How would you define “honor”?

(Note the placement of the question mark in the title.)

I am working on my triennual speech for the honors college medal ceremony and trying to be a little different while still presenting my basic theme that “honor” is fundamentally about knowing what is right and having the strength and courage to do it. The notion of honor is of course very broad and can be defined in many ways and I thought I would take a peek at what Wikipedia might say. There was a nice quote that I thought I could use, attribute to Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Dr Samuel Johnson, in his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), defined honour as having several senses, the first of which was nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Now I am a scholar, and a scholar of texts at that, so I thought I should try and verify the quote. Lucky for me has not one but two copies of this dictionary scanned. The image at right is from Princeton Theological Seminary and dates to 1756 (note the date!).

What is interesting is that I could not confirm the wiki quote! The two versions available online were published in 1756 and 1785, only have it as the fifth (not first) definition and the quote is “nobleness of mind; scorn of meanness, magnanimity.” And that is according to the 1785 edition. The 1756 version is truncated: “Nobleness of mind; magnanimity.”

I am not sure what to make of this. To my ear “nobleness of mind” is quite a different notion than “nobility of soul.” I am not sure what that difference is just yet, but it strikes me that they are not the same. It is, of course, not only possible but likely that there was a 1755 edition that has this alternative entry and for some reason Johnson changed it in subsequent editions. (Perhaps the citations and examples provided are only in the later editions and he adjusted his definition to fit the example?) In Johnson’s time the concepts of “soul” and “mind” were being widely debated, were they not?

But that is not why I am writing to you now. I really do want to know what images are conjured up in your mind when you think of “honor.” What examples would you offer of honorable people or events? Please give me your thoughts in the comments!

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