Friday, September 7, 2007

The Concept of Honor

The word honor has been floating around the internet quite a lot recently. Some of that has been due to the exchange between Ron Paul and Gov. Mike Huckabee on the question of what to do about Iraq. I found it appearing in a discussion about the notion of purity on another website late last week, as well, and began thinking about it then, so it was interesting to hear Gov. Huckabee talking about honor as it relates to our commitment, such as it is, not to leave Iraq a worse mess than we found it.

In terms of policy, of what we ought to do, it may well be that history will prove Ron Paul right. We're kidding ourselves if we think things in Iraq can't get worse than they are now: they can, and it troubles me to see all of the saber rattling concerning Iran going on right now as if Iraq was such an unqualified success that we have money to burn in our quest to rid the free world of terror.

But despite my lack of sympathy for the view that our continued presence in Iraq is a good thing, it was hard to dismiss what Gov. Huckabee was saying, and especially the way that he was saying it. The word "honor" in the sense the governor was using it is a word not often heard in our times, and we could use a little more of it, not only in speech, but in deeds.

The governor was talking about the kind of honor that forms a personal code, that extends beyond the selfish or immediate needs of the individual or the group and focuses on doing what is most right and what is most good for the greatest number of people. Informed by both one's moral standards and one's sense of self-respect, honor combines and then transcends both to create a new way of looking at and approaching life.

For example, a man's sense of self-respect might prompt him to yield his seat on a crowded bus to a lady, a mother with a small child, or an elderly person. A man's code of morality might forbid him to cheat a store owner out of the full amount of money he owes for his purchase. But only a man's honor will forbid him even to think slightingly of another person, and will sting his conscience when he does so.

Honor is the friend of virtue because honor makes virtue personal. It changes the "I must not" of the avoidance of sin into the "I must" which actively seeks to do good, not merely to stay away from sin. It internalizes our morality, making it something we adhere to because we believe we owe it to ourselves, not simply because we don't want to get caught in transgressions. It is, I believe, the second step toward a holy and virtuous life, the first being the acknowledgment of sin, accompanied by sorrow for it and a firm purpose of amendment.

So I applaud Gov. Huckabee's desire to elevate our national discussion about Iraq to the sphere of honor. We did destroy this country's government, after all. Right or wrong, we changed things for many Iraqis for the worse. Christians in Iraq are living in deadly peril, and the sectarian violence between the various Islamic factions continues both to grow and to destabilize the fledgling democratic government. What is the honorable thing to do?

People of good will may disagree as to the answer to that question, but I'd like to pose one more thing to think about.

After morality (I must not), after honor (I must), there is another step toward the life of virtue.

We can see it in Our Lady's example, when, at the wedding at Cana, she approached her Son and told Him, simply, "They have no more wine." Her focus was not on herself, not on doing something good to satisfy some inward sense of virtue, but wholly and completely on the Other, specifically on the bridegroom and his family who would be embarrassed by the sudden shortage of the fruit of the vine with which to celebrate their marriage feast.

This ability to see beyond I must not and I must, and say, instead, They need, is that greatness of soul which is called magnanimity. Noah Webster's dictionary defined it as follows:

MAGNANIM'ITY, n. [L. magnanimitas; magnus, great, and animus, mind.] Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquillity and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects.

Magnanimity rises beyond honor because it sees not merely what one owes to one's self, but what one owes to others as an overriding concern. Governor Huckabee says that our honor forbids us to leave Iraq in such a state of chaos, but our magnanimity should prompt us to go beyond honor, beyond politics, beyond all concerns that put ourselves first, and ask, what is it that the Iraqi people need from us? What should we do, not merely to satisfy our obligations to them, but to treat them like our brothers in Christ, who are owed our deepest concern and most selfless charity not merely because it behooves us to act in this way, but because we are truly and deeply committed to doing what they themselves would ask us to do, even if that means leaving the country before we'd really like to?

This may seem like quibbling over semantics; after all, some definitions of honor include some idea of magnanimity. But I think that if we truly want to find the best way to end the situation in Iraq, we will have to move beyond those ways of thinking that put our own desires first. What we should really be seeking in Iraq, as in every other aspect of our lives, is God's will--but we will not be able to overcome the temptation to see whatever we ourselves want as God's will unless we return to some discussion of the whole idea of virtue.


Christopher S. Lawton said...


Best Ron Paul video - (Reply: WRONG!...Best Presidential Candidacy Video EVER!!!)

Red Cardigan said...

Mr. Lawton, you're certainly welcome to read and comment here, but I won't allow political ads masquerading as comments.

If you have anything germane to the discussion, please feel free to write it.

Any further comments of this nature will be summarily deleted, whether they are posted by Mr. Lawton or anyone else.

freddy said...

Your writing gets me thinking, as always! One of the brick walls we keep running our heads into regarding the Iraq war is the consequences of "self-interest" masquerading as "selflessness." Politics in general is self-interested if not completely self-apsorbed, and that often puts it at odds with the dictates of conscience and religion. We can differ in opinion about what is good for America, but we must also keep in mind that what is good for America MUST NOT be bad for our brothers in other countries. We ignore this to our shame.

What is the responsibility of the United States? Is the "you broke it -- you buy it" mentality correct here, or should we pull out and offer only humanitarian aid -- and hope it doesn't fall into the wrong hands? I don't know. As a Christian, I know that my duty is both to continue to pray and work for peace, and to give to charities that do likewise.