Abravanel and Dumas On Honor

Some cultures have had (and some still have) curious notions about the relative values of life and personal honor. This is illustrated by the following excerpt of the unpromising beginnings of one of literature’s most celebrated fraternities:


D’Artagnan, in a state of fury, crossed the antechamber at three bounds,
and was darting toward the stairs, which he reckoned upon descending
four at a time, when, in his heedless course, he ran head foremost
against a Musketeer who was coming out of one of M. de Treville’s
private rooms, and striking his shoulder violently, made him utter a
cry, or rather a howl.

“Excuse me,” said d’Artagnan, endeavoring to resume his course, “excuse
me, but I am in a hurry.”

[They argue, and eventually d’Artagnan perceives himself insulted by the Musketeer, Athos:]

“Monsieur,” said Athos, letting him go, “you are not polite; it is easy
to perceive that you come from a distance.”

D’Artagnan had already strode down three or four stairs, but at Athos’s
last remark he stopped short.

“MORBLEU, monsieur!” said he, “however far I may come, it is not you who
can give me a lesson in good manners, I warn you.”

“Perhaps,” said Athos.

“Ah! If I were not in such haste, and if I were not running after
someone,” said d’Artagnan.

“Monsieur Man-in-a-hurry, you can find me without running–ME, you

“And where, I pray you?”

“Near the Carmes-Deschaux.”

“At what hour?”

“About noon.”

“About noon? That will do; I will be there.”

“Endeavor not to make me wait; for at quarter past twelve I will cut off
your ears as you run.”

“Good!” cried d’Artagnan, “I will be there ten minutes before twelve.”

[Our hero sets off running, and promptly entangles himself with a second Musketeer, Porthos:]

“Bless me!” cried Porthos, making strong efforts to disembarrass himself
of d’Artagnan, who was wriggling about his back; “you must be mad to run
against people in this manner.”

“Excuse me,” said d’Artagnan, reappearing under the shoulder of the
giant, “but I am in such haste–I was running after someone and–”

“And do you always forget your eyes when you run?” asked Porthos.

“No,” replied d’Artagnan, piqued, “and thanks to my eyes, I can see what
other people cannot see.”

Whether Porthos understood him or did not understand him, giving way to
his anger, “Monsieur,” said he, “you stand a chance of getting chastised
if you rub Musketeers in this fashion.”

“Chastised, Monsieur!” said d’Artagnan, “the expression is strong.”

“It is one that becomes a man accustomed to look his enemies in the

“Ah, PARDIEU! I know full well that you don’t turn your back to yours.”

And the young man, delighted with his joke, went away laughing loudly.

Porthos foamed with rage, and made a movement to rush after d’Artagnan.

“Presently, presently,” cried the latter, “when you haven’t your cloak

“At one o’clock, then, behind the Luxembourg.”

“Very well, at one o’clock, then,” replied d’Artagnan, turning the angle
of the street.

[Presently, the young Gascon becomes embroiled in a quarrel with a third Musketeer, Aramis:]

“Ah, monsieur,” interrupted Aramis, “permit me to observe to you that
you have not acted in this affair as a gallant man ought.”

“What, monsieur!” cried d’Artagnan, “and do you suppose–”

“I suppose, monsieur that you are not a fool, and that you knew very
well, although coming from Gascony, that people do not tread upon
handkerchiefs without a reason. What the devil! Paris is not paved with

“Monsieur, you act wrongly in endeavoring to mortify me,” said
d’Artagnan, in whom the natural quarrelsome spirit began to speak more
loudly than his pacific resolutions. “I am from Gascony, it is true; and
since you know it, there is no occasion to tell you that Gascons are not
very patient, so that when they have begged to be excused once, were
it even for a folly, they are convinced that they have done already at
least as much again as they ought to have done.”

“Monsieur, what I say to you about the matter,” said Aramis, “is not for
the sake of seeking a quarrel. Thank God, I am not a bravo! And being
a Musketeer but for a time, I only fight when I am forced to do so, and
always with great repugnance; but this time the affair is serious, for
here is a lady compromised by you.”

“By US, you mean!” cried d’Artagnan.

“Why did you so maladroitly restore me the handkerchief?”

“Why did you so awkwardly let it fall?”

“I have said, monsieur, and I repeat, that the handkerchief did not fall
from my pocket.”

“And thereby you have lied twice, monsieur, for I saw it fall.”

“Ah, you take it with that tone, do you, Master Gascon? Well, I will
teach you how to behave yourself.”

“And I will send you back to your Mass book, Master Abbe. Draw, if you
please, and instantly–”

“Not so, if you please, my good friend–not here, at least. Do you not
perceive that we are opposite the Hotel d’Arguillon, which is full of
the cardinal’s creatures? How do I know that this is not his Eminence
who has honored you with the commission to procure my head? Now, I
entertain a ridiculous partiality for my head, it seems to suit my
shoulders so correctly. I wish to kill you, be at rest as to that, but
to kill you quietly in a snug, remote place, where you will not be able
to boast of your death to anybody.”

