Honesty could be seen as the art of not making excuses. Our principles include our values but they are in an inherent conflict with the value of humility. As Humanists, we do not imagine that there is a perfect cosmic order waiting to be discovered. We accept that life is messy. An ethical person navigates between a commitment to principle and humility; honesty, especially the willingness to confront the self and to change, is an essential tool in doing that.
Opinions are sharply divided about whether Abraham Lincoln was mainly a man of principle or of compromise. Two weighty and scholarly books, among others, have addressed that question.
- In Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1959), Harry V. Jaffa argued that “Lincoln’s appeal to the ‘self-evident truth’ of equality . . . provided the moral touchstone of the American republic.”
- John Burt takes a different view in Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2013), shifting the focus to the question whether “liberalism presuppose(s) agreement around a common moral core – all men are created equal – or is it merely a modus vivendi for people with different values and interests who consent to work together . . .” The author “reminds us that statecraft requires an attention to both principle and compromise.”
On principles on politics and affairs of state:
- Edward J. Watts, Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny (Basic Books 2018): “ . . . the principal purpose of his book is to allow ‘readers to better appreciate the serious problems that result both from politicians who breach a republic’s political norms and from citizens who choose not to punish them for doing so.’”
- Tom Reiss, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Crown Publishers, 2012): it stands to reason that Alexandre Dumas (père), author of The Count of Monte Cristo, was a man “whose devotion to the principles of the revolution never wavered.”
- James Romm, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014): “Above all, he embodies the central conflict of human life: Can we be good while engaging with the imperfect world around us?”
Film and Stage
- A Man for All Seasons: Sir Thomas More
- Born Yesterday, about a woman who was not as clueless as she seemed
- Shadow of a Doubt illustrates the interrelationship of sincerity and intellectual honesty, as a young woman confronts a brutal truth about her adored uncle
[In Les Misérables, Valjean has eluded the law for many years, established a factory, and become a responsible citizen. His newfound character is put to a severe test when his pursuer Javert believes that another man is he. Valjean has many reasons to rationalize another man to take the blame for the crimes of his past: many people rely on him. Hugo describes how the development of conscience has turned into high and noble principle, in Jean Valjean.]
We have already gazed into the depths of this conscience; the moment has now come when we must take another look into it. We do so not without emotion and trepidation. There is nothing more terrible in existence than this sort of contemplation. The eye of the spirit can nowhere find more dazzling brilliance and more shadow than in man; it can fix itself on no other thing which is more formidable, more complicated, more mysterious, and more infinite. There is a spectacle more grand than the sea; it is heaven: there is a spectacle more grand than heaven; it is the inmost recesses of the soul. To make the poem of the human conscience, were it only with reference to a single man, were it only in connection with the basest of men, would be to blend all epics into one superior and definitive epic. Conscience is the chaos of chimæras, of lusts, and of temptations; the furnace of dreams; the lair of ideas of which we are ashamed; it is the pandemonium of sophisms; it is the battlefield of the passions. Penetrate, at certain hours, past the livid face of a human being who is engaged in reflection, and look behind, gaze into that soul, gaze into that obscurity. There, beneath that external silence, battles of giants, like those recorded in Homer, are in progress; skirmishes of dragons and hydras and swarms of phantoms, as in Milton; visionary circles, as in Dante. What a solemn thing is this infinity which every man bears within him, and which he measures with despair against the caprices of his brain and the actions of his life!. . . . We have but little to add to what the reader already knows of what had happened to Jean Valjean after the adventure with Little Gervais. From that moment forth he was, as we have seen, a totally different man. What the Bishop had wished to make of him, that he carried out. It was more than a transformation; it was a transfiguration. He succeeded in disappearing, sold the Bishop's silver, reserving only the candlesticks as a souvenir, crept from town to town, traversed France, came to M. sur M., conceived the idea which we have mentioned, accomplished what we have related, succeeded in rendering himself safe from seizure and inaccessible, and, thenceforth, established at M. sur M., happy in feeling his conscience saddened by the past and the first half of his existence belied