30 Mar 2023

A matter of honour

Our ancestors made much of their honour and reputation; indeed, they took insults with the utmost seriousness, and sometimes felt obliged to challenge their antagonists to duels in order to defend their reputation. The practices of duelling were elaborate and codified: the offended party sent a challenge through his ‘second’, who was chosen to represent his interests throughout the affair. If the recipient chose to meet the challenge with an apology, it was usually accepted, and the affair was forgotten. If he refused, and accepted the challenge, it was up to the recipient to choose his own second and select the place of combat and the type of weapons used. Right up to the encounter, the seconds for each party attempted to mediate and prevent violence.

The purpose of the duel was not necessarily to kill, but to gain ‘satisfaction’, that is to restore one’s honour by being willing to risk one’s life for it. In the 17th and 18th centuries duels were fought with rapiers or swords, but over the course of the 18th century duelling pistols became the most popular weapon.

In the age of Enlightenment duelling was increasingly seen as an unfortunate relic of Britain’s medieval past. With increasing industrialisation, wide-circulation newspapers, and a growing tendency to have recourse to the libel courts rather than pistols, duelling became marginalised as an arcane aristocratic pastime, which had no place in the modern world. The last-known fatal duel between Englishmen occurred in 1845; from that point on antagonists had to find other means of resolving matters of honour.

Throughout the long, drawn-out demise of duelling, many voices were raised against the primitive practice, including that of our favourite 18th-century etiquette expert, the Rev Dr John Trusler. While he accepted in his Principles of Politeness (1775) that in certain circumstances duelling was inevitable, he argued that in many cases it could be avoided, and recommended ways in which disputes could be defused and smoothed over before they turned violent. Inevitably, these methods involved displaying a devastating civility, wielding impeccable manners as a weapon, rather than the sword or duelling pistol:

In the course of life, we shall find it necessary very often to put on a pleasing countenance when we are exceedingly displeased; we must frequently seem friendly when we are quite otherwise. I am sensible it is difficult to accost a man with smiles who we know to be our enemy: but what is to be done? On receiving an affront, if you cannot be justified in knocking the offender down, you must not notice the offence; for, in the eye of the world, taking an affront calmly is considered as cowardice.”

This wily and pragmatic advice is to effectively turn the other cheek. Given that, if you publicly acknowledge an affront and do not act upon it you will be condemned as a coward, it is safe and sensible to ignore affronts if possible and put on a ‘pleasing countenance’.

If fools should attempt at any time to be witty upon you, the best way is not to know their witticisms are levelled at you, but to conceal any unease it may give you: but should they be so plain that you cannot be so ignorant of the meaning, I would recommend, rather than quarrel with the company, joining in even in the same laugh against yourself; allow the jest to be a good one, and take it in seeming good humour.”

Defuse mockery and laughter at your expense by joining in. A display of affable good humour will take the wind out of the sails of even the cruellest satirist, and laughing at yourself is always the best way of winning friends and gaining popularity.

Never attempt to retaliate in the same way, as that would imply you were hurt. Should what is said wound your honour, or your moral character, there is but one proper reply which I hope you will never be obliged to have recourse to.”

Retaliating in kind, or answering back, when you are the victim of cruel or slanderous accusations is a dangerous game as it makes it quite clear that you feel dishonoured and offended. If you make these feelings known, then you are escalating the situation and honour bound to act – in other words you will be forced to challenge your antagonist to a duel.

Remember there are but two alternatives for a gentleman; extreme politeness, or the sword. If a man openly and designedly affronts you call him out; but if it does not amount to an open insult, be outwardly civil; if this does not make him ashamed of his behaviour, it will prejudice every bystander in your favour…”

Here Trusler signals out the ‘open insult’, which was clearly a premeditated attempt to discredit and dishonour. He concedes that, in these circumstances, a challenge must be thrown down; but other insults, which emanate from the heat of the moment, misunderstandings, and possibly intoxication, should be met with exquisite, and mortifying, civility.

Wrangling and quarrelling are characteristics of a weak mind… pride yourself on showing it, if possible, more civility to your antagonist than any other in the company; this will infallibly bring over all the loafers to your side, and the person you are contending with will be very likely to confess you have behaved very handsomely throughout the whole affair.”

Perhaps the most sensible advice of all, Trusler contends that it is a sign of weakness to allow your self to be drawn into senseless disputes. If someone is trying to pick a quarrel with you, meet their aggression with faultless civility, and everyone – including your antagonist – will agree that you have behaved extremely well.

Duelling (and sensible advice against it) could only thrive in a society where notions of gentlemanly honour were strictly codified and adhered to with great tenacity. A gentleman’s ‘honour’ (his good reputation) was his most valuable asset, ensuring that he could move freely within the upper echelons of society, make an advantageous marriage and advance himself socially and professionally. If his honour was in any way besmirched, he was therefore compelled to defend it, by any means.

Looking at this dilemma from a 21st-century perspective, it is hard for us to grasp how much was invested in the sense of honour. While a personal calumny, or unsubstantiated accusation of corruption may land us in the libel courts, a sense of honour, or good moral character, seems to have become a debased currency for many people in positions of power. The idea, for example, that a person in power is “honour bound” to resign because facts have become public that severely damage his/her reputation, is not inevitably adhered to, and while there may be rumblings of disapproval, this refusal may not inevitably be fatal to a public career. Our duelling forebears would undoubtedly look on in consternation…


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