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The Hope and Deceit of Honor
From fiction, to Shakespeare, to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, we can observe that honor has many sides, is easy to forget, but hard to bury.
This piece has been updated from its original version, first published in The New Freedom on Mar. 18, 2022, in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, and has been lightly edited for structure.
Among the great English authors for young people of the 20th century, we hear frequently of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but less frequently of another who deserves to stand with them: Lloyd Alexander. Alexander wrote a series of young-adult novels based on Welsh mythology in the 1960s. The last of these won the Newberry Medal (deservedly).
In the second book of this series, The Black Cauldron, he introduces a character called Ellidyr; a great warrior but without wealth and with a family of little consequence. Ellidyr conducts himself with great bravery, but is cold and hostile to his allies. A seer tells him that on Ellidyr’s shoulders sits a black beast, seeking to consume him. Finally, it does, when Ellidyr agrees to join the army of the principal antagonist, a general allied to a Sauron-like, magical lord of death. And yet, in the end, Ellidyr redeems himself by sacrificing his own life to destroy the source of evil, a cauldron that creates deathless warriors.
Why do I tell this anecdote (one Alexander tells much better—you should read his book)? I tell it because it has relevance to political life, a relevance illustrated by our foreign policy. The black beast on Ellidyr’s shoulder was a combination of pride and perverted desire for honor—an honor which he did not obtain until he chose, in death, to forgo all prospect of enjoying it.
We are rather good about identifying structural causes for foreign policy events, and even good about understanding the nuances of individual personalities in negotiations, national policies, and the like. But we sometimes attempt to craft sterile foreign policy explanations that neglect the powerful urge for honor and glory—of many different kinds.
William Shakespeare addresses the same theme in his greatest play (if I may make the claim), Macbeth, when the titular character—having seized full control of Scotland through his own prowess, though perhaps against his conscience—sees his ill-gotten gains crumbling about him. Macbeth observes both the fragility of life and its emptiness—but his words are meant to be spoken in defiance, for he clings, as he speaks, to a despairing love of honor, only heightened by this sense of fragility:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5)
Life signifies nothing, but for this very reason, it signifies a great deal. And for those placed before the world’s eye, the need to be honored, to be esteemed, remembered, glorified, can appear all-pervading.
But what does it mean to be honored, or to desire honor? I have used a great many terms, all signifying slightly different things, some positive, some less so. Fundamentally, though, I think we can break it down into three categories.
Someone may be honorable, that is, deserving of honor, but not necessarily honored. Someone may be honored—that is, esteemed, praised, and therefore probably powerful, but not necessarily justly. Or someone may feel honorable, meeting an internal standard of honor. Such a person may expect future honor, perhaps after death, or may simply feel a sense of pride, even in contradicting the world.
It's important to remember that honor is not automatically negative. Quite the opposite: some people are justly honored, or justly deserving of honor. Honor may signify good deeds. Or, through creating power, it may create the capacity to do good deeds. We are reminded of Alexander’s strange paradox: Ellidyr never found honor by seeking it, until death. But it is not as though his self-sacrifice was a disavowal of honor. He did the honorable thing. So it seems he sought to deserve honor, not to enjoy it: to be honorable, not honored.
But this hardly solves the problem, for now we come to the present day. The conflict in Ukraine has thrust honor into the public spotlight in the persons of Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky.
Putin undoubtedly seeks a certain form of honor, compelled as he is by his sense of his place in the history of his country. Putin does not seek the esteem of the world only, or even the esteem of Russians at this moment. Instead, he wishes to place himself at the end of the story he himself tells, the one that began with Volodymyr the Great in Kyiv, peaked with Peter the Great, and now reaches a second Vladimir. It was, in part, a failure to understand this motivation that lead prognosticators to discount the risk of invasion.
Putin, perhaps, desires to be honorable, too—only he has misdefined honorable. His own conception of honor has swallowed him, like the black beast, helped along, no doubt, by his crushing realization of his own mortality. For many years, Putin has deliberately projected a strongman image that is also an age-defying image. This is a man who sees that his life is a walking shadow, a poor player, and he intends to strut upon the stage as long as he can.
Meanwhile, the other modern Volodymyr, the one in Kyiv, seems more likely to take the historical place Putin seeks. In his address to Congress in March of 2022, he observed, “I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths. This is my mission as a leader of my people.” A little while later, a reporter asked how he was doing. He said he was doing well, because he was needed and has a purpose.
