- Freedom in Thought
- Miyamoto Musashi - Your Honour is More Valuable Than Your Life
Miyamoto Musashi - Your Honour is More Valuable Than Your Life
Miyamoto Musashi, one of the greatest samurai to have ever lived, believed that protecting our honour was more important than protecting our lives. In his Dokkodo, a collection of 21 principles for living a good life that he dedicated to one of his disciples, he wrote,
And this quote places Musashi among a long list of sages who claim the very same thing. In Apology, a record of his public trial in Athens as written by Plato, Socrates said,
And Epictetus, a great stoic sage, echoed this claim when, in his Discourses, he said,
And in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the last of the five good emperors of Rome wrote,
And Seneca, the great Roman philosopher and statesman, in his Letters, wrote,
The reason that the sages, such as Miyamoto Musashi, tell us to value our honour above our own survival is because it preserves our conscience, and keeping our conscience healthy is the only way to live a free and peaceful life. If we want to know what happens when a human lacks a healthy conscience, there’s no better subject to study than the psychopath. In Without Conscience, Dr. Robert Hare, a professional on psychopathology wrote,
Psychopaths lack a conscience, and the effect this has on their own lives and the lives of those around them is devastating. As Hare writes,
While not all psychopaths are criminals, the lack of a working conscience makes psychopaths much more likely than regular citizens to engage in criminal behaviour. And the reason for this is that, in their eyes, crime makes logical sense. Because psychopaths lack a working conscience, they don’t place any importance on being a good person or following society’s rules. If breaking a rule helps them gratify their own desires, they’ll do it. Naturally, this leads to criminal behaviour. And on top of hurting others, criminal behaviour also undermines their own potential and future goals. Psychopaths are incredibly bad long-term planners. As Hare writes,
So lacking a conscience makes it incredibly difficult to sustain fruitful, long-term relationships, but our capacity to thrive in the world, on the contrary, depends on our ability to form good long-term relationships. From the animals we raise and use for food, to the trees that give us oxygen, to the people we trade with to meet our own needs, our thriving depends on good long-term relationships. Lacking a conscience then, as psychopaths do, hinders one’s ability to successfully thrive in the world, because it inevitably leads to social conflicts and bad interpersonal relationships. A life without a conscience is a life of short-term gratifications and long-term conflicts. It’s a life without freedom or peace.
But unlike a psychopath, most of us are born with a good, functioning conscience, and so rather than suffering the fate of having no conscience, we suffer the fate of voluntarily repressing and violating our conscience. Since we’re not psychopaths, we can’t escape our conscience. Even if we repress and violate it, it comes back to haunt and torture us. In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist, Raskolnikov, commits a murder to prove to himself that he is beyond the categories of good and evil. And he cleanly gets away with a double homicide: no one will ever find out that he did it. But rather than receiving a happy ending, what unfolds over the rest of the novel is Raskolnikov’s decent into madness and self-torture. He did something that violated his own conscience, and as a result, he lost his inner peace and freedom.
So the truly important thing for us is to resist the temptation to repress and violate our own conscience, and this is the wisdom that the sages, such as Miyamoto Musashi, have tried to teach us. They say desperate times, such as being on the brink of poverty, call for desperate measures. This is when the temptation to repress our own conscience is at its greatest. When our own survival is threatened, many of us, if not most of us, will find a reason to repress our conscience so that we can do what needs to be done to survive and thrive. For many of us, this temptation will prove too great to resist. But the sages of the past teach us that we must resist it, because the crimes we commit as a result of repressing and violating our own conscience will come back to torture us. And a life without a healthy conscience is a very, very difficult one. Survival at the expense of our conscience is not worth the cost. As Socrates said,
And as Musashi would advise us over 2000 years later,
So the only way we can resist the temptation to repress and violate our own conscience is to believe as Musashi does: that our honour is more valuable than our own lives.