What is honor? The problem is that in the present Western world nobody seems to know. According to writer and scholar James Bowman, the concept of honor has been subject to a "change in meaning," up to a point where the word has undergone a "virtual disappearance from the working vocabularies of English and other European languages." As a result, we are living in what Mr. Bowman calls "a post-honor society," one in which we lack "an honor culture" - that is, we have no "society-wide" notion of honor against which the honorability of a given person can be measured and which we as a collective group can be united under ensuring the distinctiveness of our own culture.
Speaking with an assurance signaling a sense of honorability, Mr. Bowman explains that with his new book, "Honor: A History," he seeks to show how over the 20th century honor has been largely "discredited" to the point where the "word doesn't seem to exist anymore." The book, however, is far more ambitious than simply that, for he attempts to document a history of honor in the West, identifying a constant tension between honor and other ideals, and contrasting the Western development of honor with that of the Islamic world. In that world, the notion of honor "has been the same as always," and Mr. Bowman suggests that it is in this difference that the present conflict between the West and Islam can be found.
So what was honor? In its most primitive sense, what Mr. Bowman labels "reflexive honor," it was that instinctive desire "not to lose face." If someone hit me, I would hit him back, and in doing so I would have been defending my honor. This natural sense of honor undeniably still exists whether it can be articulated or not: Just think of a child in a playground scuffle. Mr. Bowman also concedes that to some extent this form of honor still exists in more developed forms, in "honor groups," like the "family or the military," where we do have a "code" of honor which creates a "mini-honor culture."
Mr. Bowman suggests, however, that ever since the appearance of Christianity there has always been a tension in society between the religion's ideals and that notion of honor. Christ's focus on "loving your enemy" and his rejection of the adage "an eye for an eye" is distinctly at odds with the primitive sense of honor, and further, the religion's focus on "individuality in morality" implicitly "challenges" the collective sense of honor within a society. Nevertheless, the two managed to "exist side by side" but with Christianity constantly "undermining the honor culture."
It was not until the post-Enlightenment period, around the 18th century, when a newfound confidence in man's rational capacity had shed skepticism upon the mysticism within religion. Coupled with the "democratization" within Western governments, the "American Revolution for example," and the "romantic movement" pioneered by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, an honor culture began to manifest itself most comprehensively in a principle of "honor by merit." These ideals seemingly "detached honor from the aristocracy," anticipating the honor culture of the Victorian age. In this age, we find the development of the honorable "Victorian gentleman," the "independent man ... who owed allegiance to a universal and ethical standard." He was a "chivalrous" man who assuredly stood up for his principles. In this man the West had found it's most developed "honor code," providing the foundations for the "nation-as-honor-group."
So what happened to this "society-wide honor culture" in the West? Mr. Bowman locates the "collapse of the Western honor culture" in the post-World War I period. The invocation of honor "to justify the slaughter" of the war led to honor being derided: How could that many deaths be justified by honor? In addition, ideological changes in society over the period between the war and the 1970s "contributed to honor's decline." Mr. Bowman suggests that the ideals expressed in "feminism, psychotherapy and consumerism" have all largely "discredited" the Victorian gentleman, making him appear outdated.
Indeed, over the last 30 years, the old notion of honor has even become "shameful." The influence of the "media and celebrity culture" has reversed that notion to almost the "complete opposite" of what it once meant. Displays of "weakness," such as "admittance of doubt and outpourings of emotion" have now become far more honorable, especially in the public arena. It is unthinkable, Mr. Bowman suggests, that any leader today would cite the old notion of honor as a reason to go to war, yet at the same time it is always "beneath the surface in any war." Such is the case in the current War on Terror, where despite the "guise of Weapons of Mass Destruction, etc," there is still a basic "residual sense of national honor (of the old kind)" lying behind "America's decision to go to war in Iraq. "The problem is that it cannot be "acknowledged as such."
So why is all this important? The answer is in the fact that there has been no such shift in the meaning of honor in "other parts of the world, particularly in the Islamic world." There, the old ideal that of assuredness and standing up for one's principles, is still very much prevalent. What is more, Mr. Bowman argues, the Islamic world feels that their honor culture is coming under threat from Western "modernity and liberality," and as such, it is an important "motivator of terrorism." The fight, for the Islamic world, is a "fight against the disappearance of their honor culture."
Mr. Bowman admits "pessimism" with regard to the West ever regaining that sense of cultural honor that was present in the Victorian age. He stresses that the new ideologies are so imbedded in the culture that it will be "hard" to ever have that same honor culture. Yet he does suggest it would be "good" if a "different honor culture" could be found, one which "takes account" of these new ideals, as it would provide us with a sense of "collective identity" which we can stand for, rather than the "ambiguous" ideal that we possess with uncertainty.
But he modestly concedes that he has "no idea" of what it would be like. In that admission, Mr. Bowman displays the Western problem. His study is innovative and assured, almost reflecting the ethos of the "Victorian gentleman," yet any attempt to elicit something more than an interesting historical account possesses all the modest doubt found in our present culture. Which one is more honorable? It seems impossible to say.
Mr. Punn is a philosophy student at Kings College London.