by the last, he lived in peace, reassured and hopeful, having henceforth only two thoughts,--to conceal his name and to sanctify his life; to escape men and to return to God. These two thoughts were so closely intertwined in his mind that they formed but a single one there; both were equally absorbing and imperative and ruled his slightest actions. In general, they conspired to regulate the conduct of his life; they turned him towards the gloom; they rendered him kindly and simple; they counselled him to the same things. Sometimes, however, they conflicted. In that case, as the reader will remember, the man whom all the country of M. sur M. called M. Madeleine did not hesitate to sacrifice the first to the second--his security to his virtue. Thus, in spite of all his reserve and all his prudence, he had preserved the Bishop's candlesticks, worn mourning for him, summoned and interrogated all the little Savoyards who passed that way, collected information regarding the families at Faverolles, and saved old Fauchelevent's life, despite the disquieting insinuations of Javert. It seemed, as we have already remarked, as though he thought, following the example of all those who have been wise, holy, and just, that his first duty was not towards himself.. . . . It would be beautiful, no doubt, after the Bishop's holy words, after so many years of repentance and abnegation, in the midst of a penitence admirably begun, if this man had not flinched for an instant, even in the presence of so terrible a conjecture, but had continued to walk with the same step towards this yawning precipice, at the bottom of which lay heaven; that would have been beautiful; but it was not thus. We must render an account of the things which went on in this soul, and we can only tell what there was there. He was carried away, at first, by the instinct of self-preservation; he rallied all his ideas in haste, stifled his emotions, took into consideration Javert's presence, that great danger, postponed all decision with the firmness of terror, shook off thought as to what he had to do, and resumed his calmness as a warrior picks up his buckler. He remained in this state during the rest of the day, a whirlwind within, a profound tranquillity without. He took no "preservative measures," as they may be called. Everything was still confused, and jostling together in his brain. His trouble was so great that he could not perceive the form of a single idea distinctly, and he could have told nothing about himself, except that he had received a great blow.. . . ."Where do I stand? Am not I dreaming? What have I heard? Is it really true that I have seen that Javert, and that he spoke to me in that manner? Who can that Champmathieu be? So he resembles me! Is it possible? When I reflect that yesterday I was so tranquil, and so far from suspecting anything! What was I doing yesterday at this hour? What is there in this incident? What will the end be? What is to be done?". . . .Independently of the severe and religious aim which he had assigned to his actions, all that he had made up to that day had been nothing but a hole in which to bury his name. That which he had always feared most of all in his hours of self-communion, during his sleepless nights, was to ever hear that name pronounced; he had said to himself, that that would be the end of all things for him; that on the day when that name made its reappearance it would cause his new life to vanish from about him, and--who knows?--perhaps even his new soul within him, also. He shuddered at the very thought that this was possible. Assuredly, if any one had said to him at such moments that the hour would come when that name would ring in his ears, when the hideous words, Jean Valjean, would suddenly emerge from the darkness and rise in front of him, when that formidable light, capable of dissipating the mystery in which he had enveloped himself, would suddenly blaze forth above his head, and that that name would not menace him, that that light would but produce an obscurity more dense, that this rent veil would but increase the mystery, that this earthquake would solidify his edifice, that this prodigious incident would have no other result, so far as he was concerned, if so it seemed good to him, than that of rendering his existence at once clearer and more impenetrable, and that, out of his confrontation with the phantom of Jean Valjean, the good and worthy citizen Monsieur Madeleine would emerge more honored, more peaceful, and more respected than ever--if any one had told him that, he would have tossed his head and regarded the words as those of a madman.. . . ."Well, what then?" he said to himself; "what am I afraid of? What is there in all that for me to think about? I am safe; all is over. I had but one partly open door through which my past might invade my life, and behold that door is walled up forever! That Javert, who has been annoying me so long; that terrible instinct which seemed to have divined me, which had divined me--good God! and which followed me everywhere; that frightful hunting-dog, always making a point at me, is thrown off the scent, engaged elsewhere, absolutely turned from the trail: henceforth