The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asked Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. Taran Samarth, ’23 Paterno Fellow in sociology and political science, won Third Place for his essay, “Calm the Waters” in response to the prompt, “What does it mean to live a life with honor(s)?”
“Calm the Waters”
Honor bears, to the historical mind, images of tragedy. Honor killings where family or community members, often women, are killed for “shaming the collective.” Honor cultures where retribution is the only response to impugned reputation. Honor codes like bushido where the only salvation for lost honor is death. Perhaps it’s no surprise that philosophers refuse to entertain the notion of honor as a valuable concept when it only seems to bring death and destruction. Certainly, academic honors are not much better—a senior thesis is no validation of one’s place in society nor acclamation of one’s “intellectual superiority.” The conferral of “honor” at graduation will not arbitrate your legacy past death. At best, graduating with honors makes you more employable, but a word imbued with morality and divinity certainly deserves to mean much more than a higher salary. What better way to dishonor “honor” than dilute its meaning to nothing more than a few more courses and inject the weak solution into the résumés of thousands!
While the bloody history of honor gives the sociologist and philosopher pause, perhaps we ought to wrap ourselves in the connotations of honor. Bundle up under the drapery of the Greeks, their sculpted works of artistic wonder. Enter into the literary worlds of revered writers like Shakespeare and Tagore. Try on the velvety robes of judges and Parliamentary leaders (although the Right Honorable Prime Minister of the United Kingdom seems less honorable by the day). Under layers of grandeur, veneration, and power, honor bares itself: a commitment to aesthetics, justice, and fairness, all educated by the past. Together, honor is a commitment to becoming better than ever before. To collective improvement. To social good.
Of course, committing ourselves to social good requires us to situate ourselves in our world—to dig up old novels and historical works, to understand social ills, to know—which we can attain in the classroom. Yet, the word alone on a diploma or resume is meaningless. Honor has two components: one buried in the past and present, another waiting to be constructed in the future. As rich as education about the past is, it provides only half of what makes honor so salient. Armchair philosophers might be intellectually brilliant, but they aren’t so honorable when compared to revolutionaries like Gandhi and Malcolm X who preached and practiced. Everyone, even those with diplomas with distinction in tow, walks along the shore of rough waters, knowing they are riddled with oppression and brutality, but only the honorable will dive in to save the drowning.
The self wants good, but not always for the other. Living with honor means having the desire to find good for both and actively pursuing that better world for all of us. Living with honor asks us to recognize that your problems are my problems, your pains are my pains, and we are bound to ameliorate them together. Return to the ideas of honor in history, and the collective appears in fragments. Honor killings and codes are practiced in “defense” of the community, although the moral reasoning is dubious and the enforcement, brutal. From these morally objectionable practices, we can uncover a trace of good in the interest of the collective, and honor today begs us to build a future with that collective good in mind, one absent brutality and evil. Whether or not “honor” is conferred upon our names during our lives is irrelevant; our actions towards improvement, contributions to social good, are the measure of “honor,” only to be recognized long after we are gone. Living life lets us to ourselves, our diplomas with meaningless distinctions, our senior theses and six-figure salaries. Living life with honors commits us to improving communities, institutions, and lives. Years later, those who live might be remembered, but those who live with honors are venerated.