Honor: A History

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Encounter Books, 2006 - History - 381 pages
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"James Bowman draws from an wealth of sources across many centuries to illuminate honor's curious history in our own culture, and he discovers that Western honor was always different from that found elsewhere. Its idiosyncratic qualities derived partly from the classical tradition but mainly from the Judeo-Christian heritage, whose emphases on individual morality and, more recently, on sincerity and authenticity in private and personal life have acted as continual challenges to the traditional notion of honor as it is still maintained in other parts of the world. These challenges to honor and the accommodations with it that they ultimately produced are a fundamental theme in our own culture's distinctive history; and the eventual collapse of the honor culture in the West is the background against which the War on Terror and the Clash of Civilizations ought to be seen."--BOOK JACKET.

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This book is scholarly, but not at the level a highly-technical, peer-reviewed academic text a college professor would write. This makes the book very fast-paced and readable if you are, like me, a fan of the "pop history" genre. It organizes primary source research of other historians into something to be consumed by a person who, although well-educated, has not made the subject matter their life's work.
Honor develops a very important thesis that needs to be entertained by anyone interested in international politics and diplomacy: that Western societies are organized around such deeply-entrenched moral principles, that we are nearly incapable of understanding the motivating factors of people living in cultures not borne of the Christian tradition. Bowman introduces the reader to several fascinating concepts that I, for one, had not before considered in a meaningful way. A prime example would be the "honor group". That the people whose respect and esteem we seek are largely a personal decision that is highly influenced by the concepts of honor with which we were raised.
The controversy that surrounds this book, some of which you can read above, stands as some of the best evidence in support of Bowman's thesis. For example, Bowman points out the degree to which the skill of deception is esteemed in many non-western cultures, much like a Westerner might esteem a good salesman. This observation is only pejorative if you approach deception/lying like a Westerner: that it is nearly universally morally wrong. The book is replete with similar observations that a member of the subject culture would not find offensive at all. Only a Westerner could see many of these observations as casting dispersion.
Another controversial idea toward which Bowman's evidence leads you is the uncomfortable truth that women being treated as anything other than property or second-class citizens is the strict purview of cultures born of the West, or cultures recently conquered by the West (Japan). There's no denying Bowman's right-leaning politics shine through in Honor. The book will leave right-leaning people pumping their fist and begging for more. For the left-leaning among us, the book is designed to lead you to conclusions you'll have no interest in drawing. However, it will very legitimately introduce you to many concepts that none of us Westerners, right or left, have had the occasion to give very much thought. For that purpose alone, a more liberal person would enjoy examining Bowman rare topics and coming to conclusions likely different from Bowman's. Personally, Honor stands as one of my two or three favorite non-fiction books I have ever read. I cannot recommend it enough.


The Two Kinds of Honor
The Islamic Honor Culture and the West
The Origins of the Western

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