Honor: A History
by James Bowman
Encounter. 265 pp. $25.95
Honor has not enjoyed a great press in recent years. Reports from the Middle East tell of “honor killings” of women, usually at the hands of male relatives, for some sexual transgression or other. Osama bin Laden defined his objective as the vindication of Muslim honor from repeated American insult. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein urged his people to “remember all of the meaning of what makes a man . . . [to] preserve for children and progeny a record of honor.”
With champions like these, it is little wonder that we would shrink from talk of honor. Besides, our own culture has long been running fast in the opposite direction. An entire industry, it sometimes seems, has been devoted to deconstructing the very idea of honor, exposing its noble-sounding pretensions as a cover-up for militarism, sexism, and false macho heroics of every kind.
But here is James Bowman boldly proposing to bring the idea back into our cultural vocabulary. At a minimum, Bowman argues, we need to understand just how powerful a motive this remains for people in the Muslim Middle East. But the real novelty of his book, soon to be released in paperback, lies in his claim that a revival of our own rich honor traditions is imperative not only if we mean to prevail in the war on terror but if we are to ensure the perpetuation of our own society and civilization.
Not that this entails adopting the devices of our enemies; for Bowman, to associate Western honor with its counterpart in Islam is grossly to misapprehend the concept. But neither should the word conjure up caricatured images of clanking knights and veiled damsels. Until about a hundred years ago, honor was a major theme of Western culture, woven into the fabric of our manners and mores and philosophy. How it developed over the centuries, and how and why it abruptly retreated in the 20th century, is the story that Bowman tells in this volume—a task to which he brings both his impressive talents as a book, film, and media critic and his broadly humane sensibility.
As Bowman sees it, honor at its most basic is an impulse native to all cultures and likely hardwired into human nature. In primitive societies, where it meant the good opinion of one’s peers, this “reflexive” type of honor inculcated the virtues of “bravery, indominability, and the readiness to avenge insults or injuries for men, and chastity for women.” Such reflexive honor functioned as a kind of crude organizing principle, rallying men to protection of the tribe, encouraging public decorum, and preserving family life. Failure to uphold it incurred the kind of public shame suggested in the phrase “loss of face.”
In the Middle East, suggests Bowman, the honor culture remained more or less static over the centuries. It was not substantially altered by the rise of Islam, with which it proved remarkably compatible (or vice versa), or by other turns of history, and it is still, as we have seen, a supreme motive today. By contrast, honor in the West, although sharing the same origins, soon turned into something else.
For the Homeric heroes, obsessed with their reputations, honor signified more than just a call to arms on behalf of the tribe; nor did it merely subordinate the individual to the needs of the community. It had already become a merit to aspire to, and to be distinguished by. Over the ensuing centuries in the classical world, the qualities for which one could achieve honor widened to include not only military prowess but private and civic virtue. Indeed, the classical philosophers promoted “a correspondence between inward and outward qualities, between [personal] virtue and the reputation for virtue, between honor and that for which honor is supposed to stand.”
Bowman takes pains to underscore how this development imparted great energy to both life and art. Later, the spread of Christianity and its moral teachings, themselves based on ancient Judaism, would only intensify the bias toward genuine inner virtue as a complement to and restraint on public honor. From this dynamism there sprouted what Bowman calls “cultural honor,” a quality that informed such institutions as chivalry (entailing especially the elevation and protection of the weaker sex), fair play among men in war and sports, codes for the proper and improper uses of violence, elaborate systems of manners, and much more that is familiar to us from the literature of the Middle Ages.
Cultural honor would also give birth to a parallel tradition, likewise unique to the West. This was honor skepticism, or the habit of comparing what was actually done in the name of honor against the ideal standards of Christianity or Renaissance humanism, sometimes to the point of questioning the term’s significance. A famous example is Falstaff’s disparaging expostulation in Henry IV: “What is honor? A word. . . . Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday.”
When he turns to the New World, Bowman sees in the American founding an attempt to reconstitute the ideal of honor following the wreckage of the French revolution and the fall of the aristocracy that had been the concept’s official steward. Reading the Declaration of Independence, with its citation of the British monarch’s “history of repeated injustices and usurpations,” he suggests that although “the principle of popular sovereignty was the rationale for the Declaration, the real force behind it was “the signers’ resentment at these slights and insults to them as gentlemen” and to what they themselves referred to as their “sacred honor.”
