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Honor: A History Hardcover – April 25, 2006
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Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake.
- Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 4
Shakespeare's words regarding the nature of honor are a common refrain in James Bowman's work, and it was an understanding of the same that motivated me to read this monograph. I had hoped to take away an understanding of why something so insubstantial as honor was so prized throughout history over more tangible things, including money, land and even life itself. "Honor: A History" answered this question well in excess of my expectations, and I am pleased to say that one can expect to take away much more than a simple answer to a simple query.
I had, in fact, asked my question largely upon false premises, as my understanding of honor was a postmodern and watered-down appreciation. Fortunately, in the first section of the book, Mr. Bowman defines honor, at its simplest, to be thought of well amongst one's peers. In its most primitive form, honor means that a slight will not go unchallenged. However, as cultures do vary, the notions of honor are not static across all societies, and the notion of "cultural honor" is explored in depth, with particular focus on how Christianity shaped the cultural honor of the West.
The next section keeps its focus on the West and explores the decline and fall of Western cultural honor. The beginning of the end of Western honor is placed in 1914, at the beginning of the Great War, and the decline reaches its terminus at 1975, with the end of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War. Three central causes, namely, modernized warfare, psychotherapy and feminism, which Mr.Read more ›
Personally, I would describe "assertiveness" as a defining element of being a male, common to almost all species and expressed in violence and sexual adventurism. Male behavior also has an unfortunate bully mentality, a tendency to subordinate itself to superior force and assert one's power over lesser beings. Manliness, to my mind, is the concept which regulates such behavior and directs it into socially useful channels, and encourages one to defend one's concept of Right against overwhelming odds. A bar fight is male behavior, the Normandy invasion was manly behavior.
Mr. Bowman would consider my concept of "manliness" to be a peculiarly Western and archaic version of honor. It is hard to compare the two books: Dr. Mansfield's book is a work of philosophy, while Mr. Bowman's book is a history of a social concept (and also an enthralling cultural history of the twentieth century, as viewed through the prism of that concept).
Mr. Bowman's book, however, is by far the more important of the two. First, because, by definition, "assertiveness" doesn't need anyone to defend it. It is still the most important quality to have to succeed in business, and, increasingly, in other professions. Even its avowed enemies fall prey to it, as witness Gloria Steinem's pathetic memoir of the short period of time when she was the main squeeze of an alpha male. Honor, on the other hand, has no defenders.Read more ›
Bowman points out that there are still honor cultures in America, such as in some ethnic groups and in the military. His own accounts of his later guilt from avoiding service in Vietnam are especially poignant now. Iraq has resurrected the ghost of Vietnam, both for those who served, and those who did not.
I really appreciated the way the author disentangled the concept of honor from Islam. Many of those strictures we find harshest in Islamic society actually predate Islam. However, as Bowman points out, Muslim countries do not have a history of divorcing their culture from their religion.
The reasons for this are simple. Jesus stood against much of the honor code of the Middle East. "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword," and "Turn the other cheek," were invitations to step off the honor-driven cycle of persecution returned with persecution, and violence returned with violence. We Christians have largely not lived up to these ideals, but they have influenced the history of Western law and our political philosophy nonetheless. There is a built-in distrust of honor for honor's sake in our society. Part of this is due to disillusionment with past wars, and part is due to our Christian philosophical heritage.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Good review of the history of the idea of honor in the West.Published 4 months ago by Captain Barnacle
Bush (1 and 2), Cheney, Rumsfeld, the Clintons, and on and on. Dishonorable behavior gives persons like these an edge and this is what matters in an oligarchy.Published 8 months ago by Lara
Suggests that honor is dead and that the world is governed by interest alone. The turning point is supposed to have been the First World War. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Swordsman
As West Pointers, we all pretty much think we know about Honor. After all, "honor" is part of the Cadet motto and there is an entire Honor System established at West Point that is... Read morePublished on August 15, 2013 by Michael F. Cochrane
I am always delighted to read learned analysis cyrstalizing subtleties of which I had been unaware or which I had not previously encountered with such clarity. Read morePublished on June 12, 2013 by Richard Hench
This author clearly has more in common with the belief systems that we, living in a democracy, would view as not simply outdated but irrational. Read morePublished on January 24, 2013 by Palmer
Honor: A History is an important book on the topic that, even outside of its own political context, provides insight into the history and present state of Western honor, as well as... Read morePublished on November 6, 2010 by Jack Donovan
I was intrigued when I first saw this book. The premise -- that the Western, Christian-influenced idea of honor is radically different from the idea of honor held by "traditional... Read morePublished on November 12, 2009 by ReaderWriterEditor