Introduction: The Two Kinds of Honor


From the earliest records of human civilization until the dawn of the twentieth century, and in widely separated cultures throughout the world, the story of honor was inseparable from the story of mankind. Today, an acquaintance with the concept of honor is indispensable to understanding the culture of the Islamic world and its sense of grievance against the West, where honor has been disregarded or actively despised for three-quarters of a century.

Introduction: The Two Kinds of Honor

One afternoon in Wyoming not long ago, I was sitting outside under a sunny sky after a day of skiing. Some small children were playing nearby. They were having a good-natured snowball fight which ended, as snowball fights often do, when the littlest child burst into tears. Soon his father came to rescue him. I couldn’t hear the rest of what this man said but, as he passed me carrying the child, I heard him whisper: “You can’t expect, when you get somebody, that they won’t get you back.” It struck me as a neat summing up of one of the earliest lessons we all learn — so early that most of us have no memory of a time when we have not known it — which is also the basis of what used to be called “honor.” We seldom call it that anymore for reasons that this book will attempt to explain, but for now it’s enough to remember that you can’t expect, when you get somebody, that they won’t get you back. People will stand up for themselves. When you hit them, they’ll hit back. It’s pretty much universal, yet it’s not really instinctive or biological. It’s behavior that has to be learned, just as that child was learning it.

Anyone who has spent time with children knows the hopelessness of the counsel not to “hit back.” The sense of justice at its most basic — a blow for a blow — is, if not biologically “hard-wired” into us, at least so natural as to be as much a given of the human condition as if it were. Moreover, our sense of the public nature of its demands is equally universal. The youngest children know without having the concept explained to them what it means to lose face, to be contemptible in the eyes of their coevals, and will risk almost any displeasure or punishment from the adults in authority over them, rather than submit to such humiliation. This is honor at its most basic. And so deep-seated is the response that it’s almost impossible to imagine its replacement by some more benign principle of social interaction, either for individuals or for nations. In spite of the worthy efforts of our educators in “conflict avoidance” and “peace studies,” the ideal of a peaceful society built on such utopian models has proved to be as elusive as ever.

It would almost seem as if that most basic form of honor, that foundational social reflex to let others know one is not to be trifled with is something that we must live with. Yet such a thought has become, over the last two or three generations, almost literally unthinkable. Ever since “the war to end wars,”1 in 1914-1918, the utopian and pathological explanation of human conflict — that it has diagnosable causes in some personal, social or political illness and will end with the removal of those causes and thus the cure of that illness — has been taken for granted not only by the most progressive thinkers but increasingly by ordinary people. Some people engaged in “peace studies” have even invented a word, “bellicist,” to describe those who still believe in this reflexive, hitting-back kind of honor as it applies to nations.2 Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not any such ideology as “bellicism” actually exists, apart from the reality of actual warfare, we can see that the coinage is meant to imply that pacifism is always a real alternative. If wars are the product of “bellicist” assumptions, then not-war will be the product of pacifist assumptions. It is utopian logic which has been with us for a very long time now, and even those who do not consider themselves pacifists have been taught to think of peace as the natural condition of mankind3 just as health is the natural condition of the body. War, on this view, is an aberration whose causes are always knowable and avoidable by sufficiently perspicacious statecraft. Of course there has never been a time when there have not been wars or preparations for war, but politicians of both left and right in America and elsewhere in the West have at least been forced to act as if they believed in the utopian view — which means that any wars they may choose to fight will have to be gone into more or less hypocritically.

On the left, failure to avoid conflict is taken as ipso facto evidence of political and diplomatic failure. On the right, as the war in Iraq has taught us, even the most conservative presidents, even when they are faced with an attack on their own country, must seek for immediate, obvious and prophylactic reasons to justify any resort to arms. When America and its allies went to war in Iraq, it never seems to have occurred to anybody, conservative or liberal, pro-war or anti-war, that such a move could be, let alone should be, justified in terms of national honor. To that primitive way of thinking, if anyone had admitted to engaging in it, it would have been necessary to do something to show the Arab enemies of America and the West that they couldn’t expect, when they got us, we wouldn’t get them — and anyone even remotely connected with them — back. Indeed, the more remote the better. Those who complained that the Iraq war did nothing to punish al-Qaeda for the September 11 th attacks on the US were missing the point, as those schooled in old ideas of honor would have seen it. Precisely because Saddam Hussein’s connections with al-Qaeda were as tenuous as they were, it would have made sense to those in primitive honor cultures to make an example of him, and so warn others who might be vulnerable to American arms and who were tempted to support terrorists even slightly and secretly that they shouldn’t even think about it.

