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Honor: A History [Paperback]

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Item Specifications...

Pages   381
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.94" Width: 6.1" Height: 1.04"
Weight:   1.3 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   May 22, 2007
Publisher   Encounter Books
ISBN  1594031983  
EAN  9781594031984  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
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. His book is an indispensable document in a time of growing concern about the erosion of values.

Publishers Description
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.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
Absurd, Banal, Clumsy  Nov 7, 2008
When a man who is neither a historian nor a philosopher, attempts to philosophise about history, one should know what to expect. Mr. Bowman turns many somersaults, bouncing hither and thither with his disjointed thoughts, and comes to nothing. His description of the prelude to the Iraq war is provocatively misleading. He fails to offer a satisfactory definition of the concept of honour. He has not an iota of knowledge as to what the scholastics and the ancient philosophers wrote on this highly important topic. Mr. Bowman joins the ranks of circus clowns when he starts quoting characters from Hollywood movies. Mr. Bowman should never write a book again.
An Honorable Book  Aug 25, 2008
Uncle Max: But the Anchluss happend peacefully. Lets at least be grateful for that

Captain von Trapp: Grateful?

-The Sound of Music

This quote is one of the passages in cinema that best sums up the paradoxes of honor. Captain von Trapp was a decent man from a reliatively amiable society and in theory wished his countrymen no ill. But he was also a member of the age-old European warrior caste and however tempered by civilization, the fierce values of his vocation still held. Part of him would rather see Austria beaten to a bloody, ruinous pulp, then to bear the shame of meek submission. And yet however exotic his worldview may seem to many moderns the fact remains that many of us have a little place in our hearts; and sometimes not so little, that feels he was right.
What is honor? In some ways it seems a matter of instinct. Yet that is because the context of ones life, ones parents and friends, ones culture, the books one reads, so on, makes it seem so. Honor has overlap with morality but it is not the same thing. Morality is a claim to objectivity: it is "what does God or Natural Law, or whatever I call it(in whatever Philosophical complexities) say I should do." Honor is both more complicated and less. Less complicated because it does not depend solely on a claim to objective standards. More complicated because what is honorable in one place really can be dishonorable in another-whereas morality is no such thing. If someone's standard is different, it is better or worse and though we can mistake morality, if it exists at all it is definite even though our interpretations may not be.
Honor may roughly be defined as, "What would those whom I respect think I should do?" and "What would win me status in the eyes of those whom I respect?" Which means it is dependant on the circle of people one respects-what Bowman calls an "honor group." There is Gentleman's honor, Schoolboy honor, Scout's Honor, International Honor, Military Honor, and Tribal Honor and so on but all have similarities. One is the stress on loyalty. Indeed loyalty may be the defining characteristic of Honor.
James Bowman first gives a rather shocking portrayal of honor in it's rawest form-a shocking atrocity done to a Pathan woman by her own tribe because she had the misfortune to have been violated. Then he traces the various interpretations of honor from the Greeks, to the strain between Christian teaching and honor in Medieval times. To the Victorian version. Finally he comes to it's decline in more modern times.
Somethings he has said that I have disaggreed with or wish he had said more about. Bowman claims that World War II was a decline in the honor culture. He may have read different books. It has been my impression that World War II was a temporary revival, tacitly justified by the extreme circumstance. World War II has some claim to being the most mythologised war sense Herodatus and it's heros and villains in popular imagination are recognizably from the old honor culture.
Of course the very fact that it had to be justified, tacitly or otherwise might be taken as a decline. The decline in respect for honor is described by Bowman. Much, according to him is of the fact that many were shocked by the hypocrisy of many who have high status. One might say that that is but to say, they are giving up on honor because some men are dishonorable. But there is another issue that Bowman does not address, that the honor culture's demands on leaders are not in proper proportion to the demands on followers and it is not unknown for the cynical to manipulate the honor of others.
One side issue I noticed which Bowman did not consider was Zionism. Zionism was and is very much an attempt to win the traditional sort of honor for Jews and Zionists to a large degree were fighting for honor. And of course Zionism is a modern movement. In other words despite Bowman's belief in the decay of the honor culture in at least one circle the trend was the other way.
Bowman also wonders a bit about the need for honor. For honor has a purpose in society. It provides a substitute for physical force as a means of regulating society. And it is a defense against outside threats. Personally I feel he is overgloomy about the situation, but the reader can judge.
This is a fine work of social history and of philosophy of human relations. It is worth reading.
Because it sounds better than "Honor, My Thesis Notes"  Mar 30, 2008
James Bowman has written a thoroughly provocative book that had me contemplating a concept I hadn't much considered - and more: the prevalence of this concept (and sometimes lack thereof) that he uses as a lens to focus many recent political and cultural events. However, you might notice in that last lauding sentence I made no reference to the past; Bowman's subtitle ("a history") doesn't pass muster. This is no "history of honor" - rather, it reads as a simple story of "how honor became discredited" using selective historical signposts as a means of making his point. Not quite the same thing and the book suffers for it, especially when the author ends up rather lamely suggesting various means to revive a certain brand of honor; not that a historical survey necessarily excludes opinion, but a less selective reading of history and more background would have served his purposes *far* better.

