Rummaging through society’s chest of bygone relics, one finds an assortment of forgotten, quaint, embarrassing, or hopeless anachronistic virtues. Loyalty, chivalry, decency, due respect for elders and authority, honesty, responsibility, humility, and the all-encompassing artifact, honor. Interesting as novel antiques but no longer useful in a brave new world, can -- and should -- old-fashioned Mr. Smith values ever have the glamour they once had in their heyday?
Once upon a time, honor meant something, and we used the term without irony. An earnest mentioning of the topic today seems stodgy, if not moralistic. Aside from phrases like “in honor of the late Mr. Worthington,” the deflated “honor roll,” or the slightly glib “scout’s honor,” the word seems mostly forgotten, and its concept, evoked only by Klingons or medieval reenactments, seems as foreign as an arcane Greek virtue.
Societies and cultures have perhaps emphasized honor to an extreme, undertaking extreme measures such as century-long feuds or seppuku, in the name of honor. But it’s still a good thing to have: in the absence of honor, we have puerile and unbecoming pranks that are both costly and degrading to the community’s repute. The latest Rutgers survey of 4,500 high school students that found that 75 percent of them engage in serious cheating, that many even justified cheating as necessary, and even proper, to succeed in the face of unrealistic expectations. We have the best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose plagiarizing whole passages for his World War II book, The Wild Blue, explaining that, although he hadn’t used quotations, his error was minor because he had footnoted the source.
Yes, dishonorable conduct has always existed, but one, it’s always greatly unfortunate, and b), we really should know better by now. Out of the ashes of modern nihilism arose a new system of ends-justified hedonism. We now have an ironic coexistence of jaded cynicism at the absurdity of it all, with a smug confidence that our society is generally progressive and increasingly enlightened. What results is an unstoppable, rampantly proliferating mode of thinking and living that gradually takes over all that once was held dear, turning them into relics.
Why is that a problem? One perspective is that, although there are no values in an absurd world, they are wonderful and useful human inventions that make life better and take us out of the barbaric state of nature. Rejecting the antiquated values of yesteryear, we run the risk of undoing the products of civilization, to state it extremely, to a time of instability, fear, and doubt.
If everyone held themselves to a code of honor, we could eliminate many of life’s silly problems (silly, in that they need not be problems). There’d be no duplicity, no adversarial relationships where none should exist, and no immature or irresponsible behavior. Ultimately, happiness wouldn’t be based on wealth, distinctions, or even on success (even personal success is greatly random anyhow), but on an intrinsic quality that one could always be in control of; happiness wouldn’t be a zero-sum product, as it is presently, but would be auto-catalytic as one person appreciates and benefits from the virtues of another. It is admittedly a Quixotic notion. But that’s the whole point.