Curmudgeonalia
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November 29, 2009

Honor, a History

James Bowman - ISBN - 978159401984

This is an elegant discussion of honor from the inception of civilization to the dawn of 20th century. From the outset, in virtually all cultures throughout the world, honor has been inseparable from the story of civilization. But it has now disappeared in the West.

The book is a bold and soul-searching. It is a serious indictment of progressivism in which self-esteem--awarded free, as a birthright--has been substituted with disastrous results for honor. Loyalty, honor and patriotism are being severely compromised by the left, and proving fatal to that which we used to hold dear. The deficit is destroying our civilization.

The appeal of the code of honor is precisely that it isn't about morality. Public business is not conducted by saints. A boundary must separate public from private life. The removal of honor results in merging of these spheres.

Instead we have a culture of celebrity. Those wishing to be "stars" are required to join in the "feelings derby," if only to reassure that they have no ambitions to the "greatness" associated with honor (in which culture celebrity is dishonorable.) Worse, absent an honor culture generations are now taught to be ashamed of whom they are. The self-hatred is consuming. It has not been long since the dawn of the era of myriad millionaire celebrities: news anchors, professional athletes, movie stars and businessmen; a culture in which there is no honor, only profit . . . that and being politically correct, multicultural and all that folderol.

"You could say that the most important survival of honor in the West--that by which we separate our intellectual, moral and social elites from the rest--lies in this sense of exclusivity on the part of the enlightened and progressive-minded honor group who regard themselves as being above the demands of honor."

Discussion follows the history of war, and many of his chapters discuss the implications of honor in that effort. Conceptually it is stark: fight or run; hero or coward; honor or dishonor. In this and other permutations, the concept is at odds with the spirit of our therapeutic age of analytical non-"judgmentalism." We are now "charmed" by nuance, irony and ambiguity.

At the time of WW I psychology wasn't established. There was no pernicious jargon to cloud simple issues. "Right was right and wrong was wrong and the Ten Commandments were an admirable guide. . . . Frugality, austerity and self-control were perfectly acceptable. We believed in honor, patriotism, self-sacrifice and duty and we clearly understood what was meant by a 'gentleman.'" (Whereas we now hear terrorists being referred to as gentlemen.)

Thereafter we initiated a process which, by century's end had made the "heroic sufferer" the only recognized form of hero, and the policy of appeasement in the 1930s came to accept war as avoidable simply by a refusal to fight.

Honor, word and concept, are arcane today except in situations where meaning is essentially stripped from the recitation (duty-honor-country; on my honor I will do my best.) Honor has become a dirty word. Those who lead us, informed by Wilsonian idealists and their radical successors, have come to regard all fighting--even fighting back--as deplorable and shameful. "There's a better way."

Yet the only rational response to war is war. The alternative simply encourages the adversary. A great many intelligent people believe that by behaving in a friendly and accommodating way we will show our attackers that they have nothing to fear from us. That such conduct is taken by a ruthless enemy as a sign of weakness is as foreign to progressives as is the idea of honor itself.

"The long view of human history suggests that our choice is eventually going to be not between the liberal, unisex, pacifistic society of the feminist ideal and some throwback to caveman honor, but between some throwback to caveman honor and some more civilized variant of the long-dormant Western variety. . . . The honor-crazed Muslim fanatics who are blowing up women and children along with themselves are . . . equally stark in the alternative they pose to Western ways. Unless those ways include and are understood by all to include, honorable ways of making war on that alternative, the alternative must triumph." (Please re-read this quotation again, carefully.)

Our culture has its own distinctive, idiosyncratic history. Western concepts of honor have always differed from the rest. Being informed by Judeo-Christian philosophy, it emphasizes individual morality, sincerity and authenticity in private as well as personal life. He frames the historic background which a proper understanding of the Clash of Civilizations requires.

It is a difficult book to review. It is of a piece from the front to the back cover, betwixt which are 324 pages (excluding end notes) of information and carefully reasoned explanations. It is a ponderous read, not because of inelegant prose, but because the data is so comprehensive and the analysis so tight that study and rumination are required, page by page. In the end, however, there is little more to be said. He adroitly makes his case, which is a damning one for the cultural trends of the West.

The book should be read by all. Weighty and demanding it is, but very much worth the time and challenge.

Posted by Curmudgeon at November 29, 2009 1:09 PM