The Root of All Our Discontent

This is probably going several steps too far, but… a work of fiction of all things really jolted me. Then I look around at all of the topics, Main Feed and Member Feed, on Ricochet, whether they be about fornication, about men-women relationships, about the fiscal cliff, about the debt, about immigration, about Libya,…

  1. tabula rasa

    I agree.  Well said.  

    In 2006, James Bowman wrote a wonderful book on this very subject:  Honor: A History (published, I might add, by one of the podcast’s sponsors Encounter Books).

    It’s safe to say that you and Mr. Bowman (who writes for the American Spectator and New Criterion) are on the same page.  

  2. TheSophist

    I’ve read that book, but was jolted by The Winds of War. :) It reminded me for sure. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Thank you for this post: I totally agree with you.

  4. Barkha Herman

    The thing that struck me when I first moved here was that there is no concept of “losing face”.

    More shame then honor, but along the same lines.

    Mind you, the entire shame thing is why the suicide rates are so high in India and other eastern countries, but there is something to be said about it.  One can have too much of it, as in some cultures.  But public shaming is a good way for social change.

    My 90+ year old neighbors would never dream of asking for anything, even in the middle of a week long power outage during the hurricanes a few years ago – I had to force them to accept an extension cord, ice, groceries etc.  Their nieces / nephews on the other had, in their 60s, could not stop whining about how FEMA was not helping them.

  5. Lord Humungus

    A very civilized post. Honor is lost, forgotten or ridiculed. Even the observation that honor is missing seems quaint and out of fashion. What a pity.

  6. Mendel

    Perhaps it’s my inner biologist, but I tend to think that most traditions in interpersonal behavior (honor, chivalry, etc) emerged to meet a pressing need – and in the case of honor, this means the needs of pre-Industrial Revolution cultures.

    It is easy to see how honor would be requied in a society with less-established institutions.  If someone broke a promise to you (business or otherwise), you couldn’t sue them or complain about them on Yelp.  That would tend to make people untrustworthy, and acting honorable would help establish that trust.

    If honor is lacking from society, I would wager that is because we don’t need it like we used to.  In a paradoxical way, civilizing society as a whole leads to less need for individuals to act civilized.

  7. TheSophist

    Mendel — you may be correct. The modern society we live in no longer needs honor….

    But you know what I’m wondering? Whether all the rules and regulations have ended up eroding the requirement for honor.

    After all, if the laws tell us exactly how to behave, then is there really a need for nebulous notions of “honor” as long as you obey the letter of the law?

    I dunno which comes first… institutions that render honor useless, or loss of honor, leading to the need for such institutions…

  8. Mendel

    But you know what I’m wondering? Whether all the rules and regulations have ended up eroding the requirement for honor.

    After all, if the laws tell us exactly how to behave, then is there really a need for nebulous notions of “honor” as long as you obey the letter of the law?


    However, I do think the “modern society covers every base” crowd overestimates the extent to which institutions can replace human nature.  Sure, a structured, civilized society goes a long way, but organization and rules eventually approach an asymptote, above which some norms of interaction become necessary again.

    In other words, the structures of modern life may have made honor in its traditional sense superfluous, but at some point a new tradition will need to emerge and fill the gaps we still find in our system.

  9. Schrodinger

    Honor and chivalry are superior to laws and regulations because they are intrinsic. One does what is right because one believes in doing what is right. It obviates the need for external coercion.

    Under laws and regulations, people do the right thing (sometimes) because of external coercion. Too often they will avoid doing the right thing if they think they won’t get caught.

  10. Miffed White Male

    I have to defend Ryan Braun’s honor. 

    we now have former MVP’s arguing that the league can’t prove they doped themselves because of chain of custody or some other technicality… instead of appearing as if they are ashamed of their dishonorable actions.

     If you assume that Ryan Braun was in fact using steroids, then you have a point.  But if in fact he was NOT using and was instead the victim of a false positive, as any fair analysis of his career statistics/trajectory would indicate [like the fact that he had a BETTER year this year, despite heightened scrutiny and the lack of Prince Fielder hitting behind him], then he would have no reason to be “ashamed” of any so-called “dishonorable actions”, since he didn’t do anything to be ashamed of.


    As to why attack the chain of custody, I’m no lawyer, but it sure seems like common sense  that when defending yourself, you attack the weakest point of the opposing case, rather than just a mindless (and legally ineffective) “I didn’t do it”.

  11. Crow

    James Bowman wrote a book to this effect not that long ago. 

