Skip to content

Speech: James Bowman on Honor

May 17, 2007

Excerpts from a talk given May 8, 2006 by James Bowman at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.:

Nowadays, hardly anyone even knows what honor means, or what it once meant.

Let me pause, then, to explain what I think it means. In a few words, it’s the good opinion of the people who matter to us. The people who matter to us are what I call the “honor group.” You will have noticed right away how honor differs from morality. The principles of morality are universally true, in all times and places. But what is honorable will depend to some extent on the composition of the honor group. Looking good in their eyes thus becomes for the individual, a greater cause than himself, even than saving his own life. Hence the expression, Death before dishonor! The dominant honor group in European countries used to be socially and economically determined and largely confined to a hereditary aristocracy, but honor underwent a revolution in the 18th century. Suddenly the honor group expanded enormously, and America led the way. In fact, the American revolution was more revolutionary in this way than in any other. George Washington and the other founding fathers taught the world that all men, and not just a hereditary élite, could aspire to honor. And their lesson was echoed by the European romantics, especially Sir Walter Scott and the popular novelists who came after him.

That synthesis of progressive political ideas and traditional honor reached its apogee under the Victorians with the idea of the Christian gentleman, but it is now all but gone. You may regard this as a good thing or a bad thing. Nowadays, even many conservatives are likely to think it a good thing. But it is important to recognize that there are large parts of the world in which the native honor culture has remained untouched by those social forces which have brought down our own. Among these are the parts of the world where America’s and the West’s Islamicist enemies come from, so it is helpful in understanding them, and therefore in understanding the conflict in which we are engaged, if we try for a moment to recapture what it is like to live in an honor culture.


There were several reasons why the Islamic honor culture out of which the terrorists spring is so different from ours, but I believe the main one to have been the influence of Christianity itself. There was no inherent conflict between Islam, or others of the world’s major religions, and the primitive honor culture that goes back as far as we have records — and probably a lot further. So the honor culture in Islamic lands has remained primitive. Only in Christendom, to give it its old name, did the dominant religion challenge and even oppose the honor culture which existed alongside it. When Jesus told his followers to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” He was speaking directly against the honor culture which had always demanded, as He pointed out, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” It took centuries for it to happen, but the pressure of that contradiction eventually but radically changed the Western honor culture, producing among other things codes of chivalry and fair play and gentlemanliness that seemed, and still seem, outlandish to the rest of the world.

As a result, we found ourselves getting out of touch with ideas of honor even before our own honor culture started to go to pieces at the time of the First World War, when honor was blamed for causing what was, up until that time, the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. And as if that weren’t enough, two other immensely influential forces were at work at the same time — also, partly on account of the war — that further weakened the honor culture. One was feminism and the other was psychotherapy. Traditional honor had always distinguished between men’s and women’s honor, and that hadn’t changed even after the democratization and updating of the old, aristocratic honor culture by progressive-minded Romantics and Victorians during the previous century. In fact, there were still clinging to the updated Victorian honor culture remnants of the pre-modern view that a woman’s honor — by which was meant her chastity — was the property of her husband or father rather than herself. Traditional honor could hardly have survived the notion of women’s equality. Meanwhile, psychotherapy was in the process of reversing the honor culture’s traditional subordination of the individual to the group. By elevating the individual to the social and moral supremacy he has since enjoyed, this likewise undermined honor’s foundations.

That was how the old honor culture had got so banged up by the time we got to it, we who were and who remain our own cause. When it fell apart, pieces of it remained — local honor cultures that survived here and there. The biggest piece was the military honor culture without which our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines simply could not fight. Smaller, weaker honor cultures are still found wherever people are engaged in a corporate enterprise. We all still care what our family, our friends and our co-workers and professional colleagues think about us, and to that extent these are all honor groups. The nation remains an honor group to the extent that patriotism still exists, but patriotism now is usually thought of rather as a feeling than an obligation, rather as a warm glow in our hearts than a call to action. It demands nothing of us, except that we obey the law. The shared honor culture that used to belong to everybody and that taught us not just to love our country but also how to love it and why it was lovable is largely gone.

Complete talk here.

See also:
James Honor
Encounter Books: Honor: A History
Townhall: Honor defined: the reflexive and the cultural (an excerpt from Honor: A History)

Catholic Encyclopedia: Honour

Among the goods which are external to man honour holds the first place, above wealth and power. It is that which we especially give to God, it is the highest reward which we can bestow on virtue, and it is what men naturally prize the most. The Apostle bids us give honour to whom honour is due, and so, to withhold it or to show dishonour to whom honour is due is a sin against justice, and entails the obligation of making suitable restitution. If we have simply neglected our duty in this respect, we must make amends by more assiduously cultivating the person injured by our neglect. If we have been guilty of offering a public insult to another, we must offer an equally public satisfaction; if the insult was private, we must make the suitable reparation in private, so that the person injured should be reasonably satisfied. Those who are placed in authority in Church or State, and have the bestowal of public honours, are bound by the special virtue of distributive justice to bestow honours according to merit. If they fail in this duty, they are guilty of the special sin of acceptation of persons. The public good of the Church specially requires that those who are more worthy should be promoted to such high dignities as the cardinalate or episcopate, and for the same reason there is a grave obligation to promote the more worthy rather than the less worthy to ecclesiastical benefices that have the cure of souls annexed to them.


If the high-minded man of Aristotle appeared today in any decent society, he would soon be given to understand that he took himself a great deal too seriously, and he would be quizzed unmercifully until he abated something of his pretensions. It is, indeed, a consummate picture of a noble pride which the pagan philosopher paints for us, and Christianity teaches us that all pride is a lie. Human nature, even at its best and noblest, is, after all, a poor thing, and even vile, as Christian asceticism tells us. Was, then, Aristotle simply wrong in his doctrine concerning magnanimity? By no means. St. Thomas accepts his teaching concerning this virtue, but, to prevent it becoming pride, he tempers it with the doctrine of Christian humility. Christian doctrine joins all that is true and noble ln Aristotle’s description of magnanimity with what revelation and experience alike teach us concerning human frailty and sinfulness. The result is the sweetness, the truth, and use strength of the highest Christian character. Instead of a self-satisfied Aristides or Pericles, we have a St. Paul, a St. Francis of Assisi, or a St. Francis Xavier. The great Christian saint is penetrated with a sense of his own weakness and unworthiness apart from God’s grace. This prevents him thinking himself worthy of anything except punishment on account of his sins and unfaithfulness to grace. He never despises his neighbour, but esteems all men more than he does himself. If left to himself, he prefers, with St. Peter of Alcantara, to be despised of men and to suffer for Christ. But if the glory of God and the good of his fellow-men require it, the Christian saint is prepared to abandon his obscurity. He knows that he can do all things in Him Who strengthens him. With incredible energy, constancy, and utter forgetfulness of self, he works wonders without apparent means. If honours are bestowed on him he knows how to accept them and refer them to God if it be for His service. Otherwise he despises them as he does riches, and prefers to be poor and despised with Him Who was meek and humble of heart.

In opposition to the pagan doctrine of Aristotle and the selfish worldliness of the Pharisees, the Christian attitude towards honours may be stated in a few words. Honour, being the due homage paid to worth is the chief among the external goods which man can enjoy. It may be lawfully sought for, but inasmuch as all worth is from God, and man of himself has nothing but sin, it must be referred to God and sought only for His sake or for the good of one’s fellow-men. Honours, like riches, are dangerous gifts, and it is praiseworthy to renounce them out of love for Him who for our sakes was poor and despised.


From → Books, Speeches

One Comment
  1. Excellent post!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: