Here’s my second essay on the Nine Noble Virtues, the one on Honor.
Honor is probably the most difficult of all of the virtues to define because it is such an intangible idea. Socrates said “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be,” and I think that captures honor – the way I understand it – pretty well.
Every society has its own view of morality, and staying true to the moral code or ethical code is generally perceived as being honorable. But I think that honor is more than that – I think it has to be more than that, as the moral code our society embraces is not always one I view as being honorable.
For me, being honorable is equivalent to being trustworthy and worthy of the respect you gain through your own efforts. It is an essential quality of life, and I think if you replace the word “honor” with “respect” the idea becomes a little easier to grasp. Respect is something we earn through our deeds – as is honor. And to defend the reputation we gain after establishing that respect is required if we wish to maintain that respect.
But we all wear a mask. We all pretend to be something – a particular quality, perhaps, like honest, or trustworthy. And it may start out as pretense, or as an exercise to try and better ourselves. The pursuit of self-improvement is an honorable one, and, if we maintain the pretense long enough, it starts to become our truth. The idea that we can “fake it til we make it,” seems like a cop-out, but it isn’t.
Like any muscle must be worked in order to keep it from atrophying, we must work our moral muscles as well. If we wish to be honest people, then we must practice being honest. If we wish to be kind, then we must practice being kind. If we wish to be noble, then we must practice being noble. Our species is one that learns by mimicking others.
If we grow up watching others steal, then we admire thievery and seek to establish ourselves as thieves. If we grow up watching others lie, then we admire deceit and seek to establish ourselves as great manipulators. But if we grow up watching others be honest, then we learn to admire honesty and seek to establish ourselves as truth-tellers. If we grow up watching others be kind, then we learn to admire kindness, and seek to establish ourselves as compassionate.
Honor, therefore, is a very personal thing. What I view as an honorable act may seem dishonorable to someone else because we had vastly different learning experiences growing up, and thus value different actions. For example, a person who has developed a reputation as a great thief will put his honor on the line for a great heist – if he fails, then his reputation (and thus his honor) is destroyed, but if he succeeds, he becomes even more of a legend. For a great detective, catching such a thief will allow him to maintain his honor, but failing to do so will destroy his reputation.
So honor is different for every person – we all view morality in different lights. On my part, I admire great teachers, and I aim to become a great teacher myself, after obtaining the necessary education. But I’ve already started to build a reputation as a good teacher because I teach my classmates when they need help, and I’ve established a trust with them. I can easily lose that trust if I fail to adhere to my own understanding of what makes a teacher a good one.
And that’s an important fact about honor – it can be gained, maintained, and lost easily. It takes effort to maintain a good reputation, and if a person’s not willing to put in the work required to create a good reputation or maintain it after it’s achieved, then the honor is lost. Respect is lost. And once you lose someone’s respect, part of your honor is destroyed, and there’s no real way to repair that rift.