On Honor: A History by James Bowman

(Originally published at AlternativeRight.com, May 2010)

What happened to honor in the West? And without honor — or at least an honest understanding of it — are we capable of facing the challenges of the 21st Century?

In Honor: A History, Bowman places these questions in a political context, as a clash between the old honor culture of the Islamic world and the anti-honor culture of the modern West. In this sense, his question is similar to the one Mark Steyn asks in America Alone. If Islam has all the attributes of what Osama Bin Laden famously called “a strong horse,” will the pampered and polite social democracies of the West be able to survive its galloping onslaught?

This horse race bookends a rare and worthwhile exploration of the concept of honor itself, which is a confusing topic in the contemporary West where honorable ideals have been discredited as anti-modern, and the word “honor” has been reduced to a mere synonym for neutered, universal, non-hierarchical values like “goodness” or “honesty” or “integrity.” The bumper sticker banality “honor diversity” renders the word honor a substitute for the verbs “value” or “esteem.” While you can certainly follow the dilution of honor’s meaning here, this is a world apart from a word once closely connected to glory won in battle.

Reflexive vs. Cultural Honor

Bowman identifies two kinds of honor: reflexive honor and cultural honor.

Reflexive honor is fairly simple and defensive. If you hit me, and I don’t hit you back, you know that you can hit me as often as you like without repercussions. In the most basic sense, a man’s honor is his reputation for strength and courage — his willingness to stand his ground and protect his interests. His interests have long included protecting and corralling the women in his life, and female honor has most often been associated with chastity (or at least the reputation for it).

Cultural Honor is far more complex and variable, because according to Bowman it has to do with “the traditions, stories and habits of thought in a particular society about (among other things) the proper and improper uses of violence.” Cultural honor moderates reflexive honor, which has a tendency to get out of hand, and provides an ethical or moral framework for the idea of honor. Chivalry is an example of cultural honor, as are elaborate codes of conduct developed to guide the actions of men who wish to consider themselves honorable. Bowman adds that our modern ideal of sportsmanship or “fair play” is a particularly Victorian flourish of cultural honor.

A key point of Bowman’s thesis is that reflexive honor never really goes away — it’s part of human nature — but has become so buried and almost unrecognizable in the West today that we don’t know how to speak about it or deal with it.

A Balance Between the Demands of Honor and Ethics

Reflexive honor, the threat of retaliatory violence, is the gold standard that makes civilization possible. The iron words of life and death. Don Corleone may as well have been speaking about honor when he told his successor that “Women and children can afford to be careless, but not men.” Men who don’t understand the basic reality and necessity of reflexive honor, who are careless about honor, ought to be treated like women and children. But reflexive honor can also, as mentioned above, get quickly out of hand and turn into a completely irrational pissing contest. As Sam Sheridan wrote in A Fighter’s Heart, “…no one is more sensitive than tough guys.”

The Greeks showed some concern for this intrinsic problem of honor, that men who care about honor alone or above all things can do great damage to their communities. The threat of retaliatory violence may make civilization possible, but this physical courage, scrappiness — thumos – can also be destructive. It must be tempered by reason and morality. The Roman concept of virtus, for which this column is named, evolved as the empire stabilized and roles became more specialized. Eventually, in a prosperous, ordered and complex society where a majority of men will never see combat, the ideal of manly virtue cannot be limited to martial valor without effectively emasculating the majority of men. Men must still demonstrate a reputation for strength, but to maintain order in a stable community that strength must be abstracted a bit, and guided by rules and common values.

This is one area where Bowman misses an opportunity to explore honor in a cross-cultural fashion. While the Eastern honor culture of Japan is mentioned, there are some powerful parallels in the conflicts between samurai values and the merchant values — and the transformation of the role of the samurai during the Tokugawa shogunate — that would aid in understanding what happens to martial ideals of honor in times of relative peace and prosperity.

In Bowman’s view, Christianity also created some moral conundrums for the honor-obsessed. It has always been difficult for those who believe that a good man should “turn the other cheek” — in contrast to a more reflexive Roman honor culture — to reconcile their faith with the valorous demands of martial masculinity. He highlights this using the example of Lancelot, who was considered virtuous by virtue of his strength and battle prowess, but who created a conflict of conscience for all who knew that he was an adulterer. This creates an interesting distinction between public and private honor that, with the help of Christian morality, over time drew the idea of honor inward and personalized it. Public acclaim alone could not make a man truly honorable if he was, in his heart, dishonest, insincere, disloyal or sinful. The Christian ethos doubtlessly had a hand in transforming Western honor from something reflexive to something reflective and personal, though there are shades of the same move inward in non-Christian Japanese texts on honor like the Hagakure.

