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.