Saturday, March 22, 2003

Honor in Great and Small Things

For honor can be desired either in the right way or more or less than is right. If someone desires it to excess, he is called an honor-lover, and if his desire is deficient he is called indifferent in honor, but if he is intermediate he has no name.

- Aristotle, the Ethics


Over the last few days, since the beginning of military activities in Iraq, I’ve seen a number of public opinion polls that show an increase in support for the war’s leaders, and not only in the US, but in Britain and Australia. Pundits tell us that we should expect this as the public rallies around its troops and leaders in the three primary countries who will see their men and women in harm’s way.

But there must be something more behind this, something more human. Then it came to me. Yesterday I was sitting in my seminar listening to my professor, Pierre Manent, lecturing on Aristotle’s treatment of the virtues in Book II of his Nicomachean Ethics. That’s when it came to me. Professor Manent – who incidentally is providing the best interpretation of Aristotle’s treatment of ethics I’ve ever come across – was discussing honor and he noted something important. As is generally known, Aristotle treats the individual virtues as means between two extremes – one an excess and the other a deficiency. But Aristotle makes a further distinction - he remarks that, in the case of some virtues, such as honor, there is a difference between honor in great things and honor in small things.

Why is this important? Well, as Professor Manent pointed out, Aristotle says that honorable acts done in great matters, such as war, statesmanship or patriotism, are easily identified; Aristotle calls this honor magnanimity and it is the mean between vanity and pusillanimity. But there is also a type of honor proper to small deeds, which is to say those that don’t have a great public impact and don’t affect a large number of people. But immediately after saying this, Aristotle runs into a problem with this lesser version of honor: it has no name. And why does it have no name? The reason seems to be that in small matters, the extremes both attempt to stake out the mean ground. In other words, when it comes to great honors, we all know the pretenders from the truly magnanimous, but in small matters the pretenders can hoodwink us more easily and so presume to claim honor’s laurels.

And this, it seems to me, points to something important about humans. Aristotle tells us we are a political animal, which means we find our greatest happiness and humanity when we enter into the public realm. For those of us living in a modern democratic age, this is a bit difficult to comprehend. We prefer private life where we win small honors: a raise, an employee of the month award, a pension and a gold watch for years of dedication to the company. But as Aristotle reminds us, it’s very difficult to identify small honors, to delineate them from acts of spurious virtue. In this regard we might think of present-day peace protestors, who parade safely in the streets of San Francisco, Paris, London or Tokyo; these acts that require no sacrifice, no virtuous struggle and no possible public approbation.

By contrast, when a statesman stands against the current of public opinion, when he calls a nation to its duty, when he sends his country’s young into battle, his virtue is clear. Public matters, matters of war and politics, concern honor in great things. Such actions are public demonstrations of honor and it is these alone that allow us to distinguish honor even in small things. Without such displays of honorable magnanimity we are unable to separate honor in small things from the petty vain.

So often we hear the trite phrase that “it’s the little things that count.” Perhaps, but the little things are too little to sustain themselves, and so the average decent man in the street can quickly lose his way, no longer able to distinguish himself from the self-righteous moralist who faces no electorate, and who will never face death for his nation. Human beings need those rare moments of magnanimity to give meaning to our small honors, because these uncommon and virtuous individuals who stand before us in the public square and show greater virtue teach us the pleasures of great deeds. I think it is this display of magnanimity, even in our democratic age, that concentrates our minds when war comes to a nation. Certainly, not all are impressed. However, without such displays of great virtue, a nation will lose its soul, it will no longer be able to differentiate any virtue, large or small, from the pretense to virtue. Eventually it will assault virtue altogether and condemn those nations who may yet display honor in great things. I would think Messrs. Chirac and Schroeder may want to consider this, along with those who make claims upon the more divine virtues.

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