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Tout est perdu, fors l’honneur” (All is lost, save my honor). These were the words that King François Premier of France penned in a letter to his mother after his defeat and capture at the Battle of Pavia in Italy (24 FEB 1525). I have been thinking about honor recently owing to two events.

In November of 2008, the professional golfer J. P. Hayes disqualified himself from the PGA Tour Q-school when he discovered he had inadvertently made two shots on one hole with a golf ball not approved for competition by the United States Golf Association. His admission of an honest mistake (his caddy had handed him the ball) cost him a 2009 PGA tour card and, presumably, quite a bit of money. When interviewed about his decision to self-report a violation no one else would have noticed, Hayes said, “I didn’t feel like I had an option. We play by the rules.”

Another incident came in January of 2009. Micah Grimes, the coach of a high-school women’s basketball team in Texas was fired for refusing to apologize after his team beat another team 100-0. Grimes responded, “We played the game as it was meant to be played. My values and my beliefs . . . will not allow me to apologize for a wide-margin victory when my girls played with honor and integrity.”

What is honor? What exactly did François Premier have left? What did the girls play basketball with? Did J. P. Hayes deserve to be praised and Micah Grimes deserve to be fired? Hayes strictly followed the golfer’s code of honor and won acclaim. Grimes somehow broke his principal’s code that you should not run up the score on a hapless team—and it cost him his job.

Honor can mean “esteem” or “acclaim” as in “to be held in honor.” But that is not the sense it has in the examples I have given. In these, honor is adherence to a code of behavior, formal or informal. Slogans like “A day’s work for a day’s wage” or “A man’s word is his bond” represent simple codes of honor. The motto of the West Point military academy is “Duty, Honor, Country,” a phrase made famous by the graduation speech given by General Douglas MacArthur on 12 May 1962.

Honor in and of itself is not a biblical virtue, although the concept appears in the Bible. It is not a biblical virtue, I think, because honor as adherence to a particular code of behavior is an ambiguous term. Whether one’s honor is good or bad depends on the legitimacy of the code of behavior it obeys. Muslim fathers, uncles, and brothers who perform honor killings (murdering a daughter or sister, for example, who dates a non-Muslim) are not particularly honorable according to Western standards. Honor, in an of itself, is not a virtue. Is there really honor among thieves?

Sometimes honor is simply quixotic, vain, or self-serving. Lord Cornwallis, the British general, surrendered to George Washington’s forces at the Battle of Yorktown, but he refused to offer his sword to Washington (or even to attend the surrender ceremony) because it was beneath his honor. Instead, he instructed his lieutenant, Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, to present the sword of surrender to Washington’s French ally General Rochambeau. Rochambeau refused to accept it and pointed to Washington. Washington then refused to accept it and pointed to his lieutenant, Benjamin Lincoln.

I have always considered my father and my father-in-law to be great men of honor in the best sense of the term. From my youth, I have been keenly aware that my father lived by an unwritten code. Once, when I was quite young, I was severely provoked (as I remember it) by the remarks of a neighborhood girl. I lashed out and hit her. Upon learning about this, my father let me know in the strongest terms that I was never again to hit a female, no matter how provoked. I am happy to say I never have, but it was my father’s code of honor that has constantly guided me in this and other matters on which I have had to choose a course of action.

My own sense of honor is a bit prickly. I have resigned secure, high-paying jobs simply because I didn’t like the way business was being done. In retrospect, my code of honor may have been too delicate and recherché for my own good, but at least, if much is perdu, like François Premier, I still claim my integrity.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 8, 2009 1:48 PM.

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