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  1. #1
    Sniffles
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    Default A short rant on chivalry

    This is basically a review I causually wrote some time ago concerning James Bowman's book Honor: A History.

    Recently in a few threads, topics related to this issue was discussed, and I wish to add my own two cents to the fray. So enjoy, and feel free to add feedback!




    James Bowman's Sense of Honor

    The concept of honor has been at the basis of any true civilization throughout history. Over several centuries this concept governed matters of moral and social responsibilities. Yet over the past century or so, Western society has been rejecting this very concept, with the decline of cultural vitality and strength as the major result. This decline has only left the West vulnerable to attacks from Islamic fanatics (who still adhere to a primitive form of honor). If the West wishes to survive these attacks and eventually defeat its enemies, the West will have to rediscover its forgotten ideals of honor and valor. That’s the basic argument made by James Bowman in his new book Honor: A History. Within its pages, Bowman seeks to give an authoritative account of the development of Western concepts of honor and valor down through the ages: from its origins in the Greco-Roman world, to the Medieval concept of chivalry, to the Victorian gentleman, to its eventual decline during World War I to the rise of the “post-honor society” in wake of the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. Bowman then goes on to show how honor still has a place within the modern world, and it’d wise for Western society to recover at least some form of it.

    Although Bowman certainly deserves credit for attempting to bring light on a matter like this to the public eye, and to especially critique modern decadence with a call for a return to forgotten principles; yet as far as this work being an actual history of the development of Western concepts of honor, it’s not too impressive.

    For example, only a few pages are actually devoted to describing the concept of honor during the Middle Ages, which is perhaps the historical epoch Westerners most associate with honor. Exactly how on earth is that possible? We’re talking about the Age of Chivalry, and only five or so pages are dedicated to it!

    In fact when concerning the whole history of honor prior to the 20th century, one gets the impression that Bowman only glances over it very briefly; almost as if he wants to get to the modern era as quickly as possible. Only when Bowman starts getting more and more into the 20th century and describing the eventual decline of honor and the rise of the “post-honor society” does he seem to devote any kind of real attention to the matter. Why is this? Probably due to two important factors the author mentions within the pages of his book.

    Well within the introduction to the book, Bowman recalls his youthful days as an anti-war activist during the Vietnam era, lamenting the fact that he never served in the military. Furthermore, he laments the rampant decadence that was become all to prevalent within modern society and America’s supposed “weak” response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th (more on this later). So Bowman makes it clear that this book is largely intended to be a commentary on modern society rather than a full historical account of the concept of honor.

    This is further proved by the fact that Bowman admits to largely disregarding most scholarship on the matter, claiming that it is too full of liberal bias. Although I would certainly agree with Bowman’s basic assessment, however I think he simply uses this as an excuse in not having to do a more thorough scholarly work and to attack those who disagree with his positions. This is particularly true when Bowman pretty much knee-jerks Leo Braudy’s From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity, for supposedly arguing that chivalry and terrorism are basically the same thing.

    Yet when it comes to providing an actual detailed historical account of Western notions of heroic masculinity and its development, Braudy’s book far outclasses Bowman’s work. Yet when it comes to describing the continual relevance of such notions in current society and into the future, Bowman shows more promise. Braudy is of the common opinion that modern society has basically outgrown any real need for a heroic sense of masculinity based on honor and such. Masculinity altogether needs to be redefined. Bowman argues the opposite, claiming that such ideals still have great relevance, but yes may need to be modified a bit in order to pertain to current concerns and needs. So in a sense, both works complement each other.

    Yet failing to give to a general historical account of Western concepts of honor is not the only flaw of Bowman’s book. His description of the relationship between the concept of honor and the Christian faith deserves a proper answer. Bowman at first praises Christianity for its immeasurable role in the development of Western culture. He even notes that Christianity was an important factor in making Western notions of honor far more unique from that found in other cultures. For example, the elevated status that women enjoy within Western honor is not found in other cultures, particularly the Islamic world.

    Yet despite all this praise, Bowman insists that at the heart of Christianity is a bias against the concept of honor. Christian teachings go fully against everything that honor stands for; and that the advent of chivalry and eventually the Victorian concept of the Christian gentlemen were nothing than an uneasy compromise between the two ideals that were doomed to eventual failure (in World War I).

