he remarks to the Greeks, "The worthiness of praise distains his worth / If that the praised himself bring the praise forth" (I:3:241-2). Aeneas seeks such an individual when he requests a warrior from the Greek camp to take up his challenge to fight Hector in a one-on-one contest that will represent the two armies in battle. He seeks a soldier, "That holds his honour higher than his ease, / That seeks his praise more than he fears his peril, / That knows his valour and knows not his fear" (I:3:266-268).
Aristotle admits that honor may be mis-assigned, since the "goods of fortune" tend to complicate matters. Thus those who are "well-born" often receive honor; even more, those with "power and wealth" who enjoy a superior position "are thought worthy of honor" whether they deserve it or not. But, "in truth the good man alone is to be honoured" even though he who has these other advantages may be "thought the more worthy of honour.20
Achilles, who reeks with the vice of excess that Aristotle calls "empty vanity," teaches by negative example how honor should not be sought. Ulysses notes what everyone knows when he says of Achilles, "Having his ear full of his airy fame, / Grows dainty of his worth and in his tent / Lies mocking our designs." (I:3:144-146). Without the advantage of virtue to guide his attitude toward honor, Achilles is like a bell that sounds loudly but out of tune. Rather than emitting a melodious sound, it is cacophonous, "like a chime a-mending,/ with terms unsquared." To be sure, Achilles so sullies honor that they decide against his fighting Hector alone, because, Achilles is already "too insolent," and if Achilles wins, the other Greeks should rather "parch in Afric sun / Than in the pride and salt scorn of his eyes" (I:3:371-2). Instead, they send the "dull brainless Ajax;" in this way, whether he win or lose, "Ajax employed plucks down Achilles' plumes." (I:3:387).
When Patroclus, Agamemnon, Ulysses, et al form a kind of delegation to visit Achilles tent and try to persuade their champion to resume the fight against the Trojans, Achilles refuses even to converse, much less negotiate. As the humiliated group stands outside his tent, they characterize Achilles' pride as a kind of sickness: Achilles is "sick of proud heart." He is "possessed" of pride as a man might be possessed of demons." It as if Achilles is afflicted with the plague as he is so "plaguy proud that the death-tokens of it / Cry 'No recovery.'" Ajax, who confesses he does not understand the nature of pride at all, offers to "let his humorous blood," but Agamemnon warns, "He will be the physician that should be the patient. (II:3:83;1149-150; 67-8; 173-4; 210-11)
But Achilles was not always so. After the chariot race interlude in Book 23 of The Iliad, Nestor blesses Achilles when he remembers the latter's generosity in honoring others:
You never forget my friendship, never miss a chance
To pay me the honor I deserve among our comrades.
For all that you have done for me Achilles,
May the immortals fill your cup with joy! Book 23, lines 722-725
However, now, Achilles imbalanced pursuit of honor has made him miserable. He can't decide whether to die young with glory or to live a long, but less illustrious life. Again, from the Iliad,
Two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy
My journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
My pride, my glory dies...
True, but the life that's left me will be long,
The stroke of death will not come on me quickly. Book 9, lines 499-505
In Ulysses' and Achilles' discussion of honor in Act III, Scene 3 Achilles admits his anxiety that the honor he so desperately seeks may escape his grasp, as water might run from his hand. In so doing, Achilles inadvertently suggests the Aristotelian teaching that honor is an external good, and as such is subject to the whims of others.
'Tis certain, greatness, once fall'n out with fortune,
Must fall out with men too. What the declined is
He shall as soon read in the eyes of others
As feel in his own fall; for men, like butterflies,
Show not their mealy wings but to the summer,
And not a man, for being simply man,
Hath any honour, but honour for those honours
That are without him-as place, riches and favour,
Prizes of accident as oft as merit;
Which when they fall, as being slippery standers,
The love that leaned on them as slippery too
Doth one pluck down another and together Die in the fall. (III:3:75-87)
Achilles, though, perhaps with his demi-god nature in mind, claims to be immune from honor's caprice, but the reader may be forgiven for remaining unconvinced, given the craftiness that Achilles must employ to insure he receives the honor he craves. He continues, "But 'tis not so with me; / Fortune and I are friends," but then immediately acknowledges that his companions "do, methinks, find out / Something not worth in me such rich beholding / As they have often given" (III:3:90-92).
At this point, Achilles may feel even more insecure for he turns to Ulysses, who has stood in the background thoughtfully "reading." Ulysses first explains to Achilles that honor is a response that others give when they are "heated" by an individual's virtue, as one might be illuminated by the sun; but, such recognition cannot be prompted by the one with such virtue. "No man," Ulysses continues, "is the lord of anything," even more, a man cannot even no for sure if his character or deeds are praiseworthy until he receives for them "applause." In another memorable passage, Ulysses explains that there are many heroic deeds that may never be recognized, such is the ephemeral nature of human reward.
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are
Devoured as fast as they are made, forgot
As soon as done.
