The Honourable Man

The Athenians erected a large statue to Æsop, and placed him, though a slave, on a lasting pedestal; to show, that the way to honour lies open indifferently to all.

Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st-century CE philosopher, is recorded as having said about Aesop:

… like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths

Honour, in spite of its select and elevating nature, is by virtue of its universal and indiscriminate application a levelling attribute. Yet except in the military – where much is already expected of all – honour is not regularly ascribed to those who may deserve the recognition. As the commendation implies, honour is an accolade reservedly bestowed and one which represents the wide approval of others. More often than not the honour to which a man or woman may be entitled is won only at a great price and sometimes sacrifice. Though I would not for a minute diminish the gratitude which such people rightfully deserve, I believe there are those whose honourable contributions to society frequently go unnoticed. At the risk of touting a false thesis, I believe current society often fails to promote and prioritize the across-the-board merits of humanity. It is in my experience an infrequent occasion upon which the moral quality of a person is commonly discussed much less acknowledged.  Instead the conversation generally focuses upon what the person does for a living and how much he or she makes doing it; or where they live or what they drive, to whom they’re married, where they’ve been or even what they’ve recently eaten.

It is in my opinion a failing of our present educational system that it does not specifically address moral conduct (and, by the way, financial planning, but that’s a story for another day). Perhaps the fear is that moral conduct is too ethereal to permit specificity; or that it borders too closely upon strictly religious training; or maybe just that it’s unimaginable that there could be a course about how to act (much less that it would prepare youngsters for the world in which they’re about to interact). I believe this is an incorrect analysis and that the very logic of the conclusion is suspect. To decide that material need and tangible intelligence must govern the ingredients of an education is a false premise.  Indeed I believe that if people were more concerned with how they get there, than with what they get when they get there, they’d be a great deal more successful. But that means the starting point is a study of meaningful moral behaviour which will reinforce the gravity and benefit of exalted human conduct. It requires an effort to avoid the snares of ambition and to prefer instead the polishing and civilising of mankind.

I will not depreciate this proposition by suggesting that its value lies only in its rewards.  Honourable behaviour is its own reward, not the recognition it affords or any cheap device one may wish to make of it for collateral gain. Neither is it my purpose to engage in a discussion of the meaning of honour or its characteristics. Rather I mention honour as exemplary of the worthiness of distinguished human conduct which generally deserves greater engagement, cultivation and dissemination. It is a conversation which should not be confined to marble memorials on garden pedestals.

It is my privilege to have been a member of Freemasonry which is frequently described as “A beautiful system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols“.  An example might be the well-known symbols of Freemasonry, the Square and Compass which signify in part that people should meet one another “on the level”, stand upright for one’s beliefs and that each of us has limits defined by the scope of our compass in life. Although this type of instruction has inspired irrational allegations of heterodoxy my own experience was one of enlightenment not heresy. In any event my point is not to promote Freemasonry but rather to illustrate that there are some venues in which virtue and decent principles are of primary consideration though obviously the regularity is so infrequent as to amount almost to a peculiarity. I have no doubt there are many whose thinking is so jaundiced that they question both the utility and “real world” value of such inquiry.

The ethical evaluation of members of our community is similarly rare. It is sadly a preoccupation which, like the allusion to Aesop in the above preamble, is most commonly seen if at all in ancient references only, often in the context of mythical figures, not real human beings. I regard the paucity of ethical dialogue an unforgivable sink-hole in society, a weakness which unwittingly pulls down the collective mind of society. Apparently there is little inclination to do anything about it. Given the opposition that traditional religious instruction is encountering for one reason or another (whether because people are disenchanted with religiosity, because constitutional freedom effectively muffles expression or because people no longer value anything but the material world), there is a need for a renewed source of virtuous behaviour. High-minded thinking needs to be revived as a worthy enterprise, lifted from the dusty relics of ancient Greece and removed from the mechanical repetition of stale-dated ritual. The timeless truths are not mere fables but relate to real events.

Though I said I would not do it, I feel compelled to retail my cause by impressing its expediency. My thinking is that if one is properly motivated to conduct himself or herself in an irreproachable manner, then advantage will flow from being morally correct and lawful. As a private businessman for 40 years I regularly witnessed the casualties of decisions made upon an improper moral foundation. It is utterly shallow to imagine that the everyday occurrences of one’s business are immune to the application of the most fundamental ethical principles.  If we choose instead to be guided by the paramountcy of those desirable social policies, life is not only easier and less complicated but more fulfilling and ultimately rewarding because its direction is for the wider corporate advantage not merely narrow personal advancement. I am of the firm belief that the cultivation of human dignity is uplifting and that it transcends all material boundaries. It puts things in proper and manageable perspective; it strengthens the resolve for good.

If this sounds uncomfortably close to evangelism of some description, I can appreciate the concern. That does not however negate the value of enquiry into the principles governing human conduct. We must remove the discussion from classical pedantry and long-winded speeches about people whom we can’t imagine being or becoming.  As long as principled conduct is viewed as little more than a fable, satire or even an outright joke, there is little chance that honour or any other virtue will thrive. To take an extreme example to illustrate my point, the world is presently threatened by immense and potentially destructive forces. Nobody in their right mind imagines that mere force and brute strength will resolve the dilemmas we face. If we are to legitimize a new way of addressing these issues I believe it begins with some hard talk about some basic values.  I hesitate to say it, but morally good or correct can be a profitable business.