To do the honorable thing is to submit the whole of one’s being to the belief that there is underlying all human life and interaction, and indeed all of existence, a universal sense of right and wrong…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Jeremy A. Kee as he explores the meaning of honor as it has unfolded throughout history. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
There was a time in days gone by when honor was the driving force behind the life of every great, good, and decent man. Every action of his hand, every thought that found its way from the mind to the mouth and past the lips, every motivation for every endeavor worthy of his undertaking—they were all of them dictated by a man’s inborn sense honor, and aimed at either bolstering that honor which already existed, or else at reclaiming that which through some misfortune had been lost. Honor has for a millennium been the central point in the stories we read to our children in the hope that they too will grow to live honorably. Men and women of valor would slay the dragon, defeat the witch, overthrow or subvert the evil king, all in the name of fulfilling their sense of honor.
Not relegated to our fairy tales only, honor is also found in all of the great stories of history, both told and untold. Men and women of honor speak to the soul; they speak to that which in every living human is real and true. The reason for this is because honor, whatever it is determined to be, is itself honest, good, beautiful, and true. Man honors God, the prophets, and his parents. He honors his promises, his vows, his laws, and his debts. He honors his athletes, scholars, and the myriad other high achievers in our society.
What, then, is honor? What follows below is a look at various ideas of honor through the ages, followed by what honor in its present state means for mankind, and finally a few concluding thoughts. This is, regrettably, only a primer on the issue and is hardly a comprehensive work.
II. Aristotle’s “Great-Soul Man”
Though not immune from academic criticism, the concept of the “Great-Souled Man,” as laid out by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics, is certainly an early rendition of what a man of honor looked like. Many have criticized Aristotle’s conception, which makes it a stellar place to touch down for further investigation into the matter of what makes a man honorable.
In Book IV of the Ethics, the philosopher gives a very simple account of the conduct and demeanor of a man whose soul is great. Some of these points seem honorable, while others appear to fall into the popular conduct and ideals of the modern age, which is among the most transient of human generations. For instance, Aristotle claims that a man of great soul does not take small risks and will gladly do favors while at the same time shunning a similar show of charity. These characteristics certainly seem honorable enough. However this same Great-Souled Man is apt to show favor to those of high station, as to show favor to those of lesser station is below him. The Great-Souled Man is also he who lives his life as he chooses, as to submit to the will of others would be too closely likened to slavery.
Aristotle thus paints a convoluted picture, at least to modern conception, of the meaning of honor. Despite his great intellectual and philosophical prowess, Aristotle is not infallible in his conclusions. He presents a picture of a figure who is comfortably compared to the modern day aristocrat. Aristotle, having come from a different place and time, may present conclusions that are the product of his age. Might one then assume that honor is relative? I believe that this is a false and dangerous conclusion.
III. Chivalry and Noblesse Oblige
“Chivalry is dead,” so many today suggest, and perhaps those who believe this sentiment are quite right. The chivalric code was the code of conduct for knights of the Middle Ages. To abide by this code, though certainly variable from one group to the next, a knight was expected to protect the poor, the weak, and the defenseless; to serve the good, to seek justice, and to generally be upstanding in his conduct. From this does the most readily identified sense of honor come.
Perhaps the closest and most relatable and reliable idea of honor comes from that bastion of desire for honor, France. It is from the land of the guillotine and champagne that we receive the concept known in the French tongue as Noblesse Oblige. Translated into English as “Nobility Obligates,” Noblesse Oblige suggests that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities; it is a moral obligation to act with honor, kindliness, and generosity. In our modern throw-away culture, it is unsurprising that such a notion should fall out of vogue. Not solitary in the blame, one must also acknowledge that a certain unsettling cynicism has invaded the modern conservative psyche, in which the individual believes either by choice or by force that those who are less well off than they are only so due to their own poor choices, and thus undeserving of the help of those in higher, more privileged positions. To this, we shall return further on.
V. Culture of Honor vs. Culture of Law
In a society such as ours, in which the civic onus is placed squarely on the law, it is common for the concept of honor to quickly lose relevance in the shadow of the almighty law. If man has the law, he has no perceivable need for honor or morals or ethics, for it is the law that tells us what is right and wrong. To determine right and wrong in such a way is laziness, and nothing more.
Soviet exile-turned-titan of conservative intellectualism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, spoke on this very issue while speaking truth to the graduating class of Harvard University in 1978. To wit,
Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based… on the letter of the law… Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd…
Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.
