Thursday, August 20, 2009
Honor in Karatedo?
Honor, a venerable species of moral practice, has gone through many changes over the centuries. Even if we limit our consideration to the west, honor has arguably seen four distinct periods, classical, medieval, early modern, and modern, in which the concept and practice of honor were distinguishable, if not entirely distinct. Honor is an inheritance from the past, in particular from such aristocratic, heroic, and chivalric societies as ancient Greece and medieval and Renaissance Europe. Currently, the idea of honor is invoked by the codes of honor of military colleges and in Karatedo the Bushido aspects. While these codes have the specialized function of preventing cheating and other forms of misconduct, they are also viewed at many institutions as playing a part in the broader ethical development of students.
While honor is more of practice than of theory, and has therefore invited the study more often of historians and anthropologists than of ethicists, it is subject to analysis in having certain enduring and even essentials aspects, and as I will maintain, its own distinctive and durable dynamic. I plan to argue further that honor still has value as a corollary to contemporary or academic approaches to Karatedo ethics. Modern Karatedo organizations ought to preserve the idea of honor because its roots are martial, because it provides for personal responsibility for one’s actions, and as a way of retaining a sense of the relevance and worthiness of our own past.
Honor has survived the centuries in part because it has been the product of a strong historical dialectic of public and private senses of worth and value. I call this a strong dialectic because honor as an idea or a practice does not weaken the claims of either public or private lives to accommodate the other, but builds on both, in effect ensuring that public esteem and private self-worth are mutually supporting, rather than hostile to one another. This is why honor has been such a powerful idea, developing both the pride of the individual and his or her sense of belonging, and it is also why honor has been challenged most (not necessarily to its detriment), at times in history that have valued alienation or estrangement, whether radical, cynical, political, romantic, or merely self-indulgent.
In this short discussion, I would like to attempt to briefly trace the historical development of the idea of honor in its martial incarnation. I will then try to define honor by identifying some of its salient and enduring characteristics. Finally, I would like to make some suggestions about how we may refine and enhance the practice of honor at Karate Dojos as part of a broad effort to develop traits of character.
Honor is an ancient ideal of conduct with significant philosophical roots in Aristotle and cultural or historic roots that are much older. In the very early, heroic, manifestations of the idea of honor, as in the Iliad, honor was mostly if not solely a matter of public honors: wine, tripods, slaves. Aristotle’s account of honor in the Ethics and the Rhetoric generally equates honor with eminence and esteem. There was little idea among the ancient Greeks of the inner “sense of honor” that becomes important in later times, but even the most pagan Greeks recognized the distinction between honors which are truly deserved and those which are not, indeed, this disparity fueled much of the classical discourse on the relationship of society and the individual, from Achilles to Socrates.
Medieval honor was a synthesis of Christianity and chivalry. Under the influence of the Christian concepts of the “soul” and of the Catholic practice of the confessional, the moral life, and honor with it, moved inward, but this was held in check by the demands of chivalry, the need for the man of honor to pursue his public role even in the face of religious or romantic distractions. Failures of honor became matters of both private “guilt” as well as of public “shame. The periods of Renaissance and Reformation were characterized by an uncentering of traditional sources of power, religious and secular. The Protestant emphasis served to support the idea that honor must lie within the individual. The unquiet state of a Europe once united by Christendom and anchored in feudal allegiances but for a time rent by wars of religion was in a sense reflected at the level of the individual by the height of the cult of dueling, a radical expression of honor as an individual matter.
In the centuries following the middle ages and Renaissance, honor became more egalitarian, less determinedly individualistic, more accountable, bourgeois, and even eventually almost democratic, at least in the new world. The practice of honor came to be defined by not only by class-membership, but by the choice of profession. The early modern period saw the development of large national armies and of the professional officer corps, a group shaped by regulations, training and doctrine. Armies also increasingly develop distinct codes of honor.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idea of honor survived and prospered by incorporating an ethos of service, although perhaps in part to the durability of aristocratic values and cachet. The idea of service elite came to supplant that of one based entirely on birth and manners. In the twentieth century, the ethos of service was called into question by the terrible price it seemed to exact in the trenches of World War I, and by its misuse at the hands of modern devotees of collectivist thought on the left and on the right. Modernists and post-modernists tend to deconstruct any culturally rooted sense of value. In the midst of the debunking of honor that seemed to be taking place in the twentieth century however, a prominent figure in cultural debate pointed out some reasons to justify the survival of the idea.
The resurgence of interest in ethics, and in alternative ideas of ethics like those of Aristotle, has also seen a renewal of interest in honor. Honor has its defenders today, and may perhaps to be seen undergoing a revival.
