Of Honor: Our Conceptions and What It Is in Practice

Updated on March 26, 2020
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Jamal is a graduate from Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

When most people think of honor, it's usually something along the lines of chivalry or bushido. Even though the two are worlds apart, there's enough similarity between the two that the perceptions would overlap. In martial arts, I've found that honor is often seen as a gentleman's code of conduct; fair play and following the rules with no underhanded tricks.

To street fighters and soldiers, this is often a concept that is indirectly frowned upon for being weak. How does fair play ensure your survival when someone is going all out to harm you? Even within sport fighting, they refer to the more cutthroat moves as dirty boxing,’ implying that's beneath good behavior and sportsmanship. Honor is nice for movies and kid's karate classes, but the real world is not honorable. That is how the mantra goes. However, I believe this to be a mistake.

"Esteem, respect, and conduct were apart of that, but only as components to a larger machine."

A Checkered Reality

Before going into why I think this is, it's important to establish just what honor actually is. The term is rather ambiguous and dependent on the cultural context it's being applied to. Most associate honor with a moral code and not doing evil actions or bad behaviors. But this is inaccurate.

Many societies we consider honorable today were often cruel to those they oppressed or who opposed them. The Vikings believed strongly in a warrior’s honor but also infamously raided, raped, and kidnapped all across Western Europe. The Spartans enslaved their neighbors, the Messenians, for centuries; murdering them was a common practice. Samurai would kill civilians when ordered to and would even behead the corpses of the people they killed. Honor does not automatically equate to justice or being nice.

If you're going by the dictionary, then honor is high esteem or respect given to someone, or even adhering to a high code of conduct. But I also think it's more than that. Within the martial arts world, honor can be perceived as a person's worth and identity. The depth of that varies on context. For example, in many Asian cultures, a person's id and worth didn't just pertain to them, but to their ancestors and descendants as well. It could affect their social status and what opportunities they had or did not have.

Esteem, respect, and conduct were apart of that, but only as components to a larger machine. That is why losing face carries such grave consequences and generates extreme reactions from those trying to protect it.

For example, Spartans’ honor was more tied to their city-state rather than individual families or people. The saying “with your shield or on it,” referred to more than just the individual warrior, but how that warrior’s actions reflected Spartan ideals. Moving forward, later European versions of honor became more tied to the individual, especially those of high status. Though an insult would be severe, it didn't necessarily mean an automatic death sentence.

While today we associate honor with a mental and social code, in most societies there is a quasi-spiritual and practical factor to it. It could also extend to a person or families’ spirit, or their personal legacy and glory. Just getting over it was not an option because the ramifications were too severe and too real.

Even street fighting can have positions where to start from.  If your opponent  assumes your move set, they often mentally prep themselves for that.  You can manipulate this by playing outside the box.
Even street fighting can have positions where to start from. If your opponent assumes your move set, they often mentally prep themselves for that. You can manipulate this by playing outside the box.

I Am Not an Animal

Honor in the martial arts is misunderstood because it's taken within our current cultural mindset. There was a reason some past warriors are revered as they are , and it wasn't because they were overly nice. Quite the contrary, they were ruthless killers and brutal fighters who also held themselves to a higher standard. They were not just animals.

It was how warriors saw themselves and how that related to their world and beyond. They could be cordial and even gentle off the field. How they treated people may have also been more civilized. Honor was a sense of definition that elevated combatants above being just animals and killers.

They were fighters and killers with a purpose, doing what it would take to win, but not seeing themselves as beasts in the process, though the combat was violent. Besides creating an identity, honor also directed and focused the person’s violence. Viking berserk usually only went berserk on the battlefield, but seemed eerily calm otherwise.

Could it limit what was done on the field? No retreat, long-range weapons seen as cheating, taking your enemy’s head? Yes, it could depending on the context, but it did not make what they could do any less violent.

We often assume an honorable warrior is doing some ridiculous pose like in Dragonball Z or an old kung-fu movie. Or that they are going to fight like how we see in the movies and not dirty. Making that assumption can be a mistake if you don’t know your opponent or have fought them before that confirms the stereotype. You may find that your interpretation of their honor goes on hold once the battle starts.

© 2019 Jamal Smith


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