T Nation

Honor Is Dead


Honor is Dead

When someone is called honorable today, we expect that the person is reliable - someone who keeps his word and is without hypocrisy. While these qualities are worth imitating, the word honor has deviated radically from its original meaning in such a way that the concept of honor has almost become without meaning.

In our own language, the word honor sounds slightly archaic, which of course means that there is not a common understanding of it; I have seen young students capitalize on this by adopting the British 'honour' when writing essays. However, there was a time not long ago when people lived their lives around honor; indeed it was so important that one could be expected to take his own life to save it. The Declaration of Independence confirms this notion with its closing line, "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." - honor is the only item with an assigned adjective.

Robert E. Lee famously stated that he was willing to sacrifice anything to preserve the Union, except honor. It is obvious without even knowing what honor is that it does not hold much currency in the present. In America, honor is dead, and it is safe to assume that it is gone forever, but hair and the nails still sprout from the corpse.

I apologize for writing this far without properly defining honor. It is a somewhat difficult task, for it is a broad term and a malleable concept. For our purposes, honor is the appearance of strength based on a system of values shaped both by the individual holder and the society in which he lives. Honor can only be defended or redeemed by the entity in possession of it, with one notable exception which I shall come to later. Julius Caeser thought it was dishonorable to have as much power as he and not hold a crown.

In early America, if a man were to insult you, especially in public eye, he would have violated your honor and you would be expected to react. Honor cannot exist in a society in which there is no dueling. If someone were to slander you today, you would take them to court - the antithesis of honor. Honor can also not exist unless everyone in the society believes in it. Much lampooned in cinema is the gallant young hero challenging his more experienced teasers.

The death of honor was hailed by the arrival of the Leviathan. I do not wish to debate on the origins or the necessity of the state, though I do agree with Thomas Paine's assessment that society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness. Before the state had the capacity to fully implement the law, individuals or groups who wished stay in possession of their property or land had better have appeared strong lest some enterprising thief might try to annex it as his own.

Turning the other cheek to a public insult would have most definitely been perceived as a sign of weakness. As the state developed, vigilante justice became a nuisance and proved to be ultimately incompatible with the demands of modern civilization. Thus it is not surprising to find that remnants of the honor culture still exist in the American South, which became urbanized much later than the North. A study at the University of Michigan found that southern students were more likely to exhibit dominant behavior and aggression after being provoked than the northern students.

It is also southerners who tend to gobble up surrogate honor without discrimination: wrestling, guns, rap music, MMA, sports in general. For these fans, the drama found in these events isn't just an integral part of it, it's the main attraction. Some of the more group minded find it in what Kipling of all people called "Jelly-bellied flag flapping".

The movie "300" would have done much better and would have been far more credible had it at least mentioned the word "honor" instead of ridiculously insisting that the Spartans were free men defending reason from the hordes of tyranny and superstition.

By now you have probably guessed what I am getting at. Honor is manifestation of masculinity that has been suppressed by the state in order to make the male animal function within modern society. If a man fights for his honor, it easily just as well said that he is defending his masculinity. Take the early example of the young hero; he challenges the men after they tease him - or to use another expression - after they busted his balls.

The southern men in the experiment were shown to have elevated levels of testosterone after being insulted (before you get any stupid ideas, the subjects also showed elevated levels of cortisol). A woman too had honor, but it was a man who was required to defend it, and in most cases, especially one regarding a purportedly unfaithful wife, the man's honor was at stake as well. In warfare, the culmination of masculinity, honor is everything.

I believe that while the suppression of honor is necessary - I certainly don't want to live in a society where I am expected to duel every asshole that insults me - its absence has created problems that have yet to be solved. For one thing it engenders a man who is sexually unappealing - the nutless wuss, a.k.a. the nice guy. For another, frustrated men channel their masculinity into destructive pursuits; the military, honor's last refuge, is not for everyone. The desire for honor is innate within us, and I think we can do better to accomadate it.


Good post!


Now, everyone, bow your heads and pretend to be serious.


Was there? I think in many ways you are romanticizing the past. I seriously doubt that people were vastly more honorable and chivalrous in the past as compared to today. In the past the extremely limited nature of media meant that the elite were able to control it entirely and painted a rosy picture of themselves as honorable. Accounts from period do not reflect an honor-bound society, at least as much as you claim. In fact the common man was painted as incapable of honor or nobility more so than not.

How do you know?

