Several weeks ago, I made a post about the opposite of honor. It is long overdue that I should address the root of all social virtues: honor. One will notice that I write more about the handful of things that one should not do as opposed to what one ought to do. Today, I intend to shrink that ratio a little bit. What is honor? Isn’t it some ancient concept that society has advanced beyond? Isn’t honor something like following the orders of your superior? That’s not very anarchist… Wouldn’t an anarchist denounce honor societies out-of-hand?
A more important issue to address than these questions lurks behind the ivory paywalls of academic literature and the veil of history. Modern conceptions of honor are, fundamentally, the opposite of the true nature of honor. Popular culture and medieval theological writings conceive of honor as dutiful obedience to one’s leaders and adhering to social norms. This conception of honor is comically shallow and presents a great deal of self-contradiction, as is explored by numerous sci-fi and fantasy works. I don’t have the space and time right now to address this unintended straw man and all of it’s problems which have been created by history. Instead, I will have to simply define and describe true honor. So, forget anything that you have seen about honor that was produced since Marcus Aurelius, and come with me to the ancient world.
-cue time-travel harp and ancient-sounding music-
Ancient Greece, a region populated with several dozen city-states: some of them more free than others, some of them ruled by kings, some ruled by mobs of slave owners, some of them were pseudo-hierarchical warrior cultures. This region and time is credited with the birth of philosophy as we know it as well as serving as the foundation of western culture. It was also a time and a place, like all places and times with states, a region constantly faced with the prospect of war. In order to flourish in such a region, one would have to either submit to being owned by a powerful man or engender virtues in oneself such so as to be self-sufficient.
There are different types of virtue, and flourishing in its fullness requires all of the virtues, but today is devoted to one specific virtue. Honor is a social virtue. It is an internal, personal disposition to certain behaviors that concern themselves with one’s relationships with others. Honor is a virtue that can only be developed in community, but what is it?
The original words for honor, which later became the Greek kleos and the Latin dignitas, originally meant something akin to “trophy”. It was a physical object which represented an accomplishment that would be given from the community to the individual responsible for the accomplishment. Most often, honors were the spoils of war granted to the soldier who demonstrated how one ought to conduct themselves in battle. Other times, though, honors would be granted to those who demonstrated how one ought to innovate, parent, lead, teach, or even farm. These honors would be given publicly and were expected to be displayed publicly. Over time, honors as physical trophies became overshadowed by honor as a social reputation. An honorable person was one who demonstrated a paradigm behavior that others could acknowledge. In this way, honor was essentially setting the example.
During this time, there existed an interesting linguistic situation. The word for honor represented a single, integral concept that modern languages have teased apart and made two diametrically opposed terms: honor and shame. Honor, like many ancient concepts, was a very complex and rich tradition which defies surface exploration. It was a trophy, a reputation, and a feeling all bundled into one. These were nearly indistinguishable from each other and the same term applied to each of the three independently at times. When one received or established their honor, they would have a particular set of feelings associated with that accomplishment.
When put on a pedestal, one ought to feel self-satisfied and proud, even. One ought to be humbled by others’ recognition of one’s accomplishments, and feel a certain degree of self-consciousness or nervousness. I’m not saying this as an introvert who doesn’t like attention, but because of the nature of honor; at the heart of honor is an expectation of integrity and consistency. Having demonstrated one’s character such so as to be granted honor means that the village children will be pointed to oneself as the role-model: “You see, little Apollonius, if you want to be magnanimous, try to be like Alexander, son of Phillip.” Alexander ought to feel the eyes of his neighbors and inferiors on him at all times, scrutinizing his actions.
Alexander has no obligation to his inferiors. He has no moral obligation to uphold his honor, especially since it would have to be given to him from someone else, freely and without solicitation lest it would be meaningless (much like the medals on a President’s uniform). Meaningful honor cannot be granted to one’s self. Of course, if Alexander drops the ball, finding work may become difficult. There is a certain circumstance of expectation for one with honor which must be taken into account if one wishes to flourish.
These feelings and circumstances should look familiar to those acquainted with the modern religious concept of shame. Initially, as western cultures developed terms for shame, it was essentially synonymous with humility. Not the flimsy Thomist “just roll over and take it” version, but the ancient stoic “don’t exaggerate your accomplishments, just be aware that you are being watched and let your actions speak for themselves” version. Shame originally meant “the feeling you should get concerning your honor,” which used to be the meaning for the word “honor” when used in the context of feelings.
Incidentally, some cultures would honor undesirable behavior, as well. One would be honored for their cowardice, dishonesty, or promiscuity. In which case, the shame felt would be more akin to the popular modern conception of the term. This specifically, is simply a fun bit of trivia as far as the issue at hand is concerned, but it may come up in later posts.
What is important to the issue at hand? So far, we’ve only tried to clear up some small degree of confusion regarding a term that has been repeatedly co-opted throughout history. We haven’t really defined or described it. So, what is honor and what does it look like? As I already said, honor is a social virtue: a virtue pertaining to the manner in which one relates to others. It is essentially setting the example. What kind of example?
An example of virtue. Ancient virtue. Virtue, as a Latin word, really means “manliness’. Manliness meaning “the paradigm example of what a human ought to look like, in appearance and behavior.” I will make a post later about virtue specifically, but for now I will focus on the attributes of honor. Honor is a demonstration of virtues such as integrity, justice, courage, and self-actualization. A man of honor, ultimately, is a man who is free and willing to do the most righteous thing without the aid or encouragement of others. Instead of saying “someone ought to do X” or “There ought to be a law”, a man of honor simply does X and demonstrates how it ought to be done without seeking payment or recognition.
Clearly, honor is a virtue largely contingent upon other virtues. One cannot, for example, step-in when someone is committing a crime against someone unable or unwilling to defend themselves unless one first possess virtues like courage, magnanimity, and the martial virtues. One cannot engage in intellectual pursuits and eloquently and passionately introduce others to esoteric knowledge unless one first possesses the virtues of diligence, discipline, and reason. Unlike crime, honor is more fluid and less axiomatic in its specifics. However, it’s definition is quite helpful in identifying honor when one witnesses it. Honor is a character trait whereby one is prone to consistently demonstrating exceptional virtue in their interactions with others.
Remember, anarchy is a philosophy of responsibility. In the absence of the perpetual threat of murder for disobedience to arbitrary moral claims, alternative cultures of cooperation must endure. Honor, shame, and social relationships have always been crucial to the functioning of free societies.
TL;DR: Instead of confusing honor with a pseudo-Christian bastardization of servitude and approval from one’s masters, one ought to read ancient Greek ad Roman stoics and scholarship concerning them. Honor is centered on the social virtue of living well and setting the example as to how one ought to flourish.
Who is John Galt?