Honor defined: the reflexive and the cultural

At its simplest, honor is the good opinion of the people who matter to us, and who matter because we regard them as a society of equals who have the power to judge our behavior. This is what Professor Derek Brewer has called the honor group.4 Obviously, this definition includes an important variable term, since the people who matter are different for every individual. Honor groups form naturally around any corporate enterprise but especially those — like the armed services, police forces, fire brigades and sports teams — that are male-dominated. In such an environment, loyalty to the corporate entity, and a willingness to subordinate one’s individual inclinations to the greater good, will naturally be regarded as honorable; disloyalty and selfishness will be correspondingly dishonorable. Families are natural honor groups as well, the first with which we are all associated and one which may overlap with others that we join later in life. By their nature, these group loyalties will sometimes conflict with loyalties to a wider community and to absolute principles, which is why it is useful to distinguish between honor and ethics. It is sometimes necessary to put loyalty to principle ahead of loyalty to the group, but even the highest principled whistleblower or informer is likely to find himself regarded as a “rat” and a traitor by the conflicting standards of honor.

Moreover, in spite of the discrediting honor has undergone, the basic honor of the savage — bravery for men, chastity for women — is still recognizable beneath the surfaces of the popular culture which has done so much to efface it. If you doubt it try calling a man a wimp or a woman a slut.

Two developments of 19 th century in Europe and America have contributed to the obscuring of this essentially local quality of honor. One was the rise of the modern nation state. Patriotism in its modern sense depended on an idea of the whole nation as a single honor group. The second development, discussed in Part I below, was the modernization of traditional honor and its removal from the exclusive province of an aristocratic élite. This development began in the 18 th century and attempted to fuse honor and ethics. The Victorian idea of the “Christian Gentleman” — a man of honor yet one who owed allegiance to a universal and ethical and not just a local and honorable standard — was a new thing in the world of honor, but too delicate a hybrid, as it now seems, long to outlast its times. Almost the only relics of him now remaining are the “honor systems” or “honor codes” you still find on some university campuses which, for all their other successes, have never been quite successful in persuading young people that it is honorable to inform on their fellow-students who have committed infractions. The nation-as-honor-group was a hardier growth, but it, too, came under a great deal of pressure in the aftermath of the First World War, when honor resumed some of its previous disreputability although in a different way. Previously, the law and the church had looked askance at such honor-related phenomena as dueling. But in the 1920s and 1930s honor itself, even in the form of patriotism, fell into a very considerable disrepute. This is discussed further in Part II.

To some extent it is also true that the deeds and qualities that earn the good opinions of each honor group will vary with its composition. Honor among thieves will differ substantively from honor among policemen. Yet if honor, unlike morality, is by its very nature relative to a particular social context, it does not seem to be the case that it varies randomly from group to group. Some groups at some times may value some qualities more than others, but at its most basic that to which we pay honor — or, to use the synonym in more common use today, respect — is remarkably consistent. Moreover, in spite of the discrediting honor has undergone, the basic honor of the savage — bravery for men, chastity for women — is still recognizable beneath the surfaces of the popular culture which has done so much to efface it. If you doubt it try calling a man a wimp or a woman a slut. These are still fighting words, though less likely to accrue mortal consequences than in the days when they or their equivalents would have required men to shoot at each other. Nor do they work the other way round — any more than they did in the 18 th century when Bernard Mandeville observed that the sense of honor is “very whimsical, and the Difference in the Signification so prodigious, according as the Attribute was either applied to a Man, or to a Woman, that neither shall forfeit their Honour, tho’ each should be guilty, and openly boast of what be the other’s greatest Shame,” since “Gallantry with Women, is no Discredit to the Men, any more than Want of Courage is a Reproach to the Ladies”5 People may have learned to pay less honor to the miles gloriosis and more to the gentle non-combatant, less to the virgin and more to the sexual adventuress, but as yet they haven’t quite forgotten the honor and shame of their great-grandparents. Even the women of “Sex and the City” worry themselves over the question: “Are we sluts?” What we are to make of such curious survivals is discussed in Part III.

The honor of the savage, like that of the snowball victim mentioned above, is what I shall call reflexive honor, which is familiar to all of us, even if we have no words in which to express it and even if we are ashamed of it. So far as we can tell it is nearly inseparable from the human condition, and it is certainly engaged wherever there is fighting, which is nearly everywhere. But it must be distinguished from cultural honor — like that of the Victorian gentleman, for example — which comprises the traditions, stories and habits of thought of a particular society about (among other things) the proper and improper uses of violence. In fact, it is because of the decline of cultural honor in the West that the word “violence” itself has come into currency with a new and generic sense. Originally it referred only to criminal violence, as its relation to “violate” reminds us. But its modern sense makes it difficult if not impossible for us any longer to express the distinction, so central to cultural honor, between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust fighting.