That being the case, Ulysses continues by explaining that it is only "Perseverence" in the interest of doing what is right that "Keeps honour bright" (III:3:146-152). For that reason, Ulysses counsels Achillles that he "let not virtue seek / Remuneration for the thing it was." The implication of Ulysses speech is that one's understanding and pursuit of honor should be rooted in something more lasting than temporal recognition, since one can only expect that "the present eye praises the present object" (III:3:181). This implication is reinforced by his later assertion, which at once carries a political and religious connotation, "The providence that's in a watchful state / Knows almost every grain of Pluto's gold, / Finds bottom in th'uncomprehensive deeps, / Keeps place with though, and almost, like the gods, / Do thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles." But, Ulysses admits, this religious/political function is a "mystery-with whom relation / Durst never meddle-in the soul of state, / Which hath an operation more divine / Than breath or pen give expression to" (III:3:192) This means that, by definition, Achilles cannot control and manipulate the bestowal of honor." Perhaps as a result of this conversation with Ulysses, Achilles shortly thereafter admits to Thersites, "My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirred, / And I myself see not the bottom of it." (III:3:309-10)
Honor and Prudence
When Hector recommends returning Helen to the Greeks in exchange for a quick end to the war, he implicitly recognizes prudence expressed as "modest doubt" as the over-arching and guiding virtue of military deliberations. He says, "Surety secure; but modest doubt is called / The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches, To th' bottom of the worst." Prudence, sometimes called practical wisdom, is that quality that enables the wise person to apply his abstract knowledge in concrete situations. Aristotle, for example, offers as an example, Pericles, the Athenian political and military leader of the Peloponnesian Wars. Pericles is prudent because he is one of those who "can see what is good for themselves and what is good for men in general."21 Aristotle also implies that the pursuit of honor should be guided by prudence when he says that "men seem to pursue honour in order that they may be assured of their merit; at least it is by men of practical wisdom."22 Thomas Jefferson once explained to a correspondent that the "strongest feature" in the character of "General Washington" was "prudence," because he never acted "until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed."23
Ulysses, while gracious in his description of Troilus, notes that he is "not yet mature" (IV:5:98). When Hector less charitably address the hot-blooded Troilus as "youthful Troilus" he intimates what he makes more explicit a few stanzas later when her refers to "young men, whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philosophy because of the "hot passion of distempered blood" which renders them unfit to determine freely questions of "right and wrong." This is a reference to Aristotle's explanation in the Nichomachean Ethics that young men are incapable of consistently prudent judgment because of their immaturity combined with the zeal that comes of youth. Aristotle explains that prudence is essential for the man who wishes to act "with regard to the things that are good or bad for man."24 Even though someone may have theoretically sound ideas, without prudence, he is unable to put those ideas into practice, for prudence bridges between the abstract principle and its implementation. So to be prudent, one must first understand the principles that govern a given situation and then identify the particulars to which the principles are applied.25
Perhaps Troilus should not be judged too harshly for his imprudent behavior: Aristotle argues that young men in general often lack prudence because of their youth and inexperience. While young men may enjoy success if they undertake professions dealing with abstract duties, they still may lack the practical wisdom essential for other occupations. Aristotle concisely explains, "What has been said is confirmed by the fact that while young men become geometricians and mathematicians and wise in matters like these, it is thought that a young man of practical wisdom cannot be found."26
The theme of honor vs. dishonor is punctuated in the closing scenes of the play, first by Cressida's easy attachment to Diomedes, and then by the ignominious manner in which Hector is killed on the battlefield. Diomedes shows Troilus the logical conclusion of the former's attempt to promote an honor that is subordinate to the passions. Diomedes acts an an emissary to receive Cressida into the Greek camp, and when Troilus hands Cressida over to him, he pleads with the Greek to treat her honorably. But Diomedes, free of self-righteous pretense, retorts that he's entitled to what his lust dictates. He says, "I'll answer to my lust," and then ominously says he will give her the consideration she's due: "To her own worth / She shall be prized." All of this, he says pointedly, will be within his own particular "spirit and honor" (IV:4:131-134). Ulysses later notes the "amorous view" with which Diomedes appraises Cressida, and he Diomedes dubiously wonders about her character "of what honor" was she? (IV:5:282, 287).
Hector, who went into battle armed with his "fair worth and single chivalry," (IV:4:147) is caught with his armor down. Hector protests, "I am unarmed. Forgo this vantage, Greek." The opportunistic Achilles, however, with the help of his Myrmidons, slays him on the spot. He glories in his brutality: "My half-supped sword . . . Pleased with this dainty bait, thus goes to bed." (V:9:19-20). Then, he abuses Hector's corpse by dragging it about the battle scene. He instructs the Myrmidons, "Come, tie his body to my horse's tail; / Along the field I will the Trojan trail" (V:9:22-23). So much for honor.
