This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart. As someone who walks the path of chivalry as a means to constantly improve myself, I am very aware of the role of honor and its perceptions in various eras and cultures. It’s practiced at every step in all things, an acknowledgment of being a part of something greater than oneself and of being a reflection of that greater ideal. Honor isn’t just some romantic concoction or throwaway excuse, though it certainly has been used in both cases. It’s a moral foundation and center. It’s a cornerstone of civilization hearkening back to the first tribes and into the formation of the great city-states.
Having read ancient battle manuals, I can point out the differences in how honor is perceived, and how it has been used to justify all manner of atrocities. The warrior knows the difference on an instinctual level.
In the West, for example, honor is an impossible ideal that must be constantly striven for, perhaps best embodied in the tales of King Arthur and his knights and the quest for the Holy Grail. In the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine when Arthur and Camelot were most popular, these tales were very much used to encourage the noble classes to rise above the level of base animal. The romantic arts of the knight, whereby chivalry led to honor, was the path that allowed a high tide to raise all boats. The ideal far exceeded the reality, and this is where we get this notion that honor is a false convention, because the average knight simply did not live up. They were excused because they proclaimed the greatest knight of the lore to be Lancelot, concocted at the behest of Eleanor to serve as the example of the age, who ultimately fell from grace when he and Guinevere betrayed Arthur. The higher example of Galahad is often overshadowed by these tales, but the romance remains, even when the story doesn’t hold up.
Worse still, the Gothic Revival of the Victorian era gave rise to honor as a gentlemanly way of excusing the Imperialism of the age, again riding the example of Camelot. These are the kinds of things that give honor a bad name. Across the pond in America at the same time, the Civil War raged in the name of honor, followed by the expansion of the West and all of the atrocities that happen when incompatible cultures collide and brutality reigns on all sides. The law of the West was the law of the gun, and there were many legends of honor and chivalry and derring-do that were spun into myths. Few of them hold up under scrutiny, but that didn’t stop dime novels and ultimately Hollywood from telling those stories in a romantic light.
The West has other examples of honor. In Ancient Sparta, the legendary 300 led by Leonidas at the Hot Gates of Thermopylae against the Persian Immortals of Xerxes is often the first story that comes to mind as an exemplary tale of honor and sacrifice. It always seems that for honor to work, sacrifice must come with it as part of this ideal of the noble end. It’s as though survival gives the honorable a chance to fall from grace all over again. In the Crusades, the Knights Templar were renowned for never turning their backs to their foes, nor would they ever retreat unless they were outnumbered by at least three-to-one odds, and only if their field commander gave the order under such conditions. There have been documented battles where a few hundred or a couple thousand Templars would route an enemy force of upwards of 25,000 or more simply by showing up, such was their legend. As warriors, theirs was the legend that all Western knights aspired towards. As monks, theirs was the impossible and contradictory lifestyle that said that their horrors in battle were automatically forgiven because they faced off against the enemies of God in His name. What ultimately brought them down was not battle, but rather a king who wanted to expunge his debt to them and take their wealth for himself.
In the East, if you read the works of Sun Tzu or the more recently-translated ancient texts of China, you can find an even darker picture. The idea is that you and those like you are the center of the universe. All war is deception, and the idea that all’s fair in love and war takes on a whole new level of scary. Any advantage you can maintain in battle is a mark of honor. Honor for these ancient warriors lies not only in dying for your beliefs, but in making your opponent die for theirs. You maintain your honor by maintaining your superiority. Any technical or strategic advance you can utilize or hone is a point in your favor. It is the concept of Total War, where all other options are off the table, and survival — or the idea that you’ll take your enemy with you — is all that matters.
In feudal Japan, the Samurai is known to be honorable, living by the code of Bushido. These warriors are romanticized as the pinnacle of honor. It’s a beautiful picture, until you know how they operate. They would take the heads of their opponents as proof of their valor in battle, and if their underlings got a head, they would kill that underling and take their prize to save face.
It’s a grim picture all around, and it naturally leads someone to question the entire concept of honor. This is especially the case in our current generation where the revolutions and countercultures of the 1960s have evolved into a kind of unrealistic and yet hyperaware campaign against all forms of bigotry, bullying, and segregation… on the internet. In reality, people seem to be incapable of understanding of why people still do what they do when “everyone knows it’s wrong.”
