How Prince Zuko Restored his Honor
By Helen De Cruz
*For those who have not seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, spoilers will follow.*
Honor is very important to Zuko, the banished crown prince of the Fire Nation. The young prince seeks to restore his lost honor by capturing the Avatar (a mythical fighter who will restore balance among the four nations), so that his father, Fire Lord Ozai, will allow him to return to his rightful place as heir to the Fire Nation’s throne. In Zuko’s view, social position is what constitutes honor. In order to regain it, he would need to win back his father’s favor and his former position. However, Zuko’s uncle Iroh (a disgraced Fire Nation general) thinks that Zuko doesn’t need to capture the Avatar to regain his honor. But, for a large part of the show, Zuko refuses to listen.
Gradually, Zuko realizes that honor is not something that is bestowed externally, but something that lies solely within one’s own actions. He also comes to realize that the Fire Nation is not admired, but universally hated and feared by the other nations. To restore the Fire Nation’s honor is to restore balance among the nations. This is why Zuko eventually decides to help the Avatar in his quest to achieve this balance.
Honor is a problematic and contested virtue. It calls to mind honor killings, honor culture, vigilantes and vendettas, mafioso deals behind closed doors. Should honor still have a place in our lives, and if so, how can we understand it? Recently, the philosopher Tamler Sommers has argued that the virtue of honor still matters. Sommers does not provide a clear definition of honor, in part because it is hard to pin down. Honor is a social virtue that deals with how we are perceived by others, and how we should act to preserve our self-worth and dignity under a wide range of circumstances. It is a virtue that deals in shades of grey. Context matters for knowing what it is to act honorably.
Because Avatar: The Last Airbender draws so much on Asian philosophies and cultures (notably Chinese and Indian philosophy), it is illuminating to examine what Xunzi, an early Chinese philosopher has to say about honor. This will help us understand Zuko’s psychological obstacles in his journey from the main antagonist to helper and teacher to the Avatar.
Xunzi lived in the tumultuous Warring States Period (475 BCE – 221 BCE) when local rulers vied for power, granaries were empty, and common folk were haplessly caught in their rulers’ military and political campaigns. The period was characterized by a breakdown of social and political order, much like in Avatar: The Last Airbender. A number of philosophers, such as Mengzi, Xunzi, and Mozi, wondered how order could be restored. Xunzi believed that societal ills such as war, feuds, and profiteering rulers could be explained as the result of our bad human nature. In Xunzi’s view, human nature is intrinsically bad: we have a desire for profit, hatred of others, and we crave sensuous pleasure. So, inevitably we are in conflict with others. If humans were to just follow their inborn tendencies, they would be “sure to come to struggle and contention, turn to disrupting social divisions and order, and end up becoming violent.” (Xunzi, ch 23, Hutton translation).
For Xunzi, being a good person is not a matter of innate qualities, because innately we are not good. It is a matter of deliberate effort: you need to practice at being good. You don’t become good all at once. Goodness requires that you do the right thing over and over again. We can see this most clearly in the scene where Zuko, asks, in exasperation “Why am I so bad at being good?” (book 3, episode 12). It’s difficult, but Xunzi is optimistic that anyone is capable of transforming into a good person. Xunzi speaks of crooked wood that is being steamed and straightened in a press frame as a metaphor for humans who become good if they have the right teachers and engage in the right practices. For Zuko, this teacher is Iroh who educates his nephew in the correct ethical views. Beyond that, Iroh instructs Zuko in practices that help him to cultivate correct attitudes, notably the tea ceremony. Tea-making requires patience and observance of ritual actions, which help to control one’s impulses.
Let’s return to the question of how Zuko restored his honor. Xunzi makes a distinction between two kinds of honor, “righteous” honor (yì, 義) which comes from within, and “conventional” honor, which comes about through your external circumstances (shì, 勢). Xunzi argues that to be a good person is to have righteous honor, not necessarily conventional honor. As he puts it:
When one’s intentions and thoughts are cultivated, when one’s virtues and proper conduct are substantial, and when one’s understanding and deliberations are brilliant, this is a case where honor derives from within. This is called righteous honor [yì]. When one’s title and rank are eminent, when one’s emoluments and salary are substantial, and when one’s position and circumstances overpower others—at the greatest, by being the Son of Heaven or a feudal lord, or at the least, by being a councilor, prime minister, officer, or grand officer—this is a case where honor comes from outside. This is called honor in terms of one’s circumstances [shì]. (Xunzi, chapter 18, translation Eric Hutton).
Disgrace, the polar opposite of honor, also has a conventional and righteous meaning. Righteous disgrace is a state you can find yourself in when you do things that demean you, for example, being arrogant, greedy, or taking bribes. In contrast, conventional disgrace is a state that comes from outside, for example, when you are flogged, spat at, mutilated, reviled, or beheaded. These two forms of honor/disgrace come apart. Take the example of a ruler such as Fire Lord Ozai who consistently behaves awfully; such a person would have righteous disgrace while holding a lot of conventional honor. Conversely, a person such as Iroh could be doing honorable things without getting any formal recognition by others: such a person might suffer conventional disgrace, but would still have righteous honor.
Many people crave conventional honor: accolades, praise, prestigious positions, a high salary—all things that other people bestow upon them. But few people try to seek out righteous honor, the honor that comes from within. However, Zuko comes to realize that the honor that matters to him is not conventional honor but righteous honor. This is why he feels uneasy when his conventional honor is restored, namely when his father allows him back in the Fire Nation. Zuko realizes that something is lacking, that his honor is not restored in spite of external recognition. Through his long wandering throughout the other nations (notably in Zuko Alone, book 2, episode 7), Zuko comes to realize that the Fire Nation has dishonored itself, that members of the other nations loathe and fear it. He realizes, thanks to the gentle guidance of his uncle Iroh, that true honor is righteous honor, and that he can only gain that by doing the right thing.
Though Xunzi seems pessimistic in his view that human nature is bad, his idea that anyone has the power to transform themselves into a good person presents a hopeful picture. Anybody can pursue righteous honor, though it may not be the easy thing to do. Achieving righteous honor does not automatically mean you will also receive conventional honor. But as Zuko’s character arc shows, the only authentic honor we can pursue is the honor that lies within us and that comes from our own actions.
Bio: Helen De Cruz holds the Danforth Chair in the Humanities at Saint Louis University. Recent books include Religious Disagreement (Cambridge University Press) and the forthcoming edited collection (with Johan De Smedt and Eric Schwitzgebel) Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories: Exploring the Boundaries of the Possible (Bloomsbury).