    I can only say that Bowman doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The basis of the concept of honor is largely an adherence to high principles and maintaining the good will of ones peers. There’s nothing un-Christian about that. However, many times honor can too easily degrade into egotism and protecting ones pride and vanity. This certainly has happened many times throughout history, and was a major element to the pagan sense of honor. The Christian sense of honor goes on the other hand condemns this, calling for a self-sacrificial adherence to ones principles. If one must endure severe insults to ones reputation in the name of a greater cause, then so be it. The Catholic Encyclopedia goes into more details about the significant differences between the Christian and the pagan concepts of honor.

    Yet it is the Christian sense of honor that Bowman seems to reject. Bowman declares that a man of honor must answer any challenge made to him, while Christian demands that a man turn the other cheek. Bowman wrongly claims that this means Christianity is pacifist in nature, it does not. CS Lewis gave wonderful insight into the question:
    "Does anyone suppose that Our Lord's hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?"
    Christ’s command to ‘turn the other cheek’ does not mean that the legitimate use of violence for purposes of self-defense is not acceptable. Rather Christ is telling his followers not to take the law into their own hands. Yet according to Bowman, a man of honor is supposed to take the law into his own hands, in the practice of the duel.

    There certainly is no doubt that the relationship between Christian teachings and the ideals of honor was complex, however Bowman fails to provide a proper account of it. A far better account of such is provided by Allen J. Frantzen’s Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War. Unlike Bowman, Frantzen actually gives accounts about how Christianity since its beginnings had a deep admiration for martial valor; which is clearly seen in Ephesians 6:10-18, where St. Paul calls on Christians to put on “the armor of God”, “the helmet of salvation”, and wield “the sword of the spirit”. Frantzen also explains in great detail the important role that Christ’s passion and death had on the development of chivalry. Frantzen also gives more detailed accounts about the Medieval development of chivalry and its 19th century revival.

    As mentioned before, the main value of Bowman’s work is largely detailing the decline of honor in modern society, and how a revival of such ideals can help drag us out of our rampant social decadence. Yet even here Bowman’s analysis is highly flawed, especially when dealing with the role of honor in America’s foreign policy. Long story short, Bowman advocates a Neo-Con policy of complete aggression towards the Islamic world, and that anybody who doesn’t agree with that is basically a liberal sissy who wishes to give in to terrorists. In other words, it’s a dressed up version of the famous "Dicks vs. Assholes vs. Pussies" rant made by the character Gary Johnson in the movie “Team America: World Police”. I’m sure Bowman could’ve done much better than that.

    Sadly this also destroys the potential value this book may have had. Bowman’s call for the revival of honor in the end is reduced as just another way of knocking off the liberal Democrats and an excuse for waging wars of aggression against the Islamic world. If this is what Bowman considers honor to be largely about, then count me out!

    That is not to say Bowman’s book is utterly worthless, it most certainly is not. However, one has to selectively absorb what Bowman is saying in order to get a true picture of the story.

    Also in fairness, at his website Bowman provides a collection of several articles and essays he’s written on the matter. In my opinion, these are of far better quality than many of the statements he makes in his book.

    So in a final and ironic twist, Bowman is correct in stating the West is need of reviving its now forgotten notions of honor and valor in order to maintain any kind of strength and cultural vitality. Yet the exact form of honor that Bowman advocates to fulfill that mission may not actually be what the West truly needs right now.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Hirsch63's Avatar
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    Interesting topic. Thanks for providing the distraction. I've long been interested in the meaning of these type of concepts. I'd like to offer a few (rambling) thoughts.

    Honor, has essentially the same meaning as Brand does in our contemporary society. Honor seems to have been created out of a need to protect one's holdings, material or otherwise. A reputation for fierce inviolability in defense of one's land and resources which would be maintained through inheritance (and presumed to have, in their defacto possession, a higher power's tacit approval) has it's modern equivalent in a cadre of Patent, Trademark and Intellectual Property lawyers on retainer. The need for honor stems from fear of loss. In this sense, all "honor" despite of its trappings, is primitive.

    Honor was at first simply practical. Rising from the primal need to protect one's own person and family and extending to those in a household (here, possession of property?) who had a direct immediate need to secure themselves from threats. A communal sense of honor based on the geographical proximity of productive households would have given rise to the first "corporate" exertions of this defense. Honor is prophylactic;it demands heraldry;those who can percieve it's outward appearance may think twice of the cost before assaulting a target. Unless of course their honor would be materially enhanced in the effort.