The young republic then proceeded, in Bowman’s telling, to “embourgeoify” this notion of honor by putting it within the reach of the rising middle classes, expanding its attributes to include patriotism, defense of nation, and productive engagement in peacetime commerce. These virtues were only enriched by the “Victorian accommodation,” which, inspired by the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, married them to a modern ideal of the Christian gentleman—virile, sturdy, independent, but remarkably progressive.
But this delicate balance between virtue and the manly propensity to violence was not to last. In the trenches of World War I, as Bowman relates, the honor culture began to expire. During the war, citizenries did continue to heed honor’s call to serve their nations, but when a whole battalion could be cut down in moments by the new mechanized weapons, it became hard for a soldier to maintain the belief that personal courage and fortitude went any distance on the battlefield. And after the war, poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who had themselves served honorably in the trenches, looked back and saw the stubborn, foolhardy pursuit of honor as what had caused the carnage in the first place.
Thus began the retreat into alienation—and into a culture of psychotherapy organized to treat and, ultimately, to justify and validate it. In military affairs, where soldiers who froze in battle were once summarily shot for cowardice, a new disease, shell shock, was diagnosed. Before long, a whole quasi-medical mythology was constructed that, in time, would confer a badge of honor not upon the triumphant warrior but upon the suffering victim of the honor culture itself.
And so it went. For the remainder of the 20th century, pacifism, radical feminism, and a general revulsion against military valor all hacked away at the foundations of the honor culture. By the time of the Vietnam war, anti-honor had become, for many, the honorable thing, vividly articulated in the movement urging draftees to resist and in its famous slogan: “Women say yes to men who say no.”
And yet, despite all this, Bowman insists that honor has not disappeared and indeed cannot disappear. Everyone reflexively defends his own honor, and sooner or later the honor of the nation also demands to be upheld. Indeed, the true basis for the war against terror, he is convinced, was the bedrock recognition that the United States had to hit back hard against the radicals of the Arab world. Despite the fact that the war in Iraq has become an unpopular enterprise, and honor an impulse to which many wish to appear immune, we cannot survive without it, and for our own good need urgently to retrieve and reclaim it.
James Bowman has written a provocative, lively, and learned book. He is especially acute at analyzing cultural texts of all kinds and bringing out the ideas and attitudes that lurk beneath their surfaces. His book, at its best, functions as an incisive critique of a key if seldom acknowledged feature of latter-day liberalism: namely, its utopian belief that war and violence can be abolished. He is withering on the caddish betrayals of elites too fastidious, and too weak-nerved, to take up the burdens of leadership and national honor.
To what degree are the particular qualities that Bowman associates with honor in the present day continuous with the complex and multifaceted history that fills the pages of his fascinating book? That is not an easy question to answer. For Bowman, honor today would seem to consist in the willingness to make the most out of unpleasant but immovable facts: the permanence of war, of differences between the sexes, and of hierarchies among people and among deeds. This may claim both too much for honor and too little.
Too much, because each of Bowman’s immovable facts is perhaps better understood in its own terms and in the light of a broader range of cultural influences. Too little, because, as Bowman himself recognizes, honor by itself, apart from a framework of overarching cultural ideals to sustain and refine it, can actually be a troubling and equivocal thing. In Arthurian legend, after all, Lancelot appeals to his honor—his ability to slay all who challenge his word—as a “guarantee of the truth of a statement that he knows to be false” (namely, that he did not commit adultery with the king’s wife). Shakespeare’s Henry V goes out to war in order to create a name for himself. The examples are numerous.
To be sure, the instances of honor that Bowman himself rightly admires are those in which we can plainly see the workings of all the elements that have gone into molding it and turning it toward higher ends than itself—God, Queen, and country, to name but three. For reminding us of this, and especially of the central place occupied by the concept of honor in any truly self-respecting view of our civilization, Bowman richly deserves our thanks. Honor may be but “a word,” but soon enough we shall find out whether we can do without it.