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 socio-economic 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
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Published: Jun 7, 2014
For other uses, see Honour (disambiguation).
Honour (British English) or honor (American English; see spelling differences) is an abstract concept entailing a perceived quality of worthiness and respectability that affects both the social standing and the self-evaluation of an individual or institution such as a family, school, regiment or nation. Accordingly, individuals (or institutions) are assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions with a specific code of honour, and the moral code of the society at large.
Samuel Johnson, in his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defined honour as having several senses, the first of which was "nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness." This sort of honour derives from the perceived virtuous conduct and personal integrity of the person endowed with it. On the other hand, Johnson also defined honour in relationship to "reputation" and "fame"; to "privileges of rank or birth", and as "respect" of the kind which "places an individual socially and determines his right to precedence." This sort of honour is often not so much a function of moral or ethical excellence, as it is a consequence of power. Finally, with respect to sexuality, honour has traditionally been associated with (or identical to) "chastity" or "virginity", or in case of married men and women, "fidelity". Some have argued that honour should be seen more as a rhetoric, or set of possible actions, than as a code.
Honour as a code of behaviour defines the duties of an individual within a social group. Margaret Visser observes that in an honour-based society "a person is what he or she is in the eyes of other people". A code of honour differs from a legal code, also socially defined and concerned with justice, in that honour remains implicit rather than explicit and objectified.
One can distinguish honour from dignity, which Wordsworth assessed as measured against an individual's conscience rather than against the judgement of a community. Compare also the sociological concept of "face".
In the early medieval period, a lord's or lady's honour was the group of manors or lands he or she held. "The word was first used indicating an estate which gave its holder dignity and status." For a person to say "on my honour" was not just an affirmation of his or her integrity and rank, but the veracity behind that phrase meant he or she was willing to offer up estates as pledge and guarantee.
The concept of honour appears to have declined in importance in the modern West; conscience has replaced it in the individual context, and the rule of law (with the rights and duties defined therein) has taken over in a social context. Popular stereotypes would have it surviving more definitively in more tradition-bound cultures (e.g. Pashtun, Southern Italian, Polish, Persian, Turkish, Arab, Iberian, "Old South" or Dixie). Feudal or other agrarian societies, which focus upon land use and land ownership, may tend to "honour" more than do contemporary industrial societies. Note that Saint Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) in Cur Deus Homo extended the concept of honour from his own feudal society to postulate God's honour.
An emphasis on the importance of honour exists in such traditional institutions as the military (serving officers may conduct a court of honour) and in organisations with a military ethos, such as Scouting organisations (which also feature "Courts of Honour").
Honour in the case of sexuality frequently relates, historically, to fidelity: preservation of "honour" equates primarily to maintenance of the virginity of singles and to the exclusive monogamy of the remainder of the population. Further conceptions of this type of honour vary widely between cultures; some cultures regard honour killings of (mostly female) members of one's own family as justified if the individuals have "defiled the family's honour" by marrying against the family's wishes, or even by becoming the victims of rape. Western observers generally see these honour killings as a way of men using the culture of honour to control female sexuality.
Skinners, executioners, grave-diggers, shepherds, barber-surgeons, millers, linen-weavers, sow-gelders, latrine-cleaners, and bailiffs and their families were among the "dishonourable people" (unehrliche Leute) in early modern German society.
Cultures of honour and cultures of law
Various sociologists and anthropologists have contrasted cultures of honour with cultures of law. A culture of law has a body of laws which all members of society must obey, with punishments for transgressors. This requires a society with the structures required to enact and enforce laws. A culture of law incorporates a social contract: members of society give up some aspects of their freedom to defend themselves and retaliate for injuries, on the understanding that society will apprehend and punish transgressors.
An alternative to government enforcement of laws is community or individual enforcement of social norms.
One way that honor functions is as a major factor of reputation. In a system where there is no court that will authorize the use force to guarantee the execution of contracts, an honorable reputation is very valuable to promote trust among transaction partners. To dishonor an agreement could be economically ruinous, because all future potential transaction partners might stop trusting the party not to lie, steal their money or goods, not repay debts, mistreat the children they marry off, have children with other people, abandon their children, or fail to provide aid when needed. A dishonorable person might be shunned by the community as a way to punish bad behavior and create an incentive for others to maintain their honor.
If one's honor is questioned, it can thus be important to disprove any false accusations or slander. In some cultures, the practice of dueling has arisen as a means to settle such disputes firmly, though by physical dominance in force or skill rather than by objective consideration of evidence and facts.
