A review of Honor: A History, by James Bowman

James Bowman's Honor is both an analysis and a warning. It looks carefully at a phenomenon we too often ignore and defends vigorously a quality we sometimes foolishly mock. The book contains no cant, partisan frothing, or ideological silliness, although its recommendations and its enemies will satisfy conservatives more than liberals. It is a substantial achievement.

Bowman, a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, traces honor from the ancient Greeks until today, concentrating on the period from 1914 through Vietnam. The volume's high points are a trenchant review of our post-Vietnam softness and a series of bracing recommendations for restoring honor's importance. Its chief deficiency is conceptual. Bowman sees honor's facets as few do today, but he does not see enough of its setting or unifying core. 

At the heart of his analysis is the distinction that he draws between reflexive honor and cultural honor. Reflexive honor means standing up for yourself or getting back at those who harm you, letting "others know one is not to be trifled with." All men have or can have it. Cultural honor is admiring or defending one's culture. The "honor culture" of our radical Islamist enemies obviously differs from Victorian culture, but all cultures honor visible qualities that belong especially to those on top. Traditionally, men are honored by a reputation for courage and women by a reputation for chastity.

Honor's chief contemporary enemies, according to Bowman, are therapy, pacifism, feminism, individual authenticity, excessive equality, and the cult of celebrity. They replace the shame, warrior spirit, chaste domesticity, public outlook, necessary inequalities, and admiration for true distinction that help contribute to honor. To resuscitate it, consequently, we must restore warrior spirit, defend sensible inequalities, overcome celebrity-worship, and revivify differences between the sexes. He believes these outcomes to be possible (in descending order of likelihood) but honestly reports his inability in several cases to see practical steps to bring them about. 

Bowman's thoughtful, instructive history is inevitably somewhat uneven. In general, he is weakest about the Greeks and gathers strength as he goes along. He misses Plato's subtle discussions of the political need for both courage and moderation; somewhat distorts the place of Aristotle's view of honor in his overall understanding of virtue; bypasses the connection of virtue's nobility to both the individual soul and the political community; and ignores the importance of reason in forming and directing passions. A more careful consideration of the ancient philosophers might have ameliorated in advance some of the difficulties I discuss below. 

Bowman ably brings out the connection of honor to reputation through the stories of Lancelot, Arthur, and Roland, explores Shakespeare's complex understanding, recognizes the modern attack on honor in writers such as Mandeville, and usefully analyzes the Victorians' contradictory yet stalwart notion of the Christian gentleman. He then traces the attack on honor caused by claims about the pointlessness of the First World War and the foolishness of the old men who led it. This attack formed the view of the 1930s, and presaged the objections to the official culture of honor during the Korean and, especially, the Vietnam War. Vietnam and its aftermath exacerbated the honor-opposing culture that is so prominent today.

Much of this discussion is cogent and illuminating, melding intelligent argument and analysis with discussions of literature and film. Every reader will of course quibble with points of emphasis and interpretation. More significantly, however, Bowman touches too lightly and idiosyncratically on our entrance into and success in the Second World War, overemphasizes what he believes was the reflexive assertion of our honor in striking back at those who had attacked us and, consequently, downplays the importance of protecting freedom and justice, of self-defense, and of aiding friends in trouble. He underplays, too, our response to the Cold War, which showed an admirable patience and endurance that is hard to imagine absent the American people's respect for the justice of our way of life. Offended pride or honor would not have been enough.

Bowman's distinction between reflexive and cultural honor is confined to two of honor's three main divisions. By examining all of them we can confront his understanding more radically. One division involves "honors," i.e., marks of distinction. We award honors in professions, the arts, education, and the military. Aristotle considered the chief honors to be political offices. The second involves honorable behavior—doing the right thing; and the third is "honor" as the subject of offense. Offended "honor" is offended pride, "honorable" behavior is proper behavior, and merited "honors" are badges of distinctive excellence.

Offended honor stems from the spiritedness that protects, distinguishes, and encloses us individually, that wards off and punishes intrusions and attacks, and that constitutes each human being insofar as he stands up for himself. Bowman's notion of reflexive honor cogently brings out some of this phenomenon, but he sees it too narrowly. He shows how therapy and authenticity vitiate honor, because the honorable soul is more responsible than the therapeutic self, and honor's content more public than authenticity's self-proclaimed uniqueness. But what about pride requires the self-motivation of responsibility rather than the passivity of therapy, and the acclaim of reputation rather than the daydream of sincerity? Bowman does not elaborate a view of the soul that clarifies the better and worse expressions of our common human powers. His preference for honor could thus seem to be merely one irrational stance among others.

Behaving honorably also means doing the right thing. Honorable action need not always mean taking offense or getting even: one does not cheat even if no one is looking. Nor does one push women and children away from the lifeboat, or recklessly kill defenseless civilians. Here, however, Mr. Bowman is too impressed by the way the right thing varies in different places and times. He reminds us that, because only the public knowledge of Lancelot's adultery with Guinevere disgraced Arthur, lying about it was acceptable. Drawing on this example and others, Bowman tries to defend the wisdom of separating public action and private virtue in our day, too. Indeed, he seeks generally to separate honor from virtue and prefers that war not be justified in universal terms. 