At one point in this play, Pandarus acknowledges the obvious, that he is not in a "state of grace." He, claims however, among his titles, to be eligible for claims 'Honour;' and in this way, Pandarus' "honor" becomes symbolic of the sorry state to which honor has fallen (III:1:15). As with the rest of the play, it is a cheapened and dangerous form of honor. This is an honor that ironically leads to shame, as Troilus curses Pandarus at the end of the play, saying, "Ignomy and shame / Pursue thy life, and live aye with thy name!" (V.11.33-34).
Shakespeare warns us, through his "odd but inspired" drama Troilus and Cressida, that the possibility of such honor must be acknowledged, lest it lead those who follow it into the prostitution of love and bastardization of war, and they be accursed by Pandarus who threatens in the play's closing lines, to "bequeath you my diseases." (V:11:55). The antidote for such sickness is too put honor in its proper place, pursued through courage, yet tempered with humility, and most importantly, subordinated to prudence.
It is important to note that for the soldier or military commander who must resist the prideful pursuit of honor, the Greek philosophic tradition may offer insufficient help. For what may be needed is humility, which though present in concept in Aristotelian or Thucydidian ethics, does not play the prominent role it assumes in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whereas it may be second-nature for the great-souled man to moderate his desire for honor, great-souled men are rare. The more ordinary military leader may be more successful in cultivated a sense of humility, based in religious values. This seems to be what General George Washington, the great-souled leader of the Continental Armies, had in mind in his 1796 Farewell Address when he suggested that for a few religion would not be necessary to shape a life of character, but for the majority, the aid of religion would be indispensable.27 As the Proverb has it, "When pride comes, then comes disgrace, / but with humility comes wisdom"; and, even more pointedly, "The Lord detests all the proud of heart. / Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished."28
Without the appropriate traits of character to guide and moderate the pursuit of honor, the consequence, as history indicates, may be disastrous since a lopsided desire for honor may affect tens or even hundreds of thousands of troops. Ultimately, such a situation leads to disillusionment, despair, wasted human life, and a kind of martial nihilism in which war becomes "hollow" devoid of purpose and full of meaningless sacrifice.
3 James Bradley, Flags of our Fathers (New York: Bantam Books, 2000; Stephen E. Ambrose, Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest (New York: A Touchstone Book, 2001); Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (Dell Books, 2001); Patrick K. O'Donnell, Beyond Valor: WWII's Rangers and Airborne Veterans Reveal the Heart of Combat (The Free Press, 2001); Ian Ousby, The Road to Verdun: World War I's Most Momentous Battle and the Meaning of Nationalism (Doubleday, 2002); Winston Groom, A Storm in Flanders: The Ypres Salient, 1914-1918 (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002). href="#footnote3return">(Return)
4 Ruth C. Carter, For Honor, Glory, and Union: The Mexican and Civil War Letters of Brigadier General William Haines Lytle (University Books, 2001). href="#footnote4return">(Return)
5 On Justice, Power, and Human Nature: Selections from The History of the Peloponnesian War, Paul Woodruff, trans., Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983. href="#footnote5return">(Return)
6 Ibid, p. 39. href="#footnote6return">(Return)
7 Ibid, p. 40, 44. href="#footnote7return">(Return)
9 Ibid, p. 46. href="#footnote9return">(Return)
10 Aristotle, Ethics, p. 90; 1123b8ff. href="#footnote10return">(Return)
11 Aristotle, Ethics, p. 6-7; 1095b6-1095b26. href="#footnote11return">(Return)
12 Aristotle, Ethics, p. 41; 1107b17 - 1008a8. href="#footnote12return">(Return)
13 Aristotle, Ethics, p. 91; 1123b31-1124a24a20. href="#footnote13return">(Return)
14 Aristotle, Ethics, 1122a23ff, p. 86; 1122b10ff, p. 87. href="#footnote14return">(Return)
15 Christopher Flannery, "Troilus and Cressida: Poetry or Philosophy," in John E. Alvis and Thomas G. West, Shakespeare as Political Thinker (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2000), p., 166. href="#footnote15return">(Return)
16 Thucydides, On Justice, p. xxix, 90-91. href="#footnote16return">(Return)
17 Thucydides, On Justice, p. 91-92. href="#footnote17return">(Return)
18 Aristotle, Ethics, 1115a35ff, p. 65. href="#footnote18return">(Return)
19 Aristotle, Ethics, 1123b31-1124a24a20, p. 91. href="#footnote19return">(Return)
20 Aristotle, Ethics, 1124a20ff; p. 92. href="#footnote20return">(Return)
21 Aristotle, Ethics, 1140b6ff, p. 143. href="#footnote21return">(Return)
22 Aristotle, Ethics, p. 6-7; 1095b6-1095b26 href="#footnote22return">(Return)
23 Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, Volume XI, (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1905), p. 375. href="#footnote23return">(Return)
24 Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics, David Ross, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984). 1140a20ff; p. 142, 114ob6ff, p. 143. href="#footnote24return">(Return)
25 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1141b33ff, p. 146. href="#footnote25return">(Return)
26 Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1142a7ff, p. 148. href="#footnote26return">(Return)
27 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm href="#footnote27return">(Return)
28 Prov. 2:11, 16:5. href="#footnote28return">(Return)