The Magazine

On My Honor

Deciphering the human code.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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A History

by James Bowman

Encounter, 265 pp., $25.95

A handful of books deserve notice not just for what they say, but for the very fact that they have been written at all. James Bowman's Honor: A History fits squarely into this category. Its subject--honor--is one that most today regard as quaint, if not outmoded. Advanced thinking is supposed to have brought us Westerners beyond the point of concern for such antiquated concepts. Persons or nations can be described as unethical, immoral, unwise, vicious, or (at some risk) "evil." But dishonorable?

"Not," as some used to say in earnest, "on your life."

James Bowman's interest in honor derives from a personal experience that stretches back some 40 years, beginning in what he calls his "resistance" to the Vietnam war. His stance was a personal choice, but a choice, as he dimly sensed at the time, that was influenced by powerful cues and signals coming from the dominant intellectual environment. Sometime thereafter, his antiwar position began to sit uneasily with him. In rethinking his views, he was compelled to confront what he now came to see as a massive edifice of opinion, "the century's continuing project of discrediting and disgracing cultural honor." From the 1930s on, starting with a delayed reaction to the carnage of the First World War, Western thought, as revealed in its literature, movies, and political philosophy, attempted to construct a "post-" or "anti-honor" culture in all its dismal glory.

That effort only intensified with the Vietnam war, which crystallized the anti-honor ethic and made it into the vulgate of Hollywood celebrities and the centerpiece of popular culture. The terrorist attacks of the last five years have barely disturbed this fundamental position.

Bowman describes the West today as creating a "Falstaffian" universe. Sir John Falstaff, for those needing a little refresher, was the portly sidekick to Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry trilogy. He made merry with Hal in his early days, until the threat of war led Hal to put away childish things and commence a transformation to becoming one of England's great kings. On the eve of Hal's first battle, Falstaff pronounces his memorable anti-honor "catechism," in which he asks: What is honor? A word. What is in that word "honor"? What is that "honor"? Air. A trim reckoning!

Falstaff's comic deflation of honor, which is the mirror opposite of its pursuit in excess by Hotspur, only makes sense against the backdrop of a culture in which honor was esteemed. Today, by contrast, there is nothing the least bit comical in Falstaff's position. It does no more than state the conventional wisdom of "progressive idealists and their radical successors" who have taught us "to regard all fighting, even fighting back, as deplorable [and] something to be ashamed of." The same ethic is captured in a more sybaritic formulation of the 1960s, which Falstaff himself would certainly have appreciated: "Make love not war."

James Bowman does not--he cannot--acquiesce in the consolidation of a post-honor society. Honor: A History could just as well have been entitled Honor: A Defense. Bowman's spirited opposition to the currently prevailing ethic is evident as much from his tone, which is laced with sarcasm for the therapeutic and feminist nostrums that attack honor, as from his argument. He ends his work by launching a new project of his own: an open plea for a "chivalric revival" to reconstitute a form of Victorian cultural honor in America. The task he has set for himself, as he acknowledges, is almost quixotic, but Bowman is not one to flinch before tilting at windmills.

He begins his analysis by trying to characterize the meaning of honor. Honor, he argues, has a "reflexive" basis that is located deep inside human nature itself: When you are hit, you want to hit back. Honor is rooted in an impulse to stand up and strike back, to defend your own or what is precious to you, and to answer insult or provocation. It is less a rule of reason than, for some, a basic response.

The "some" in question are almost invariably males. Honor for James Bowman is chiefly a man's concern. Women enter into the picture mostly as spectators, although in the process they assume (or are forced to assume) a role. A woman's honor becomes her chastity or, to speak with greater realism today, her decency. The near "natural" status of reflexive honor is still to be found in the fact that few men take kindly to being called wimps, and few women to being called sluts. Switch the sex and few will complain too vociferously.