In this essay, I shall attempt to define honour in what I hope is a useful way. Of course, this definition may clash with your own, in which case I ask you not to get too worried about the word ‘honour’, and, if it pleases you to do so, substitute your own word for mine. You may decide that I have defined ‘plange’ for all I care. The important point is the definition, not the particular code of sounds and letters which names that definition.
Honour is the defence of pride.
Pride I see as a good thing. People should take pride in their work. That way, they will do a better job. People should take pride in their behaviour. That way, they will endeavour to behave better than they otherwise might, and the world will be a better place as a result. Just because an ideal may be unattainable, does not mean that it does no good to strive towards it.
An honourable man stands up for himself when falsely accused. He defends his pride. If people might be led by false tongues, to believe ill of a man, then he should point out the falsehood, and thus defend his pride. Similarly, an honourable man would do the same to defend people and things associated with himself. It is honourable to defend against a false slur aimed at one’s country or family. These things are an extension of the man, and an attack on these is an attack on the pride of the man.
You may now be thinking that this seems an out-moded, or even savage, philosophy. You may be imagining that I see a world populated by warriors who fly into outrage at the tiniest insult, to be an honourable one. That is not what I mean. For a start, it would be a dent to my pride if people thought me that touchy, and that stupidly violent.
I did not write ‘Honour is the defence of one’s pride.’ Honour, as I see it, is the defence of all pride, including everyone else’s.
So, when an enemy has been defeated, and has come to surrender, an honourable man allows his enemy to do this with dignity. After the surrender is signed, his enemy may walk from the room with his head held high. A dishonourable man crows over his fallen enemy, and demands that he crawl through the mud. To defend only one’s own pride is to become arrogant and to become blind to the virtues of others. If one is strong, then one would also become a bully. A strong and honourable man is magnanimous, and praises the virtues of friends, rivals, and enemies alike.
If we all strived to follow this definition of honour, then we would all wish everyone else to be proud of themselves. To this end, we might help them to improve themselves. Many things about a man are unchangeable. One such is his race. Honourable men would allow men of any race be proud of that race, and never make others feel ashamed of things which they cannot change about themselves.
If there is something associated with me which is bad, then the honourable path is to do my bit to make that better. If there is something about my country which is bad, then, in order to maintain my own pride, I must be sure to do my bit to make my country better in that respect, and no one else should try to make me hate my country as a whole for that one fault.
One might argue that this philosophy would lead people to become fiercely or irrationally defensive about their own shortcomings, and to never admit fault. Well, naturally, one has to make judgements about exactly of what we shall be proud, and of what we shall not be. I have little respect for people who are proud of weakness. There was a song which did well in the charts in the mid 1990s which contained the lyrics “Don’t be afraid to be weak. Don’t be proud to be strong.” I consider that these lyrics have it the wrong way round. They should have gone “Don’t be afraid to be strong. Don’t be proud to be weak.” Wisdom suggests to me that it is a weakness to be unable to admit failing. A strong man will tend towards being a bully by never admitting fault, and all men will make themselves laughable or untrustworthy by this habit. Like any rule by which we might live, it takes wisdom to apply it well. In order to be proud of ourselves, we need to strive to make ourselves something of which to be proud. I am really not very good at rock climbing, and I have a rotten memory for names and dates. I am proud of neither of these things. Nevertheless, I do try to remember people’s names, and I have given rock climbing a go. That I am able to admit to these faults is part of the person about whom I strive to be proud.
This definition of honour leaves us free to insult each other. You can say that I’m crap at rock climbing. You would be right, but I might have a bash at defending myself, using a lot of irony. I consider the freedom to insult a very important one. How one reacts to insults tells others a lot about oneself. People may start to think little of a man who gives out too many insults. A good insult relates to the truth about a person, and is one which can be defended against, perhaps by being laughed off. A bad insult wounds a person, perhaps damns something about himself which he cannot change, and brings shame on the insulter.
Imagine that in Britain, there is a section of society which no one is free to insult. We can tell jokes and make all manner of remarks about everyone else, but to do so about these people is a strictly observed taboo. What greater way could we find to exclude these people from our society? What greater insult could there be than to never insult someone? By never insulting these people, for fear that we would cause offence, we are in the strongest way suggesting that these people have something to be genuinely ashamed about, and that to draw attention to this thing would cause them to fly into a rage or collapse in tears. We would be attacking their pride in a tacit and very powerful way. Insults make us strong. If I never insult you, then I imply that you are so low, that you are not even worth insulting. If I insult you, and you defend your pride without recourse to lies or fury, then you are an honourable man I could do business with.
Honour is an old fashioned word, but still a good one.