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.

A highly publicized incident during the finale of the World Cup speaks directly to Bowman's point. When the French soccer star Zinedine Zidane was expelled for a head butt, commentators universally described the act as "inexplicable." Following three days of painful silence, Zidane was forced to respond. Claiming that his female loved ones (mother and sister) had been continually insulted in the most degrading way, he offered the following "explanation": "I'm a man first and foremost; therefore I reacted." And he went on, "I apologize, but I do not regret it," thereby drawing a distinction between wrong conduct and dishonorable conduct.

Here we enter into pure Bowman country, for one of his main arguments is that while considerations of honor may often overlap with ethics or prudence, honor is an autonomous phenomenon having its own distinct source in the human constitution.

Another incident, which I draw from one of Bowman's favorite authors, Anthony Trollope, adds further to his point. In The Small House at Allington, the heroine (Lily Dale) is jilted by one Crosbie, a gentleman by class, who ignobly leaves her in the lurch to pursue a target of opportunity to marry up for status and money. And how is Lily Dale to be vindicated? Dueling now being forbidden, a former admirer, from a modest class, takes matters into his own hands and administers a public thrashing of Crosbie at the London railway station. The judgment to be pronounced on this act is left to a good Christian, Lady Julia, who allows that although she never would have advised it, neither could she bring herself to disapprove it.

Trollope takes over and speaks in his own voice:

Ladies . . . are bound to entertain pacific theories, and to condemn all manner of violence. . . . But, nevertheless, deeds of prowess are still dear to the female heart, and a woman, be she ever so old and discreet, understands and appreciates the summary justice which may be done by means of a thrashing.

James Bowman is less interested, however, in pursuing the natural underpinnings of honor than in exploring different honor codes and their relation to what he calls "honor groups." When honor assumes its variety of conventional forms, it becomes highly group-oriented and stresses the subordination of the individual to the requirements of the corporate entity, be it a clan, a guild, a class, or--with more difficulty--a nation. Honor is esprit de corps, and its violation is found chiefly in the harming of the group, even when the group does what is "wrong." In this analysis, the idea of the police Blue Wall, for its good and ill, is the expression of honor, not the splashy deed of the individual, like Frank Serpico, who exposes the problems of the corporate service in the name of some higher value.

But what conception of honor constitutes such a group? Bowman attempts a general and abstract formulation. Honor is "the good opinion of the people who matter to us . . . because we regard them as a society of equals who have the power to judge our behavior." Yet no sooner does he offer this definition than he has to qualify it, for honor so conceived could apply to those who regard themselves as being "above the demands of honor" as well as to those who take pride in despising the little acts of attention once known as politeness.

A gentleman colleague of mine, known for his impeccable manners, once made the error of pulling up a chair for a well-known feminist scholar, a gesture that earned him the stern reproof, "I can put my own ass down wherever I want." While the good lady's reply was sure to win her the "good opinion" of her peer group, it misses what Bowman intends by honor. In the end, he gives up on this exercise and restricts his universe to groups regulating violence and force or defending "traditional" propriety. He knows honor when he sees it.

Bowman is appreciative, at some level, of honor in any of its real forms, yet by no means does he defend all honor groups. Just the opposite is the case. He wants us to understand the full meaning of honor so that we in the West can know what we are up against. He describes, for example, an honor culture in Pakistan in which raped women are killed to protect the group's idea of honor, and he contends that the terrorist jihadists are motivated far more by notions of honor than of religion, though the two are linked. The world is filled with honor groups that are pitiless and "primitive."

(His continual identification of these honor groups as "non-Western," while accurate, risks leaving a false impression about the elaborately structured honor codes found in Japan and China, which he hardly mentions.)

Bowman's main interest, however, is in the West. The honor culture that developed here was the product of a highly complex development, in which, in contrast to what occurred elsewhere, the original honor code underwent a "remarkable process of evolution." It was compelled to change because of stiff competition from other, independent sources of influence and authority. Philosophy, politics, and religion each claimed the prerogative to regulate human behavior and often disagreed with honor's demands. Sometimes these other claimants confronted the honor culture head on, demanding that it cede to their logic; at other times they sought to infiltrate the understanding of honor, modifying its provisions while still respecting its basic rationale.