I would argue, perhaps simplistically, that this is what happens in a world without honor. People incapable of caring for another human being are incapable of honor, and where it is absent from the culture, the quicker, easier path of personal destruction sets in. Without societal reasons for upholding personal honor, however it’s defined, people simply have nothing to lose. Indeed, it’s a kind of natural defense today to be perceived as dangerous, and thug culture enters into the equation as a poor substitute. Honor wouldn’t necessarily fix any of this, but without it, the respect that people claim they want can never be realized because it won’t be found in the barrel of a gun. Honor is in the man, not in the weapon. End of soap box, and back to the point…
That point is, honor is a moving target, perceived by the individual and the society in which that individual is raised. It’s a concept as human as anything else we understand, and as a result, it enters into our popular fiction. Sometimes it’s in the form of higher ideals as exemplified by the United Federation of Planets, where honor isn’t called out as such, but the noble tenants of peace and equality reign supreme as the backbone of civilization. When you have an organization like the Federation that represents the evolved ideal of humanity’s future, then logically it stands to reason that there must be a diametrically opposed force to provide some story conflict. First it was the Romulans, whose honor is based on the precepts of ancient Rome at the height of its glory. Roman honor, and thus Romulan honor, was based on the idea that you had no honor whatsoever until you became a part of the glorious Empire and fought in its name. Foes were to be vanquished or conscripted by any means. It’s something we modern types can’t really fathom, and that’s what makes the idea alien. And yet… is that not how Imperialism works, even in our modern world?
Even then, the Romulans were still civilized, comparatively speaking, and sooner or later it would come to pass that the Federation would need a new enemy, one that could be blanketed in the backwards and antithetical ideals of communism and unchecked expansion. One that could stand for the Soviet Union or China. And if you’re going to demonize your political enemies, why not go for broke?
The Klingons first appeared in Star Trek in the season 2 episode “Errand of Mercy.” They represented the Cold War, in this case enforced by the omni-powerful and pacifistic Organians who threatened to simply disable forces on both sides if hostilities did not cease. According to Trek lore, the advances in starship technology that led to the Enterprise and her five-year mission of peace and exploration were forged in the fires of war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire a generation before Kirk took command. The Klingons’ unchecked military expansion was based on the historical example of the Mongols, whose brand of honor was everything that the Federation was not. In the Klingons, we see the dark mirror of humanity’s war crimes given new life in the form of a race capable of interstellar conquest on a level that can match the Federation’s peace initiative. According to the lore, it wasn’t until Starfleet gave them a bloody nose and proved themselves to be “worthy” on the field of battle that the Klingons saw the Federation as a potential equal. To the Klingon mind, honor in an opponent is first proved by being able to stand up to the challenge. A weaker foe is to be swept aside, while a worthy adversary means you either die gloriously in battle, or you achieve ultimate victory by delivering an honorable death to the worthy opponent. Say what you will about them, they were consistent in their warrior beliefs in the original series, and their polar opposition to the ideals of peace made them a most popular foe.
But times change, both in the series, and in our own world.
In 1984, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock introduced us to the renegade commander Kruge. With the “successful” demonstration of the Genesis device in the previous film, the balance of power between the Federation and the Empire had shifted irrevocably from the Klingon point of view, sort of like how the atomic bomb made the United States an unequaled power after World War II. And like the Soviets, the Klingons needed the secret of the doomsday weapon to once more equal the playing field. Why? Because they can’t be the ultimate warrior race if there’s someone on the board bigger and badder than they are. It really is that simple. Feel free to extrapolate that into real world politics all you like.
This is where the notion of Klingon honor takes a hit. No matter what else you can justify about them, the idea of a cloaking device for use in hit and run raids is anything but honorable to modern Western civilization, then or now. It’s the same kind of honor that you read about in ancient Chinese manuals, or that you see on display from German submarines in the early 20th century. It is, to the Western mind, a cowardly cheat. To the Klingon mind, it is simply perhaps a tool of the trade. Again, the perception of honor is a moving target, and the Klingons are the villains here as the crew of the Enterprise undertakes their most desperate mission to retrieve their fallen comrade. Behind the scenes, it was originally meant to be Romulans, as we’ve already seen them to employ a cloaking device (“Balance of Terror”), and we’ve seen them with Klingon ships that they’ve upgraded with that cloaking device (“The Enterprise Incident”).
According to the lore here, the Romulans and the Klingons traded technology in a mutually-beneficial alliance against the Federation. The Romulans gave them the cloaking device, which the Klingons had to reverse engineer to make it work with their systems (thus we don’t see them use one until Star Trek III). In return, the Klingons gave them a more efficient type of anti-matter warp propulsion system to the quickly-drained versions they were already using. Again, the Romulans had to reverse engineer it as the Klingons merely gave them one of their ships, which is why the Romulans are using Klingon designs in that classic episode. Ret-conning is so much fun, yes? And it made sense because the Romulans were seen as the weaker threat since warp power is the standard that drives the Star Trek Cold War as much as its mission of peace.
