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

From 1565 to 1575 Torquato Tasso was living at the court of Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara. In that period he wrote the two works on which his fame mainly rests: Aminta (1573) and Jerusalem Delivered (1575).  At the first signs of mental disorder, he left the court, but returned to Ferrara in 1579. In that year Duke Alfonso married  Margherita Gonzaga. Tasso seemed to have insulted the duchess and other people  at court. He was thereupon confined to the hospital of Sant' Anna, which was more of an asylum or even a prison than a hospital, where he remained till 1585. There is little reason not to believe that Tasso was suffering from mental disease. Michel de Montaigne visited Tasso in 1580 during his journey to Italy. We have Montaigne's testimony of Tasso's piteous state in the second volume of his Essays. However, there can be no doubt that Tasso enjoyed sustained periods of mental equilibrium. During his confinement he wrote a series of Dialoghi on courtly subjects: on "nobility," on "honest pleasure," and also the dialogue Il Mapiglio: A Dialogue on the Court. The dialogue is carried on between a young Italian gentleman, Giovanlorenzo Malpiglio (G.M.), and a stranger from Naples (N.S.), from which an extract is quoted here:

 "N.S. When a courtier has great intelligence, which sometimes happens, he ought to cover it up modestly, not show off his pride...

G.M. I think that it will be very difficult for me to seem to be what I am and not to hide what I am...

N.S. All the same, there is a melancholy created in some men by obvious excellence in others... and, whether out of politeness or respect, the courtier ought to avoid causing such melancholy when he is conversing with others and even when he is with the prince. The best way to accomplish this, moreover, is by concealment or, as some say, by keeping quiet... Prudence, then, is the virtue that overcomes all difficulties at court... prudence or, perhaps, knowledge of nature...

G.M. I see not only the outline of the courtier bus his complete picture, his portrait in color. And if that other portrait, by Castiglione, was made for his time, the portrait you have made ought to be prized in these times when dissimulation is one of the most important virtues.

N.S. But does an honest man dissimulate?"

            Iago says "I am not what I am." He hides his feeling... and he enjoys the reputation of an honest man because he is acting rationally in a courtly society to which Othello as a Moor and a soldier is a stranger. A passage in Norbert Elias' The Court Society reads like a periphrasis of Iago's words in Act I, Scene iii:

 "...affective outbursts are difficult to control and calculate. They reveal the true feelings of persons to a degree that, because not calculated, can be damaging; they hand over trump cards to rivals for favour and prestige. Above all, they are a sign of weakness; and that is the position the court person fears most of all. In this way the competition of court life enforces a curbing of the affects in favour of calculating and finely shaded behaviour in dealing with people."[1]

What Iago says in Act I, Scene 1, is not different:


                For when my outward action doth demonstrate
                The native act and figure of my heart
                In complement extern, 'tis not long after
                But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
                For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Were it not for his dishonest inner disposition, the chasm between "the native act and figure of the heart" and its "complement extern", the lines Iago speaks might identify him as the ideal courtier. In maxime XCVIII of his Manual Oracle Balthasar Graciàn advises the courtier:

"To dissemble"

Passions are the breaches of the mind. The most useful art is the art to dissemble. He that shews his game runs the risk of losing it. Let circumspection combat against curiosity. Cover thine heart with a hedge of diffidence and reserve from those who nibble too nicely at words. Let them never know thy disposition, lest they prevent thee either by contradiction or flattery."

For, so Gracián's next maxim (XCIX):

"Reality and appearance"

Things are not taken for what they are but for what they appear to be. There is scarcely anyone that sees into the inside, most part of men content themselves with shew. It is not enough to have a good intention if the action look ill."

Iago also proves a masterly practictioner of another rule formulated by Gracián, the one in his maxim XXVI:

"The art of moving people's wills involves more skill than determination. You must know how to get inside the other person. Each will has its own special object of delight; they vary according to taste. Everyone idolizes something ... The trick is to identify the idols that can set people in motion. It is like having the key to someone else's desires. Go for the "prime mover," which isn't always something lofty and important. Usually it is something low, for the unruly outnumber the well ruled. First size up someone's character and then touch on his weak point."