Out of these many confrontations emerged "the unique, glittering, splendid, strange and beautiful honor culture of the West." This happy outcome, in Bowman's account, was a product of pure accident. He likes (or liked) the result, but he remains suspicious of the agents that brought it about, for their aim was usually hostile to honor.

Bowman's recounting of this history is disappointingly brief. Starting with ancient Greece, he finds that while the first honor code had many of the same pitiless qualities of those of the East, it displayed a slightly different character. The honor described by Homer placed an unusual emphasis on the individual, as exemplified in the highly personal nature of Achilles' quest for honor. Say what you will about Achilles, his first concern was never esprit de corps. From the beginning, then, the individualism found in the Western honor culture operated as a solvent of the bonds of honor.

This original honor culture then came under challenge from philosophy. In the conflict between "poetry" and "philosophy" sketched in the Republic, Plato seeks to replace Achilles with Socrates as the model of the highest way of life. The rationalist questioning of honor was also evident in the establishment of political science, which sought to co-opt, regulate, and control honor in order to make it serve the ends of the city.

Bowman gives slightly more attention to the post-classical era. A new kind of competitor appeared in the form of Christianity: "The main reason for the peculiarities--indeed, the uniqueness--of Western honor since classical times is that Christianity, the culturally dominant religion in the West from the fourth century onward, had a built-in bias against honor." The clash between Christianity and barbarian honor eventually gave birth to a "fusion," known as chivalry. Chivalry produced the "paradox" of the Christian knight. Honor was changed to attach to certain universal notions and to offer protection to the weak and the female.

For Bowman, who jousts throughout with certain modern historians hostile to chivalry, chivalry marked an enormous step forward for women, securing them greater protection than they had before, even if they had to suffer being treated with politeness. The importance of chivalry to Bowman's account cannot be overestimated. It became the template of honor in the West, and all subsequent honor codes have drawn from it: "One way of looking at the history of honor in the West is as a series of chivalric revivals--which generally coincided with the decline of an old aristocracy or honor elite."

The highest such revival was the final one: the Victorian honor culture. It opened honor to a much larger group, developed and modernized practices of politeness, added the advanced notion of "fair play," and connected honor to solidarity for the nation as a whole. As honor codes go, it was the most beautiful of the beautiful, prompting Bowman to sing, "Chivalry will never be dead so long as we possess the memory of it, especially in its advanced Victorian version."

But tragedy loomed just beneath the surface of this latest revival. Honor was made better, at least in part, by its dialectic encounter with the "honor skepticism" of thinkers, dating back at least to Shakespeare, who promoted human individuality and inwardness, and with a growing fidelity to Christian ideals, if not always to the religion itself. Many of the things that helped make honor more beautiful also made it more fragile. The forces building against the great structure of Western honor finally brought the whole edifice down--that, and the little event known as World War I.

With the interpretation of World War I by a "formidable band of mythologizers" that included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front), the massive assault on the honor culture was launched. Bowman's book focuses mainly on this theme. If his account of the rise of honor was sketchy, his coverage of its collapse is comprehensive. Bowman, who seems to have read more literature, seen more movies, and watched more TV than is possible in a single lifetime, is most at home in this milieu. His thesis is that almost all of post-World War I culture forms a single bloc in its opposition to the idea of honor. Honor was held responsible for the senseless slaughter of the Great War, and the lesson drawn was that it could and should be done away with. Even if there were to be future wars, their justification should derive from ethics or morality, not anything having to do with honor. With this view also comes new hope for an end to "violence," for if violence does not inhere in the putatively ineradicable source of honor, but rather in error, pathology, or deprivation, then perhaps it can be rooted out once and forever.

This utopian idea, Bowman contends, is the governing premise of modern progressive rationalism, which, more than religion, has carried the most weight in the war against honor.

Bowman's argument is "formidable" in its own right. But in trying to fit so much into an anti-honor bloc, he occasionally goes too far. Those treated as objective opponents of honor are not only those who attack the notion altogether, but also a line of artists who focus on a hard-boiled set of individualistic protagonists who struggle with themselves before doing the right thing, but who never admit to anything like honor--figures such as Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in Gone With the Wind and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca. Bowman criticizes these figures and others of their ilk for their individualism, lack of concern for duty to a corporate service, and failure to mention honor. Many cowboy movies and Clint Eastwood films are also said to fit this model.

