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The importance of honor is present in the earliest records of civilization. Today, while it may still be an essential concept in Islamic cultures, in the West, honor has been disparaged and dismissed as obsolete. In this lively and authoritative book, James Bowman traces the curious and fascinating history of this ideal, from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment and to the killing fields of World War I and the despair of Vietnam. Bowman reminds us that the fate of honor and the fate of morality and even manners are deeply interrelated.
Posted August 14, 2006
James Bowman narrates with panache the history of honor. Bowman makes a distinction between what he calls the reflexive honor and the cultural honor. The reflexive honor is all about not losing face. Think for instance about a child involved in a snowball fight who will have to hit back to avoid a public humiliation. The reflexive honor prospers around the world to this day because it reflects an enduring trait of the human condition. The cultural honor is made up of the traditions, stories, and habits of thought of a particular society about among other things the proper and improper use of violence. In contrast to the reflexive honor, the cultural honor fell in disrepute in the West after the slaughter of WWI. Pacifism, feminism, and psychotherapy have each played an important role in downgrading the western cultural honor in the last eighty years. Despite this public demotion, cultural honor is still alive in the background. Honor has been built in the DNA of the U.S. armed forces since the birth of the country. Some university campuses still feel very strongly about the enforcement of honor systems and honor codes. Similarly, criminal gangs need honor for their survival and prosperity. The current war on terrorism can be construed as a legitimate reaction to an honor sullied on 9/11. More generally, respect, self-esteem, pride, and credibility, which are cherished concepts in the U.S. society, could be considered the current heirs to the derided honor culture in the West. Bowman draws the attention of his readers to the fact that the honor culture has not yet experienced the same transformation in the Islamic world. As Bowman correctly points out, the honor culture was already in existence before the conversion of these lands to Islam in the seventh century C.E. Unlike the West under the influence of both Judaism and Christianity, the Islamic world generally does not make a clear distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms. Turkey has been a major exception to this rule thanks to the legacy of Mustapha Kemal Atatürk. At the end of his book, Bowman pleads for the rehabilitation of the cultural honor in the West to guarantee the continuity of its values in the aftermath of 9/11. Bowman identifies four major obstacles to that revival: the defeat of the western hatred and fear of war, the social acceptance of inequalities besides pecuniary ones, the rupture with the celebrity-culture death star, and the revitalization of the political, social, and intellectual assumptions about the differences between the sexes in the U.S. Bowman sounds too pessimistic about the future of the honor culture in the West. Cultural honor is like a chameleon that can change its hues to adapt to its environment. Western democracies are inclined to conduct peaceful foreign policies and go to war in self-defense as Michael Mandelbaum reminds his readers in ¿The Ideas that Conquered the World.¿ Recently, Israel went to war with Hezbollah in self-defense and to reestablish its honor and power of deterrence that had been sullied repeatedly before the unprovoked incursion of Hezbollah into Israel in July 2006.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.