An important first century Roman Stoic philosopher by the name of Seneca, in writing about honor from within an active and functioning honor and shame system, had this to say: “All our arguments start from this settled point, that honor is pursued for no other reason except because it is honor.” This says much about the value system of the Greco-Roman world. Though those of us that live within the confines of western civilization cannot readily relate to such a sentiment, primarily because the pursuit of honor has been primarily replaced by the pursuit of material possessions and wealth. Though it can certainly be the case that wealth and material possessions were attendant with honor in Paul’s world, this would not necessarily be the case. Even if our perception of honor and shame has been skewed, we can still peruse the wider world in order to find the systems of honor and shame still in operation much like it was in operation in first century Corinth. Christians throughout the world still live within cultures in which one’s true status is largely determined by the values of honor and shame, and are in the enviable position of being able to more easily identify with and understand the situation with which Paul deals in his first letter to Corinth. In a world so governed, the primary motivation for performing a good deed (public benefaction) or for living a life marked by virtue, was the attainment of honor.
The opposite end of the spectrum from honor, of course, was shame. A person might seek to increase his honor by publicly shaming a rival through insults, reproach, physical abuse, confiscation of property, and even public execution. Making mention of Jesus at this point leads to a helpful aside, in that Jesus’ insistence that His disciples turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless when cursed, and offer the undergarment when sued for the outer garment, gain substantial meaning when understood alongside concerns of honor and shame. Everything that Jesus suggests be done, which He then lives out, would be immediately viewed as honor-disavowing and shame-accruing.
So how exactly was it determined who was possessive of honor and who leaned towards the shameful end of the spectrum? There was no formal system by which honor was assigned. There were no checklists to follow. Rather, public consensus, which is always shifting, plays the most important role. The shifting sands of public consensus meant that one would always have to be on guard, not only performing according to wider public opinion, but also doing one’s level best to shape public opinion and drive the public debate concerning what is honorable and what is dishonorable/shameful. We can refer to this loosely governing construct as the “court of public opinion.” Now, many of us that are reading this may not live in societies that are shaped by honor and shame in a manner similar to the ancient world, but we can all understand the high value that is placed on the “court of public opinion.” Politicians, first and foremost, live and die through rightly understanding the court of public opinion, attempting to craft their positions to reflect the wider sentiment, or, if given the opportunity, reshape that sentiment in a way that is more to their liking. Even in this construct, which is broad and encompasses a wide swath of the public, some people’s opinions and positions are given more weight than others.
In Paul’s world, which included the influential and wealthy city of Corinth, governed by concerns with honor and shame, the court of public opinion was a formidable entity. This was the body of people within one’s society which determined one’s social standing. Naturally, the determinations were made by those that were already understood to be possessive of honor, thus their opinions were not exactly unbiased or altruistic, as they would not want to jeopardize their own status by approving and assigning honor to that which might run contrary to that which has brought them their own honor. So even though public opinion is malleable, it is often monolithic. Given the absence of mass-media, public opinion could not be shifted on a whim. Given these things, social standing, whether honorable or dishonorable, is determined in accordance with society’s values. One’s honor did not come from how one viewed oneself, but from how one was viewed by the public at large, and those already considered honorable more specifically.