Yet Bowman would better serve his own cause, be less of an armchair Hotspur, if he conceded something to the special nature of the American character. A workable revival of honor in America could never assume a "Victorian" form. While respect for group honor (military service and patriotism) would be part of the package, room must also be left in the imagination for the more irreverent individual, ever suspicious of higher-ups in formal institutions, who comes to the honorable decision even as he dismisses anything like codes of honor.

It is true that such figures and the literature that produces them are silently parasitic of honor--for how else can we know what is honorable--but there is nevertheless an admirable kind of democratic nobility that disdains fustian and the pomp of codes. As for their individuality, it has been part of the West since at least Achilles. What was the medieval knight but a cowboy with armor?

Throughout his analysis, Bowman is plagued by what seems to him an insoluble problem. The highest form of honor is honor that has been modified by an outside force. But those outside forces, in Bowman's account, always threaten honor, if they are not its outright foes. I do not know if he despairs of religion--he never says so--but he almost certainly despairs of reason, and with cause, too, as modern reason in its progressive form has been the champion of the anti-honor culture. Bowman's reflexive reaction is therefore to strike back and defend honor in its pure group form and as something that is wholly distinct and impenetrable.

He takes one political theorist to task for daring to suggest an alteration of honor, noting "the striking thing about actual honor cultures is that people will regard as honorable what they honor and dishonorable what they despise, irrespective of what moral and political philosophers tell them they ought to honor or despise." Although this claim is correct up to a point, Bowman's book also proves, in some measure, exactly the opposite. While honor is partly distinct or autonomous, it is not entirely impermeable, for how else did it "evolve"?

This being so, could there not be a rational account of the human situation that does justice to the actual degree of impermeability of honor, yet considers corrections to honor's excesses in line with what honor could withstand? Could a few of those whom Bowman calls "honor skeptics" really have been honor's best friends? The spirit of Bowman's book itself is often a better testimony to this possibility than the exact letter of his argument.

If a modern reader of a progressive mindset ever can summon the fortitude to make it through this work, the main question he is bound to ask, even if he should concur in the historical analysis, is: Why do we want or need a revival of honor? Why not just embrace the prevailing Falstaffian ethic and, as the saying goes, simply move on? After all, we in the West are powerful, wealthy, and sophisticated; and if we can no longer enjoy the secret pleasure that comes from administering an occasional thrashing, we at least still have the satisfaction of being able to threaten a lawsuit.

James Bowman does his best to respond to this challenge. By jettisoning the concept of honor, he suggests, we have begun to lose access to what motivates others in the world. As long as we operated with an idea of honor of our own, no matter how different it might be from the honor codes of others, we had a common denominator with the rest of the world and could understand their primary motivation (with understanding, be it understood, not always leading to sympathetic dialogue).

We are now civilized aliens in a world amidst many whose motivations we no longer begin to grasp. Yet for all our denial of honor in our doctrines and cultural opinions, Bowman insists paradoxically that we cannot really do without it. We are, after all, still human beings, and humans can only be engineered to a certain extent. Try as we will to denature ourselves--and Bowman is dismayed by how far we have gone--we can never fully succeed. A French proverb reads, "Chassez le naturel, il revient au gallop," which might best be translated, "Try to get rid of what is natural, and it will come back in spades."

Rushing into the vacuum created by our anti-honor culture, for example, come the most degrading forms of gang culture honor, where everything turns on avoiding being "dissed" and where women are treated in the most demeaning ways. Chivalry, anyone? Still, what of the majority of us progressive creatures who are not in gang culture, and who appear to have adjusted? Or have we? Bowman questions this, suggesting that, in the depths of their hearts, even if they cannot express it, people feel a strangeness and emptiness in a world in which they are supposed to feel so "comfortable."

Although honor disdains justification by utility, Bowman is enough a rationalist to hint that we may need an idea of honor to survive and meet the extraordinary threats that we now face. For his courage in raising so unconventional a challenge, his country owes him the honor of its deepest gratitude.

James W. Ceaser is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and coauthor most recently of Red over Blue: The 2004 Elections and American Politics.