Published April 26, 2006
From the earliest records of human civilization until the dawn of the 20th century, and in widely separated cultures throughout the world, the history of honor was inseparable from the history of mankind. Today, it is still essential to an understanding of the Islamic cultures of the Middle East and the sense of grievance they often foster against the West, and especially the United States. But in the West itself, honor has been disregarded or actively despised for three quarters of a century at least.
James Bowman recounts its curious recent history in our own culture and discovers that Western honor was always different from that found in other parts of the world. Its idiosyncratic qualities derive partly from the Classical tradition but mainly from the Judeo-Christian heritage whose emphasis on individual morality and, more recently, sincerity and authenticity in private and personal life, has acted as a continual challenge to the traditional concept of honor as it is still understood in other parts of the world. Without these challenges to honor and the accommodations with it that they ultimately produced, neither the middle ages, nor the Renaissance, nor the Enlightenment nor the Romantic movement can be properly understood. And without an appreciation of what has sometimes appeared to be the final discrediting of honor in the aftermath of the First World War, neither the 20th century’s turbulent history nor its legacy for our own times will make much sense.
“What an engaging book James Bowman has written, and what a daunting command he has of his material. Ranging across psychology, popular culture, military history, the arts, and politics, Honor is a tapestry of the 20th century that uses a neglected thread-the evolution of the complicated bundle of values that goes into the concept of honor-to explain how our culture got where it is today. Honor gives that rarest of gifts: a new, powerful way of thinking about a familiar history”
— Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground
“James Bowman has written a profound and important book, at once fascinating and alarming, on the changing fortunes of the idea of ‘honor’ in America and the West. Faced with the energy and the implacable hatred of the barbaric version of honor in radical Islam, our long-term survival may well depend on the reinvention of a form of honor suitable to free and democratic societies.”
–Robert Bork, author of The Tempting of America
“What an engaging book James Bowman has written, and what a daunting command he has of his material. Ranging across psychology, popular culture, military history, the arts, and politics, Honor: A History is a tapestry of the twentieth century that uses a neglected thread — the evolution of the complicated bundle of values that goes into the concept of honor — to explain how our culture got where it is today. Honor gives that rarest of gifts: a new, powerful way of thinking about a familiar history.”
— Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences
“You will gain a new insight on the first page of this book, and on the last, and there are fireworks all the way through, again and again. A real education, on a subtle topic — on a topic of unheard-of, silent, horizon-shifting importance, like the shifting of the earth deep below the surface.”
–Michael Novak, author of On Two Wings
“The problem today, as Bowman sees it, is that the whole concept of defending one’s honor has been devalued in the West — mocked as an archaic bit of male vanity or childish macho chest-thumping. But if you don’t create a civilized honor culture, you risk ending up with the primitive variety.”
–John Tierney, New York Times, July 25, 2006.
“James Bowman now presents his Honor: A History as a highly readable and impressively bold attempt not only to define what this elusive idea called honor really means in its many colors through time but to account for its passing out of the popular vocabulary over the last 90 years or so — thereby examining the consequences with which we are left to live and, sometimes, suffer.”
–Tracy Lee Simmons, National Review, August 7, 2006.
“Whether or not Bowman has the whole story right, the prism of honor brings puzzling elements of the current conflict into sharper focus. Americans are baffled that Western appeals to freedom and prosperity get so little traction in the Arab and Muslim worlds. America’s example as the “shining city on a hill” inspired liberalizing movements from Eastern Europe to Tiananmen Square; why should the Middle East be different? One answer is that traditional honor cultures value vindication over freedom and wealth. Militant Islamism and Baathist-style national socialism offer narratives of restored greatness and heroic resistance. Ballot boxes and shopping malls offer neither. If freedom brings humiliation, what good is it?”
–Jonathan Rauch, National Journal, October 13, 2006.
On Our Honor: James Bowman and Christina Hoff Sommers discuss.
A Few Words from David Frum about James Bowman’s Honor: A History
Mr. Bowman was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s program Thinking Allowed and discussed “Honor and Respect.”
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