Honor can also imply duty to perform certain actions, such as providing for and disciplining one's children, serving in the military during war, contributing to local collective projects like building infrastructure, or exacting revenge in retaliation for acts one is directly harmed by.
The concept of personal honor can be extended to family honor, which strengthens the incentives to follow social norms in two ways. First, the consequences of dishonorable actions (such as suicide or attempted robbery that results in death) outlive the perputrator, and negatively affect family members they presumably care about. Second, when one member of the family misbehaves, other members of the family are in the position to and are incentivized to strongly enforce the community norms.
In strong honor cultures, those who do not conform may be forced or pressured into conformance and transgressors punished physically or psychologically. The use of violence may be collective in its character, where many relatives act together. The most extreme form of punishment is honor killing. Dueling and vengeance at a family level can result in a sustained feud.
Honor-based cultures are also known as honor-shame cultures and contrasted with guilt cultures on the Guilt-Shame-Fear spectrum of cultures.
Cultures of honor are often conservative, encoding pre-modern traditional family values and duties. In some cases these values clash with those of post-sexual revolution and egalitarian societies. Add to this the prohibition against vigilante or individual justice-taking, cultures of law sometimes consider practices in honor cultures to be unethical or a violation of the legal concept of human rights.
Examples around the world
Historians have especially examined the culture of honor in American South. Social scientists have looked at specialized subcultures such as South Asian Muslims in Britain. Others have compared multiple modern nations.
One paper finds that present-day Canadians born in communities that historically lay outside the reach of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties) seem to inherit a violent code of honour that drives their behaviour.
From the viewpoint of anthropologists, cultures of honour typically appear among nomadic peoples and among herdsmen who carry their most valuable property with them and risk having it stolen, without having recourse to law enforcement or to government. Due to the lack of strong institutions, cultivating a reputation for swift and disproportionate revenge increases the safety of one's person and property against aggressive actors. Thinkers ranging from Montesquieu to Steven Pinker have remarked upon the mindset needed for a culture of honour.
According to Richard Nisbett, cultures of honour will often arise when three conditions exist:
- a scarcity of resources
- situations in which the benefit of theft and crime outweighs the risks
- a lack of sufficient law-enforcement (such as in geographically remote regions)
Historically, cultures of honour exist in places where the herding of animals dominates an economy. In this situation the geography is usually extensive, since the soil cannot support extensive sustained farming and thus large populations; the benefit of stealing animals from other herds is high since it is the main form of wealth; and there is no central law-enforcement or rule of law. However cultures of honour can also appear in places like modern inner-city slums. The three conditions exist here as well: lack of resources (poverty); crime and theft have a high rewards compared to the alternatives (few); and law enforcement is generally lax or corrupt.
Once a culture of honour exists in a society, its members find it difficult to make the transition to a culture of law; this requires that people become willing to back down and refuse to immediately retaliate, and from the viewpoint of the culture of honour, the feeling humiliation makes personal restraint extremely difficult as it reflects weakness and appeasement.
Honour as a cause of war
The War of 1812
Historian Norman Risjord has emphasised the central importance of honour as a cause of the War of 1812, which the United States launched in against Britain despite its much more powerful naval and military strength. Americans of every political stripe saw the need to uphold national honour, and to reject the treatment of the United States by Britain as a third class nonentity. Americans talked incessantly about the need for force in response. This quest for honour was a major cause of the war in the sense that most Americans who were not involved in mercantile interests or threatened by Indian attack strongly endorsed the preservation of national honour.The humiliating attack by the HMS Leopard against the USS Chesapeake in June 1807 was a decisive event. Historians have documented the importance of honour in shaping public opinion in a number of states, including Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, as well as the territory of Michigan. The successful conclusion of the war, especially the spectacular defeat of the main British invasion army at New Orleans, did restore the American sense of honour.
- National honour, the reputation of republican government, and the continuing supremacy of the Republican party had seemed to be at stake.... National honour had [now] been satisfied," says historian Lance Banning, "Americans celebrated the end of the struggle with a brilliant burst of national pride.
The British showed a respect for American honour. "Some of the strongest praise for America and swiftest recognition of what the young republic had achieved for American honour, prestige, and power came from within British naval circles." Britain refrained from interfering with American maritime interests and ceased with the impressment of American citizens following the war.
A 2016 study suggests that honour culture increases the risk of war. The study found that international conflicts under U.S. presidents who were raised in the American South "are shown to be twice as likely to involve uses of force, last on average twice as long, and are three times more likely to end in victory for the United States than disputes under non-Southern presidents. Other characteristics of Southern presidencies do not seem able to account for this pattern of results."