he is satisfied; he will leave me in peace; he has his Jean Valjean. Who knows? it is even probable that he will wish to leave town! And all this has been brought about without any aid from me, and I count for nothing in it! Ah! but where is the misfortune in this? Upon my honor, people would think, to see me, that some catastrophe had happened to me! After all, if it does bring harm to some one, that is not my fault in the least: it is Providence which has done it all; it is because it wishes it so to be, evidently. Have I the right to disarrange what it has arranged? What do I ask now? Why should I meddle? It does not concern me; what! I am not satisfied: but what more do I want? The goal to which I have aspired for so many years, the dream of my nights, the object of my prayers to Heaven,--security,--I have now attained; it is God who wills it; I can do nothing against the will of God, and why does God will it? In order that I may continue what I have begun, that I may do good, that I may one day be a grand and encouraging example, that it may be said at last, that a little happiness has been attached to the penance which I have undergone, and to that virtue to which I have returned. Really, I do not understand why I was afraid, a little while ago, to enter the house of that good curé, and to ask his advice; this is evidently what he would have said to me: It is settled; let things take their course; let the good God do as he likes!" Thus did he address himself in the depths of his own conscience, bending over what may be called his own abyss; he rose from his chair, and began to pace the room: "Come," said he, "let us think no more about it; my resolve is taken!" but he felt no joy. Quite the reverse.. . . . He continued to question himself. He asked himself severely what he had meant by this, "My object is attained!" He declared to himself that his life really had an object; but what object? To conceal his name? To deceive the police? Was it for so petty a thing that he had done all that he had done? Had he not another and a grand object, which was the true one--to save, not his person, but his soul; to become honest and good once more; to be a just man? Was it not that above all, that alone, which he had always desired, which the Bishop had enjoined upon him--to shut the door on his past? But he was not shutting it! great God! he was re-opening it by committing an infamous action! He was becoming a thief once more, and the most odious of thieves! He was robbing another of his existence, his life, his peace, his place in the sunshine. He was becoming an assassin. He was murdering, morally murdering, a wretched man. He was inflicting on him that frightful living death, that death beneath the open sky, which is called the galleys. On the other hand, to surrender himself to save that man, struck down with so melancholy an error, to resume his own name, to become once more, out of duty, the convict Jean Valjean, that was, in truth, to achieve his resurrection, and to close forever that hell whence he had just emerged; to fall back there in appearance was to escape from it in reality. This must be done! He had done nothing if he did not do all this; his whole life was useless; all his penitence was wasted. There was no longer any need of saying, "What is the use?" He felt that the Bishop was there, that the Bishop was present all the more because he was dead, that the Bishop was gazing fixedly at him, that henceforth Mayor Madeleine, with all his virtues, would be abominable to him, and that the convict Jean Valjean would be pure and admirable in his sight; that men beheld his mask, but that the Bishop saw his face; that men saw his life, but that the Bishop beheld his conscience. So he must go to Arras, deliver the false Jean Valjean, and denounce the real one. Alas! that was the greatest of sacrifices, the most poignant of victories, the last step to take; but it must be done. Sad fate! he would enter into sanctity only in the eyes of God when he returned to infamy in the eyes of men. "Well," said he, "let us decide upon this; let us do our duty; let us save this man." He uttered these words aloud, without perceiving that he was speaking aloud.. . . .[Chapter XI] M. Madeleine turned towards the jury and the court, and said in a gentle voice:-- "Gentlemen of the jury, order the prisoner to be released! Mr. President, have me arrested. He is not the man whom you are in search of; it is I: I am Jean Valjean.". . . . "I thank you, Mr. District-Attorney, but I am not mad; you shall see; you were on the point of committing a great error; release this man! I am fulfilling a duty; I am that miserable criminal. I am the only one here who sees the matter clearly, and I am telling you the truth. God, who is on high, looks down on what I am doing at this moment, and that suffices. You can take me, for here I am: but I have done my best; I concealed myself under another name; I have become rich; I have become a mayor; I have tried to re-enter the ranks of the honest. It seems that that is not to be done. In short, there are many things which I cannot tell. I will not narrate the story of my life to you; you will hear it one of these