In a liberal society, the aging individual, who was spared the burden of honoring his parents and grandparents in his youth, finds that he is disregarded and neglected…in the same way by his own children and grandchildren (if he has any children and grandchildren). Having dishonored his own parents by leaving them to age without him, he now finds that he is dishonored by his own children in turn, who find it convenient to let him age without them.
Honor is one of the central ideas in a conservative political theory. I do not mean any particular code of honor, such as that which was accepted among English gentlemen two hundred years ago. Rather, I want to understand honor as a general phenomenon appearing across all human societies. In examining it, we will find that there can be no conservative society — by which I mean a society capable of conserving any teaching or text, institution or form of behavior, so that it persists from one generation to the next — unless it is permeated throughout by a concern and regard for honor.
Enlightenment liberalism supposes that children owe obedience to their parents until they are twenty years old, or some similar age. At that point, they are assumed to have reached the age of reason, and therefore to have acquired the right be free and equal to their parents; and, in particular, to be free of the obligation to obey them. By contrast, one of the primary precepts of a conservative society is the commandment to, “Honor your father and your mother” — a precept that is emphasized time and again in Hebrew Scripture. Notice that “honoring” one’s parents is not the same as obeying them, and that there is no expiration date on this commandment. The precept of honoring one’s parents continues to be in force throughout one’s entire life, even after one’s parents are no longer living. One is never free from this obligation.
Unpacking the “Weight” of Honor
But what does it mean to honor one’s parents? The original Hebrew instructs us to give kavod (Eng., honor) to our parents. This is a cognate of the word kaved, which means “heavy” or “weighty.” In fact, Scripture instructs us to give weight to our father and mother. In English, we may say that we “give weight” to someone’s words when we take them to be important. But the Hebrew kavod is not a weightiness that is given only to words, advice, or opinions. It is given to the person himself.
We need to think carefully about what this means. Human beings understand reality in terms of relations of cause and effect. An object is understood to be important or significant to the extent that it acts as a cause affecting other things, and unimportant or insignificant to the extent that it fails to have an effect on other things. The same is true of the way we understand people. We regard them as important to the extent that they have an effect on others, and unimportant if they fail to have an effect on others.
For example, a king or president is considered an important person because what he says and does have an effect on millions of people. However, notice that the king’s importance or significance does not depend on the effect he is having at a given moment. He may be thinking silently or sleeping, and yet he is still important. His importance or significance is determined by the things he has already done and the things he may yet do. Indeed, he may continue being important even after he has died, so long as the effects of his actions continue to be felt in life.
The importance of an individual — his kavod or weightiness — is not just something we think about in the abstract. We sense the kavod or weightiness of every person we meet, judging him to be more important or less so, and we act in accordance with this judgment. When I am in the presence of an important person, I experience his or her weightiness as a pressure in my chest, which can make my breathing more difficult, introduce a tremor into my voice, and cause me to avert my eyes. These and other effects should not be dismissed as merely physical. They are the outward signs of a more profound accommodation to the presence of persons possessing great kavod or weightiness: We tend to believe the things that individuals we consider important tell us, to act in accordance with their preferences, and to imitate them in their style of speech and behavior, and in countless other ways. And because every human individual immediately senses the kavod or weightiness of others whom he meets, judging them to be more or less important, the reactions of each individual act as a mirror in which I can sense my own kavod or weightiness as well. That is, I can sense the degree to which I am important in the eyes of other individuals when I am in their presence.
This is the basis for all competition among individuals. As a general matter, human beings take pleasure in being regarded as important in the eyes of others and find it painful when they are considered insignificant or disregarded. And because being regarded as weighty or important is pleasurable, individuals compete to be considered weighty or important. In its most basic form, this involves contests of strength, in which one individual proves his physical superiority over another, thereby gaining in importance and weightiness in the eyes of his adversary, and of anyone else who witnessed the fight or heard tell of it. But in civilized society, this competition tends to take other forms, and the individual may strive to be regarded as a great military commander, or a man of influence in political affairs, or a wealthy businessman or a great scholar or physician or artist. Indeed, while we say that politicians compete to attain the greatest power, and businessmen to exceed their rivals in wealth, and scholars to achieve the utmost in knowledge, the truth is that all of them compete for only one thing, which is kavod or honor. That is, they compete to be recognized as important in the eyes of others.
Recall that the importance of an individual is the extent to which he is recognized as a cause of effects. This suggests that I can purposely increase the importance of another person by speaking or acting in such a way as to emphasize that he is the cause of various effects. And indeed, in every field of endeavor, one can “give honor” to another individual by praising his abilities, by referring to his accomplishments, and by deferring to his judgment, acting in accordance with his preferences, or adopting his manner of speech and behavior. On the other hand, I can decrease the kavod or weightiness of another by speaking or acting in such a way as to emphasize his insignificance, “showing contempt” for him, or humbling or humiliating him. This can be done by defeating him in some confrontation or competition, or by ridiculing or severely criticizing him, his ideas, or his deeds, or by slighting or ignoring him where I might have taken him into account.