Violence against women
Working towards eliminating violence against women in the name of honor was in 2001 the aim of United Nations resolution 55/66 which was adopted by the General Assembly.
Further information: Social rank, Pride, and Shame
In contemporary international relations, the concept of "credibility" resembles that of honour, as when the credibility of a state or of an alliance appears to be at stake, and honour-bound politicians call for drastic measures.
Compare the concepts of integrity and face in stereotyped East Asian cultures, or of mana in Polynesian society.
The ancient Greek concepts of honour (timē) included not only the exaltation of the one receiving honour, but also the shaming of the one overcome by the act of hubris. This concept of honour resembles a zero-sum game.
In ancient China during the Warring States period, honour in battle was one of the many forms of virtue practised by the nobility. In one oft-cited example, Duke Xiang of the Song state chose not to take the enemy by surprise; instead, he and his forces waited for the enemy to go across the river. This marked conduct worthy of the accolade descriptor ren (仁), worthy of the name of "gentleman." In response to this textbook example, Mao Zedong is quoted: "We are not Duke Xiang of Song and have no use for his idiotic virtue and morality."
Pre-modern Korean thought and society was largely dominated by the preservation of honour and was especially concerned with the ruling yangban elite in the Joseon Dynasty. In particular, one of the most profound influences from the Joseon Dynasty is the figure of the Seonbi, or "virtuous scholar". The seonbi were ideal, exemplary noblemen of Confucian teachings who exhibited high competency in both academics and martial arts. Despite their obvious qualifications for important government posts, the seonbi eschewed titles and extravagance for the sake of personal development, often living in humble homes. They were expected to be fiercely loyal to the King of Joseon and lay down their lives in battle or in defense of their King, rather than choose treason. Inspired by the righteous nature of the seonbi, the modern Korean term of the "seonbi spirit" calls for maintaining personal honour and conduct, even in the face of certain death.
According to Bushido, honour was always seen as a duty by Samurai. When one lost their honour or the situation made them lose it, the only way to save their dignity was by death. Seppuku (vulgarly called "harakiri", or "belly-cutting") was the most honourable death in that situation. The only way for a Samurai to die more honourably was to be killed in a battle by a sword.
As a countable noun, honour may refer to an award, e.g. given by the state. Such honours include military medals, but more typically imply a civilian award, such as a British OBE, a knighthood or membership of the French Légion d'honneur.
See also, List of prizes, medals, and awards; and Chivalric order.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Honour.|
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Honour|
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- ^"...dignity abides with him alone / Who, in the silent hour of inward thought, / Can still suspect, and still revere himself...." William Wordsworth, "Yew Tree" http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww119.html.
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- ^Lance Banning (1980). The Jeffersonian Persuasion: Evolution of a Party Ideology. Cornell UP. p. 295.
- ^Pietro S. Nivola; Peter J. Kastor (2012). What So Proudly We Hailed: Essays on the Contemporary Meaning of the War of 1812. Brookings Institution Press. pp. 58–59.
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- ^"55/66. Working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour"(PDF). United Nations. UN Division for the Advancement of Women. Retrieved 15 November 2017.
- Bowman, James. Honor: A History. Encounter Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59403-142-8. Cf. excerpts from writings of James Bowman on Honor. Personal website of James Bowman. Accessed 16 May 2007.
- de Secondat, Charles, Baron de Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. 2 vols. Esteban Pallares "The Honorable Pallares" Originally published anonymously. 1748; Crowder, Wark, and Payne, 1777. External link to digitised copy of The Spirit of the Laws book in public domain.
- d'Iribarne, Philippe. The Logic of Honor: National Traditions and Corporate Management. Welcome Rain Publishers, 2003. ISBN 978-1-56649-182-2.
- Hauser, Marc. Moral Minds: How nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong. New York: Ecco Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-06-078070-8.
- Hein, David. "Rethinking Honor". Journal of Thought 17.1 (Spring 1982): 3–6.
- Hein, David. "Learning Responsibility and Honor". Washington Times, 3 July 2008.
- Hein, David. "Christianity and Honor." The Living Church, 18 August 2013, pp. 8–10.
- Nisbett, Richard E., and Dov Cohen. Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Westview, 1996. ISBN 0-8133-1993-5.
- Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam, 2002. ISBN 0-670-03151-8.
- For a closer understanding of the way in which ideas of honour (and related shame) are linked to social structures such as law and religion, a reading of the works of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is worthwhile, particularly with reference to his discussions of the idea of "habitus".