Even conservatives today will disapprove of “violence” on television, as if the context of violence, whether it is justified or not in a particular situation, were unimportant. Obviously, if all violence is deplorable and shameful (even if not always or necessarily wrong), cultural honor must wither away, and that is precisely what we have seen in the West over the past 80 years or so. Nowadays anyone using the word will find it freighted with it a heavy load of Victorian associations — men in top hats fighting duels, for instance, and ladies in crinolines terrified of the imputation of unchastity — because Victorian honor, whose hitherto unprecedented achievement was the invention of the notion of the Christian gentleman, was the last real form of cultural honor to exist in the official culture of the West. Today cultural honor now survives only in a degraded form, in places where the official socializing process is weakest, as among urban gangs and the hip-hop culture with its high-profile “dises” and “beefs” that has grown up out of it and so introduced the popular culture to a kind of parody of old-style honor talk — though as usual without using the word “honor.”

Our stake in the Post-Honor Culture

Although the sort of idealism, pacifism and utopianism which has all but killed off cultural honor in the West goes back at least to the First World War and, especially, to the post-war reaction to its slaughter, the dominant cultural paradigm today was framed by the American experience of the Vietnam war which, particularly for the generation to which I belong, seemed to teach a lesson of the futility, waste and iniquity of war that proved to be easily transferrable to other conflicts — indeed, to all conflicts. That is where we get the recently revived and puzzlingly absolute slogan: “War is not the answer.” What? Never? Well, not if war is assumed, as war so often is assumed nowadays, always to be like Vietnam. Or rather Vietnam as it has been mythologized for us by the media and popular culture. My own interest in honor comes from a long working out of a conflict within myself about the Vietnam War which has persuaded me that there is more than one way to look at it — and that the way chosen by the cultural consensus of the last thirty years was so chosen precisely in order to further the century’s continuing project of discrediting and disgracing cultural honor. If today the armed forces are finding recruiting difficult among American teenagers, I think it has at least as much to do with this loss of cultural honor, in terms of which military service always confers status, as it does with the chance of being killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The story of that word’s virtual disappearance from the working vocabularies of English and other European languages belongs to the larger story of the discrediting and ultimate loss of cultural honor in the West.

Like many of those who were faced with the choice of serving in Vietnam or evading or resisting the draft I chose resistance.This also meant to me, as to others, actively opposing both the war effort and the U.S. government which had undertaken it. Although at the time I honestly considered this to be a highly principled and conscientious stand against what I, in common with a great many others, had taught myself to think an “immoral” war, I could not but be aware of changes in the culture which had encouraged me in that choice. For I knew very well, as all those in my position knew, that at least by 1970, avoiding service had become as honorable if not more honorable than service itself had been to the previous generation. Now honor was reserved for the draft-avoider and evader, shame for the dutiful draftee or volunteer soldier. As it happened, I myself did not have to make the hardest choices because, when I was called up for my physical examination, I was rejected for medical reasons. This came as a surprise. But I remember also being surprised, as others of my acquaintance were, that the doctors who informed us of our failure to be acceptable to the U.S. Army did so in such a way as to make it clear that they thought we would be mightily disappointed by our rejection.

To us such blindness and stupidity only added to the great joke of our escape. We had more or less bravely avoided becoming part of an immoral violence-delivery system and expected the congratulations not only of each other but, by then, of our parents as well, for doing so. And yet those military doctors’ innocence lodged in my mind as the emblem of a cultural divide that, relieved of the immediate anxiety of being sent into combat, I found myself increasingly curious about. Before long, I even began to feel the pull of a kind of nostalgic attachment to those old ideas of honor which I had formerly treated so contemptuously and which now made me suspect that my highly principled stand against the war was really just a case of having seen the chance to be safe which was afforded me by the recent cultural transformation and taken it. In the topsy-turvy world of 1970, however, this was the honorable choice — at least in terms of the most basic sense of honor, which is the good opinion of our peers. Instead of women handing out white feathers to civilian men as some actually seem to have done during the First World War, we saw them holding up signs saying “Girls say yes to boys who say no.” There was a nice symmetry about it, really.

