Lois McMaster Bujold writes, speaking as Count Vorkosigan, that “Oaths of death before dishonour, given time, tend to divide the world into the dead and the forsworn.” Honour is a word much used by many people, in many situations, for many reasons. Schoolyard fights can erupt over a perceived maligning of a parent’s honour, even if that maligning only refers to the female parent’s choice to don infantry footwear. At least in legend, one can find the example of the Samurai who considered an affront to their honour if someone touched their sword. Hence, the powerful, skilled warrior would wear his swords with the scabbards projecting out to his side. The less experienced warrior would make sure that his swords didn’t project out in the walkway so he didn’t accidentally have them touched by a better swordsman, thus forcing him to effectively commit suicide when he had to challenge his superior.

In defining what honour is, I think it’s important to discuss what honour is not. Honour isn’t about taking offence at some otherwise meaningless symbol or gesture. If the story of the samurai is true- let’s be clear, there’s a lot of myth about them- it’s a little silly to challenge someone to die because they bumped into your sword. Context is always important- I mentioned kids getting in fights because someone said “your mother wears combat boots.” I had a friend in high school who never understood why anyone would care about that- his mother was a Marine, and she did wear combat boots. Even the flag of my country, under which I served proudly, is only as meaningful a symbol as we allow it to be. A collection of red and white stripes with a blue square and some white stars only has meaning because we give it meaning. Without our intent, the symbolism is meaningless.

Honour is not about blindly following a set of rules regardless of their actual application to the situation. I know a number of people who’ve been through the 12-step program and pride themselves on “rigorous honesty,” which to them means always saying exactly what they’re thinking. Sometimes, that’s just rude, and occasionally is simply an excuse to be mean to others. I am reminded of the Honour Code of military academies; in the Lords of Discipline, a cadet is expelled because he took some gas from a friend’s car; though he had implicit permission to do so, he did not have explicit permission on that occasion, and thus was found guilty of stealing.

Honour is not satisfied by being aggressive towards those who impugn your sense of honour. That simply shows that I am not very certain about my honour. Nobody else is the keeper of my honour, unless I choose to entrust someone with helping me do so when I think I might not. This is especially true when the critique is both uninvited and external. If one of my brother or sister Knights says to me, “Seosaidh, I don’t think that’s very honourable,” I have at least an obligation to hear them out- in my opinion- because we’ve sworn to uphold the same code and have undertaken the same training which has defined what “honour” means. But the person down the street doesn’t get to define my honour, and to take offence when they try is to dishonour myself. My neighbour has no idea what “honour” means to me, and is making assertions based on his or her notions of honour. They may not apply, and if they don’t, what’s the point in taking offence?

Honour is not defined by anyone else. I have chosen to follow the Code of Chivalry of the Order of Paladins.  It wasn’t imposed on me. How could one impose a moral code on another and expect it to be followed?  The very idea is ludicrous. Honour is something that one must define for oneself, and sometimes to allow others to help them define and monitor.

Honour is therefore very personally defined. There are things that in no way impugn my honour that would shock and dismay other people. A friend of mine was distraught that his wife had cheated on him, and asked “Wouldn’t you be mad?  If she cheats on your, she’s dishonoured you!” I explained, as gently as I could, that my wife having sex with someone else would not dishonour me, because I don’t own her body. Indeed, my wife honours me by choosing to live with me and be intimate with me, but she cannot dishonour me by not doing so. So I decide what dishonours me. And to be clear, no one else can dishonour me- I can only dishonour myself.

I dishonour myself when I do not follow the standards I have set for myself. If I do not follow the Code of Chivalry, I dishonour myself. Not because you said I should follow the Code, Kerr, but because I said I should and then I went back on my word to myself. I honour myself, and the Gods, Ancestors, and Spirits, when I follow the instruction of the Bard: “This, above all: to thine own self be true.” The Code of Chivalry is mine own self, or at least a part of it.  I didn’t know it before I found it, but I knew I was looking for it. When I found it, I knew that this was what I had been looking for. Not because I can’t live a Chivalrous and honourable life without it, but because it helps to clarify and remind what is already inside me.

I live an honourable life by striving daily to live up to my promise to myself to be a better person by living my life as a Knight. I honour myself by holding to the Code of Chivalry because I decided to do so, because it completes me. I maintain my honour when others do not because my honour does not depend on them in the slightest. My honour is mine, and it cannot be taken from me unless I give it up.

seosaidh

Sir Seosaidh