Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Glory vs. Honor



It occasionally strikes me as being a bit pretentious to distinguish within an argument amongst terms which are used interchangeably in everyday speech—but my goodness, isn’t it helpful?  (And in English we have enough words to do it too.)  And one does want a way to distinguish between the gods of Olympus and the heroes of the same world; for after all, though the gods don’t always seem admirable—at least from a modern western standpoint—they are admired.  Clearly, then we want a way to distinguish between the two kinds of awesomeness in play in the Greek world.

The first possibility that came to mind—because, as usual, it had cropped up in my recent reading—was the distinction which Aquinas purportedly makes, somewhere, between glory and honor.  (I say “purportedly” and “somewhere” because despite the fact that I usually mark these astonishing passages, I seem not to have done so on this particular occasion, and Google is of no help in tracking down the reference.  There is thus a possibility, albeit a slim one, that I am making this up.  At any rate …)  Aquinas, though he generally uses the terms “glory” and “honor” interchangeably, at one point makes a distinction between what those terms signify in describing our attitude towards God.  We honor God, says Aquinas, for who He is, but we give Him glory for what He has done.

And that, interestingly enough, strikes me as very close to the difference between the way we (or at any rate, I) feel about the Greek gods and heroes.  A certain amount of respect goes to the gods just because of what they are.  You can shift shape? smash mortals with lightning bolts? remain ever-young with magical drinks?  Cool beans.  Respect.  Or, in Aquinas’s lingo, honor.  Mostly because I would prefer not to be smashed by a lightning bolt.

But it’s a very different feeling than the feeling one has for the heroes.  Killing Hector or a Cyclops takes a certain amount of grit and effort (magical armor and sleeping drugs notwithstanding); and any human who can pull that off earns my respect in a completely different sense—they deserve, in other words, the glory they receive.

This is not to say that the gods never pull off any impressive stunts in their Olympian careers, or that human beings never give them “glory” in the specialized sense with which I’m here concerned.  But that strikes me as a somewhat rarer sort of thing than the “honor” which the gods typically receive; and it tends to be the fruit of particular personal patronages involving particular personal helps (e.g., Athena’s help and patronage of Odysseus).


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