James Bowman’s book illustrates the discrediting of the once essential concept of honor in western culture. He shows how the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply related and have brought American culture to its present state. Only a crisis as urgent as our confrontation with radical Islam could have resurrected this fascinating topic with its reassessment of our recent history. For me, it was a deeply disturbing read. Trained in theology and ethics I found myself a stranger in the great human traditions of honor and virtue.
Bowman insists it wasn’t always this way in the west. Everyone in King Arthur’s court acknowledged that Sir Lancelot was the King’s most skilled and valorous knight. Pledged in allegiance to the King, it was also generally known in Thomas Malory’s Chronicles, that Lancelot is the adulterous lover of Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. But what is known only privately by everyone in an honor culture, in some important public sense, does not even exist. For one to mention the illicit liaison is to oblige Lancelot, most noble of all knights, to respond, “Liar!” The charge of lying would oblige the accuser to challenge Lancelot in combat to the death — or himself be dishonored and “be given the lie” without a fight. Were this contest to go to trial, the venue in that culture was the field of combat. Since Lancelot is champion, and therefore most honorable, odds are that in the duel he proves his allegiance to the King.
Bowman uses this story to show the distinctly public nature of the truth in honor societies. Lancelot’s oath to the King remains intact since no one dares to challenge it. To us who value sincerity, not to say the courage of the whistleblower, the fact that Lancelot can defeat any knight who challenges him seems irrelevant. But in a culture where the skill of the knight is supreme, that is what trumps anyone’s mere private knowledge of one’s guilt.
A contemporary note: Saddam Hussein, with no WMD to hide, resisted the U.N. and NATO inspectors at the cost of the continuing of sanctions, of $100 billions more in oil revenue, and of his regime. Any explanation of Saddam’s behavior in our honor-free society sounds absurd. But the reason Saddam would not cooperate with the U.N. to save himself and his regime is that such statecraft would be perceived in Islamic culture as giving in to the West. Instead, every effort was given to ” … pretending to have the WMD in order to enhance his own prestige (read honor) among Arab nations.”
Misunderstanding Saddam is not the worst part. Western aversion to the use of power united Americans of all persuasions. The left would have cleansed any aggression in Iraq by a broader participation from free nations. The right chose to sanitize the war by a (the) righteous cause(s). Desperation for an ethically correct reason for invasion shows through Paul Wolfowitz’s reported comment that WMD was “the only issue we could all agree on.” For war there was simply no longer a credible vocabulary.
It is not that Americans have no sense of honor. We all remember the playgrounds in our past, our favorite teams, and Independence Day. Somewhere in the last century a majority of us became suspicious of power and authority. We were crusaders against aristocracies and hierarchies — against Jim Crowe, against colonialism, against the patriarchal church and family, and against officialdoms in general. In becoming champions of the “under person” we forfeit the language of honor and instead appeal to the ethics of our actions. But self-justification may turn out to be as cumbersome for us to bear as was honor.
Prospects are hardly good for a strong people, ambivalent about its power, confronting a weak people with a clear and passionate cause. Even less likely is any serious rollback of western progress to regain honor’s lost ground. Bowman finds a modest hope in an old model: The Victorian adaptation of chivalry (honor) to Christianity (egalitarian). If such can be our hope, leaders of popular culture and theologians face a monumental task.
Denny Walker is an honorably retired member of Donegal Presbytery living in Lancaster, Pa.