    If you’re interested in ideas, I might recommend a close study of the idea of honor as presented by Montesquieu and its subsequent modern transformation into recognition in Hegel.

    Finally, since you mentioned him, Wouk’s books are among the most underrated that I know in 20th century literature. They deserve to be ranked more highly.

  12. Susan in Seattle

    Very nicely stated. Thank you.

  13. Bryan G. Stephens

    I think the more we concentrate in big numbers, the less honor matters. Our brains are wired to know around 100-150 people well. Losing face means nothing if you will never see the person again.

  14. Merina Smith

    When studying Latin American history a few years ago, one of the professors pointed out that honor in those countries was class based.  Only people of a certain class, and mostly men, could have honor, which amounted to defending certain principles, the good name of their wives and daughters for example.  Dueling was an important component of the culture of honor.  I guess for me a better word for what you’re getting at is character, which implies personal responsibility and does not include the kind of approval from others that honor implies. After all, the country recently honored Barack Obama with reelection, which he achieved by a lot of nasty, dishonorable methods IMHO.  I don’t regard him as a person of character, but he has been honored. 

  15. Joan of Ark La Tex

    Well said, thanks.

  16. Anne R. Pierce

    The gentlemen who signed that document, the Declaration of Independence, meant something by “sacred Honor”. It was set at the same level of importance (if not more, given the order) as life and property. …..

    The work of fiction I read that jolted me so was Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War.  ……

    But thinking about American society, American character, back in those pre-war days… do we not have the sense that as imperfect as the country was, there was a shared sense of honor among all Americans?

    Great post.  I do think there was a belief in honor through the fifties that is now mostly lost. I’m glad you mentioned The Winds of War.  The TV series Winds of War was fantastic, and I recommend it.  It was unfairly dismissed by critics  – who surely were put off by its historical accuracy and decent, caring portrayal of the human predicament.  By the time the series came on, critics overwhelmingly preferred shows that were edgy, perverse and cynical, and that changed history to make the U.S. look worse than it was.

  17. donald todd

    Schrodinger’s Cat:  Honor and chivalry are superior to laws and regulations because they are intrinsic. One does what is right because one believes in doing what is right.

    I would change one word in the first sentence:  Honor and chivalry are superior to laws and regulation when they are intrinsic.  

    When honor and chivalry are not intrinsic we need those laws and regulations.  Given the written versions of the moral law in different cultures, in different eras, and in different places, it would appear that honor and chivalry are not always present, or present in such a way as to win the right.  

    Thou shalt or thou shalt not are present throughout recorded history.  Chivalry and honor are not always on display.

    Last item: The law is a teacher.  If the law is bad, what it is teaching is bad.  We are the beneficiaries of a great deal of bad law these days. Bad law does not urge us to virtue, it urges us to vice, and gives us an excuse for those failures.

  18. PsychLynne

    Lovely post.  I am thinking of the loss of honor, not only at the societal and national level that your described, but also how this loss of honor has trickled down into relationships.  I was just having a a conversation about men with a young female fellow that I mentor .  I said that a man should treat a woman with respect (which she understood) and which point she stopped the conversation to clarify what honor looks like.  I can’t wait to follow up with about the content of this post.

  19. TheSophist

    Merina – your professor is probably correct insofar as a narrow analysis goes, although I disagree that honor was a male thing. In every major society, women had their version of honor tied to sexual fidelity. Even the Odyssey praises Penelope for her handling of the suitors, while Helen doesn’t come out so great in the Iliad.

    But re: classes, my sense is that even if only the upper classes were obsessed with honor, the “lower classes” knew that they were obsessed with honor, and could be counted on to behave with honor in various areas. So there was far more trust in the elites, and far more cohesion throughout society.

    We don’t have that anymore. Maybe it’s because of mass communications showing us the truth about our leaders. Or maybe it’s because something changed where honor seems like an old-fashioned foolish notion. I don’t know.

    I do know that all of our discontents seem to have this lack of honor at their core…

  20. Giantkiller

    Honor is an aspect of and results from shared moral values – the existence of which requires a broad recognition and acceptance of an objective standard for right and wrong, at its most basic level – good and evil, if you will.

    The core of the assault on the West has been to undermine and destroy that acceptance and recognition – it has been remarkably successful.  Moral relativism is everywhere.  Situational ethics and conditional morality dominate all public questions now.

    Honor as a deeply held conviction has crumbled with the foundations of the shared morality that once characterized our society.  I could cite examples from personal observation, but that has been done by so many in the last few years that it seems superfluous. 

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