I seriously your average guy was running around, fighting duels at every insult. There were just as many cowards then as now. Also, just as many jerks. The kind of system you propose is unstable.

How is court not honorable? Or is pure physical prowess the only possible source of honor? Did they not have courts "back in the day?"

What? Where?

Sounds like a great system.


Yeah, I agree with this a little better than the previous.

I just thought I would give you what occurred to me after reading your... essay? Not bad, but in my opinion assumes too much about the common person of the past.


Interesting post. I like a lot of your points, however I think that I must disagree with a few. First, you say that "honor is the appearance of strength based on values etc, etc...". I do not believe that honor is synonymous with an "appearance of strength". It has nothing to do with bravado, which is more accurately termed a "facade of honor". It IS strength of character. It is simply expressed differently in different cultures.

Also, you say that honor is not viable in a culture that prohibits dueling. I disagree. Different outward expressions of honor are present in different cultures. For example, norse and germanic honor codes allowed dueling, but it was also common to simply brawl instead of competing in mortal combat. Samurai honor would as you say require dueling in many cases etc. It is largely entwined with, although unique from, the concept of 'face'. However, Chinese conceptualization of honor does not require dueling everyone who offends you, although it makes allowance for duels, and that is part of the package as it also involves a concept of 'face'. The Chinese conceive of honor in a more philosophical way and (historically at least) accept only "just" duels. In other words, the hero is much more peaceful and only fights when forced by powers beyond his control (due to pervasive Buddhist and Taoist cultural influences) or sheer necessity.

Furthermore, the concept of honor during the expansion of the American frontier in the mid and late 1800s was much more limited with regard to appropriate dueling, even though gunslinging was common. Similar to the british customs, the western customs of dueling did not require you to duel someone unless you yourself perceived an irrepairable injury to your honor. You did not lose face simply because someone had insulting words for you. It was your choice as to your response in most cases, though not all of them (cultural views still rule the worst infractions). In addition to this, there is a common belief that hard criminals should get their "just desserts" rather than mercy. This is a commonality with all the cultures' honor codes so far. It is "hang 'em high" rather than " rehabilitate them to normal". I'm not even going to touch on whether this is good or bad here. It just is.

So far all the honor codes have shared in some form an allowance for dueling. Some are more mandatory than others. Now, move on to the early and mid 1900s. Honor is still intact although dueling has been outlawed at this point. It is still appropriate to fight with someone, but not with formal duels or mortal combat. It is firmly distinct from dueling culture. Honor is mostly distinct from "face". Honor is considered standing up for what is Right, not generally personal insult. In other words, protecting women, the innocent, and fighting Evil. This is the form that stays through WW 2.

I think the death of honor happens with, or at the least is precipitated by, the Vietnam War and the hippie culture, but more specifically the anti-war protest culture. The concept that "I'm OK, you're OK, let's all do whatever we want and not judge others" irreversibly damages the concept of honor in defense of what is Right. The death knell and the point of no return comes with the cultural acceptance of pure moral relativism. At this point it is now proposed that there IS no line to be drawn. It doesn't become a debate over WHERE the line is supposed to be, but IF there is supposed to be one in the first place.

Of course, the current cultural norms are still in place at the time of the Vietnam War and it does take time to change them to the point where they are today. These values will continue to change more and more as materialism and political correctness, along with certain secular humanist philosophers, continue to push for an "all inclusive" view of personal right and wrong. As a result, we will continue to become more and more dishonored as a culture.

One note I would like to emphasize is that I am NOT taking a 'religious only' view of values or honor. However, in my view there is a synergy between pure moral relativism, political correctness, materialism/consumerism, and SOME secular humanist philosophers who have been active in an attempt to validate these notions. If you disagree with this final analysis concerning relativism and materialism, that is perfectly fine. But please assess this last assertion separately from my first two arguments--1) that honor is not the "appearance of strength" and 2) that honor is not strictly dependent on dueling as such to exist in a given culture.

Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of modern day attraction to drama as a surrogate for honor.

Great post again. Thought provoking, and that's what I love.


Firebug, I have to respectfully disagree with a couple points--I don't think he is romanticizing the past too much. While it is true that there was much dishonor and debauchery and crime, it is also true that according to many, many period writings the OP's notions are justified in large part. Humans have always been creatures of contrary emotions and desires. They have always been creatures of contradiction in general, and as a result human culture through history displays these contradictions. It's part of what makes history and cultural studies so interesting.