days. I robbed Monseigneur the Bishop, it is true; it is true that I robbed Little Gervais; they were right in telling you that Jean Valjean was a very vicious wretch. Perhaps it was not altogether his fault. Listen, honorable judges! a man who has been so greatly humbled as I have has neither any remonstrances to make to Providence, nor any advice to give to society; but, you see, the infamy from which I have tried to escape is an injurious thing; the galleys make the convict what he is; reflect upon that, if you please. Before going to the galleys, I was a poor peasant, with very little intelligence, a sort of idiot; the galleys wrought a change in me. I was stupid; I became vicious: I was a block of wood; I became a firebrand. Later on, indulgence and kindness saved me, as severity had ruined me. But, pardon me, you cannot understand what I am saying. You will find at my house, among the ashes in the fireplace, the forty-sou piece which I stole, seven years ago, from little Gervais. I have nothing farther to add; take me. Good God! the district-attorney shakes his head; you say, 'M. Madeleine has gone mad!' you do not believe me! that is distressing. Do not, at least, condemn this man! What! these men do not recognize me! I wish Javert were here; he would recognize me.". . . . In that chamber there were no longer either judges, accusers, nor gendarmes; there was nothing but staring eyes and sympathizing hearts. No one recalled any longer the part that each might be called upon to play; the district-attorney forgot he was there for the purpose of prosecuting, the President that he was there to preside, the counsel for the defence that he was there to defend. It was a striking circumstance that no question was put, that no authority intervened. The peculiarity of sublime spectacles is, that they capture all souls and turn witnesses into spectators. No one, probably, could have explained what he felt; no one, probably, said to himself that he was witnessing the splendid outburst of a grand light: all felt themselves inwardly dazzled. It was evident that they had Jean Valjean before their eyes. That was clear. The appearance of this man had sufficed to suffuse with light that matter which had been so obscure but a moment previously, without any further explanation: the whole crowd, as by a sort of electric revelation, understood instantly and at a single glance the simple and magnificent history of a man who was delivering himself up so that another man might not be condemned in his stead. The details, the hesitations, little possible oppositions, were swallowed up in that vast and luminous fact. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Seventh – The Champnathieu Affair, Chapter III, A Tempest In a Skull and Chapter XI, Champmathieu More and More Astonished.]
- Alexandre Dumas (père), The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) is a tale of a man, once wrongfully imprisoned, who seeks justice with tragic consequences. The story explores the distinction between principle and foolhardiness or stubbornness.
From the dark and shadow sides:
- Dan Fesperman, Winter Work: A Novel (Knopf, 2022): “As the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, the Stasi, East Germany’s bloated and brutal Cold War intelligence service, began destroying the documentary evidence of its crimes, and the C.I.A., just as energetically, set about trying to obtain it. . . . amid the destruction, the C.I.A. managed to acquire the so-called Rosenholz files: 280,000 files on 381 CD-ROMs listing the identities of at least 1,000 agents of the Stasi foreign operations section, known as Hauptverwaltung A, or HVA. How the C.I.A. pulled off this remarkable intelligence coup remains a mystery.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Vaughan Williams, Pilgrim’s Progress: this opera is drawn from John Bunyan’s story about a man who practices virtue despite opposition and obstacles. The link should lead you through a performance conducted by Boult.
- Vaughan Williams composed his Symphony No. 5 in D major out of fear that he would not complete “Pilgrim’s Progress” before he died. He used the symphony to ensure that his musical ideas would not be lost to posterity. Here are links to performances conducted by Boult in 1953, Boult in 1975, Barbirolli and Andrew Davis.
- Giovanni Sgambati (1841-1914), Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 16: a bold, forward-driving symphony from the late nineteenth century.
- Puccini, Gianni Schicchi: the characters are unprincipled, and one of opera’s most gorgeous arias (O, mio babbino caro) is motivated by dishonesty. Here are performances conducted by Pappano and a conductor unfamiliar to me.
- Bowen, Rhapsody Trio, Op. 80 (1926): this work expresses the yin and yang of principle and compromise.
- Nordheim, Solitaire, electro acoustic (1968)
- Wheeler, Naga: an operatic “musical account of a restless man setting out on a spiritual quest in a world polarized between good and evil forces that are not easily distinguishable one from another”
- Vasco Trilla, “Unmoved Mover”: this album of percussion music brings to mind the primal forces of nature – a grand principle of a sort.