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By April Yamasaki

In her article, “Rethinking Honor with Aristotle and Confucius,” May Sim compares and contrasts what the two great philosophers have to say about “honor” (The Review of Metaphysics 66, December 2012, 263-280). At the risk of oversimplifying her work, it seems that both Aristotle and Confucius understand honor in the sense of behaving honorably and in the sense of receiving honor from others.

In other words, honor is both the personal quality of acting honorably and the relational quality of other people bestowing honor. While distinct from one another, the personal and relational qualities are also linked, for people often grant honor in response to people who act honorably.

Yet when it comes to a choice between these two aspects of honor, for Confucius, it is clearly more important to act honorably than to receive honor. Referencing the Analects of Confucius, Sim writes:

Repeatedly, he downplays the significance of wealth, power, and position, emphasizing instead, concern for one’s character and being worthy of acknowledgment. For example with respect to position and honor, he urges his disciples, “Do not worry over not having an official position, worry about what it takes to have one. Do not worry that no one acknowledges you; seek to do what will earn you acknowledgment.”

As I reflect on my own experience, I recognize this same priority from my family. For example, as I was growing up, I learned from my father that what makes a good grade in school isn’t a mark of 90% or even 100%. Whatever a teacher might think of an assignment, the most important thing is to do one’s best. The integrity of personal action matters more than the valuation of others, even from those with considerable position and power.

That emphasis on personal integrity and honor has served me well in life and ministry. When I worked in an office, I did my job whether or not the boss was watching. When I started pastoral ministry, a good sermon meant praying over the congregation, studying Scripture, and seeking after God, not how many people said “good sermon” afterward. As I write this, I realize now that my internal sense of honor made me less dependent on receiving any acknowledgment or honor from others.

I don’t know what Aristotle or Confucius would say about that. But in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, I see this same uncoupling of honor as personal integrity and honor as what other people might think. For example, Jesus tells his disciples,

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand
know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.

As Matthew 6 continues, Jesus’ teaching remains consistent: in giving, in praying, in fasting, followers of Jesus are to act with integrity, not with a view to receiving honor from others. We might say act honorably, without concern for honor from others. Then your Father will reward you, says Jesus. That’s the honor that really counts.

April Yamasaki is an ordained minister with twenty-five years of pastoral ministry experience, and the author of Four Gifts: Seeking Self-care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength; Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal; and other books on Christian living. She currently serves as Resident Author with Valley CrossWay Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and as Editor of Purpose, a monthly magazine of everyday inspiration. For more information, see aprilyamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

 

 

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