Degree Is Shaked

Sociologists note among honor cultures a common tension between “ascribed” and “acquired” honor. By ascribed honor they mean the respect due to the holder of an office or rank, and, by extension, to the social hierarchy itself. By acquired honor they mean the respect due one who performs a duty well. The former may be described as “status” or “order” the latter as “function.” A king is due honor, regardless of his performance, and an able soldier is due honor, regardless of his status.

This is all dry, abstract, and explicit. The honor cultures described in these terms have an equally sure grasp of this tension, but express it, in livelier manner, through stories. Consider “The Judgment of Paris.” 

The story goes that Zeus had to choose the fairest of three goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. He delegated this frightening task to Paris, who had recently displayed his fairness by awarding the blue ribbon to Ares, disguised as a bull, over his own prize animal. Each goddess would award her selection with a gift: Hera would make Paris a king; Athena would make him a strategist; and Aphrodite would make him lover of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite, whose gift entailed his running off with King Menelaus’ wife, the cause of the Trojan War. 

We can unpack this. Each goddess’ gift was characteristic: Hera, as goddess of domestic order, could offer kingship; Athena, goddess of order and discipline in warfare, could offer martial skill; Aphrodite, goddess of the, so to speak, functional aspect of marriage, could offer sex. Paris chose sexual function over marital or martial order. 

Zeus might have known better. In awarding the prize to Ares-as-bull, Paris had already indicated his preference for function: if Athena represented martial order, Ares represented war’s disorder, violence,  and fury. 

Paris gave best in show to lust and violence. Marital and martial chaos followed. In taking Helen, Paris disrupted both King Menelaus’ family, and outraged his status as king. At the resulting war before Troy, representatives of status and function would many more times be opposed: Notably, here the fury of Achilles, the Greeks’ finest soldier (function), would encounter the scorn of Agamemnon, their highest king (status).

The lesson of the Judgment of Paris, and of the Iliad, seems to be that while function has its right to honor, it must always be made subordinate to status. Shakespeare agrees. In Troilus and Cressida, his Ulysses has this to say of the fortunes of Greek arms at Troy (note that Shakespeare’s word for status is “degree”):

O, when degree is shaked,

Which is the ladder to all high designs,

Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,

Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,

Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,

The primogenitive and due of birth,

Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,

But by degree, stand in authentic place?

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets

In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters

Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores

And make a sop of all this solid globe:

Strength should be lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead:

Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,

Between whose endless jar justice resides,

Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Then every thing includes 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. Great Agamemnon,

This chaos, when degree is suffocate,

Follows the choking.

The Iliad has a strident warning for any culture in which function predominates. There is every indication that ours is one such (among which is our preference for the explicit and abstract, with which we began), something I’ve had occasion to think about while following the chatter about Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Both the pro-choice and pro-life arguments seem couched exclusively in terms of function: viability, sentience, heart beats, sensibility to pain, bodily autonomy, etc. When status is without honor, life itself has to be earned, by pain or pulmonary circulation. Perversely, I remember these Morrissey lyrics:

If you’re wondering why

All the love that you long for eludes you

And people are rude and cruel to you

I’ll tell you why

You just haven’t earned it yet, baby

You just haven’t earned it, son

You just haven’t earned it yet, baby

You must suffer and cry for a longer time

You just haven’t earned it yet, baby

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