Honor may be defined as the deferential recognition by word or sign of another’s worth or station. Thus I show honor to another by giving him his title if he have one, and by raising my hat to him, or by yielding to him a place of precedence. I thereby give expression to my sense of his worth, and at the same time I profess my own inferiority to him.
It is right and proper that marks of honor should be paid to worth of any kind, if there be no special reason to the contrary, and we are obliged to honor those who stand in any relation of superiority to our-selves. First and foremost, we must honor God by worshipping Him as our first beginning and last end, the infinite source of all that we have and are. We honor the angels and saints on account of the gifts and graces bestowed on them by God. We honor our parents, from whom we received our earthly being, and to whom we owe our bringing-up and preparation for the battle of life. Our rulers, spiritual and temporal, have a just claim on our honor by reason of the authority over us which they have received from God. We honor the aged for their presumed wisdom, virtue, and experience. We should always honor moral worth wherever we find it, and we may honor the highly talented, those who have been endowed with great beauty, strength, and dexterity, the well-born, and even the rich and powerful, for riches and power may, and should, be made the instruments of virtue and well-doing.
Among the goods which are external to man honor holds the first place, above wealth and power. It is that which we especially give to God, it is the highest reward which we can bestow on virtue, and it is what men naturally prize the most. The Apostle bids us give honor to whom honor is due, and so, to withhold it or to show dishonor to whom honor is due is a sin against justice, and entails the obligation of making suitable restitution. If we have simply neglected our duty in this respect, we must make amends by more assiduously cultivating the person injured by our neglect. If we have been guilty of offering a public insult to another, we must offer an equally public satisfaction; if the insult was private, we must make the suitable reparation in private, so that the person injured should be reasonably satisfied. Those who are placed in authority in Church or State, and have the bestowal of public honors, are bound by the special virtue of distributive justice to bestow honors according to merit. If they fail in this duty, they are guilty of the special sin of acceptation of persons. The public good of the Church specially requires that those who are more worthy should be promoted to such high dignities as the cardinalate or episcopate, and for the same reason there is a grave obligation to promote the more worthy rather than the less worthy to ecclesiastical benefices that have the cure of souls annexed to them. According to the more probable opinion, the same rule holds good concerning promotion to benefices to which the cure of souls is not attached, though St. Alphonsus allows that the contrary opinion is probable, provided that the favored person is at least worthy of the honor, although less worthy than his rival. When an examination is held to decide who among many candidates is to be chosen for a post of honor, there is a still stricter obligation to choose the one whom all the tests show to be—other things being equal—the most worthy of the post. On the ground that, where this obligation is neglected, not only distributive justice is violated, as in the preceding cases, but commutative justice as well, the common opinion holds that if one who by examination is proved more worthy is passed over, he has a right to compensation for the injury which he has suffered. Many, however, deny the obligation to make restitution in the matter of benefices even in this case, on the ground that, though an examination to test fitness be held, yet no strict compact is entered into by which those who confer the benefice bind themselves in strict justice to grant it to the more worthy. It is plain that those who are responsible for the appointment of an unfit person to a post of superiority are also responsible for the harm which his unfitness causes. The foregoing principles have been formulated by divines for the settling of questions connected with the appointment to ecclesiastical benefices, but they are applicable to other similar appointments, both ecclesiastical and civil.
