To Honour and be Honoured

Our culture is one that enshrines the dishonorable. In the place of statesmen, we honor stooges and scoundrels; in the place of religious and philosophical truth, moral goodness, and genuine artistic beauty, we exalt overpaid athletes, morally bankrupt Hollywood celebrities, and the crony-capitalist Randians currently allying Silicon Valley with the PC Police. Of course there are exceptions from time-to-time, as when some authentic virtue is praised, a genuine artist recognized, or a tribute is made to a noble institution. But these are exceptions to the norm, and they are becoming fewer and farther between.

Partly to blame is democracy, a system which is supposed to ennoble the common man (often along false lines of egalitarianism), but which, inevitably — as Christophe Buffin de Chosal informs us — ends up enshrining the most ignoble of oligarchs who enslave the populace to their agenda. In such a system, gone are all the traditions not only of monarchy, but also of aristocracy, and of social hierarchy in general. Even the much vaunted “republican virtue” cannot survive democracy. What replaces all this is a triumvirate of Big Government, Big Business, and Big Media that tears down traditions of decency, robs the populace of their genuine self-determination and independence, and keeps the masses doped up on some somnolent opiate or another so they fail to notice that they are being denatured.

Democracy cannot be all to blame, for sure. A succession of revolutions from the Protestant to the French (Masonic) to the Industrial to the Sexual have led to our present sad state.

But instead of wringing our hands over it, let us do the more difficult thing by learning what honor is and practicing it in our homes and our communities.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Honour may be defined as the deferential recognition by word or sign of another’s worth or station. Thus I show honour to another by giving him his title if he have one, and by raising my hat to him, or by yielding to him a place of precedence. I thereby give expression to my sense of his worth, and at the same time I profess my own inferiority to him.”

Saint Thomas treats of honor in two places in the Summa Theologiae. Both are in the secunda secundae (IIa IIae), where he treats of the virtues of justice and fortitude respectively, with all their parts. He reckons the virtue of dulia (“whereby we pay honor and other things pertaining to those who are in a higher position”) as a part of the virtue of “observance,” which, in turn, is a special virtue that is part of the cardinal virtue of justice. Later, while considering the virtue of fortitude and its parts, he writes of the virtue of magnanimity (which is “about great honors” and by which one is “minded to do some great act”).

By dulia, we honor those who deserve it; by magnanimity, we act in such a way as to merit honor. In simpler terms, as a matter of justice, each of us has the duty of honoring those who are worthy of it, whether they merit honor because of their personal virtue or their station in life. As a matter of fortitude, each of us ought to aspire to do those great and virtuous things which are themselves honorable.

At this point, I can hear an objection forming in people’s minds. “But we’re supposed to be humble, not aspire to honors, right?” In part, yes. It is true that Saint Teresa of Avila has much to say in her writings about those who are preoccupied with honor: the honor of their family, their name, their person, etc. What she is inveighing against — and it is a vice more common in her age, which was more honorable than our own! — is clearly something based in the vice of pride, and is therefore a serious obstacle to sanctity. But she would certainly not contradict Saint Thomas’ observation that, while one ought not to be attached to the honor shown him by others, he still ought to be honorable: “If, however, one were to despise honors so as not to care to do what is worthy of honor, this would be deserving of blame. Accordingly magnanimity is about honors in the sense that a man strives to do what is deserving of honor, yet not so as to think much of the honor accorded by man.” It is not proud to do the things that are worthy of honor (to say that would be to make one virtue the enemy of another); rather, it is magnanimous to do honorable things, and it is humble to accept it when, in place of praise, one hears only crickets — or criticism (in keeping with the axiom, “no good deed goes unpunished”).

Where Saint Thomas considers dulia, he teaches some basics of honor, including that “honor is the reward of virtue,” and that “honor denotes a witnessing to a person’s excellence.” In contrast to praise, which involves only words, “honor consists of signs, external and corporeal,” as well as words. Hence, bowing, standing, curtseying, kissing an episcopal ring, etc., as well as the signs of honor shown to the Celebrant of the Mass by the ministers and servers at the altar, are all forms of honor, just as are laudatory words. Both honor and praise are related to glory, for “glory is the effect of honor and praise, since the result of our bearing witness to a person’s goodness is that his goodness becomes clear to the knowledge of many. The word, ‘glory’ signifies this… wherefore… Augustine… observes that glory is ‘clear knowledge together with praise’.”

