Honor: Are We Left With a Mere Relic of a Great Civilization?


When he was a young cadet at West Point, just before the turn of the past century, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was the victim of a savage hazing incident. The perpetrators were court-martialed and he was called to testify at their trial. MacArthur refused to identify them, though he was himself threatened with expul sion for doing so. “Never lie, never tattle,” his mother had taught him. He stuck to that.

At about the same time, and especially in the South, colleges and universities were introducing “honor codes” whose principle was “Never lie, always tattle.” In the century or more since they came into existence, it would be fair to say that they have had a mixed record of success.

It helped, however, when students still came to college already equipped with some idea of what honor was. Honor was once the hallmark of that now exotic-seeming creature, the gentleman. Ladies had honor too, but it was different from the gentlemanly kind, and more defined by what they didn’t do than by what they did.

When I went up to Davidson College in 1966, it was still an all-male institution, and people could talk without embarrassment of the “Davidson gentleman.” I don’t think anyone could do that today. But Davidson still has an honor code.

What the Victorian designers of that and other honor codes were doing was essentially an extension of what the Victorians had done with honor itself: They had taken a primitive form of tribal discipline that had survived into the modern era and tried to update it according to Enlightenment principles.

Always in the past, honor had been more or less at odds with religion, morality, and law. The custom of dueling, for example, had survived into the 19th century in spite of the repeated condemnations of all three. In parts of the antebellum South, especially South Carolina, dueling was to college kids what football is today.

Elsewhere, however, that old-fashioned idea of honor was already undergoing its transformation.

Beginning with the American Founding Fathers, who decoupled honor from aristocracy, and such Romantic writers as Sir Walter Scott, honor went from being something tribal and pre- civilizational — which it still is today in many parts of the world — to a code of conduct that had made its peace with morality and even religion.

The idea of the Christian gentleman as it had evolved by the close of the 19th century, especially in the English-speaking world, was one of the great achievements of Western culture, but it couldn’t last. The First World War began the destruction of the gentlemanly ideal — and Vietnam completed it. Nowadays, gentlemanliness is thought of as na?ve and impractical at best, a mask for oppression at worst.

Looking back on that grand Victorian project, we are likely to be impressed by how much of its legacy is still around, from the Geneva Conventions to college honor codes. But, having forgotten the social context that brought both into being, we now treat them as if they were laws rather than a collective expression of trust that men — and now women — of honor can be relied upon to enforce high standards of behavior on themselves, without legal constraint.

Honor is passé in the Western world today. Some see it as too “judgmental,” too much at odds with the spirit of equality that has introduced us to honor’s ersatz and forever-unsatisfying substitute: self-esteem. This fact cannot but have a powerful effect on the coherence and the usefulness of honor codes.

Yet now that we have been forcibly reminded of honor’s existence by a challenge from a culture where it still takes its most primitive and virulent form — where women are the victims of “honor killings,” and where suicide bombers murder innocents in the name of the honor of their religion’s prophet — the honor code can serve another purpose.

We can, that is, take the optimistic view and regard it as one of the impressive ruins of a great civilization that are still lying around us and that may serve as reminders of another idea of honor, one that was invented by our great-great grandparents and that was, while it lasted, an altogether finer and more beautiful thing.


Discover more from James Bowman

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

Similar Posts