Honor cultures in the West became increasingly sophisticated, especially in the European upper classes, who cultivated gentlemanliness. However, the martial and reflexive aspects of honor were always simmering just beneath the surface, and the official culture gave vent to them perhaps most notably in the form of gentlemanly dueling. The emergence of the importance of the individual, especially in fiercely democratic and egalitarian America, set the stage for honor’s true decline in the West, which in Bowman’s view happened during and following World War II.

Honor’s Decline and the Post-Honor Society

honorahistoryBowman blames the decline of Western honor culture on the complimentary convergence of three factors in the early 20th Century: modern warfare, therapy and feminism.

The mechanized modern warfare of World War I made the combat experience feel less honorable, less “knightly” and more like indiscriminate, anonymous slaughter. Numerous postwar memoirs, plays and films focused on what many of the participants regarded as pointless, horrific violence for its own sake — or for the sake of the Old honor of the European upper classes. Bowman makes the point that “Anonymity — literally namelessness — is of course antithetical to honor, which in its essence means ‘name’ or ‘reputation.’”

Men who emerged were often seen as “survivors” instead of heroes, especially due to the relatively new discipline of psychology. Using the example of Siegfried Sassoon, Bowman shows how the idea that “shell shock” or psychological trauma at the individual level cast a different light on what the honor group and the honor elite would have normally deemed “cowardice.”

Suffragettes in World War I were predominantly anti-war and had no interest in fighting wars. As a matter of necessity, women joined public life to support the war effort, and “brought with them something of their traditional role as nurturers and caregivers.” This sympathy played into the expansion of psychotherapy; feminism and psychotherapy “tended to reinforce each other.”

Modern warfare, therapy and feminism severed much of the West from older, more aristocratic forms of honor after World War I. There were still remnants of the old honor culture in World War II, but war had become more democratic, more about the everyman. The reasons for fighting changed from ideas of national and individual honor to fighting for peace, fighting “a war to end war,” and especially in the post-war wrap-up, fighting evil — fighting a moral war. Old rules were broken; there were increased attacks on civilians, and winners rationalized show trials to enact “victor’s justice,” as with Nuremburg, rather than respecting the honor of their opponents. Further, the prominent Traditional or quasi-Traditional honor cultures of the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians made World War II, in some sense, seem like a war against old honor culture itself.

The rote denigration and discrediting of those honor cultures following the war continues to inform our own culture and perception of honor on a daily basis. Any attempted revival or sympathetic treatment of Traditional, hierarchical, authoritarian Western cultures of manly honor are almost always automatically and immediately compared to Nazis and fascists. Umberto Eco provides a typically convenient, blanket reduction of many aspects of any Traditional masculine honor ethos to a pathologized “Ur-Fascism” in his 1995 essay “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” This anti-authoritarianism fueled the tiresomely famous protests and social upheavals of the 1960s and 70s and, filtered through popular culture, continues to fuel youth culture today — even though “the man” of the 1960s has more or less been replaced by “the assorted persons” on the left who rebelled against him. Youths rebelling against “the man” today are just going through the motions and following the example of their parents and, increasingly, their grandparents. The hierarchical honor culture of “the man” is mere whisper of what it was even a few generations ago; they’re rebelling against a ghost.

Bowman also makes the point that honor cultures have been abandoned in part because the wars America has fought have been increasingly “limited” and cynical. He frequently contrasts General Douglas MacArthur’s old idea of war — that no end other than victory was worth the sacrifice of war — to the post WWII idea of war as a chess game, typified by the Pentagon Papers and obvious in the recent debates over what “victory” even means in Iraq or Afghanistan. Soldiers are unfortunately now more often portrayed as pawns and victims of war than as heroes. As a result of this warranted distrust of authority and the progressive personalization and internalization of the idea of honor following World War I, Bowman notes that the Army has taken to marketing individually centered rationales for enlisting — like “Army of One” or “Army Strong” — instead of relying on the call of duty, honor-seeking, or patriotism. The old “white feather” campaigns would never fly in our officially gender-neutral, post-honor society.

All of these aspects of honor’s decline considered, it boils down to the loss of the honor group. Bowman points out that “honor depends on the honor group,” and it seems that unless you have a group of men who collectively agree to hold certain kinds of behavior up as an aspirational, honorable ideal, honor cannot survive. Traditional Honor is hierarchical; there is an element of competition to it, an element of reputation-building and fame-seeking, a desire to be seen as a Man of Honor that collapses if there is no group to hold the Man of Honor in esteem above others. There seems to be a “sweet spot” in Western honor culture, a balance between the conscience and authenticity of the individual and the demands of the honor culture that has tipped in favor of the individual at the expense of the group. One of the drawbacks of losing the honor group is that a man can rationalize virtually any behavior, his self-perception is subjective and self-serving. Being true to yourself can mean anything, and frequently, it does. The honor group standardizes conduct, it defines virtus, it creates a code to guide a man’s internal sense of honor.