The result of his argument, however, is that the link between honorably standing up for oneself and doing the right thing becomes fuzzy. It is a mistake not to see how honor's power, pride, and courage are linked to moderate, generous, and just action, prudently understood. Doing the wrong things should cause self-contempt even when no one else knows. Bowman believes that Islamic "honor" killings of rape victims, male tyranny, and murderous revenge show us something about the inequalities and offended bravado always involved in honor. He also knows that these practices are barbaric. To deal successfully with this contradiction (and to justify the reconstituted Victorian honor he prefers), he would need to locate honor in a universal characteristic–spiritedness–that we can perfect through a virtue (courage) connected to other virtues. This would give us grounds to understand the truly honorable and to take offense properly, while still learning something from offended spirit whenever we see it.

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Bowman's notion of cultural honor raises similar questions. How much is reflexive honor naturally independent of one's culture, and how much is it merely a product of that culture? To what extent do I conceive myself as a "one" only in terms of a "cultural" many? When Bowman discusses authenticity, sincerity, therapy, and the Islamic honor culture it is as if individual human beings could be fully subsumed or defined by the regnant culture. This cannot be, however, if men such as Bowman self-consciously defend a view older and nobler than what prevails in their own culture. The scope he attributes to a culture or "honor group," moreover, remains undefined. Tribes, professions, communities, religions, and arts are not the same. Recognizing their conflicts allows us to overcome some of the hypocrisy of "cultural" honor, while also defending it properly.

We also notice these issues politically. Reflexive honor often concerns striking back at injustice. Although the injustice might be directed against me, I and others understand its substance—the violated equality, hierarchy, or ownership—on the basis of common, or potentially common, principles. We defend our customs and traditions but also our freedom, equality, and goods. The true subject of "cultural" honor is justice as we find it embodied in law, or a way of life. Some ways of distributing goods are arguably more just and better than others. "Honors" speak to true distinctions, not only cultural ones. Mere cultures and traditions are incommensurable and, therefore, objects either of lazy equality, or domination, until we judge them rationally and universally. "Cultural" honor is better or worse in terms of the justice of the way of life it defends. Bowman does not show, as he could have, how any "cultural" honor opens to and is dissatisfied with what is not fully honorable. The inevitable shortcomings of one's community also help to energize the natural split between individual (reflexive) and political (cultural) honor.

These questions are connected to several practical concerns. 

For one, Bowman too drastically separates honor from political rule. He is properly wary of our academics' proclivity to reduce honor to a fig leaf for power and patriarchy. He also means to counter the extreme view of war, especially of the First World War, as a corrupt venture precipitated by powerful old men's belief in, or blather about, honor. After all, one cannot see honor clearly without recognizing it as an independent force. Nonetheless, we misunderstand honor unless we notice that encouraging others to live up to codes that I control cements my rule. Bowman mentions this occasionally but not thematically. It is important to acknowledge honor's consequent potential for hypocrisy, however, as well as its place in establishing often unfair authority. Otherwise, as I have suggested, one may ignore the difference between good and bad authority that the hypocrisy in all authority helps make evident. Honor does not justify Islamic tyranny, but it is unreasonable there and elsewhere to ignore the pretense, posturing, and dominance that clothe themselves in honor's dignity.

We also misunderstand honor practically unless we see that bristling at slights is not just the expression of an independent passion; it protects my life and property by leading enemies to look for easier marks. Spiritedness is not only a fact and honor (as courage) a perfection of it; they are linked to security and survival. Recognizing this link to what is ordinary helps to prevent the extremism or even madness of so-called "honor" when it is unhinged from rational balance. In this regard, Bowman also does not say enough about security and self-defense as grounds for war. Not merely a cause and a slap in the face, but securing freedom and resources lead us to protect ourselves. The bristling of spirit can be connected to the calm of satisfaction; alone and apart they tend to become imprudent and ignoble. 

Finally, although Bowman skillfully brings out many factors that work against honor in America today, he does not bring out so well the elements compatible with it. His history mostly skips over the Reagan era. He gives short shrift to our military response in Afghanistan and our police and fire response directly after September 11. He does not ask what citizen involvement might be in future military actions more visibly connected to self-defense than is the Iraq war. Even his analysis of popular culture ignores the television shows of the past decade that present justice being pursued and achieved, not only by loners and outsiders but by dedicated officials.

More generally, he overlooks some of American liberal democracy's resources for defending and elevating our version of reflexive honor, not to mention our principles. He says little about America's grounding in equal freedom and rights. This ground, however, liberates the spirited defense and execution of individual authority and choice. It promotes the character we require to exercise our rights. Our responsibility and industry, in the proper atmosphere of education and competition, support and develop liberal or egalitarian pride. This pride is compatible with courageously taking on public tasks, at least when we understand our freedom and talents expansively.

That we too often understand freedom as private license and too little feel the honorable need to defend our country, however, also is true. Our ethical and intellectual resources are in danger of being depleted. Mr. Bowman's admirable and intelligent book stands manfully against this decline.