A question of great interest in the history of religion and morals, and of primary importance in Christian asceticism, must be treated of here. We have seen that honor is not only a good, but that it is the chief of those external goods which man can enjoy. St. Thomas Aquinas and Catholic divines agree in this with Aristotle. We have also seen that, according to Catholic doctrine, all are bound in justice to give honor to whom honor is due. It justice from this that it is not morally wrong to seek honor in due moderation and with the proper motive. And yet Christ severely blamed the Pharisees for loving the first places at feasts, the first chairs in the synagogues, salutations in the marketplace, and titles of honor. He told His disciples not to be called Rabbi, Father, or Master, like the Pharisees; the greatest among His disciples should be the servant of all; and whosoever exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Here we touch upon the distinctive characteristic of Christian morality as distinguished from pagan ethics. The ideal type of manhood in the system of Aristotle is drawn for us in that philosopher’s celebrated description of the magnanimous man. The magnanimous man is described as one who, being really worthy of great things, holds himself worthy of them. For he who holds himself thus worthy beyond his real deserts is a fool, and no man possessed of any virtue whatsoever can ever be a fool or show want of understanding. He, on the other hand, who holds himself worthy of less than his merits is little-minded, no matter whether the merits which he thus underrates be great, or moderate, or small. The merits, then, of the high-minded man are extreme, but in his conduct he observes the proper mean. For he holds himself worthy of his exact deserts, while others either overestimate or else underestimate their own merits. And since he is not only worthy of great things, but also holds himself worthy of them—or rather, indeed, of the very greatest things—it follows that there is some one object which ought most especially to occupy him. Now this object is honor, for it is the very greatest of all external goods. But the high-minded man, since his deserts are the highest possible, must be among the best of men; for the better a man is the higher will be his deserts, and the best man will have the highest deserts. True high-mindedness, therefore, cannot but imply virtue; or, rather, the criterion of high-mindedness is the conjoint perfection of all the individual virtues. High-mindedness, then, would seem to be the crown, as it were, of all the virtues; for it not only involves their existence, but it also intensifies their luster. It is with honor, then, and with dishonor that the high-minded man is most especially concerned. And where he meets with great honor, and that from upright men, he will take pleasure in it; although his pleasure will not be excessive, inasmuch as he has obtained at the outside only what he merits, if not perhaps less—since adequate honor for perfect virtue cannot be found. He will, however, none the less receive such honor from upright men, inasmuch as they have no greater reward to offer him. But honor given by the common herd, and upon unimportant occasions, he will hold in utter contempt, for it will be no measure of his deserts. Now the high-minded man justly despises his neighbors, for his estimate is always right; but the majority of men despise their fellows upon insufficient grounds. He also loves to confer a favor, but feels shame at receiving one; for the former argues superiority, the latter inferiority. The high-minded would, moreover, seem to bear those in mind to whom they have done kindnesses, but not those from whom they have received them. For he who has received a kindness stands in a position inferior to that of him who has conferred it, whereas the high-minded man desires a position of superiority. And so he hears with pleasure of the favors he has conferred, but with dislike of those which he has received.
These are the chief traits in this celebrated portrait as far as they relate to the matter with which we are dealing. Aristotle fills in the details of the picture with minute accuracy; it is obvious that he dwelt upon it with loving care, as the highest ideal of his ethical system. And yet, as we read it now, the description has in it an element of the ridiculous. If the high-minded man of Aristotle appeared today in any decent society, he would soon be given to understand that he took himself a great deal too seriously, and he would be quizzed unmercifully until he abated something of his pretensions. It is, indeed, a consummate picture of a noble pride which the pagan philosopher paints for us, and Christianity teaches us that all pride is a lie. Human nature, even at its best and noblest, is, after all, a poor thing, and even vile, as Christian asceticism tells us. Was, then, Aristotle simply wrong in his doctrine concerning magnanimity? By no means. St. Thomas accepts his teaching concerning this virtue, but, to prevent it becoming pride, he tempers it with the doctrine of Christian humility. Christian doctrine joins all that is true and noble in Aristotle‘s description of magnanimity with what revelation and experience alike teach us concerning human frailty and sinfulness. The result is the sweetness, the truth, and the strength of the highest Christian character. Instead of a self-satisfied Aristides or Pericles, we have a St. Paul, a St. Francis of Assisi, or a St. Francis Xavier. The great Christian saint is penetrated with a sense of his own weakness and unworthiness apart from God‘s grace. This prevents him thinking himself worthy of anything except punishment on account of his sins and unfaithfulness to grace. He never despises his neighbor, but esteems all men more than he does himself. If left to himself, he prefers, with St. Peter of Alcantara, to be despised of men and to suffer for Christ. But if the glory of God and the good of his fellow-men require it, the Christian saint is prepared to abandon his obscurity. He knows that he can do all things in Him Who strengthens him. With incredible energy, constancy, and utter forgetfulness of self, he works wonders without apparent means. If honors are bestowed on him, he knows how to accept them and refer them to God if it be for His service. Otherwise he despises them as he does riches, and prefers to be poor and despised with Him Who was meek and humble of heart.
In opposition to the pagan doctrine of Aristotle and the selfish worldliness of the Pharisees, the Christian attitude towards honors may be stated in a few words. Honor, being the due homage paid to worth, is the chief among the external goods which man can enjoy. It may be lawfully sought for, but inasmuch as all worth is from God, and man of himself has nothing but sin, it must be referred to God and sought only for His sake or for the good of one’s fellow-men. Honors, like riches, are dangerous gifts, and it is praiseworthy to renounce them out of love for Him who for our sakes was poor and despised.