Regardless, honor and the cloaking device do not go hand-in-hand according to what we might understand as honor. And at this point, it really didn’t matter because the Klingons, like the Romulans, were enemies. They were supposed to be evil and misguided and such. For these types, honor seems to come from the weapon, not the warrior.
But then a funny thing happened just a couple of years later. Star Trek: The Next Generation presented a further evolution to the balance of power. The Klingons were now friends of the Federation, and there was one of their number serving aboard Enterprise. Though raised by adopted human parents, Lt. Worf was the exemplar of all things Klingon. Through Worf, the entire notion of Klingon honor became a very real societal factor. We saw what it meant to be a warrior, to exhibit honor, and to draw strength from that ideal. It meant something tangible in much the same way Arthur and his knights meant to the audiences of the Middle Ages. Further storylines would come about to draw the obvious lines between true honor and the perception of honor, such as the recurring arc where Worf took the hit to preserve his family hame and his brother’s place in society. The fall from grace and his eventual return to status made for some truly compelling storytelling as the deceivers and traitors from the House of Duras were exposed and eventually brought to justice in terms that both audiences and Klingon honor would recognize.
On the big screen, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country took these story cues and ran with them, paralleling the fall of the Berlin Wall, the downward spiral of communism, and an end to the Cold War. It provided the bridge between the classic series and what we would see develop in TNG. This kind of world building required an extensive amount of ret-conning, but the payoff speaks for itself. Worf’s popularity was such that when TNG ended, he transferred to Deep Space Nine, and the Klingons would prove to have a great influence in the coming battle against the Dominion.
Here’s the thing… when you look at Worf, do you see Klingon culture as it is portrayed elsewhere in Star Trek, or do you see the realization of an impossible ideal? The answer may surprise you if you evaluate it honestly, but to my mind, it’s a little of both. Worf, being raised by human parents, had to strive to be the very best Klingon he could be in his mind. He knew he wasn’t human, and he had no Klingons in his life to show him the way. This meant that the stories he consumed about his culture, both real and idealized, set him on the path to higher example. In a lot of ways, Worf is a character who could not have come about within the Klingon culture. The reality would have been a setback to his development. Had Worf been raised side by side with his opponents in the House of Duras, it’s likely he’d have been knifed in the back or poisoned before he reached his fullest potential. Ironically, being raised in the environment of the Federation and its ideals, he was allowed to express the very best traits his warrior culture allowed. It’s something I can readily identify with in my own quest for knightly honor and chivalry. Being raised an American allows me the freedom to express my higher ideal, which is completely compatible with both the ideals of chivalry and the ideals of my culture and country, even when the realities of any of those things don’t measure up.
When The Next Generation was on the air, honor and chivalry weren’t foremost in my mind at that point. These were things I developed in tandem, alongside my growing understanding of the different codes of honor that various superheroes held to. My understanding of what can be achieved with a positive mindset and will to hold firm to one’s beliefs have proven to me time and again that I can shape myself into someone far better than I would have been otherwise. Society didn’t supply me with these ideas, but my entertainments gave me role models who did at a time when I needed them. I created my own culture as an amalgam of these things and molded myself to fit, just as Worf did. It makes for compelling storytelling to see Worf butt up against the realities of his culture, to live up to all of Klingon potential, and accordingly to cast his people aside when they don’t live up to his understanding. It’s not about rank or advancement in society. It’s not about power or political gain. It’s about the ability to look yourself in the mirror or into the eyes of all you encounter and know that you’ve done your absolute best to uphold that which others take for granted or trod upon. It’s why I can read about all of the examples of history or fiction that profess it from the highest reaches, separate the ideals from the realities, and apply them readily with no conflict in my heart. That lack of conflict that allows me to rest easy and to make quick decisions in the performance of responsibility that does not contradict what I believe fundamentally, that idea that gives me peace while the world around me spins in turmoil… that’s honor. Honor is the eye of the hurricane, and it is the hurricane itself when need be. It’s not about being able to say you’re better than anyone else. It’s about being able to say you’re better today than you were yesterday, and you’ll be better still tomorrow. It’s about knowing that you can learn from those who are better still, and you can set a better example from those who aspire to achieve what you have. The high tide raises all boats, and no one needs to be pushed under for another to prove themselves worthy.
That’s what it means to have honor, to live it, to know it as an absolute that speaks for itself, even when those around you do not understand nor want to.