In V.2 Iago says of Othello:

            I told him what I thought, and told no more
            Than what he found himself was apt and true.

Honor and honesty

            After having strangled Desdemona, Desdemona's uncle Lodovico ask Othello: "What should be said to thee?" Othello answers:

                                                    Why, anything;
                An honourable murtherer, if you will,
                 For nought did I in hate, but all in honour. (lines 294-6)

After Montano has robbed him of his sword: "take you this weapon,/Which I have here recover'd from the Moor," (lines 240-1) Othello says:

                                I am not valiant neither,
                But every puny whipster gets my sword;
                But why should honour outlive honesty?
                Let it go all.

The Arden editor M.R. Ridley explains this question : "Why should any concern for reputation remain active when honour in the true sense of an honourable life has been lost?"[2] This explanation cannot satisfy. Othello, wrongly thinking Desdemona was dishonest, has killed her to restore his own honor. Still after he has become aware that his suspicions were false, he maintains that he did it all out of concern for his honor. At this moment, his murder has already deprived him of his "honesty", his good reputation in terms of respectable behaviour. In IV.2 Emilia twice witnesses to Desdemona's honesty: " I durst, my lord, to wager, she is honest," and "For if she be not honest, chaste and true,/There's no man happy, the purest of her sex/Is foul of slander." In the same scene Othello urges Desdemona: "Swear thou art honest," and some lines later Desdemona says: "I hope my noble lord esteems me honest." The fact that Montano, whom he had higly praised in II.3 for his civility and wisdom but not for his valiancy and  whom in these lines he compares to a "puny whipster", a small insignificant person snapping a whip,  has snapped his sword, make the great general Othello feel as if after his honesty he has lost his military reputation too. "But why," he asks, "should I live on in honor when honest Desdemona is dead?" The phrase heralds the suicide he is going to commit.

                The word "honesty" (like the French "honnêteté" and the Italian "onesta") were derived from the Latin "honestas". The Latin word could denote "honor", it could also denote "propriety" or "decency".  It is in the latter sense Cicero used it in De Officiis, a book that exerted a great influence, among others on Castiglione's Book of the Courtier and Sir Thomas Elyot's Book named the Governor.  Elyot almost certainly borrowed the term from Cicero. Cicero's book has been translated into English under the title Of Duty; others have translated the title as "Of dutiful behavior"; another suitable title would be "Of the right behavior". "Honesty", as introduced by Elyot, is a behavioral category. Cicero's book also contains the phrase "cedant arma togae" (book I.77), "arms should yield to the toga", the dress Roman citizens wore in peacetime. Hence, the toga was associated with civil, not military matters. It was precisely Elyot's aim to lay down the educational prescriptions which should prepare the aristocracy for civil government; his notion of "honesty" was introduced in differentiation from "honor",  mainly associated with military behavior.  Against this background it can be no surprise that in the last quarter of the 16th century "honesty" and "civility" were being used interchangeably.

            Sir Thomas Elyot (1531) and Roger Ascham (1570) use "honesty" only in this sense, never in the sense of "sincerity", with which meaning it was also used. Their notion of "honesty" uniquely relates to outward behaviour. This outward honesty might proceed from a sincere inward conviction, but, in fact, this inward conviction did not matter. What mattered was outer, not inner compliance. Or to use Iago's words: it was not necessary that the outward behavior was the "complement extern" to the native act and figure of the heart". Even if a person inwardly rejected the rules of honesty, he could dissemble and play a social role correctly. He would then be true to the rules but untrue to himself. The ethics of a courtly aristocratic society were ethics of behaviour, not ethics of inner conviction or mentality. In such a society one could be at the same time inwardly dishonest and outwardly honest. As Iago is.

Honesty: inward and outward - Othello and Jago

             "I am not what I am. "Iago is not what he is because his social image shaped after the rules of outward honesty is totally different from his inner disposition. He is a dissembler. His personality is not of one piece, it is divided between his persona, the personality displayed externally, and the person he is internally. Hence, he is no individual in the etymological sense of the Latin word "individuum", something indivisible.