Still, simply by the novelty of his subject and the scope of its influence Bowman is on to something and if his clunky historical approach sometimes fails (the first chapter in this "history" discusses honor in the current Muslim culture and fully two-thirds of the reminder are devoted to the 20th century) he generally makes the case that honor *deserves* attention and the West (or any culture, really) ignores or denigrates it at its peril. The aforementioned discussion of Muslim honor codes, for example, is juxtaposed with strikingly similar ones in the medieval West - namely, ethical standards sublimated to the appearances important to one's "honor group" and neatly severed from any actual moral standards of right and wrong, much less life and death. Thus the killing of one's sister for even an implied notion of impropriety is thoroughly justified to protect the *appearance* of family or clan honor - never mind the barbaric morality involved in weighing another's very life so lightly.

So you might think honor's demise would be a reason to celebrate -- and many have. But here Bowman turns the tale, explaining that honor progressed (in the West, at least) from these crude origins to eventually embrace a rational morality. A Victorian honor revival -- spearheaded by Walter "Ivanhoe" Scott, among others - brought it to a 19th century peak before the slaughter of World War I and its modernist fallout eviscerated it. Bowman again jumps out of his historical survey to point out what we've lost; this demonstration is both sobering and insightful.

So why only three stars? Well, as the author sheepishly admits in his introduction "I lightly glide over the cultural artifacts of three thousands years in a few pages" and "I [can do no] more than skim the surface of this enormous subject." I expect this was written after he finished and unwittingly discovered the depth of his subject (no bad thing, really). Bowman is a decent writer but the book is perilously thin and selective at times, e.g., naming honor's 20th century bugbears at "modern warfare, psychotherapy (!) and feminism" seems almost random. (I could just as easily - and perhaps more accurately - point to, say, democracy, technology, Christianity and even capitalism.) Again, without a sound historical basis the author ends up sounding like your boilerplate conservative scold, railing about the triumph of the "unofficial" culture (with the usual suspects: celebrity worship, rampant egalitarianism, pop art, the fawning mass media) without honor to defend the "official" one.

