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Absence of Honor

I find that the word "honor" is difficult to define.  A review of dictionary definitions will establish that it has various meanings depending, of course, on its use in a sentence.  It may be used as a noun or a verb.  But even limiting definition to the use of the word as a noun doesn't promote much in the way of clarity. Here, I mean by it a quality; a personal quality.  A quality which clearly is not possessed by any prominent person in our sad age.  I hope it's possessed by some of us nonetheless.

H.L. Mencken wrote that honor is simply the morality of the superior man.  Mencken had a tendency to speak of men (and people in general I would think) as superior or inferior.  Certainly certain of us are superior in certain respects from others, but I'm not inclined to follow The Sage of Baltimore in making such a classification.  More specifically, he also wrote something to the effect that the difference between a moral man and an honorable one is that the honorable man will regret a discreditable act even when it works and he is not caught.  This doesn't say much for the honor of the moral man, which I suppose was Mencken's point.

Mencken's honorable man possesses something akin to what I try to refer to as "honor" in this post.  It is an expectation one has of oneself, not of others.  That expectation is that I, or you, will act honorably at all costs.  In other words, that I, or you, will do certain things, and not do other things, regardless of the circumstances, not primarily because it is moral to do or not to do a certain thing, but primarily out of self-respect or self-regard.  Because we have honor or a sense of honor, we would lose respect for ourselves if we do something dishonorable or fail to do something honorable.  We would hold ourselves in contempt, regardless of whether others do so.

I feel some discomfort with this definition as it seems to resemble what some have purported to be saying when referring to someone as a "gentleman" (as opposed to a "bounder" I suppose, or a "cad").
And I'm afraid the knight of chivalry comes to mind as well, prating about his "sacred honor."  In addition, "honor" is often used in reference to the military, e.g. "Duty, Honor, Country."  Also, God help me, I can't help of thinking of the Star Trek character Worf (sp?) gravely saying of someone that "he has no honor."

Even so, "honor" as I speak of it here is adherence to a code of conduct for its own sake and for one's own sake.  Synonyms would be "integrity" and "dignity" and in the Roman sense gravitas.  Naturally, the code of conduct must be worthy of honor (here used as a verb), but curiously, it seems to me, we tend to admire those whose honor compels them to act or not act in a particular way even when the code they adhere to is unworthy.  We all know the phrase "honor among thieves."  What makes a thief honorable would be adherence to the thief's code, for its own sake and for his/her own sake.

Try to think of any prominent public figure who is a person of honor in that sense; who has honor or is honorable.  I know of nobody I would consider honorable, but know of many I think are without honor.  Of particular note are our politicians.  They're craven, venal, duplicitous, and seem to compete with each other in being dishonorable.  There is it seems no limit to what they are willing to do to retain their positions and better them if possible.  They're anything but honorable, and sometimes boast of being dishonorable.  Among them, dishonorable conduct appears to be admirable.

The absence of honor in our time may be attributable to lack of a moral code; lack of a real moral code one would have to say, as it's the case with our politicians, especially those of the right, that they persistently claim to be good Christians--a laughable conceit given their behavior.  Pharisees they may be, but nothing more.  Or it may be do to something more surprising, or at least I think so.

I think that as a rule, self-respect is not a concern among us, and especially for those of us that are public figures for one reason or another.  It isn't merely that we're indifferent to what others think of us, it's that we don't much care what we do except at a superficial level.  Expedience is what concerns us, and if what we do is expedient that is all that matters.  That what is expedient may be dishonorable is not an issue.

Like Werner von Braun in the Tom Lehrer song, our allegiance is ruled by expedience.  It makes our age a very petty, very sleazy time, very grubby time, remarkable in that sense but no other.  It's no surprise then that our leaders are variously petty, sleazy and grubby.

This post first appeared on I, Ciceronianus; Causidus, please read the originial post: here

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Absence of Honor


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