10/14/2009 12:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Nobel Prize for a Noble Start

Throughout history, public honors have generated controversy, and sometimes even elicited a modicum of wisdom in their wake. During a ceremony in Rome dedicating a new statue to a prominent citizen, the great statesman Cato the Elder was asked by an admirer why there was no statue in his honor anywhere in the city. He famously replied, "I would much rather have men ask why I have no statue than why I do have one."

This may be a sentiment that President Obama currently understands from the heart. The recently announced awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to him at such an early point in his time of office and as an actor on the world stage has generated instant and widespread controversy. I see it as unexpected and eloquent testimony to a significant swath of world opinion and to an equal measure of almost desperate hope. It's also an action with many dimensions.

As we all know, our nation has been viewed around the world for years as a dangerous maverick, intent on our own narrowly defined self-interest, and dismissive of many other interests held dear by the rest of humanity. President Obama, in quickly reversing the rhetorical tone and general approach to world affairs that have generated this impression, is appreciated by members of the Nobel Committee and those who have their ears. So he's being awarded an honor normally reserved to acknowledge years of decisive accomplishments, or singularly inspirational and powerful efforts, on behalf of world peace and stability. I believe we should take this great surprise as an unusual token of world gratitude concerning the role we're perceived to be starting to play once more in international affairs, due to our new president's early initiatives. So far, we're taking just the very first steps, but they are so needed that the overall context of world sentiment has propelled our Initiator-in-Chief into a role of honor that can call even more positive attention to his efforts while perhaps making it at least slightly more difficult for antagonistic world leaders to dismiss those efforts glibly.

Decades ago, the Oxford University "ordinary language philosopher" J.L. Austin gave us some basic reminders for understanding what's going on in any declarative utterance or "speech act" engaged in by an individual, or even a committee of individuals. To put it as simply as possible here: with any utterance or proclamation, there is always an important distinction to be drawn between what is being said and what is being done. When my wife remarks to me, "The dogs haven't had dinner yet," it's normally not the case that she is merely making a comment about the facts of the matter at hand. She is offering a prompting, or implicitly making a suggestion, that I feed the dogs. So if I reply, "That's interesting. I wonder why?" and continue to read my paper, I've missed something important.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to our president should be understood in a similar way. There's a subtle and important difference between what is being said and what is being done in the proclamation of the award. The controversy that has broken out is all about whether the honor is merited by anything Obama has yet accomplished. But this is almost quaint. Honors are indeed often given out on the basis of merit. And merit can be judged in many different ways, depending on the nature and context of what is being evaluated. But merit isn't the only relevant consideration for understanding the appropriateness of an honor. Just as often, given the psychological and sociological realities of their awarding, honors act as signals, requests, urgings, promises, acknowledgments, or implicit recommendations. It can be beside the point to get caught up in a simplistic argument about merit and its degree alone. Those who don't understand this don't position themselves very well to be taken seriously on the issue.

And, of course, as with most political issues these days, the volume of the debate is inversely proportional to the perceptiveness of the comments being made. The president's detractors feel like they've been given manna from heaven and are pointing to what they take to be the egregiously undeserved nature of the recognition as further proof that this administration is all about appearance over reality, or celebrity and charm rather than accomplishment. They could use some wise advice from our ancient sage, Cato the Elder, who is reported to have once said, "Consider it the greatest of all virtues to restrain the tongue."

Or, if such advice is not welcome among those who would disparage the president at this historic moment, Obama would do well to recall another of Cato's adages: "We cannot control the evil tongues of others; but a good life enables us to disregard them."