Finally and curiously, for an otherwise strong book about a cultural artifact, `Honor' also doesn't define its own term very well. Bowman succeeds at describing what various people *think* honor is and how they apply it but without a precise sense of what it *is* - even across historical eras - he's left chasing effects rather than rooting out causes. Two or three steps up the conceptual chain of reasoning would have made for a far richer study and certainly would have provided some sorely needed ballast to his conclusion on restoring honor in our time. Bowman finishes with such a torrent of scolding and pessimism ("In what follows, I say rather what is to be done than what I think will or even can be done") that it almost makes one wonder why he went about writing this otherwise intriguing volume at all.
Politically and socially slanted  Mar 12, 2008
We should separate an evaluation of Mr. Bowman's book into three parts: Quality of writing, accuracy of facts, and reasoning. The writing quality is slightly better than average. He employs a large vocabulary, but parts of the writing are awkward, and some of the pronoun antecedents are confusing. Worse, the last third of the book crescendoes into a right-wing ideological spin-job.
Serving this purpose, many of his facts are erroneous. For example, he identifies General Macarthur as an example of the old honor system. In fact, Macarthur was anything but honorable. General Marshall was honorable, and detested the fame-seeking antics of people like Macarthur and Patton. In a conversation with Macarthur, Marshall asked him about a timetable. When Macarthur began with, "My staff tells me...", Marshall uncharacteristically interrupted with, "General, you don't have a staff. You have a court." We know now that Macarthur was discussing with European ambassadors his actual intentions of the American forces, which were in direct opposition to the administration's - and to his instructions. Macarthur was a fame and power seeker, one reason FDR once called him a dangerous man.
Another example is his method of skirting an inherent contradiction: If WWI was the turning point in the loss of honor cultures (because of the huge loss of life), how does he explain the loss of it in America, which suffered light losses. Bowman brushes this aside by claiming that European cultural ideas migrated to America. Of course, he doesn't attempt to explain how they might have taken root, nor does he acknowledge that following the war, it was American cultural values that began to migrate toward Europe. There are many such inaccuracies in this book, most of them required to buttress the author's erroneous conclusions.
Finally, the logic leaves much to be desired. For instance, he says that honor has been replaced in democratic societies by self-esteem. This is an astounding statement, given the different universes the two attributes occupy. `Honor' is a status issue; self-esteem is a psychological one, which has nothing to do with the pecking order within the group. He might as well have said that sex replaced honor. In fact `celebrity' replaced `honor'. He does discuss celebrity, properly condemning it, but not acknowledging that it is the honor-surrogate.
Along the way, he never discusses urbanization, improvements in transportation and communication, social atomization, and the rise of consumerism - the last probably out-of-bounds because it is a part of the free-market the right worships. As he acknowledges near the beginning of the book, honor, requires an honor group. However, the elements I've just mentioned tore apart the social groupings that make possible honor. In the `90's, some charitable groups bussed teens and kids from South Central Los Angeles to the mountains, and to the beach. Most of them had never seen either. To appreciate this, the reader should know that the mountains are two hours away, and the beach less than an hour away from South Central. In other words, the reason ghetto kids understand and follow the honor culture (cited by Bowman) is that they are geographically constrained to the neighborhood. For those who constantly travel outside their neighborhood, there is no neighborhood group, hence, no honor group.
Having said all this, let me compliment Bowman on raising issues that ought to be addressed more than he has: Celebrity, fighting wars in less than an all-out fashion (although he does not even imply that such fashion encourages going to war too easily and often), the commonality of myths pertaining to current events, and several others.
In summary, people should read this book for the issues it raises, but not accept the conclusions, or consider it adequate in its discussion.
Fascinating  Mar 2, 2008
This book is certainly not perfect. Bowman's sets off on a monumental task, and thus must necessarily discard some of the individual elements of the cultures and time periods he examines just as outlying data points must be dismissed for any line of best fit to ever be drawn. Whether or not he picked all the right data points to include and exclude, the synthesis he creates is persuasive and thought-provoking. The book is probably more "an essay" than it is a history in the textbook sense of the word. It seriously attempts to reinterpret some of the cultural forces and motivations of Western civilization, specifically the last hundred years or so. When it is doing that, the book is at it's finest.

The author also includes his own bias, which is almost laughably conservative. I personally didn't find that that detracted from the work significantly. While his crusade for the return of Mom and Apple Pie can hardly be taken seriously, the inclusion of his rather misguided polemic at least makes the author's bias abundantly clear, allowing the rest of the book to be evaluated in light of that.

I also have a fair degree of respect for Bowman for defending President Bush. In American culture today vitrol for President Bush and the Iraq War is almost universal and approaches pathological levels at times. Fundamentally, President Bush is probably not evil or completely self-serving, and the explication that Bowman offers for his actions and those of the country as a whole are an assertion of the man's humanity which seems oftentimes to be sadly lacking in today's discourse. These days it is certainly easier and more socially acceptable to trash the current administration that defend it, and certainly both sides of the issue need to be voiced.

The book itself draws on a vast number of sources, and if it's only purpose were to serve as a sort of catalog of primary works in which the them of honor was treated it would be good for that alone. That Bowman tends to integrate quoted passages and ideas fairly well with his own prose makes it even more impressive. Reading 3,000 years of human experience as the telling of one narrative is an incredible acheivement, even if it doesn't (as if it could!) tell the whole story.

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