The Magazine

On My Honor

Deciphering the human code.

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