A promise to honour without guarantee

Athens in Greece was once recognised as the great and unique city of the world. Edgar Allan Poe wrote of “the glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome” (To Helen [1831], stanza 2). It was not only a seat of government but of learning and commerce, of art and science. All the young men of Athens, when they reached the age of 18, took this oath:

We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice.

We will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the City, both alone and with many.

We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught.

We will strive increasingly to quicken the public sense of civic duty.

Thus in all these ways we will transmit this City, not lessened, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.

[Adapted from the ephebic oath, cf. Phillip Harding, ed. and trans., Translated Documents of Greece and Rome 2: From the End of the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Ipsus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 133–35 (109A)]

That solemn commitment and its subsequent expression in the lives of the young men of Athens became the foundation of principle and behaviour that made Athens the cultural capital of the world.

The President of our country, all of our Supreme Court Judges, all Members of Parliament, and public officers of many levels and boards of all public institutions raise their arms to the square and solemnly pledge to uphold the laws of the land and prosecute their responsibilities with fidelity and honour without providing a guarantee.

The marriage ceremony of many faiths, is a covenant made in solemnity. And every one of us in this country who are citizens of this nation salute the pledge with our hands on our hearts and promise on our honour to be faithful and loyal to Ghana our mother land.

There has long been a philosophy too widely entertained that a personal weakness could be offset by a legal device. For example, there have been those who have supposed that if a man weren’t fundamentally honest, you could make him honest merely by passing a law against dishonesty, or that if a man weren’t disposed to be moral, you could assure his morality by legislating against immorality. And this line of thinking has gone yet further.

There was a day, for example, when more business was done on the strength of personal integrity, more on character and less on collateral. But in some places collateral has tended to replace character. But, lest we forget it, integrity of character is still an indispensable element of any transaction, regardless of what other safeguards may be insisted upon. And this isn’t true only of personal negotiations; it is true also of national and international relationships, because nations are only groups of people and governments are only men and agreements are worth no longer than the integrity of those who are responsible for them.

He who has the word of a man of honour has something to count on, but he who has a document with a gold seal on it, may have only a scrap of paper, because history, both past and current, has proved that there is no security that cannot be “watered,” no strong box that cannot be broken, no treaty that cannot be scrapped, no truce that cannot be violated, no fortress that cannot be levelled, no oath that cannot be dishonoured, unless behind all these things there stand men of high principle. The only relationships in this world that have ever been worthwhile and enduring, have been relationships in which one man could trust another, not relationships in which one man was forced to seek ways of protecting himself against another, because, in the first place, you can’t legislate a man or a nation or a people into being good, and there is no legal device yet found that will surely and permanently protect anyone from anyone else who is persistently determined to be false or dishonourable.

Maybe one of these days, if we haven’t done so already, we shall begin again to bank more on character and less on collateral, more on personal responsibility and less on legislation, more on private resourcefulness and less on public relief, more on common sense and less on regulation, more on simple justice and less on the involvement’s of litigation, more on principle and less on expediency, because there isn’t any law that can be enforced, there isn’t any security that is worth the gilded seal affixed to it, there isn’t any promise that’s worth the breath that speaks it, there isn’t any commitment that’s binding beyond the present, there isn’t any free enterprise that can be saved, there isn’t any future for anyone, except on the basis of personal and national integrity. But in looking for such a day, we must remember that there isn’t any synthetic formula for the making of integrity. If it is to be had, it begins at the cradle and for generations yet to be and permeates every phase of home, community, and national life. And if you can’t build on character, you can’t build on anything for short.

By Samuel Enos Eghan

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