There is a word which seems to find little use today. And though it covers the pages of the English Bible and permeates the entire history of Christendom, it seems to have nearly fallen off the proverbial map of common parlance. That word is honor.
And with its disappearance there has also withdrawn from us an entire world: A world where honor is honorable and thus capable of being honored. For although we know the word well enough, and its meaning is far from ambiguous, it is precisely that we find so little use for the word that should be so alarming. It brings home the adage, “No honor amongst thieves.” Well, ours must indeed be a world of thieves; or at least where thieves have broken-in and stollen our honor from; or a world too thick for honor to find a fitting resting place. (Note also the root similarity between “honor” and “honesty”)
And yet honor still beckons from a lost world where glory, renown, and fame were prized and where dignity and distinction found respect. This was a world where nobleness was met with reverence; where Moses taught, “Children, honor your father and your mother that your days may be long” (Ex 20:12); where Paul could say, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17); or again, “let each one of you know how to possess himself of his own vessel in sanctification and honor” (1 Thes. 4:4); or “Let everyone outdo each-other in showing honor” (Rom 12:10).
And this was the world of Christendom, where clerics, monarchs, and especially Christian knights, saw their calling particularly in terms of honor. Indeed, the spirit of chivalry makes no sense apart from honor.
Robert Kane (S.J.) put it this way in his wonderful forward to Kenelm Digby’s Maxims of Christian Chivalry (aka the Broadstone of Honour):
There is an ideal for which true men live, and for which, if need were, they would die. Not to its profit do they look or to any material gain that it can give. Its power over them comes not from pleasure, nor is ambition the secret mainspring of its strength. Without it, wealth has no worth, pleasure no charm, fame no fascination, success no crown. Without it, prosperity crumbles to the value of the dust, and all the finer flowers of human life wither beneath the breath of bitter but just contempt. With it, misfortune may become noble, suffering worshipful, disaster magnificent. It can give to trifles a preciousness greater than gold can buy; it can transform hardship into happiness; and round the worst failure it can throw the glory of a true triumph. For, ideal though it be, it has a strange practical power. It is the one test which inexorably unmasks the liar, the knave, or the animal, amongst men, and which faithfully reveals the true, the good, and the noble. It is honour… It is more than a dutiful obedience to truth and right. Honour is a chivalrous allegiance, an enthusiastic loyalty, a death-daring devotedness, to what in truth is most delicate and to what in right is most refined. A man of honour is a hero of the highest type and of the most sterling worth.
Needless to say, such a thing has become more than rare in our time. But notice he mentions honor’s “practical power.” It was because of honor that good men chose good over evil. It was due to honor that warriors fought bravely for their faith and fatherland. And it was in terms of honor that people feared the “righteous judgment of God,” as Paul states in Romans.
For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life (2:6-7).
The ancient world understood this. Old-world pagans practiced this. Christendom perfected this. And now we stand on the cusp of loosing it forever.
Indeed, the world makes no sense without honor. For though there still remains power, pleasure, and wealth, there is no meaning to such things without honor. Instead, everything ends in nihilism.
I think one might safely say it is largely because we have lost all honor that our modern world no longer makes any sense. And for this reason we no longer know what to do, let alone have the will to do it.
The question is: will we waken before it is too late?