The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Decline of Honor in the West

Below is an excerpt from an article at The Art of Manliness. It is concerned with the decline of traditional conceptions of honor in western culture. The full post may be read here.

Our last three posts – on Victorian, Northern, and Southern honor respectively, detailed the final manifestations of traditional honor cultures in the West, while also hinting at the cultural forces that were emerging even then that would eventually erode them almost entirely.

Today we will cover how those forces were amplified, manifested themselves, and led to the disappearance of traditional honor in the West over the course of the 20th century. At the same time, a discussion of these elements provides an excellent opportunity to review the concepts we’ve discussed so far. We’ve come a long way since the first post, and this is such a complicated topic that I think this re-orientation will be quite beneficial.

On that note, this post does admittedly have more of a scatter-shot quality than the rest. The complex nature of the history of honor cannot be reiterated too many times. Without excusing the limitations of our writing abilities, which are myriad, there is no clear coherent narrative to the evolution and death of honor, and it is impossible to construct one. What we offer below are sketches of cultural forces which could each be their own book; each is interconnected with the others, and multi-layered. In the absence of a tome-length treatise on each cultural force/change, what we have given is a snapshot that is simply designed to give you an overview of the element and provide you fodder for further pondering and connection-making to history and your modern life.

Also, it is very important to mention that the list below is not a list of “bad” things. Each cultural movement discussed has its advantages and disadvantages – as does traditional honor itself. Were it not so, traditional honor would not have disappeared in the first place! What you will find here is not a laundry list of complaints about culture, but a description of what happened to traditional honor. In my opinion, these societal movements brought about both positive and negative changes, and reviving those positive aspects will be the topic of our next and final post in the series.

This post is as beastly as the last – if it helps you, try to think of this not as an article but as a chapter in a book. Read it when you have a quiet block of time.

Urbanization and Anonymity


Traditional honor can only exist among a group of equal peers who enjoy intimate, face-to-face relationships. It is entirely external, and completely predicated on one’s reputation as judged by fellow members of the honor group. Without close ties, there is no one to evaluate your claims to honor, and thus the possibility of a traditional honor culture vanishes.

In 1790, 95% of Americans lived in small, rural communities. By the 1990s, 3 out of 4 citizens made their home in urbanized areas. While in small towns everyone can keep track of the doings of their neighbors, in cities and suburbs relationships tend to be more impersonal and anonymous; any city dweller has experienced the sensation of being in a large group of people and yet feeling entirely alone. In large populations you can live out your whole life without anyone checking up on what you’re doing, much less judging your reputation as honorable or dishonorable.

In cities and smaller towns alike, civic participation and community-mindedness has fallen significantly since WWII. And while honor formerly centered on one’s clan, extended families no longer live close together and familial relations have constricted to the nuclear family alone, which itself is often split up.

As a result of these shifts, immoral, unethical, and cowardly behaviors are rarely known outside one’s immediate circle of family and friends. And even then, for reasons we’ll discuss below, they are more likely to shrug and say, “It’s none of my business,” or, “To each his own,” than to condemn and challenge the errant behavior.

The internet has only accelerated the shift towards impersonal and anonymous relationships. Traditional honor is designed to act as a check on people’s claims to merit and force them to stand behind and defend their insults; exaggerations of one’s deeds or shameful actions are called out and challenged by one’s associates. On the internet, however, people can claim to be a Navy SEAL or issue the basest of insults to another person without having to prove their claim, suffer consequences for their character, or allow the insulted person to defend themselves. They can be anyone and say anything, all while safely ensconced behind a screen.

Diversity, Leading to Conflicts Between Conscience and Honor


As we have explored in previous posts, during the 19th century in England and the American North, the honor code began to shift from being based on outward behaviors (like prowess and strength) to inward moral virtues and character traits. Despite these changes, the Victorian, or Stoic-Christian honor code, remained rooted in traditional honor. For while the standards of the code had shifted to internal virtues, a man’s adherence to those virtues was not judged solely by his own conscience but also by his peers – his public reputation continued to matter.

This evolution in the meaning of traditional honor also sowed the seeds of its eventual destruction as a cultural force. An honor code based on moral virtues and character traits can only survive when the necessary virtues and character traits are agreed upon by the culture as a whole; besides intimate, face-to-face relationships, the second key element that makes a traditional honor culture possible is a shared code. Each member of the honor group understands the standards that must be kept to attain and keep horizontal honor, and everyone knows how honor may be lost; this is key – honor that cannot be lost is not true honor.

While the manly honor of courage and physical strength transcends culture, a moral honor code, because it deals with issues of philosophy and faith, is more open to differences of opinion and can vary from society to society and man to man. Could a man gamble and drink and still be honorable? Was it more honorable to fight over everything or to have the self-control to walk away from a challenge? Should a man’s honor code include Christian beliefs? What about Muslims and Hindus, did they not have their own codes of honor? These questions led to conflicts between a man’s allegiance to his conscience and his loyalty to the code of his honor group. This prompted debates about which allegiance – conscience or honor — to give higher priority, and which decision on that count was more honorable, or at least more deserving of respect. These conflicts in turn eroded the stability of an honor culture, as Frank Henderson Stewart explains:

“Once the shift is made from basing honor on a certain kind of behavior (always winning in battle, always keeping one’s promise) or on the possession of certain external qualities (wealth, health, high rank) to basing it on the possession of mostly moral qualities (the ones we refer to compendiously as the sense of honor) then the way is open for the whole notion of honor to be undermined. Imagine a German army officer of a hundred years ago who is challenged to a duel. He declines the challenge because is a devout Catholic, and the church strongly condemns dueling. Now for the honor code to be really effective, the officer must be treated as having acted dishonorably. Yet people may find it difficult to do so, since they are sure (we will assume) that he acted as he did not out of cowardice but because of his attachment to his faith. They are convinced (we will further assume) that he is profoundly committed to everything in the honor code that is not incompatible with his religious beliefs. In these circumstances people may feel it appropriate to say of him that he has a strong sense of honor; even if they do not, they will have to admit that he is a man of integrity, and having said this they will find it hard to say that because of his refusal to accept the challenge their respect for him is much diminished. And if the loss of his right to respect is not accompanied by any actual loss of respect, then the honor that is assigned by the honor code has been emptied of his primary content.”

The more diverse Western societies became, the greater the chance that a man’s personal values of faith and philosophy would not exactly align with the cultural honor code, increasing the likelihood of men opting out of certain provisions of the latter when they contradicted their conscience. Yet as Stewart points out, it was not possible for this trend alone to cause the unraveling of traditional honor – its effect was contingent on another cultural shift: tolerance. Traditional honor is inherently intolerant; if you fail to follow the code, you are shamed, you are despicable, you are out. In the hypothetical example of the German army officer above, his peers could have judged his decision to excuse himself from the duel on religious grounds as dishonorable and unworthy of their respect, thus maintaining the strictures of the traditional honor code.

However, a trend towards respect and tolerance for different viewpoints, which began in the 19th century, would become, some have argued, the virtue of the latter part of the 20th. The relativistic ideal of  “to each his own” would allow each individual to choose his own set of values without cultural repercussions – without shame.

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