Certain key features emerge from this genealogy of honor. From its aristocratic and martial origins, honor has developed into the means by which close-knit, hierarchical and highly directed societies such as that of any Traditional Karatedo Organization have developed a moral sense. It is an ethically-informed “groupthink”: the moral life lived outdoors, or the moral life as a contact sport. It is neither purely private nor merely public, but is the intersection of one’s own feelings of self-worth and the estimation of one’s peers. In fact, I would argue that the essential feature of honor is perhaps this tug of war between group allegiance and the demands of one’s own conscience. The very challenges to honor have in some ways strengthened the idea, by provoking dialectic between the claims of the individual as well as the group. Honor is a strategy of making the private and public lives of men and women mutually accountable and comprehensible. It is possible to be a good person without honor, and we may even speak of prophets without honor or of someone who is without honor in his own time. Honor requires a supportive community of peers, professional associates, or members of an organization. But since it’s private as well as public, honor requires responsible, conscientious individuals. Since those who embrace honor usually have viewed it as sovereign, other claims, honor may even be a “loaded gun
For the community of honor, the consensus of values is based not only on a canvassing of the views held by its current members. A community of honor takes the past into account.The teaching of Karate history to new students is largely an attempt to communicate values. Since honor is a cultural practice, the values of the group that are inherited from the past must be subject to critique. Some practices may become outdated or become warped over time. Just as the idea of honor may be perverted by a person or persons, the entire group might have a warped conception of honor. Karatedo is an egregious example of an organization that has a code of honor that is clearly self-serving and entirely insular.
Aspects of Honor
I would like now to articulate the relevance of honor in its martia sense. I believe that the practice of honor and of martia honor in particular, can be broken down into four parts. These are honesty, reciprocity, forbearance and restraint, and autonomy and free choice. First, to honesty. The connection between public and private values can only be maintained if we can trust one another. This is why honor systems like those at service academies and other military schools put such a premium on honesty. Honor isn’t just about telling the truth, but without truth-telling, the idea of honor as I have defined it is impossible. If someone is “out there” telling lies, cheating or stealing, he isn’t a person of honor, he isn’t one of the family; he’s a man alone. If too many people insist on doing this, out of pride, or because they are “alienated,” disaffected, or cynical, the connection between public and private is lost, and the community of honor, the “economy of sacrifice,” collapses into individuals each pursuing selfish ends through unscrupulous means. Such a trajectory is even characteristic of certain societies that begin with elevated and admirable codes of honor. In their own times, the Knights Templar and the Spartan state were two military societies in which, in reaction against an ethos of discipline and temperance, self-interest replaced service, and wealth replaced reputation as the basis of esteem. It might be argued that the American legal profession and corporate culture have followed a similar road.
The person who desires honor relies on the good opinion of peers, so as much as possible will observe the golden rule, will live up to obligations, repay debts, and return favors in full. Karate followers of tradition desiring honor must pull their own weight in the community of honor. This is the aspect of honor which I call reciprocity. The military unit is a social organism seemingly simple and reducible to a diagram or table of organization, but which is in reality quite complex. Superimposed on the formal structure of a military unit is the unofficial one of status and obligation, favors and repayment, past record and expectation that determines how the individual and unit function. Members of the organization have a kind of social contract to treat one another with respect and also with regard to their due.
The last trait of honor that I identify is autonomy and free choice. As I have suggested earlier, this characteristic can be a problem, but it is necessary to the idea of honor in that it engages each individual in the maintenance of private and public honor. In earlier times, dueling was an extreme example of the aristocrat’s fine contempt for mere rules in the pursuit of his own honor. . A profession is identified both by the independence and self-governing capability of the profession, and by the scope for autonomous judgment on the part of its members. The community of honor, once, like the title of gentleman, limited to those with certain antecedents, means, manners and education, has been democratized to include a wider circle. Membership is not conferred, it must be earned, and in stages. The degree of autonomy granted to an individual rests on experience, on confidence born of achievement, on reputation, on the practical wisdom of long service. To embrace honor is to uphold a positive and enduring tradition. Honor as I have defined it is a practice that can have a benign effect on the culture in both a moral and practical sense.
Honor in Action
In the last section I would like to offer some advice on the ways in which the ideal and the practice of honor may be enhanced in. Honor systems are seen to be useful in enforcing standards of honesty, maintaining an atmosphere of trust, and making the enforcement of certain regulations easier.
Honor codes that exist institutions should not be allowed to exist in isolation. The personal honesty which is stressed by Karatedo codes of honor should be viewed as only one part, the underpinnings, of the larger practice of honor. This practice should also be shown to be as much a part of their preparation to be Sensei as is technical knowledge and expertise. The first step in this development, I believe, is to instruct the student and and instill in him or her full meaning of honor
Our own American history is rich with examples of people motivated by honor.
To see nations, or our nations, acting out of honor in an international setting requires us to imagine that the members of the community of nations, and not just of nations but of peoples and various splinter-groups of humanity, share at least a core concept of honor to which a nation acting out of honor is in effect appealing.
Why should we love honor? Because it is our gift to civilization. It nourishes our sense of belonging to a great tradition. It sustains us in time of greatest need. We have had and will have few of the things that make life worth living in normal times, Comfort, safety, love and fun. All that we have to sustain ourselves is our own self-respect and our reputation among our peers in the profession, in other words, our honor, and the promise that something of that will endure.