            Is Desdemona what she is? She herself denies it:

"I am not merry, but I do beguile
The thing I am, by seeming otherwise." (II.i.122-3)

"Beguile" here means "deceive" or "disguise", as in The Rape of Lucrece: "To me came Tarquin armed to beguild/ With outward honesty, but yet defiled/ With inward vice." (1544-6).

            To Iago, Othello "is what he is":

                The Moor is of a free and open nature,
                That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, (I.iii.397-8)

At the same time Iago knows this strength also to be Othello's vulnerability.

The same has been said of Shakespeare. By Ben Jonson. "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature."[3]  Therefore, Shakespeare could write in Sonnet 121: "I am that I am."

                But in the end Othello will have changed.  "Is this the noble Moor, whom our full senate/Call all in all sufficient?This the noble nature,/Whom passion could not shake?", the Venetian envoy Lodovico asks. Iago answers: "He is much chang'd." "Are his wits safe? is he not light of brain?", Lodovico wants to know. Iago answers:

                He's is that he is; I may not breathe my censure,
                What he might be; if, as he might, he is not,
                I would to heaven he were! (IV.i.260-8)

Finally, when in the last act Lodovico asks: "Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?, Othello answers: "That's he that was Othello; here I am." (V.ii.285).

                It is the work of Iago.

Iago's motive

                What makes Iago so bent on Othello's destruction? Three times in the play, an allusion is made that Iago's wife Emilia would have had a love affair with Othello. Emilia denies it:

                O, fie upon them! Some such squire he was
                That turn'd your wit the seamy side without,
                And made you to suspect me with the Moor. (IV.ii.147-9).

Iago talks himself into the belief this was so:

                For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
                Hath leap'd into my seat; the thought whereof
                Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards,
                And nothing can or shall content my soul
                Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife. (II.i.290-4)

Yet, he does not believe it really:

                                                                I hate the Moor,
                And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
                He's done my office. I know not if't be true,
                But I for mere suspicion in that kind
                Will do as if for surety. (I.iii.384-8).

If Iago is compelled to kindle his hatred for Othello by some concrete pretext he himself does not really believe, we may assume that some unconscious motive is moving him.  And it can hardly be the fact that Cassio has been preferred as lieutenant: it is too palpable a reason. Surely, it does not please Iago, but he lays relatively little store by that.  "Iago," A.D. Nuttall writes, "has successfully induced a violent emotion in himself, but it is wholly factitious, and he knows what he has done. This means that the origins of his action remain completely obscure. Coleridge's famous phrase, 'the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity,' is brilliantly exact."[4]

                Are the origins of his action "completely obscure"? Is Coleridge's phrase "brilliantly exact"? Shakespeare never leaves us completely in the dark - if we read him attentively enough, even pedantically attentively. We should recall Tasso's phrase: "there is a melancholy created in some men by obvious excellence in others." Othello's excellence is his "free and open nature". He is that the is. Iago is not what he is. He lives his "outward honesty", the seat of his "inward personality" is barren, empty, sacrificed to his social role. Othello "gnaws his inwards," has Shakespeare Iago say. In Iago's mind, Othello occupies the void Iago has himself created by letting his social person gnaw away his inward. Iago is inwardly possessed, demonized by Othello. Hence, his élan vital is that Othello be evacuated from his inward.

                He's is that he is; I may not breathe my censure,
                What he might be; if, as he might, he is not,
                I would to heaven he were!

© Robert Detobel 2011

What is the meaning of „honesty” and „honest”? (3)

[1] Elias, Norbert, Die hoefische Gesellschaft, Frankfurt/Main, 1992, p. 169. English translation taken from http://books.google.de/books?id=S4RVBcQO3SoC&pg=PA82&lpg=PA82&dq=Krieken+Elias+court+society&source=bl&ots=FsC4TMtT3d&sig=2iX_t5wBa6zQdZU5V3Zo5n2SFl4&hl=de&ei=q-tJTfHVGc3ssgap6dm-Dw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=Krieken%20Elias%20court%20society&f=false, p. 85.

[2] Othello, Arden Series, edited by M.R. Ridley, London and New York, 1994 (first published in 1958)

[3] Ben Jonson, Timber: or Discoveries; Made upon Men and Matter.

[4] Nuttal, A.D., Shakespeare The Thinker, New Haven and London, p. 282.