    The need to maintain an honorable reputation would have would have ascended with those in possession of resources during social stratification. What need does a serf or slave have of honor? They are charged with duty. Duty is invested with many of the trappings of sense of honor it serves. Duty is inculcated and rewarded as a relatively low cost investment in the maintenece of (a higher) honor. Fear is the crank on the machine of honor. The machine produces terror; within the realm of our tactile sense and in the recesses of our imaginings.

    A christian sense of honor? Perhaps within the organized forms it eventually took, when there was something material to defend. The hierarchical nature of honor (a social mechanism to protect possessions) does seem to contradict my understanding of an authentic christianity where if anything like honor exists it is dispensed laterally to secure the well-being of fellow humans regardless of the cost to ourselves. To be a christian requires none of the blandishments or concerns of the worldly. Christianity is a way of walking through life in service to something beyond practical mercenary gain. Jesus son of Joseph advocated the simplest of lives, free of an entitled sense of ownership or possession, therefore free of the fear of loss that these attitudes occasion. Radical in the sense that it asks us to forego these attitudes even about our own bodies. Dangerous as it subverts all practical notions of self aggrandizement. Jesus did not care for gain in the material world, but the journey of his fellow beings through it and what could be done to ease their passage during a lifetime. The only sense of honor in christianity appears when christianity becomes commodified; when our fear of the loss of the guarantee of a blissful afterlife dictates our actions. It is not about serving each other without thought of reward, it is about saving our own asses.

    Is it honorable to live the life Jesus described? Honor is not applicable there...to live that life is to live within the laws of Moses. These laws are not "higher ideals" they are the practical way we are to be. It is the very least that you are asked to do in this world. It is difficult to live in this sphere without fear of loss of that which sustains us. Is it an honor to do so? We cannot know...we must simply be our best. Does a follower of Jesus do what they do because of the fear of being smitten from above or denied entrance to heaven? Or do they find their "honor" in simply living out what has been asked of them because it provides a profound sense of fulfillment?

    Regarding the book by Mr. Bowman that you describe, I must agree that a much more widely felt sense of honor would be an aid in the defense against and destruction of an enemy. An imminent and intense fear of loss or harm by an unjustifiable menacing "other" inculcated throughout the masses would be just what we need to annihalate them...wait...that sounds like them. Hmmm.

    Chivalry I understand as a social (form of management)code; and yes informed by some Christian sentiments. How was chivalry dispensed? Without reference to class or station in life? Could a serf (except as self-deceit)extend chivalry in any meaningful way? Chivalry is a use to the undiscplined landed class who might all slaughter each other without its organizing influence. Chivalry to the slave is about as useful as a silk top-hat.

    As much as I enjoy reading C.S. Lewis, he is not Jesus.

    "Does anyone suppose that Our Lord's hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?"

    If the attacker described is indeed a maniac, he is not in control of his faculties. He is perhaps possessed? Afflicted? Does he merit eye-for-eye violence or purposeful restraint to check his unreasoning aggression? What if after restraint, his demon cannot be cast out, his affliction cannot be eased, he remains a danger...the third party may by now be long gone. Here you are left with the crazy guy...and his maintenence. It would certainly have been easier to simply kill him in the first place rather than just deter him. But you are charged with healing him. You cannot kill.

    Honor can give us the comfortable illusion that we are merely tools of a larger purpose and any sins we commit in service to it are borne by that entity and not our own souls. There is a scene in Henry V between Henry and a soldier where Henry says (and I am paraphrasing) "ev'ry subject's duty is too the king, but ev'ry subject's soul is his own." neatly dispensing with the burden of sin his fear, greed and base ambitions (fueled ironically by the church) engendered by his "honor".

    Okay I've got work to do now. This was fun though, thanks P.
    Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings...Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you a king

  3. #3
    Sniffles
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    Wow Hirsch, thanks for the reply. There's more than enough for me to reply to. I hope you don't mind, but in all probability I'll have to address your arguments little by little; rather than in one big sweep.

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    The Black Knight Domino's Avatar
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    I have a book upstairs in my room that's basically an Oxford compliation of Norman and Angevin England (clearly after the conquest), and I recall contemporaries of the time blamed France for the plague of chivalry proper, and said that roving bands of knights were to blame for the harrowing of peasants who could only be sure of safe travel to church (but perhaps not leaving church). They even laid out a weekly almanac of sorts to show you what days were safer than others to avoid being messed up/tormented by wild gangs of knights. The situation was so out of hand and ridiculous that I laughed. (Granted, had I been a peasant then, I would not have found it at all funny... I just got this unbidden mental image of peasants being chased willy-nilly by dudes in heavy armor).
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    not to be trusted miss fortune's Avatar
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    slightly unrelated, but fascinating nonetheless tidbit here... I once read that it was the invention of the iron stirrup that led to the creation of the feudal system, chivalry and the existance of professional knights in Europe...

    why? Because all of the armor and training that the knights could now use and wear with these new, sturdy stirrups were EXPENSIVE, and if the king wanted to keep his army just as good as every other king's army he had to give them some way to afford thier stuff... therefore feudal estates and etc.



