If you grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation like me, you’re probably most used to hearing the word “honor” come out of the mouths of Klingons, especially our beloved Lt. Worf. Star Trek offers one of the most brilliant portrayals of honor in fiction. As you watch Worf’s story unfold over the seasons of TNG and Deep Space Nine, it seems like, for all that Klingons like to talk about honor, Worf is the only one who actually cares about it. Worf always makes the honorable choice, even when it’s not the smart one. Other Klingons are cynical and self-serving. They pay lip service to the idea of honor, but they don’t follow it.
But what is honor? It seems like such a simple word, but what does it really mean? When we say that a person, either someone in the real world or a fictional character, is driven by a sense of honor, what actually motivates them? I often put this question to my students when we read the the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad. They usually answer something like: “Pride,” or “Following a code.” Those are ideas related to honor. They are honor-adjacent. But at its core, honor is something else: honor is reputation.
Agamemnon and Achilles are warrior kings in a world where there is no one to enforce rules. There are no police, no courts, barely anything we would recognize as law. What is it that stops people from being constantly at war with one another? How can Achilles or Agamemnon have a single moment’s rest from every other warrior in the world trying to take away their homes, families, and treasures? Because of their reputation. Because everyone knows that if you hurt them, they will come after you and they will not stop until they have destroyed you. That’s what honor is. It’s the first line of defense.
Honor is not an emotion, a code, or an abstract concept. It is a practical tool that Homer’s warrior kings and people in similarly lawless societies use to keep control of their homes and property. When Agamemnon and Achilles break into a fight at the beginning of the Iliad, it’s not because they’re being petty or overly sensitive about wounded feelings. It’s because neither one of them can afford to look weak. A warrior who gets a reputation for giving up easily or not standing up to defend his property is a warrior who will soon be dead.
Honor is what people believe about you. Honor is why, when the Trojans had almost routed the Greeks, Achilles was able to turn the tide of battle just by showing up—unarmed—on the battlefield and yelling his warcry. In other words, honor is like the dread pirate Roberts.
Which also means that there is something artificial about honor. It’s sort of a bluff. The greater a warrior’s reputation as an unbeatable fighter, the less actual fighting they have to do. At the same time, anyone who lets slip that they may not live up to their reputation is just inviting attack, which is why, like in the Iliad, warriors often fight hardest not for the things they want but for the reputation itself.
Honor only matters if it is seen, and it is only what is seen that matters. What makes honor is not what kind of person you are but what kind of person people think you are. What happens in the darkness does not matter to honor. It’s easy to get cynical about honor and call it out as a kind of bullshit. Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, does just that:
Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon.
– Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1, act 5, scene 1
Falstaff isn’t wrong. Neither are Achilles and Agamemnon. Honor is a kind of game that everyone plays along with. The wise understand that it’s a game and what seems like cynicism is really just practicality. Only the naive think that honor is real.
This is what makes Star Trek‘s take on honor so brilliant. It seems at first that Worf is the only Klingon who understands honor, but really it’s the other way around: Worf is the only Klingon who doesn’t understand honor. Worf thinks that honor is real. Other Klingons know it’s a game—a game with the highest of stakes that they play for all they’re worth, but a game nonetheless.
Images: Worf and Martok via Memory Alpha. Achilles battling Memnon, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Vulci, currently Staatliche Antiknesammlungen, Munich; c. 510 BCE; black-figure pottery). Dread Pirate Roberts via History Mine.