What is the meaning of "honesty" and "honest"?

                                                  20 questions still stand unanswered... (read more)

"A man he is of honesty and trust," Othello says of Jago (I.iii.284).  And shortly afterwards he addresses him: "Honest Iago,/My Desdemona must I leave to thee." (I.iii.294).  Othello again: "Iago is most honest" (III.i.6), and again: "Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving,/Speak, who began this?" (II.iii.168-9) Not long after Othello says: "I know, Iago,/Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter." (II.iii.238-9). And when, still in the same scene, Cassio exclaims: "Reputation, reputation, I ha' lost my reputation! I ha' lost the immortal part, sir, of myself, and what remains is bestial; my reputation, Iago, my reputation!, (II.iii.254-6)  Iago answers: "As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound, there is more offence in that than in reputation; reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit, and lost without deserving." (II.iii.258-62). Cassio takes his leave from Iago: "Good night, honest Iago. (II.iii.26).

            Within one single scene, II.iii, Iago is four times called "honest", twice by Othello, once by Cassio, and once by himself. If one is so obviously honest, it is astonishing it need be repeated so often.  Moreover, Iago is not honest when he assures Cassio that the loss of reputation means so little. In a later reply to Othello he empathically takes a radically opposite stand: "Good name in man and woman 's dear, my lord;/Is the immediate jewel of our souls;/Who steals my purse, steals trash, 'tis something, nothing,/'twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands./But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed." (III.iii.159-65).

            At this juncture it is useful to remember how many meanings the words "honesty" and "honest" could denote in the 16th and 17th centuries and to refer another time to the many meanings William Cotgrave lists for the French adjective honneste in his French-English dictionary (1611): honest, good, virtuous; just, upright, sincere; gentle, civil, , courteous, worthy, noble, honorable, of good reputation, comelic, seemelic, handsome, wellbefitting. "Honest" could mean "of good reputation", which is the same as "good name". So, in front of Cassio, Iago maintains that the loss of reputation is of no great weight, in front of Othello, on the contrary, he calls it "the immediate jewel of our souls."

            In both cases it is honesty that is at stake,  yet, not "honesty" in the narrow modern sense of "sincerity", "truthfulness"  but in the sense of "honest behaviour", a qualification which was entirely dependent on the opinion of others, not on the values a particular individual himself might think worth living up to. Honesty was a social norm. It is also useful to remeber the words of the French moralist Piere Nicole on who decided  whether someone was honest or dishonest in this broad behavioral sense: "In Nicole's view, civilité, is one of those 'simple laws of decorum, whose authority originates in a consensus among people who have agreed to condemn those who do not obey them... This is why we owe to those around us the civilities laid down by the honnêtes gens, even though they may not be governed by clearly stated laws."[1] Iago, it seems, is accounted an honest man, a man of worldly wisdom whose judgment is sought for by both Cassio and Othello. When he introduces his advice to Cassio with the phrase "As I am an  honest man," he is not speaking of honesty in the sense of sincerity but as a man of honest carriage who controls his passions and only speaks after careful consideration. In his The Courtier's Manual Oracle, or, the Art of Prudence, also translated under the title The Art of Worldly Wisdom (first Spanish edition in 1653), the Spanish moralist Balthasar Gracián (1601-1658) "A Man never taken in passion: Is a mark of the sublimest reach of wit, seeing thereby a man puts himself above all vulgar impressions. It is the greatest of Dominions to rule one's self and passions."[2] It is because Iago never seems to speak inconsiderately that Othello trusts him: "And for I know thou art full of love and honesty/ And weighest thy words before thou give'em breath" (III.iii.122-3).  It was one of the standards of honesty set by Sir Thomas Elyot In The Book, named the Governor: "nor in speech outrageous or arrogant, but in honourable and sober demeanour, deliberate and grave pronunciation, words clean and facile, void of rudeness and dishonesty".

            In none of the instances quoted above is "honesty" or "honest" to be understood as "sincerity". It is the mode of behaving of a man-of-the-world. As such, Iago is sort of guide to the soldier and the Moorish outsider.  Cunningly, he advises Othello not to be carried away by his passions in his dealing with Desdemona, suspected of adultery: "I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion,/ I do repent that I put it to you." (III.iii.397-8).

            "Honest Iago" is, indeed, honest, of proper societal behaviour, that is.  And at the same time profoundly dishonest, insincere.

© Robert Detobel 2011

What is the meaning of "honesty" and "honest"(2)

[1] Quoted from Stanton, Domna C. The Aristocrat as Art. A Study of the Honnête Homme and the Dandy in Seventeenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. New York, 1980, p. 131.

[2] Gracián,  Balthasar,  The Courtier's Manual Oracle, or, the Art of Prudence,  London, 1685,  Maxime VIII, http://www.des.emory.edu/mfp/Gracian/Gracian1685Part1.pdf