(I’ll explore the idea of a lost honor group and what it means for men who find themselves attracted to Traditional ideals of honor in a forthcoming essay for Alternative Right. )

Reviving Honor

Bowman presents a program for a revival of honor, but seems unconvinced that such a revival is possible — especially since the media currently feeds on scandal and dishonor.

First, Bowman writes that we must “revive the warrior spirit,” by allowing our politicians and military men to make use of the language of Traditional and group honor. We must be loyal to our own, instead of incessantly prosecuting each other over policy differences. In addition to the phenomenon of every administration these days trying to treat its opponents in the last administration like criminals, I suspect Bowman would agree that we need to stop demonizing and prosecuting our troops every time they fail to hug an enemy combatant. He also believes we should culturally encourage honorable and heroic behavior on the part of citizens, giving the heroes of United Airlines Flight 93 as an example. Another way to do this would be to expand on the idea of Good Samaritan Laws, and defend or expand ideas like Castle Doctrine. In military matters, but perhaps even more so in civilian society, our post-honor society is paralyzed by litigiousness and the perception that potential acts of heroism will often result in lawsuits or even jail time for the hero. We’ve created a society where intervening on another’s behalf will more than likely be punished.

Bowman recognizes the need for “a new inequality” — a revival of virtue over cynicism.

Honor can be made compatible with a great many seemingly antithetical ideas, but it can never be compatible with any serious degree of egalitarianism. By its very nature it separates people into unequal categories of higher and lower, good and less good, honorable and less honorable-and, yes, dishonorable too.

He also says that politicians would have to demand some sort of respect and stop pandering by trying to be nice and accessible-they would have to be more manly and noble. The problem of course is that this is unworkable in a democracy, especially one that runs on a 24-hour news cycle. Bowman also expects too much of politicians here; the American politician follows public opinion, he does not create it.

We must also put celebrity in its place, according to Bowman. Mainstream culture focuses not on rewarding honor, but on rewarding fame-often for fame’s sake alone, as with reality television and people like Paris Hilton. Men of actual achievement should have the courage to mock celebrity culture back when it mocks honor and achievement, and fight the desire to pander to the tastes of pop stars and actors and musicians. Interestingly, Bowman suggests that the celebrity culture of the mainstream media could be shamed into better behavior by more substantive outlets in the blogosphere.

There is also the thorny problem of feminism, and the challenges it poses to any viable honor culture.

Now it is women’s right to a full measure of humanity that is here to stay, and honor must accommodate itself to that concept or become irrelevant. Or at least, as it has been up until now, unmentionable. Going back to the idea of women as property, which still prevails in many parts of the world, is now as thinkable for western Europeans and Americans as going back from democracy to absolute monarchy was for their ancestors in the nineteenth century.

This assumes that the modern social democratic state is infinitely sustainable, which it probably isn’t. And it also assumes that women’s “full measure of humanity” requires that they participate in state and business affairs in exactly the same way as men do. They can only do this now, and they only want to, because of the way the current system works. Bowman addresses this by suggesting that it is perhaps still possible to conceive, as other cultures do, that more traditional roles for women do not necessarily render them sub-human, and that there is a comparable but distinct value to be revered in the roles of wife and mother. By and large, issues like putting women in combat are symbolic for the feminist movement — like same-sex marriage is for the gay movement. Most women don’t really want to go to war, they just like the idea that they should be able to, no matter what the expense or social cost.

Conclusion

The long view of history suggests that our choice is eventually going to be not between the liberal, unisex, pacifistic society of the feminist ideal and some throwback to caveman honor, but between some throwback to caveman honor and some more civilized and feminist variant of the long-dormant Western variety.

Bowman’s point here, back in its political context, is that the all but extinguished Western honor culture, which has been civilized and moderated in the past, is increasingly finding itself at war not with itself, but with a far less civilized and more barbaric honor culture. The choice may be between the balance of old Western honor culture and the honor culture that beheads its enemies and stones its women. The Traditional Western way of honor offers a middle way between Britney Spears and the burqa, between John Lennon and the suicide bomber. The Western left seems to be in denial of the possibility that these are very real polarities. It prefers instead to continue the West’s war on itself, and hopes its progressive intentions will somehow trickle out and heal the world. The Western left believes questions of honor are silly playground games for boys; it has removed honor as a variable to consider. Bowman doubts it is truly possible to escape the basic reality of reflexive honor, no matter how we mask it or talk around it. In the West, if we’re unable to embrace our moderated version of honor and say with conviction that our honor is better than their honor, then their version of honor may one day be the only alternative.

Recommendation

Honor: A History is an important book on the topic that, even outside of its own political context, provides insight into the history and present state of Western honor, as well as providing a valuable framework for discussing it — particularly in terms of the differentiation between reflexive and cultural honor.

For more from James Bowman, visit: /www.jamesbowman.net/

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