A lover neither of lawlessness, nor of totalitarianism, Solzhenitsyn nonetheless recognized that an over-dependence on the authority of the law can kill the soul, and the greater the dependence thereupon the quicker the death. Again he states,
A society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.
Solzhenitsyn speaks of man as if he is not living up to his potential, as if he chooses to limit himself because in so doing he need not worry about stepping out, taking risks, or truly making decisions of consequence. With the authority of the law as the guiding light, man’s mind is made up before he is ever put into a situation requiring him to do these things. How very clean cut; yet in this man’s moral blade becomes blunted and edgeless.
VI. What, Then Is Honor?
After all this, what is honor? I must again defer to Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address for a most flawless conclusion. In summing up his thoughts on the West’s over-dependence on the power of the law in the governing of human interaction, he states,
The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West—It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.
The defense of “human obligations.” Aye, there is the rub! The very mention of such a phrase may well send many a modern conservative anywhere but where such an abhorrent idea is spoken. After all, in the land of the free, who has authority to speak to his neighbors’ obligations? Man should be free to do as he chooses, as long as no harm comes to others, so the modern philosophy goes. But in so doing is harm not done to others? Stated another way, in his choosing to do as he will are not others being harmed? Every choice of every man’s life will inevitably create a ripple effect. No man is an island; neither are his choices, and if man has proven anything over the annals of history it is that selfishness—known in modern academia and in the modern conservative lexicon by the much cleaner term “self-interest”—factors ever more significantly into his decision-making process. To do the honorable thing, which most often involves a certain degree of sacrifice, is only a viable option if the primary actor profits, but if he does in fact profit, how honorable was his act of so-called honor?
Man, to be honorable, must defend human obligations, and in a society much more focused on the individual and the material than on the spiritual and the good, the honorable option often requires a break from modern ideals. Returning to the conservative notion that those who are in a lower socioeconomic position have only their own poor choices to blame, the honorable response and certainly the unpopular one, is, “What difference should that make?” Honor does not pass blind judgment and determine who is worthy of a dignified response. Honor witnesses a human obligation that has gone unfulfilled, and it acts. Leave the punditry to lesser men.
To do the honorable thing is to submit the whole of one’s being to the belief that there is underlying all human life and interaction, and indeed all of existence, a universal sense of right and wrong. Some call it natural law, others objective truth; regardless of its designation, it remains one and the same—an unalterable law by which all men are not only expected to adhere in their dealings with others, but also by which all men may hold a reasonable expectation to be dealt with by others. To seek to live honorably is naught but to satisfy that innate urge felt inside all men and women when presented with a choice between genuine right and wrong.
As the social cancer of moral relativism continues to spread throughout modern society, our collective sense of honor continues to wane. How can one act honorably if the very basic understanding of right and wrong is replaced with a pseudo-philosophy that states right and wrong are only social constructs, relics of a bygone age? I am reminded of a story told to me by my college mentor, a certain Lieutenant-Colonel Armstrong. While in the Iraqi desert during the first Gulf War, he and his company were driving through the flat desert with not a single landmark in any direction as far as the eye could see. After a time, someone noticed something small on the horizon, as if very far off. Whatever it was, surely it was quite large given how far off it appeared, and yet in a matter of seconds, they came upon the object—a single oil drum. Without any other object to which it could be compared, there was no measure by which to judge its size.
Such can be said of our present moral compass. If man suggests that there is no objective right and wrong—a most ironic claim given that this is itself an objective statement—and if he lives a life that reflects this indifference to objective goodness and evil, then he has no basis upon which to build a better world, and therefore no grounds for complaint when the world continues to collapse around him.
If honor is worth anything, then its dictates are such that they remain unchanged across the generations. Either that which is considered honorable today would be so considered in the era of knights and kings, or else it is not today, nor was it then, nor will it ever be considered an act of honor.
VII. No Happy Ending?
We must be thankful that relativism is only a shadow, and not an object capable of producing a shadow. We must be joyful that while on the wane, honor is not now, nor ever will it be, dead as long as there are those who desire to live lives of honor. Finally, we must remember that to be honorable, to live according to an objective code of right and wrong will never be an easy path to trod, but in the words of the old gospel tune, “straight is the gate and narrow is the way.”
I will conclude this essay on honor with a quotation from a man who was himself a titan of honor far beyond the reach or understanding of the common man. Let the words that follow serve as an encouragement to those wearied by a world without honor.
Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.
—Sir Winston Churchill
Harrow School, 29 Oct., 1941
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in June 2014.
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