But, just as the pervasiveness of political correctness and "tolerance training" today does not disprove the very real existence of politically incorrect or intolerant people in our culture, so too the existence of dishonor/crime/debauchery in previous cultures does not disprove the cultural views of honor codes. There has always been debauchery.

Also, I don't think the societal elite were simply writing to make themselves look rosy in regards to honor. No doubt this happened, but it would be rather common knowledge among the vassals what nobility was greedy for taxes or depraved and who was honorable and fair.

Besides, the concept of honor codes does pervade a large portion of the common people in just about every culture--all you need do is look at various writings of the time. This common outlook of honor is typified in various Asian cultures (notably Chinese and Japanese) where the tightly interrelated concept of "face" has been around the unwashed masses to this day. Differences in defending one's honor may occur between the elite and the common (esp. in how many people die as a result).

And I do agree that the court is honorable. However, I think the OP's point was that the basic difference is who a person is dependant upon to defend himself in a disagreement. Our litigious culture has basically erased any notion that a man can justifiably depend on himself for defense of his honor in most events (with the exception of immediate lethal physical threat). For the most part I agree most with the OP on this point, though not always.


Don't confuse the map with the territory. Just because the four-letter word is dead, that does not mean that what it stands for has died with it.

Honor is definitely not synonymous with face, which is what you described. To start a physical fight over name calling is childish at best. If that is your definition of honor, I hope its coffin remains nailed. It belongs in the junk pile of history along with philosophers attempting to prove ideas by invoking a primordial state of existence to demonstrate concepts they apply to modern society.

If a man were truly honorable he wouldn't have to defend himself against such petty insults. People would know they aren't true and the person attempting to denigrate him would look the fool. Slander usually hurts the perpetrator more than the victim in the end.

How were they able to measure aggression and dominant behavior experimentally? It would be illegal if they didn't know it was an experiment, and if they knew it was an experiment then it's meaningless.


i offered my honor and she honered my offer and all night long i was honer and offer


Honor is not dead. Honor is an individual thing. The world has always been filled with dishonorable men.

It is funny that you use Robert E. Lee as an example when he was a traitor that fought to protect the institution of slavery. I fail to see the honor in these actions.

The reason moder society seems so messed up is that there are so many of us and we have information overload. Every injustice is blared on the news 24 hours a day and discussed on the internet.




Honor has nothing to do with masculinity.
It has everything to do with character.


"In early America, if a man were to insult you, especially in public eye, he would have violated your honor and you would be expected to react. Honor cannot exist in a society in which there is no dueling. If someone were to slander you today, you would take them to court - the antithesis of honor."

I'm pretty sure you just punch him in the mouth.

And most people I know do stick up for women.


Lee was honorable in the same way that the 9/11 hijackers were brave.

They may have been after a sleazy goal, but it took nuts to hijack a plain and intentionally crash it.

Lee was honorably gaurding his beliefs regarding slavery, gov't design and his home even if his beliefs about slavery are generally recognized as sleazy today.


Amen, Momma.


I agree with fireplug. Dueling only ever existed in the upper classes, or the top 5% of any society, and even then I am sure that the most common response to an insult would be another insult, or perhaps a punch in the face.

Having your temper and actions controlled by the words of another is not honor but weakness.


Excellent posts Aragorn, from one Scotch/Nordic mongrel to another. When I find the time I will reply, though I believe our points of contention are mostly semantics.

KombatAthelete said:

"It belongs in the junk pile of history along with philosophers attempting to prove ideas by invoking a primordial state of existence to demonstrate concepts they apply to modern society."

I'm not sure what to make of this. Are you suggesting that human beings are infinitly malleable by the society in which they currently live? Do you then believe, like Chairman Mao, that there is no such thing as human nature?

As for the experiment, it is not illegal to deceive subjects, at least not in the field of psychology (I do know that experimental economists are not allowed to deceive their test subjects - that may be the source of your confusion). Take a look for yourself:


(warning - pdf file)


I believe Lee took an oath to defend the Constitution of the US. He was a traitor. And I still rank him as a far better human being than the 9/11 evil hijackers.


Don't agree at all with your view, just cowards to take over a plane full of civillians and then crash it into more civillians, big fat yellow cowards.



If you prescribe to far east thoughts on honor I suppose.

Defending your reputation, even if physically, is honorable to many. You control your own actions even if they are the result of anothers words. Ignoring a comment is also an action brought on by another. Using your logic, you are controlled either way.

It is one thing to fly off the handle for every little nuance, but there are definately times when a quick punch to the jaw is called for.