With the morning mist still on the Hudson River, and the sun just kissing the cliff tops of the New Jersey Palisade, Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States shot and killed former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Political opponents for years, the duelists faced each other after Burr sent these words to Hamilton: “Political opposition can never absolve gentlemen from the necessity of a rigid adherence to the laws of honor.”
Once upon a time people were motivated by honor. Acquiring it, maintaining it, defending it. Bitter duels were fought in its name. I don’t hear much talk about honor anymore.
Could it be the concept of honor is too difficult to understand? Is it truly ineffable— impossible to define—to the point that no one really knows what it means? As a virtue, it has certainly taken a beating when some cultures identify the murder of family members as an “honor killing,” and when criminals such as the Mafia call themselves “men of honor.”
I looked it up in the Webster Dictionary and found the words “reputation” and “integrity.” But, honor seems to be more than that. It is similar to the definition of character which is: “what you do when no one is watching.” Again, it must be more than that. So, I researched what some historical figures said about it. Most of them described honor by what it is not.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Nobody can acquire honor by doing what is wrong.” OK, we’ll assume he means you must do what is right or good. The problem may be that by today’s standards those are up for debate.
The ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles, also tells us what not to do, but at the same time defines what is wrong: “Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud.”
Which reminds me of my favorite quote from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: “There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft....When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife's right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.”
Of course fraud is theft, and any way in which someone defrauds another is wrong. Today, however, I feel as if fraud is the new coin of the realm. That it has become an accepted part of our culture. I hear so many conflicting claims from government officials - whether it is about global warming or the cause of terrorism or how to repair the economy - that sometimes I don’t really know what to believe. It reminds me of a bit of graffiti I saw years ago: “Believe nothing of which you hear and only half of what you see.”
I also like this observation by former U.S. President, Herbert Hoover, “When there is a lack of honor in government, the morals of the whole people are poisoned.” In other words, if we feel like our government is cheating us, then a kind of a trickle-down corruption starts to exist. Now that is frightening indeed.
Others say that honor is something that we are born with, and that we must strive to keep it. German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, said, “Honor has not to be won; it must only not be lost.” Here is a similar statement by French author and poet, Nicholas Boileau, “Honor is like an island, rugged and without shores; once we have left it, we can never return.” Still, neither tells what it is.
And, you can’t really claim to have it, as Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” Could it be something that only other people can observe in you?
Leonardo da Vinci, endeavored to define it as, “He who sows virtue reaps honor.” One of the best definitions I found is from journalist, Walter Lippmann, “He has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable, or dangerous to do so.”
I recall my father teaching me about honor and duty, and I have endeavored to teach my sons about it as well. I hope they will grow up in a world where honor has a resurgence and people are motivated by it once again.
Robert Evans Wilson Jr. is an author, humorist, and coach. He works with people who want to achieve more without sacrificing life balance. Contact Robert at www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.