Why do we honor people? According to Saint Thomas, it is for two reasons: “honor is always due to a person on account of some [1] excellence or [2] superiority.” The “excellence” honored is chiefly that of outstanding virtue. By “superiority,” he means what we might call a “higher station” in life, either ecclesiastical or civil. So, parents, kings, bishops, priests, elders, teachers, etc., are to be shown the honor of their superior office, even if they are personally wicked. In the holy Dominican’s words, “A wicked superior is honored for the excellence, not of his virtue but of his dignity, as being God’s minister, and because the honor paid to him is paid to the whole community over which he presides.” These independent “hierarchies” of moral worth and official station can overlap in edifying ways. For instance, a superior may honor someone in a lower station “on account of some excellence of their virtue.”

In a day when everyone in a uniform is called a “hero,” and every participant in certain contests gets a prize, it may strike some as elitist that Saint Thomas holds, with Aristotle, that “honor is due to the best.” But, if everyone is excellent, then no one is excellent. Hence, the general lowering of standards that accompanies such misplaced honor.

To be magnanimous is, literally, to be “great-souled,” as the word comes from the Latin magnanimus: magnus “great” and animus “soul.” The virtue of magnanimity sets our mind to great things that we might perform great acts and merit great honors. My slightly awkward three-fold repetition of the word “great” is to drive the point home that magnanimity is, after all, magna. “A magnanimous man tends to such things as are deserving of honor,” says Saint Thomas, and “magnanimity is about great honors.” Because it is about the “difficult and the good,” magnanimity is therefore not easy. The struggle and self-mastery we associate with virtue in general is seen clearly in this particular virtue, which necessitates a triumph over vice and disordered passions.

As I said of this virtue elsewhere,

Magnanimity, or “large-mindedness,” is the good habit that makes us tend to do great or noble things. It’s a virtue which doesn’t tolerate mediocrity or half-measures. It’s also rare because it presupposes a high degree of the other virtues. To illustrate this virtue, we could point to someone who undertakes great accomplishments without being daunted. Great reforming popes like Saint Gregory VII or Innocent III come to mind, as do saints whose enterprises were widespread and large-scaled, especially great bishops like Saint Ambrose or religious founders like Saint Dominic, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, or our own Mother Cabrini.

Four vices oppose magnanimity: three by excess and one by deficiency. By presumption, ambition, and vainglory, we overshoot the virtue by being overconfident in our own abilities or seeking positions of honor and excellence in an inordinate, self-seeking way. The vice of pusillanimity opposes magnanimity by deficiency. It’s an unreasonable lack of confidence or a false humility that prevents one from rightly seeking honor when doing something deserving of honor is called for.

The Catholic Encyclopedia article, “Hounour,” very informatively compares and contrasts the Aristotelian doctrine on the subject with that of Saint Thomas. The Angelic Doctor agrees with the Peripatetic that “honor is the reward of virtue,” that, among those “external things” that are for man’s use, “honor is the greatest simply,” and that “nothing in human and corporeal things can be greater than honor,” all of which testifies to the high regard Saint Thomas has for honor. But the Christian Scholastic tempers Aristotle’s doctrine — and sometimes flatly contradicts it — where he introduces Our Lord’s teachings on humility. He also elevates honor above what Aristotle taught when he informs us that “man cannot sufficiently honor virtue which deserves to be honored by God.”

We Catholic counterrevolutionaries must work to restore a culture of respect, honor, and dignity in the smaller societies of which we are a part. Manners and customs that honor authority figures, such as proper use of written and spoken titles, standing when a priest or some other dignified person enters the room, kissing a bishop’s ring, a man giving up his seat for a lady, etc., are all ways of showing honor, as is commending good deeds or virtuous behavior with suitable words. On this point, the rubrics of the traditional liturgies (of East and West) give us patterns of honor and respect that we can carry into our daily lives.

Not only ought we work to show honor to those who deserve it on account of virtue or station, but we should also strive to be honorable ourselves, practicing both dulia and magnanimity.

There were two tablets of the Law that were given to Moses. To each tablet conforms one of the two evangelical commandments: love of God, and love of neighbor. The first tablet was headlined with a commandment to honor God, and Him alone, with divine honors. The second tablet is headlined with the honor we owe to parents, and by extension, all authority figures.

The gravity of honoring parents is highlighted by way of negation in two rather jarring passages in Saint Paul’s corpus. In II Timothy 3, he writes of the “dangerous times” of the last days, where men will be “lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, wicked,” etc. And in Romans 1:24-32, he writes rather frighteningly of a litany of heathen vices, including sodomy, which merit God’s wrath. Among the criminals denounced therein are “detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents…”.

Honor and dishonor, like so many things, begin in the home.