Zelensky is a man whose duty has been thrust upon him, but who has embraced it courageously and has, in this way, gained honor Putin will likely never achieve. It is only reasonable to believe that Zelensky knows this and desires this; he may desire both to be honorable and to be honored. In some small way, he’s similar to Putin, for he, too, has appointed himself a sense duty that he seeks to fulfill.
But Zelensky has chosen the correct duty, seeing it in the eyes of his fellow countrymen, not in a distorted vision of historic greatness. We might say that he has mastered the beast, at least for now, instead of permitting it to swallow him. Still, the beast itself has not vanished.
Zelensky’s heroism clearly fired up other world leaders, at least for a time. Many underwent dangerous trips to Kyiv only a few months into the war. Emmanuel Macron even had a kind of photo shoot dressed up in a Zelensky-style hoodie.
Many statesmen sought to be honored as he was, and, if we judge charitably, sought to be equally honorable, too, at least in the immediate shock of the invasion aftermath. (Boris Johnson, especially, rose to the occasion with the sort of dignity he sometimes lacked in domestic matters). This is only natural, and it might be good, but it reminds us of the strange place of honor in ordinary politics.
As a rule, we think of politicians as dishonorable—perhaps honor-seeking, but for this reason, especially contemptible. Indeed, Shakespeare offers a view into this other world in Julius Caesar, as Mark Antony delivers an oration in honor of the slain would-be dictator:
“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones: thus let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious. . . and Brutus was an honorable man.” (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2)
Antony, of course, desires to persuade the crowd that Brutus is not honorable, and repeats this line in increasingly ironic ways. His rhetoric sways them. But there’s a case to be made that Brutus is most honorable of the three statesmen. So Antony smears the honorable statesman through deceit and rhetoric, confirming his own dishonor in the process, and inviting us to wonder whether honor among politicians has any meaning at all—or whether it is doomed to be interred with their bones.
This disbelief in honor, and the pitiable way in which some scrabble after it, only makes truly honorable behavior, like Zelensky’s, more apparent. But here we must pause to remember that Zelensky’s circumstances are unique (as were Churchill’s or Lincoln’s): not everyone has the opportunity for great actions.
Indeed, such a world would be messy and unpleasant. So an ordinary politician, who is probably ambitious, actually has a rather hard position: really honorable actions are less likely to be visible, and so less likely to lead to external honor, while honor-seeking behavior will at least gain attention. To quote Shakespeare (again), “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.”
Lots of people appear to fit into none of these categories. And this is sad, and good, and a temptation, and a call to duty, all at the same time. As Lincoln noted in his Lyceum Address, the ambition of the great constitutes a mortal danger in time of peace—but perhaps it can be channeled to productive ends, and noting a danger in peacetime does not mean that we should all go to war.
Where does all this leave us? It seems that choosing honor alone is a bit silly at best, dangerous, corrupt, and evil, at worst. Choosing the honorable seems to be good, but only if it is truly honorable—not a kind of false, deluded ideal. Maybe it makes sense to choose both honor and the honorable. After all, if the truly honorable is a good path to external honor, then a desire for honor may lead to good action—and I think it often does. But even this path is hardly foolproof, for there are all sorts of external honor, and though the good is often praised, evil is also often praised.
No, we are left with a beast; not, perhaps, a black one, but a kind of chameleon. It is a powerful force for good, and a powerful force for evil: a beast that can swallow us or serve us. And it is this way not only for statesmen, but for many people in many places.
Perhaps we are left to consider Ellidyr’s self-sacrifice, or Zelensky’s conviction that life does not matter while children die. The surest guide to guarding this beast may be not a single-minded devotion to duty, but a recognition of duty as intrinsically tied to others: a duty toward those who need us, not a duty to attain glory or to do great deeds.
Seeing honor in the eyes of others allows the leader—and all of us—to overcome the temptation to choose the wrong set of ideals, like Putin, while humanizing and de-mystifying external honor. One who looks downward only, or inward only, has already been consumed.
Jonathan Meilaender is a JD candidate at Harvard Law and is concurrently engaged in a Master’s program in German and European studies at Georgetown University. He received his BA in Politics from Saint Vincent College where he was also Editor-in-Chief of the Saint Vincent College Review. @JMeilaender