Paul Griffin seeks to restore the politically incorrect concepts of honour and respectability to their proper place in society

Does our age not resemble that of the decadent Roman Empire? Their drama was sexy and violent: we have James Bond. They adored vast banquets: we have the Good Food Guide. The Romans gathered in vast arenas to watch men in conflict: we have the Cup Final. The Romans treated their state religion as a mere convenience. To quote Dr Edward Norman, they were Anglicans really.

This probably only proves that deep in any human being, whatever the state of society, you will find a fondness for sex, excitement and good grub, combined with a reluctance to confront the big issues of life. However, I do regret one feature that characterizes our own age more than any other, it is the loss of meaning of the word ‘honour’.

Concepts easily become fouled, and that word is no exception. It survives, but only just, and has overtones of keen headteachers talking about the honour of the school, or keen Mafia members talking about honour killings. It is used to indicate humility, as in the Birthday Honours List, or ‘It is an honour to be asked to address you’, but this is a long way from the old meaning of the term, which you can see best in Shakespeare and his seventeenth-century colleagues. Jokingly, John Donne wrote to the Countess of Bedford:

‘Honour is so sublime perfection,
And so refined that when God was alone
And featureless at first, himself had none…’

But later, he sums it up: ‘Being and seeming is your equal care…’ I believe the lady was well worth the compliment, which sums up the proper attitude.

Outward appearance

In those days it was not sufficient to be good; in addition, our goodness should be clearly visible. We should certainly do good in secret, but must not on that account neglect our general appearance. All ages have the problem of hypocrisy, but our own has the very common problem that we feel outward appearances are comparatively unimportant. Headteachers who still talk about the honour of the school find it a desperate struggle to persuade children to appear decent and civilized human beings.

Schools that teach proper history love to describe the hypocrisy of the Victorian era, when the word ‘honour’ had largely been replaced by ‘respectability’. To see this word as a mere cloak for evil is unfair. My own dear parents valued respectability. They wanted to be able to lift up their heads among their contemporaries, and although they were not particularly angelic, they valued decency and kindness, and imposed pretty firm restrictions on themselves.

The idea of respectability has in its turn become fouled, and we are in danger of losing a vital concept altogether. ‘So’, says a man to his employer, T am living in an adulterous relationship with the wife of another employee. What is it to do with you, or with how I perform my duties? I will thank you to keep out of my private life, and look after what concerns you.’

A vital concept

It is, by the way, when private lives become public that those involved continue to speak of their privacy. Worse, they may make that adolescent remark: T don’t care what people think of me.’ We in the Church have become only too accustomed to the privacy argument, and we no longer counter it with the concept of honour or respectability. They are politically incorrect terms, yet they signify a most important Christian principle. How on earth can we recapture it?

I would love to restore ‘honour’ to its place, now that the crazy business of duelling has dwindled to ‘I’ll see you outside’, and public horror of the term has subsided. Brutus, remember, was an honourable man. He was no St Paul, but he knew that he was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. He had – what shall we call it? -‘integrity’? Alas, we are already beginning to talk mockingly of people ‘bristling with integrity’. Long may we fight to keep these concepts clean.