Honor from Augustine Onward, by William McCarter


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. William McCarter, ’21 Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar in Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Economics, won First Place for his essay, “Honor from Augustine Onward” in response to the prompt, “What does it mean to live a life with honor(s)?”

Honor from Augustine Onward

He who pursues righteousness and love finds life, prosperity, and honor.

Proverbs 21:21

The inhabitants of the ancient Near East, like most civilizations, described the progression of one’s life as a journey. Their unique variation on this theme, though, was in perspective. Much of the writing about time from the ancient Near East describes the passage of time as walking backwards into the future while staring into the past. This seems an elucidating approach to understanding the passage of our lives, given that while we continually beat on, boats against the current, we cannot know with certainty whether we are charting an honorable course, for we cannot see the green light of our future while we face the past. This uncertainty is a source of anxiety for many people, including some of the greatest thinkers of history.

One such thinker also thought of life as a journey. But his life, it seemed to him, was a long, lonely, meandering journey. He was deeply depressed and had been for some time. His life was without meaning, purposeless, and the whole time laden with heavy doubts about his journey, his identity, and his significance in an ever-changing world. Some fears, being fundamentally human, lie so deep within our collective unconscious that time does not weather them.

This thinker, since he was trained in the languages and literature of that era, turned to his reading for answers to the doubtful, nagging questions that plagued him. But even in the words of the great writers of his time, he found no salve for the wounds of his soul. He wondered to himself: “What did it profit me that I could read and understand for myself all the books I could get in the so-called liberal arts?”

The further he searched, the further he was perplexed and the further the burden of doubt strained his back as he journeyed forth. He lamented his path, it seeming to him that the Earth had been commanded to “bring forth briars and thorns for me.” Eventually, the man’s burden became too great for him, and he collapsed beneath a fig tree, confused, weeping, and alone. But in his moment of weakness, a faint, nearly indistinguishable voice spoke to him and implored him.

“Take up and read,” the voice said.

And the man did. Opening his book, he turned to a random passage and read it. But unlike all those times before, this time the passage spoke to him. Then, closing the book, the man said to himself, “I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”

What was this passage, the origin of his epiphany and vanquisher of his doubt? The passage dealt with how to live a good life, a life of honor. It explained to the man that one cannot lead an honorable life by “strife or envy.” The man realized in that moment of divine inspiration that, to live honorably, one must strive for a cause beyond the self – one must strive for righteousness. Instead of simply asking, “What did these abilities profit me,” he asked himself, “What did these abilities profit me, if I did not put them to good use?”

This conception of honor as predicated on righteousness is fitting, since the word honor comes from the Latin word honos, which referred to offices and responsibilities of public trust. The term cursus honorum literally means “path of honor,” and it referred to progression of a public servant through the ranks of the Roman civil service system. But honos is a versatile word that also referred to respect for others and was closely related to the term virtus, used to refer to courage and character. In short, honor is the term that we created to describe caring for fellow travelers along our journey through life.

The honorable person, walking backwards into the future, takes up all good causes, with hope as a shield against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The honorable person, having seen the light, puts her knowledge to good use and guides her fellow man out of the cave. The honorable person knows that, while their path may be full of briars and thorns and doubt a heavy load to bear alone, the path is clearer and the burden lighter for all when we strive together along the path of righteousness. For:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”