At any rate, and without attempting to excuse myself for my weak-mindedness, I went on to feel betrayed by the subculture that had given me such a convenient way out of that fearsome test of manhood. I am not alone among the cohort of aging baby-boomers, I think, in bitterly regretting now that I never had the chance to take that test. Many others must have learned as I did the truth of Dr. Johnson’s maxim that “every man thinks meanly of himself for never having been a soldier, or never having been at sea.” The novelists Mark Helprin and Christopher Buckley, for example, both made well-publicized recantations of their Vietnam-era anti-war feelings and expressed regret that they had not served. David Gelernter writes of the most vehement of the recent anti-war protests: “I think I understand what motivates many soldier-hating boomers. They never served in the military, and soldiers make them feel guilty. I never served either, and I have felt that way myself.”6 Perhaps the most striking indication of a considerable underground reservoir of shame in respect of the failure by so many of the Vietnam-era test of manhood is to be found in the astonishing number of cases of those, like Professor Joseph Ellis, who have invented for themselves records of service in Vietnam which are wholly fictitious. There are literally hundreds of similar instances, many of them documented in the remarkable book Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of its Heroes and its History by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley.7 Such people, it seems evident to me, are haunted by the ghost of honor, as are we all to a greater or lesser extent.

Honor: A History

“What an engaging book James Bowman has written, and what a daunting command he has of his material. Ranging across psychology, popular culture, military history, the arts, and politics, Honor is a tapestry of the 20th century that uses a neglected thread-the evolution of the complicated bundle of values that goes into the concept of honor-to explain how our culture got where it is today. Honor gives that rarest of gifts: a new, powerful way of thinking about a familiar history”

— Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground

“James Bowman has written a profound and important book, at once fascinating and alarming, on the changing fortunes of the idea of ‘honor’ in America and the West. Faced with the energy and the implacable hatred of the barbaric version of honor in radical Islam, our long-term survival may well depend on the reinvention of a form of honor suitable to free and democratic societies.”

— Robert Bork, author of The Tempting of America

“You will gain a new insight on the first page of this book, and on the last, and there are fireworks all the way through, again and again. A real education, on a subtle topic — on a topic of unheard-of, silent, horizon-shifting importance, like the shifting of the earth deep below the surface.”

— Michael Novak, author of On Two Wings

This became clear in the presidential election campaign of 2004, in which one candidate seemed to run on little more than his record of honorable service in Vietnam and the other, thus made to look dishonorable by comparison, tried through proxies to discredit the honorable service of the first. This slightly hidden and encoded argument about honor as it related to a war that had ended thirty years before was not quite so bizarre as it might have seemed. Honor is, always has been and presumably always will be the standard by which we judge our public men and women — a form of judgment which, even in a non-“judgmental” age such as ours, it is scarcely possible to imagine being without. Honor in the extended sense of the good opinion of people in general, or of a particular group of people, is also something to which we all, or almost all, aspire. Yet we are also, more or less, the victims of a widely-shared illusion — which it is part of my purpose in this book to explain and unmask — that we are the beneficiaries of a form of cultural evolution which has finally left behind those old-fashoned, even primitive, notions of honor. Woodrow Wilson’s being, for a while, “too proud to fight” was an early precursor of the contemporary notion that striking back against those who have struck us is somehow “sinking to their level.”

This and similar formulations have been heard again in the debate over America’s response to the terrorist outrages of September 11 th, 2001, but the belief in moral progress which they betoken is not a false one either. Indeed, the “War on Terrorism,”8 though it has perhaps been undertaken more for reasons of an unacknowledged national honor than any other, is also a war for progress and enlightenment and liberal values in places where such things have hitherto scarcely existed. Wars are rarely if ever fought for moral principles. Even the Second World War was justified by them only retrospectively, since the worst evils of Naziism only came to light afterwards and even then took some time to sink in.9 Though it was a progressive result by any definition — and at the same time the definitive disproof of the progressive claim that “War is not the answer” or “Violence never solves anything” — the destruction of Naziism would never have come about without the willingness of the British, French, Russian or American people to respond to the insults to their honor represented by German or Japanese attacks on them or their allies. Like the father in Wyoming, all of them understood the imperative of reflexive honor — the determination that no one should expect, when they got them, they wouldn’t get them back — without (in most cases) ever mentioning the word “honor.”

