July 24, 2006

Interesting NR Review...

...of James Bowman's Honor: A History:
Honor isn’t like statutory law; it belongs more to the realm of the felt and assumed than to that of the thought and legislated. At its most elemental, Bowman writes, honor is simply “the good opinion of the people who matter to us,” and without it the society of others, from neighborhoods to nation-states, isn’t possible. Whatever action earns that regard sows the seeds of honor; whatever offends that regard calls down scorn. Honor embraces the idea of saving face; it’s not just about what we are but about what we show the world. A hermit may be able to achieve sanctity, but that he might wish to gain honor is, to say the least, absurd. He hasn’t a need for it. Honor requires approval. It needs an audience.

A few points will surprise some readers, particularly Bowman’s nicely accurate account of the historical bias of Christianity against secular notions of honor in the West. Talk about clashing codes: Turning the other cheek or loving others as oneself has little to do with slyly saving face or violently getting back at an enemy for the sake of one’s honor. But as the centuries passed, the rough edges of those sensibilities were worn down until the 18th and 19th centuries, when both were fused so beautifully that the cultural ideal of the honorable Christian gentleman — the Victorian accommodation — emerged and has not been surpassed for sweetness and strength to this day.

Perhaps it couldn’t last. Too many forces have conspired against it and one morning the sun had to rise on us and our contemporary moment. The new enemies of honor are, predictably, manifold. The spirit of democracy is one; if all people are to be considered the same in worth, the premium placed on distinction of any kind becomes less attractive and more expensive. Another is the multicultural attitude, which posits conflicting ideas about what constitutes honor; codes of honor within a community are strained without consensus. The therapeutic elevation of victimhood corrodes external standards and excuses dereliction. Then we have those odorous, overlapping forms of idealism and pacifism — abetted relentlessly by the media and miseducation in the schools — that usually assume vastly different views of human nature itself. These enemies Bowman profiles with subtlety and acuity while also suggesting a few ways to combat them.

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