The Japanese Samurai concept of honour is not a singular occurrence in history. It is a shared trait the Romans, the Swiss, the Nepalese, and other peoples shared throughout history.
Tonight, I was watching for the fourth time the superlative 2019 Midway war flick by Roland Emmerich when I had an Eureka moment.
It all started when I saw the scene when the Americans finalized their game changing WW2 Pacific naval victory at Midway (4-6 June 1942) by destroying the fourth and last Japanese aircraft carrier, the IJN Hiryu.
The scene begins at the approaching dusk on the flaming deck of the Hiryu, where Captain Tamon Yamaguchi, one of the smartest and bravest officers in the Imperial Japanese Navy, orders the crew of the stricken ship to abandon her.
He starts by taking full blame for the loss of the ship and defeat. He absolves them of any sins and exhorts them to continue fighting for the Emperor. And then like a true Samurai of the old, he tells his weeping comrades in arms, who are wounded and demoralized on a flaming deck, that he has decided to go down with the ship.
Immediately, duty bound, one of his subalterns asks permission to follow suit, to which Captain Yamaguchi replies ‘Let us watch the moon together.’
That, my friends, is exactly the sort of thing Cato the Younger would have said after being defeated by Caesarian forces in Utica, North Africa, in 46 B.C. Cato decided to disregard Caesar’s offer of clemency, taking his own life, on a principle. If one thinks that Cato was acting on an impulse, think again.
He could have asked someone else to assist him but did not want to inflict his final act in this life on another person. Instead, Cato took hold of a pugnio (Roman short sword) and stabbed himself in the abdomen. But before he could do any fatal damage, he passed out from shock and pain. A slave found him and summoned a doctor who determined that no irreversible damage had been done. The doctor put his guts back inside the abdominal cavity, sutured Cato’s wounds and left. Cato woke up later on, and decided to finish his heroic act of defiance against Caesar. He opened his wounds up and stabbed himself to death.
Cato the Younger acted just like any samurai would after losing face, his honour or reputation. Honour was the foundation upon which entire societal systems were built. Old Latin virtue dictated to moral and principled people like Cato and even Cicero that the failure of their ideas, of their policies should not be survived by their originators.
How many politicians do we know in our dishonourable world who would commit ritual Harakiri or seppuku when faced with the error of their ways or with the consequences of their ill-thought policies on the general public?
Dying for an idea or on principle is something our day and age has forgotten. For no good reason, we have abandoned honour as if it was broken and we no longer needed it. We have grown indolent and self-deluded in our misplaced confidence in the way we “cherish life” above all else.
But is this a good thing? Who benefits from this? Is this the best way moving forward?
We’ll answer these important Socratic questions in due time. In the meantime let’s focus on the facts.
During the 1848 Paris Revolution, one of the French members of parliament joined the revolutionaries and took to the barricades on a notion of principle. He did not have to choose sides. He did not have to risk his life and limb. Not for a measly 20 francs (or $200) per diem that elected parliamentarians received back then.
Instead, he went up the barricades which were soon to be assaulted by the army, saying: Let me show you, folks, how one dies for 20 francs per day!
We no longer have the capacity for self-sacrifice. Our day and age is decadent not because we dress our poodles in clothes while beggars die of cold in rags. That has always been the way of this cruel and unjust world. Instead we have abandoned the fight for principles. We have grown apathetic and complacent with the way things are.
Content that we have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, we give politicians, and indeed ourselves, a free pass on moral exams. Whereby, our ancestors would have stood up and fought against tyranny and injustice, we are content to live a lukewarm life, where justice, merit and honour are absent.
We are the beneficiaries of this state of affairs although it would be better said that we accept life in its current amoral form because we lack the courage of conviction.
Where is this going to get us? To a point of no return? To infinity and beyond? Or perhaps to a point whereby The People will suddenly wake up from their wicked slumber and regain their senses. And then we will come full circle and start acting like our forefathers.
When a person died, the Romans did not mention his passing. Instead they celebrated their life by saying ‘Vixerunt!’ They lived!
I wish we lived in a world where people had the sense, honour and sensibility to care enough for tradition and where they made sure they left their offspring a legacy worthy of their names.