    ** appologies for the potential irrelevance!
    “Oh, we're always alright. You remember that. We happen to other people.” -Terry Pratchett

  6. #6
    Sniffles
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    Quote Originally Posted by whatever View Post
    slightly unrelated, but fascinating nonetheless tidbit here... I once read that it was the invention of the iron stirrup that led to the creation of the feudal system, chivalry and the existance of professional knights in Europe...

    why? Because all of the armor and training that the knights could now use and wear with these new, sturdy stirrups were EXPENSIVE, and if the king wanted to keep his army just as good as every other king's army he had to give them some way to afford thier stuff... therefore feudal estates and etc.



    ** appologies for the potential irrelevance!
    The feudal system arose for various reasons, namely the collaspe of centralized power in wake of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was a very gradual development as well, and arose from various sources: Greeco-Roman law, Germanic tribal custom, and Christian theology.

    It perhaps should be noted that Knights were not the only class to be armed. The lines between the three orders: Those who work, Those who pray, Those who fight; was very blurred throughout the Medieval period. Almost each class(including the clergy) had its own military traditions, not just the aristocracy.

    So was "chivalry" just for the Knights? Yes as we narrowly define the term chivalry. But since each class had its own military traditions, it also had it's own versions of chivalry as well.

    This parallels to the situation with Bushido in Fedual Japan. Yes, properly, it applied only to the elite Samurai. But again each class, with its own military traditions, had its own variation of the concept. I know this to be especially true of the merchant class, although I forget off-hand what their version was called.

    And no need to apologise. It's not irrelevant.

  7. #7
    Sniffles
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    Quote Originally Posted by PinkPiranha View Post
    I have a book upstairs in my room that's basically an Oxford compliation of Norman and Angevin England (clearly after the conquest), and I recall contemporaries of the time blamed France for the plague of chivalry proper, and said that roving bands of knights were to blame for the harrowing of peasants who could only be sure of safe travel to church (but perhaps not leaving church). They even laid out a weekly almanac of sorts to show you what days were safer than others to avoid being messed up/tormented by wild gangs of knights. The situation was so out of hand and ridiculous that I laughed. (Granted, had I been a peasant then, I would not have found it at all funny... I just got this unbidden mental image of peasants being chased willy-nilly by dudes in heavy armor).
    There certainly were contrasts between ideal and reality, that'll always occur. Nevertheless, there was that ideal that had to be there, to give people something to strive for.

    Although movements like the Truce of God did help in containing the violence of Medieval warfare.

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    Senior Member Hirsch63's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Peguy View Post
    Wow Hirsch, thanks for the reply. There's more than enough for me to reply to. I hope you don't mind, but in all probability I'll have to address your arguments little by little; rather than in one big sweep.
    No problem...just wanted to get it out of my head. These are merely opinions of mine based on observations. I do not know if I would even be interested in arguing to some sort of resolution, but I would certainly be interested to read more of your thoughts. Thanks again.
    Patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings...Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you a king

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    Sniffles
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    No problem, I always wish to encourage thought in others.

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    Boring old fossil Night's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Peguy View Post
    The feudal system arose for various reasons, namely the collaspe of centralized power in wake of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. It was a very gradual development as well, and arose from various sources: Greeco-Roman law, Germanic tribal custom, and Christian theology.

    This parallels to the situation with Bushido in Fedual Japan. Yes, properly, it applied only to the elite Samurai. But again each class, with its own military traditions, had its own variation of the concept. I know this to be especially true of the merchant class, although I forget off-hand what their version was called.

    And no need to apologise. It's not irrelevant.
    You have a great understanding of Feudalism's footprints, Peguy.

    How familiar are you with other Eastern influences that helped to season its creation/legislative expression? Specifically, I refer to Mughal / Chinese dynasty market dynamics.

    An enormously broad subject range. Yet, an economic history that richly influenced later mentalities in Feudalism (class hierarchy; nobility; ethics -- event present market policy).

    Thoughts?

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