The Virtues: Honour

Welcome back to The Code Blog, this post continues from the ‘The Path to Wisdom’. Today, we begin our discussion on the virtues with the most important virtue of them all—Honour. Now, as we mentioned in Chapter 25 of The Code, honour is not a word used much these days, which is a shame as honour means ‘the quality of knowing and doing what is morally right’ and is essential to the development of all the other virtues, and by extension, the achievement of our purpose in life. Namely, the survival and the promotion of the welfare of our families and our communities.

From ancient times up to the 1950s, honour was a vital component of the life of each individual. Each person had their personal honour, each family guarded its family honour, and each nation zealously defended its national honour. This was not an idle conception, but in each sphere of life, be it personal, familial, or national, it was taken with great seriousness. Duels and wars were fought for honour's sake and history is resplendent with tales of God-like people preferring a painful death over besmirching their own, their family’s, or their community’s honour.

People like Roman Consul Spurius Postumius, who after the Roman defeat at the Caudine Forks, having offered himself as surety to the Samnites for Peace and upon advising the Roman Senate to continue the war, chose to return to the Samnites to face torture and death rather than dishonour himself (Livy, 27-9 BCE). Or Benito Mussolini, in the 1920s as a journalist, having besmirched the honour of rival and being challenged, agreeing to fight him in a duel (in which he had a chunk cut out of his ear (Farrell, 2003). This is not to whitewash or glamorise the past, but it is to recognise that by abandoning this venerable conception, we have lost our greatest boon for the preservation and maintenance of our virtues, both personal and civic.

Honour in the past was more about maintaining the respect of your equals through conformance to the expected standards of behaviour than about an internal code of conduct. I.e., honour was not so much concerned with what you thought but with what you were seen to do. This was a powerful tool for both society and the individual to promote behaviour that was beneficial and dissuade them from harmful actions, through the ostracism from respectable society of the dishonourable. For instance, if it was considered dishonourable to steal or to lie, then to be exposed in a lie or accused of a theft was to call in to question not just the act but the value and standing of the individual themselves. The stain on their honour could result in the loss of their standing in society, opportunity to marry, ability to work in many fields, and even the right to live in their homeland through exile.

These effects in restraining harmful actions were laudable. However, as honour-codes were based on the expectations of the society in which they developed, they also possessed some serious drawbacks. The most serious of these drawbacks was that the individual was constrained to act in ways regardless of their personal convictions. This created a form of groupthink, where the individual was expected to conform their behaviour to the expectations of their society regardless of what reason or right was dictated to the individual. These honour-codes also erred in that they mistook the means of achieving the purpose for the end in of itself.

Honour grew from being a guide to living a good life to becoming the goal of life itself. This confusion of means for end led to the decline of honour in the modern world as it became conflated with blind obedience to authority (as with the German and Japanese militaries in WW2) and outdated class-based social structures. However, the time is ripe for the concept of honour to be dusted off once more in the English-speaking world. Reformed, redefined, and reintroduced to our lives to serve the vital role of leading us towards the right and away from that which is bad.

This newly re-burnished honour should not only be an external code of conduct. Instead, as we urge in The Code, it should be a code of conduct that is both internal and external. We each alone should consider where the welfare of our families lies, conforming our actions to that purpose. If we do so, logic and reason will compel us to consider the welfare of those around us. For when we deduce how our families and our own welfare is served best when the fruits of our labours are secure from theft and deceit, that our persons and that of those we love are preserved best by the mutual protection and absence of violence of our neighbours, how could we act otherwise (see Chapter 13 the Community)?

By using your reason and intellect to determine the right path in all things, and as Epictetus said in the Enchiridion making, ‘whatever moral rules you have proposed to yourself, your laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them, hold to them regardless of the opinion of others’. Setting the right you have determined as the basis for your honour. Lead by your own example, not only by words. Encourage through your example others to join with you to observe these minimum standards of behaviour both as a group and alone. By this, we create an honour-code binding on the members of our society. As individuals, each one of us can use this minimalistic public honour-code as the foundation of our own personal honour-code. As a group, we can hold each other accountable.

I do not mean to suggest that we should use this to impose our values or beliefs onto others.

Today, in our more populous, geographically dispersed, and anonymous world, the mutual accountability of the world in which everyone was connected and knew each other may seem to have vanished forever. However, this is a misconception. The worlds we move in, while they may span continents, remain for the most part astonishingly small. How often have you met someone in some obscure place and been surprised that they knew the same people you do? Why then do we imagine that if we act dishonourably or honourably, word will not spread?

If we can accept the counterintuitive fact that, in this world of billions, most people you meet will have some connection back to you, that even if you go to the other side of the world, you cannot outrun your actions. In this global interconnectedness, honour’s latent power can be seen. If only we could harness it once more.

Honour’s usefulness is not just in its power to encourage right action through fear of disgrace, but also in its ability to assist us in formulating what kind of person we are. By placing clear and unbendable standards of behaviour before us, we set clear limits to what actions are acceptable at what times. If you are tempted to tell a lie to escape a small difficulty, honour can restrain you with the knowledge that you are not a person who lies. When you fail, honour stings you with the sure knowledge of your failing and encourages you to improve through shame. But alone, honour is not enough.

Honour provides the model for the good life and the search for wisdom, but without the other virtues, the purpose cannot be achieved. It’s not enough to know what is morally right, you need to actually follow through. As what is right is not always easy, it takes courage to act morally. This is why courage is the second virtue. Join us next Monday as we explore what courage is and how we can cultivate it.

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