The Principle of Honor: A Poor Substitute for the Real Thing
The chocolate cake is on the table. I mean the thick, moist, rich, exquisite, multi-layered chocolate cake. It has been divided so that each guest may have two pieces. As it turns out, one piece still remains because Jim arrived late and because Tom had already taken a third piece, mumbling something about “finders keepers.” By all rights, the last piece should go to Jim. But being principled, and fancying himself an honorable fellow, Jim says he’s not particularly hungry. After some back-and-forth, Sarah, feigning mild reluctance, takes the last piece. Throughout the evening, the topic of the legendary chocolate cake keeps cycling into the conversation, but Jim is unusually quiet and removed.
Honor is a fine attribute, but it is not had by reaching for its effects nor for what defines it. Such principles are surely effective, but the direction of their influence is from the outside in. At their best, principles train us to be thoughtful and attentive toward matters of high value. At their worst, they are dogma. Or another way to word it: you may put on the cape and the shirt with the capital letter S, but you still won’t fly. And to Jim I would say, “For god’s sake, just eat the damn cake and join the party.”
Honor—which is the theme for this month’s MythBlasts—accrues slowly, if not imperceptibly, in one’s character as an auxiliary effect precipitated by the likes of one’s nature, choices, actions, and destiny. In broader strokes, the relationship between genuine honor and honor-by-principles is reflected in the relationship between reading mythology and extracting its themes. For the myths do not provide us with convenient, bulleted lists of the themes they harbor (or the principles that can be deduced from said themes). And this is good because as such they become generic, sundered from their distinguishing contexts. Rather, to deeply understand a thing like honor, and to do so via mythology, its meaning must be absorbed by engaging the stories “as are,” in their fullest detail and in the span of their complete telling. Only then, through deep contextual association, do our extracted themes and principles maintain their highest value.
That said, let’s turn to Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, where Joseph Campbell hones in on the distinction between principled honor and honor that is genuine. In his forward, Evans Lansing Smith shares that of all original Arthurian-myth literature, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival is Campbell’s favorite. Being mine as well, I’d like to take a closer look.
Parzival is a knight of many quests, one of which is to find the Grail Castle, a place visible only to those who qualify. What determines qualification is a composite of possibilities: sincerity, skill, training, grace, destiny, luck, who knows? Many have ridden through the surrounding terrain, and even inhabited it for years, yet never get a glimpse.
The Grail King, also known as the Fisher King, is the keeper of the Grail, which in von Eschenbach’s narrative is a stone (as opposed to a dish or cup in other versions of the myth). The whole kingdom of the Grail has fallen into ruin because the king (who reflects that which he governs) bears a seemingly incurable wound to the groin. And here we can associate aspects of procreation with the Grail, which generates (apparently) anything out of nothing. For his wound (and, correspondingly, the whole kingdom) to be healed, the king need only be asked the one question: “What ails you?”
That’s it. No exotic magical potions. No elaborate rituals enacted in twilight under auspicious planetary conjunctions—simply a question. It’s an odd solution, this question. But it is precisely its oddness that invites inquiry. What it means is up for grabs, and there are many opinions. Campbell writes that “[Parzival] has accomplished the worldly adventure . . . and now has come to the spiritual adventure, the one of asking the question, one that involves the Bodhisattva realization of compassion for all suffering beings” (52).
I like this interpretation because it extends beyond a simple word-formula and into the emotional terrain of compassion, which implies a certain selflessness (which is, indeed, honorable)—something beyond the ego is at work, something nearer to the heart. However, when Parzival, after years of travail, does finally encounter the suffering Grail King and is compelled to ask what ails him, he does not because he has been instructed that a knight does not ask too many questions. And the quest fails. To this Campbell responds, “His nature prompted him many times to ask the question, but he thought of his knightly honor. He thought of his reputation instead of his true nature. The social ideal interfered with his nature, and the result is desolation” (52-53). And so, ironically, Parzival’s commitment to the principle of honor extinguishes any engagement or enactment of an honor that is genuine.
Principles, applied dogmatically, do not acknowledge one’s story—as in “my story.” As mentioned previously, they surely have their value, but not when one applies their generic quality to all specific contexts. We could say that such principles provide a kind of essence, but that essence is removed from the environment in which it thrived—removed from the context that distinguished the phenomenology of its suchness, its character. To a mythologist, this environment is nothing less than its story.
Fortunately, Parzival’s story isn’t over yet because he later embraces what Campbell refers to above as his “true nature.” For he manages to return to the Grail Castle a second time, a feat that was hitherto thought impossible—a feat described in the narrative as a “miracle.” But this time, seasoned by life-experience and wholly attentive to his context, he most certainly does ask the question and, yes, the kingdom is healed.
To this “miraculous” turn of events, Campbell emphasizes that “through your own integrity, you evoke your destiny, which is a destiny that never existed before” (79). Of all things, be they Grail-specific or not, that one insight is profoundly inspiring: that our destinies (i.e., our stories) are surely not written in stone, and that they can be inflected and redirected at any point if we simply embrace the fact that they are only and ever our own.
Sign up for our popular weekly taste of myth and its relevance today along with occasional news and special offers from JCF!