“I agree, monsieur; but do not be too confident. Take your handkerchief;
whether it belongs to you or another, you may perhaps stand in need of

“Monsieur is a Gascon?” asked Aramis.

“Yes. Monsieur does not postpone an interview through prudence?”

“Prudence, monsieur, is a virtue sufficiently useless to Musketeers,
I know, but indispensable to churchmen; and as I am only a Musketeer
provisionally, I hold it good to be prudent. At two o’clock I shall have
the honor of expecting you at the hotel of Monsieur de Treville. There I
will indicate to you the best place and time.”

The two young men bowed and separated, Aramis ascending the street which
led to the Luxembourg, while d’Artagnan, perceiving the appointed
hour was approaching, took the road to the Carmes-Deschaux, saying to
himself, “Decidedly I can’t draw back; but at least, if I am killed, I
shall be killed by a Musketeer.”1

We recently discussed Abravanel’s views on the Social Contract and the Right To Revolution; in his Commentary to this past week’s Sidra, Abravanel expresses a view on personal honor not totally unlike d’Artagnan’s:

גם היה תועלת בהכרזות האלה [של הכהן והשוטר, קודם המלחמה] מפני הקלון והבושה שיקחו השבים על ידי הכרזה. ואחריהם כל בית ישראל רואים ומלעיגים מהם שרקו ויחרקו שן עד אשר בלי ספק (ימצאו) [אולי צ”ל ימנעו] לשוב מפני זה ויאמרו הלא טוב לנו למות על מרומי שדה ויבחרו מות מחיי קלון וחרפה רצופה2

He uses very similar language to explain the motivation of Shimon and Levi for the annihilation of Shechem:

אבל [שמעון ולוי] השיבוהו [ליעקב] הכזונה יעשה את אחותינו … אבל הרלב”ג כתב בשם אביו פירוש נאה והוא שבני נח כמו שזכרו חז”ל לא היו מוזהרים על הזנות מופקרת כי הותרו אצלם אבל היו מוזהרים על העריות שלא ישכב אדם אלא עם אשתו המיוחדת לו או עם זונה מופקרת ואם לא היו מענישים אנשי העיר והורגים אותם יחשב שהיתה דינה זו מופקרת ושלכן שכב שכם עמה ואיש אין בארץ שימחה בידו ולכן היה מההכרח אחד משני דברים אם שישימו יד לפה ויסבלו קלונם או שיהרגו כל זכר כי אם יהרגו את חמור ואת שכם לבד יעמדו עליהם כל אנשי העיר ולכן הוצרך להיות הדבר כולל אם הסבל ואם הנקמה כדי שלא תשאר דינה כזונה מופקרת שאין הורגים עליה

וכלל דבריהם שעל הקלון הזה היו מחוייבים להמסר עצמם בסכנה כי המות בכבוד טובה מחיי החרפה והבוז וכבר הסכים דעת המקום ב”ה שעשו כי היה חתת אלקים בכל הערים אשר סביבותיהם ולא רדפו אחרי בני יעקב …

והנה נכתב הספור הזה ללמדנו כמה היא גדולה צרת הבת שיעקב נולדו לו י”ב בנים ולא קבל מהם החרפה והקלון והסכנה שקבל בעד בת אחת שנולדה ביניהם.

ולהודיע גם כן כמה יגיע לאנשי המעלה והכבוד שום חרפה וקלון שיעשה להם שישימו נפשם בכפם להסתכן הם ונשיהם ובניהם וכל אשר להם כדי להנקם מאויביהם.

ולהודיע עוד כמה ראוי לנשים הנכבדות שתהיינה נזהרות מדלתי ביתם החוצה ולכן אמרו ילמדנו רבינו מהו שתצא האשה בעדי של זהב בשבת כך שנו רבותינו לא תצא רבנן אמרי לא תצא ברשות הרבים מפני שמסתכלים בה שלא נתנו תכשיטין לאשה אלא כדי שתהא מתקשטת בהם בתוך ביתה שאין נותנים פרצה מפני הכשר כל שכן מפני הגנב כמ”ש כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה:3

The concept of honor under discussion here does not appear to be a particularly Jewish one; it is tempting to suggest this as evidence of host culture influence on Abravanel’s thought. Abravanel’s attitude toward women expressed in the third paragraph of the second selection above is also noteworthy.

Incidentally, an entirely different perspective on the motivation of Shimon and Levi is rooted in the calculus of deterrence.

Update: Falstaff’s antithetical attitude.

Update II: A lecture which I open with the aforementioned explanations of the dialog between Shimon and Levi and their father.

  1. Alexander Dumas père, The Three Musketeers, Chapter Four. Available from Project Gutenberg. []
  2. דברים פרק כ’ ד”ה והנה היה תועלת רב []
  3. בראשית, סוף פרק ל”ד []