Honor Given, Honor Taken

How we think about honor dictates how we are honored in return

“Life every man holds dear; but the brave man
Holds honour far more precious-dear than life.”
— William Shakespeare, 1602

Does honor even matter any more?

My previous essay tackled the responsibility of leaders to take action in the face of inequity when they can. Essentially, “If you see something, say something.”

Honor and Duty

But buried in that argument is the assumption that they’d care about their reputation enough to act. Or, if reputation is secondary to them, that at least they’d care enough about their fellow man that some driving ethical force would urge them to simply do the right thing.

Particularly in Washington these days, there seems to be little concern for honor. While we grow weary or cynical of motivations, it’s an environment that seems bound by hypocrisy rather than honor. By expediency over ethics.

Honor involves respect. Respect for oneself and respect for others. Through decisions and actions (or inactions), we underscore our desire to earn and show respect.

“For this with falsehood is my honour stain’d,
Is heaven offended, and a priest profaned”
— Homer, 8th century BC

Homer’s Iliad is woven with lessons, but one that is embedded across the entire story is the power of timê, or honor. To the ancient Greeks, honor is as valuable as life, and it is earned by virtue of accomplishments and actions.

Again and again, we see denial of honor as one of the most egregious of actions: Agamemnon took Chryseis as a prize of war, but had to give her back to keep Apollo from sending a plague on the Greek army; he was dishonored in having to give her up.

What is one to do when dishonored? If you’re a character in The Iliad, you bring dishonor on another, that’s what! Agamemnon proceeded to take Achilles’ prisoner Briseis for his own, thus dishonoring Achilles.

This tit-for-tat game does nothing to restore honor. Quite the contrary. It’s reminiscent of the Old Testament retaliatory principle of “an eye for an eye.” The problem with that concept is everyone ends up blind.

Sadly, we seem to forget this overarching principle, particularly online, where the vitriol cascades like water. The ease of typing out a quick and cutting comment — to “win the Internet,” to become a general of meme wars — drives our behavior as we go for one-upmanship and gotcha moments.

Our brains may be stimulated by the release of dopamine, as we see the likes and congratulatory comments roll in, but one sad fact remains:

Dishonoring someone else does nothing to bring us honor.

Particularly when the other person doesn’t care about their own honor in the first place.

Let’s turn this on its head, though. Aside from bringing honor and respect to ourselves through our gestures, how can we bestow honor on others?

Lead by example

If you expect others to do honorable things, demonstrate that by being honorable yourself. Speak about your values, and then walk the talk. Your reputation will follow suit.

Surround yourself with honorable people

Mom always said, “You’re judged by the company you keep.” This was grounded in the same concept shared two centuries before by George Washington: “Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation.”

Recognize when people live up to their ideals

If someone claims that she stands for ethical behavior and makes a tough decision that supports that value, acknowledge it. Celebrate it. Make it clear that she did not was expedient, but what was right.

Don’t call out missteps

People will make mistakes. They’ll sometimes choose that which is easy over that which is right. It doesn’t mean they’re inherently dishonorable. Fight the urge to give them the full Nelson (from The Simpsons) treatment; schadenfreude is not a good look in this case. If we give them the room to make mistakes and observe them over time, we’ll see what kind of people they are.

I’m reminded of a wonderful observation that Christopher Morley made about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the preface of The Complete Sherlock Holmes in 1930. It perfectly captures the gentlemanly notion of honor:

“Doyle himself must have been a singularly lovable man. There is an anecdote in his Memories and Adventures that reveals very clearly the fine instinct of delicacy in his massive personality. He was visiting George Meredith in the latter’s old age, and they were walking up a steep path to the little summer house Meredith used for writing. In Doyle's own words:

“‘The nervous complaint from which he suffered caused him to fall down occasionally. As we walked up the narrow path I heard him fall behind me, but judged from the sound that it was a mere slither and could not have hurt him. Therefore I walked on as if I had heard nothing. He was a fiercely proud old man, and my instincts told me that his humiliation in being helped up would be far greater than any relief I could give him.’

“I can think of no truer revelation of a gentleman than that.”

There’s a reason that Conan Doyle’s grave stone reads “Steel True, Blade Straight.”

Honor is a powerful value. And the power lies within us to bestow honor or to revoke honor.

And with it, to earn honor.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.