The story of that word’s virtual disappearance from the working vocabularies of English and other European languages belongs to the larger story of the discrediting and ultimate loss of cultural honor in the West. It is told in the popular culture of the 20 th century, which has played such an important part in teaching the people of our times and in our parts of the world what to honor and what to despise. Of that popular culture, Parts II and III of this book are in some sense a history, and my primary sources there will include the novels, plays, films and television shows of the century just past as well as the evidence both of academic historians and of the popular media as to how people looked at the history of their own times. Neither there nor in Part I, where I lightly skip over the cultural artefacts of 3000 years in a few pages, can I do more than skim the surface of this enormous subject. I stress the indefinite article: this is a history of honor, not the history, but I hope its broad outline may serve as the framework for further investigations by those more learned than I and better equipped to fill in some of the many gaps I have left. In the final chapter, I raise the question of how far it is possible to think that there might be a revival of cultural honor in the century ahead. At the very least, I hope I may encourage others to make the same reappraisal I have felt it necessary to make to the whole idea of honor.


  1. The phrase, often associated with the name of Woodrow Wilson, seems to have been a slogan “in the air” at the time of the First World War. H.G. Wells, to whom it is sometimes credited, wrote at the beginning of his In The Fourth Year:Anticipations of a World Peace (1918) that: In the latter half of 1914 a few of us were writing that this war was a “War of Ideas.” A phrase, “The War to end War,” got into circulation, amidst much sceptical comment.

    It was a phrase powerful enough to sway many men, essentially pacifists, towards taking an active part in the war against German imperialism, but it was a phrase whose chief content was its aspiration. People were already writing in those early days of disarmament and of the abolition of the armament industry throughout the world; they realized fully the element of industrial belligerency behind the shining armour of imperialism, and they denounced the “Krupp-Kaiser” alliance. But against such writing and such thought we had to count, in those days, great and powerful realities. Even to those who expressed these ideas there lay visibly upon them the shadow of impracticability; they were very “advanced" ideas in 1914, very Utopian. Against them was an unbroken mass of mental habit and public tradition.

    Wells sees the idea as suddenly less impractical because of the great hopeful events of the Russian revolution and the American entry into the war, which will (he imagines) wrench it away from its “imperialist” origins. But the subsequent multiplication of political slogans whose chief content was their aspiration may prove to have been its more lasting legacy.

  2. The word has not yet made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, but there are many instances of it available to internet searchers. Here, for instance, is John Lewis Gaddis writing about George F. Kennan and “containment” in The New Republic [vol/no TK], April 25, 2005:

    Nor is it clear that containment would have worked against states whose leaders believed in, as Sir Michael Howard has put it, "the inevitability of, and the social necessity for, armed conflict in the development of mankind." Such views were common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a fact that helps to explain how so many great powers could have blundered so easily in 1914 into a Great War. But that global conflict, and the one that followed in 1939, profoundly shook "bellicist" assumptions; and the use of atomic bombs in 1945 shattered them.

  3. For the contrary or, I suppose, the anti-bellicist view, see Michael Howard, The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

  4. In a personal communication, Professor Brewer writes: “As to ‘the honour group’, many years ago Charles Barber who wrote a good but rather schematic early academic book on honour in Elizabethan drama said to me in commenting on my work that he wished he had thought of the idea of ‘the honour group’ as being a useful notion, and I think it must be mine. I don’t recall an obvious source, or indeed where I first used it.”

  5. Quoted by Mandeville himself from his Fable of the Bees in An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour and the Usefulness of Christianity in War, London, 1732, p. 54.

  6. “Soldiers Do Us the Honor” in The Los Angeles Times of April 15, 2005.

  7. (Dallas: Verity Press, 1998).

  8. Though there are legitimate objections to this characterization of American defense and security policy since September 11 th, 2001 — see, for instance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 2004), pp. 27-28 — it is, I believe, if not precise at least perfectly serviceable. For further discussion of this subject, see Chapter One, pp. TK below.

  9. See TK on the development of the idea of the Holocaust out of the first public awareness of German atrocities.


James Bowman. "Introduction: The Two Kinds of Honor." excerpted from Honor: A History (New York: Encounter Books, 2006), 1-11.

With permission from the publisher of Honor: A History, by James Bowman. All rights reserved. ISBN 1-59403-142-8. Order it here.

To read an interview with the author click here.


James Bowman is or has been: movie critic, The American Spectator (1990 to date); American editor, The Times Literary Supplement of London (1991 to date); media critic, The New Criterion (1993 to date); Washington correspondent, The Spectator of London (1989-1991); teacher of English and Head of General Studies, Portsmouth Grammar School, Portsmouth, England (1980-1989). Mr. Bowman received his M.A. and A.B.D. degrees from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, England. He is currently a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Visit his website here. Order Honor: A History here.

Copyright © 2006 Encounter Books

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