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Hogarth judge

December 2016

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Hogarth judge

Book review: "Honor: A History" by James Bowman

Reading this book is like shaking hands with Beelzebub. You will feel dirty and tainted after the experience. I'd recommend it only for people who are deeply cynical and can appreciate perverse experiences while recognizing them for what they are.

That said, there are parts of it that aren't bad, if taken with sufficient wariness, though the book is deeply flawed. It's mostly useful in a "know the enemy" sense, though.


The first and most obvious flaw is that it nowhere really defines its nominal subject.

In current anthropologies, "cultures of honor" are contrasted with "cultures of law." Honor, for this science, is a polity in which people have no recourse to an authoritative legal system; so the enforcement of custom is a matter of private vendetta. In this situation, security comes from securing a reputation for violent and disproportionate revenge. Cultures with this polity moreover tend to contract elaborate rules of etiquette, in an attempt to control the costs of perpetual feuding.

Bowman's "honor" owes a little to this sense. Bowman's honor also seems to compass the sort of male bonding that requires jockeying for position and hierarchy, of the sort typically found in gangs, prisons, and other male dominated environments. Here, young men can be motivated to acts of bravado by a desire not to lose face with their peers. In either situation, a single lapse indelibly stains the failure, and invites the surrounding society to treat the victim as a contemptible "wimp."

As Bowman notes, the ethos of Christianity is deeply hostile to either kind of "honor." Jesus' counsels to turn the other cheek and against anger, and His blessing of peacemakers, require an absolute rejection of the values of a culture of honor. We frankly need another word besides "honor" to describe this vengeful bravado and macho posturing. Let's face it, all "honor" is contemptible and uncivilized, and deserves mockery rather than reverence.

The interesting and useful part of the book relates how the vestiges of western European cultures of honor have been discredited in the years following World War I. To me, at any rate, this is a partial refutation of moral pessimism; in some ways, the behaviour of the human race has improved. Warfare is now conducted largely by machines; one effect of technological warfare has been to blunt the effectiveness of displays of physical prowess and hardihood by which individual combatants could burnish their reputations and win admiration from their peers.

The glory has leaked out of war. People of good will now rightly see war as a grisly waste of life, and the sort of manipulation that causes soldiers to seek "glory" through bravado enforced by artificial group cohesion as a testosterone-poisoned con game. Bowman seems to feel this is a bad thing. He is, of course, absolutely wrong. It is our duty as civilized people to speak with one voice and condemn any attempt to revive that sort of malarkey.

Bowman concludes with a political prescription that involves the reversal of political equality and feminism. Equality is bad because as an ideal, it is contrary to the kinds of boyish King of the Hill jockeying that cultures of honor encourage. Feminism is bad because women can't play this boys' game well enough, and if accorded political power may see through it. If there are important people who agree with Bowman in this country, that should be a wake-up call that our civilization is in danger from internal enemies.

Bowman's book also illuminates one problem I have had with the Bible's teachings on chastity. I'm too much a child of the age not to find this a stumbling block. I think, though, that the problem is not that I see promiscuity "harmless," but rather, that I see it as an improvement over chattel chastity, in which women's sexuality is considered the property of their mates or male kinsmen. Chattel chastity has nothing to do with seeing the sorrow at the heart of the world. Chattel chastity is ugly and animalistic and stirs violent human passions that are far more depraved than mere lust. It isn't that I approve of promiscuity; sexual "liberation" creates winners and losers just as "honor" does. It is, instead, that I suspect most of the public condemners of promiscuity of wishing to revive chattel chastity, and promiscuity is definitely the lesser of these two evils. I have fewer issues with Biblical teaching now that I see more clearly where the real problem lies.

Honor: A History

James Bowman

Encounter Books, 2006

ISBN: 1594031428

Comments

Thank you for that last paragraph. Most useful.