This review appears in the September issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.p> strong> Honor: A History br> by James Bowman br> (Encounter Books, 381 pages, $25.95) /strong> /p>
Nearly five years ago, on a clear Tuesday morning, the United States was attacked by men who claimed to “love death more than you love life,” a sentiment so alien to our ears that even now, no matter how many times we have heard it or variants of it repeated, we seem unable to grasp its implications. Only crazy people, we reason, think that anything could be more important than self-preservation.
Yet on that same day we were astonished by the deeds of other men who also set self-preservation aside, though they did so in the service of goals very different from the homicidal and suicidal ideology of the terrorists. These were the firemen of New York, who went into the smoldering World Trade Center towers with a good idea that they would not be coming back out. Three hundred and forty-three of them perished. Before embarking on their brave and sacred mission, some even asked for absolution from the department chaplain, who would himself be killed that day. If these men could speak to us, they would likely not say that they loved death more than they loved life, but rather that some things were worth risking and even losing one’s life for-rescuing people in danger, for example. They might also say that failing to do so would be dishonorable.
The firemen, like members of the military, exist within the remnants of what James Bowman calls Western honor culture, a code of conduct that evolved over many centuries before ebbing in the century just past to the point that we can barely recognize it anymore — except when someone does something so stunningly, obviously honorable that we are reawakened to the majesty of old-fashioned virtues like courage and sacrifice. Something like this recognition occurred in the early days after the September 11th attacks, but the glow inevitably faded. The culture soon reasserted itself, more comfortable celebrating victims than heroes, let alone targeting enemies.
Such a mentality leaves us ill equipped to understand the motives of those enemies, who conduct themselves according to a primitive code of honor that is nearly synonymous with murder. Not so long ago, the West valued honor just as highly, if differently. And to hear James Bowman tell it, our long-term survival may depend on a new birth of honor.
ANYONE WHO HAS READ Bowman’s film reviews (he is TAS’s film critic) knows that he specializes in identifying deep-seated cultural assumptions beneath the surface of even the most innocent-seeming popular fare. He can take apart a romantic comedy or a crime drama in a way that leaves the reader wondering about manners, history, the roles of men and women, and other subjects not normally on the marquee at multiplexes. Often, the assumptions he exposes have to do with the idea of honor.
In his new book, Honor: A History, he crafts an intricate scholarly argument that takes the decline of Western honor far beyond a phenomenon of changing manners into an underlying force of much of 20th-century history, as well as a crucial signpost on the road ahead. His sources range from military and political history to psychology and religion, from the pages of Sir Walter Scott to the latest barbarism uttered by Madonna. There is so much to digest here it is dizzying.
“As near a thing to a cultural constant as has ever existed,” he writes, honor is “the good opinion of the people who matter to us.” Where it applies to individuals, the term has always denoted courage for men and chastity for women, and it carried with it certain expectations: When a man was slandered or otherwise wronged, he had to strike back, lest he lose the good opinion of those he valued. Honor was about externals. It meant essentially one’s reputation, quite apart from whether that reputation was warranted.
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