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Gospel of honour.

A Fortnightly Review of

Why Honor Matters
by Tamler Sommers

Basic Books | 272 pp | $27.00 £21.49


AFTER COMPLETING AN essay1 which appeared in this space in the fall of 2017 about confederate statue removal from the University of Texas at Austin, I began writing a new piece on the topic of honor, intending to use leftover material from the first essay. But despite the head start, I soon got bogged down by abstract ethics, lost in the woods of honor and all its exegesis. It seemed too sophisticated a topic to write about. Several months later, however, Why Honor Matters (Basic Books, 2018) by Tamler Sommers, of the University of Houston, was published, and, after reading it, I felt I could get my act together.

Before writing his book, Sommers was also lost in a wood, but one whose trees he may have planted himself. He admits to a former time in his career when he didn’t believe some of the things he had written. Then, somehow the study of honor, not unlike Virgil guiding Dante out of the shadows of the Florentine forest, led Sommers out of his own Schwartzwald of unbelief.

“”So, like the Grimm’s fairy tale of the boy who didn’t know what fear was and went to find out, I took Sommer’s book and ventured forth, seeking to once again understand honor.

Soon enough, I found myself responding to something in it. I responded the same way German translator and humanist Walter Kaufmann did when in Discovering the Mind (1980) he explained his encounters reading Heidegger, Nietzsche, Kant, and Goethe for whom Kaufmann was “not trying to score points but rather to respond to them.” For “to discover the mind of others, one must feel addressed by them, one must respond, one must enter into dialogue. Even if they are dead, one must live with them and enter into this kind of give and take.”

Sommers is no religious fanatic but he is spreading a gospel—what he considers to be literal, good news—about the old concept of honor.

Sommers is alive (and, hopefully, well), and I too am not trying to score points against him. I think it fair to say, however, that a reader willing to engage his book in a non-derogatory manner will likely encounter—whether or not they agree with its contents—a book that refuses to be read just once. Part of that may be due to its overly emotional tone. For the case for Why Honor Matters is made so passionately that often I was reminded of another line from Kaufmann: how “most authors elevate their pet belief into the essence of religion.” Sommers, however, is no religious fanatic. He is a philosopher, and nothing in his book indicates honor to be his “pet belief.” But he is nonetheless spreading a gospel—what he considers to be literal, good news—about the old concept of honor.

(Sommers’s message is also a masculine gospel. So, following the method of his book, this review includes women in the discussion, though not the particular idea of honor for women, which I leave to more capable writers.)

That Honour Has Left the West.

TWO ROADS DIVERGED in a yellow wood, and the trees beside one of the paths showed Sommers wasn’t the only one to assume an absence of honor across North Atlantic cultures. In Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World (2003) anthropologist Akbar Ahmed called attention to the recent “dangerous idea of the loss of honor” across the globe. That’s not to say Ahmed proselytizes a gospel of honor, but he does believe many of the current problems in various societies around the world are due to the emergence of its absence. The origins of this absence involve a “process of dislocation” in which “no society is immune.”

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When Sommers discusses the way modern systems of justice in the West avoid giving victims a direct role in punishing their victimizers, he confirms my long suspicion that modernity is nothing if not bureaucratic. Honor, as Max Weber recognized, is a necessary (though insufficient) component of bureaucracy. In Politics as a Vocation (1919) Weber warned that, if bureaucratic administrators lack a sense of honor, “the danger of an awful corruption and a vulgar Philistinism threatens fatally.”2 Those who deal with modern bureaucracy––whether capitalistic, governmental, or the NGO variety as experienced with various failures by the Red Cross to the citizens of Houston after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey3––often encounter only vulgar philistinism. But for Sommers, if North Atlantic cultures better appreciated honor, that appreciation might channel the outrages and insults of bureaucracy into more satisfactory outcomes.

Ahmed on the other hand, seeks not some return to honor so much as for his readers to realize the implications of its absence. Fair or unfair, most humans judge a foreign nation by the character and personality of its leadership. This means, for Ahmed, that opportunities taken by “Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton, and bin Laden set the stage for September 11.” If Clinton had been seen to be “a man without honor” with regard to the circumstances that led to his impeachment, it was assumed “his people could not be different.” “Bush,” on the other hand, appeared in the eyes of many Muslims (at least according to Ahmed), as someone who “responded to the attacks on his nation as a man of honor bent on vengeance.”

The good behavior Sommers mentions seems to be “good” according to Western standards only.

While Ahmed may be overplaying his rhetorical hand a little to say it was a lack of honor that caused 9/11, he has a fair point on how outsiders (mis)interpret the (dis)regard for honor held by North Atlantic peoples. Sommers might reply that Ahmed’s political observations come from a “robust motivational structure” being “largely absent in Western liberal morality.” Here Sommers means those structures that “have motivational power … to inspire exceptional or heroic behavior.” But Sommers also concedes “honor’s motivational power is an advance only if it motivates good behavior in honor cultures,” although, the good behavior he mentions seems to be “good” according to Western standards only.

To their credit, Ahmed and others have repeatedly stressed that while the worst abuses involving honor might be done in the name of a religion, too often those same abuses arise from circumstances which have nothing to do with what that religion teaches. Sommers too points out that some honor norms, such as the faux-haggling custom of taarof in Iran, have nothing to do with violence, or retribution, or even Islam.4

That Honour Remains in the West.

DOWN THE PATH opposite Ahmed and Sommers, among philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s thick grove of books grows her young seedling, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (2016). This book argues, among other things, that “the obsessive attention paid by Americans to competitive ranking in terms of status, money, and other qualities” might mean honor has not completely dissipated from North Atlantic cultures. Nussbaum instead believes that America’s “sense of manly honor and competitive injury” means that more of its citizens deal with heavier burdens of honor than those living in so-called Middle Eastern and Muslim cultures and countries.

Nussbaum reminds readers that men in the West continue to be privileged over women. She does, however, stress that such privilege doesn’t imply security. Being privileged might even be a source of insecurity. (And “privilege” might even be another word for “honor”; for, as anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers once emphasized in an essay on the subject, honor is one’s “right to pride.”)

For Machiavelli, himself a bureaucrat, when power comes too easily it is most difficult to maintain. The same might be said for honour.

While following Carol Tavris’s Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (1982), Nussbaum’s point also resembles the Roman senator Boethius (477–524 AD) when he recognized that power, which often comes from privilege, is a source of constant worry and fear. One worries because “when you want it you are not safe, and when you have it and want to get rid of it, you are also in peril.” For Machiavelli, himself a bureaucrat, when power comes too easily it is most difficult to maintain. The same might be said for honor.5

Based on my rural experiences in Midwestern American public schools, I think Sommers is generally right to say “high school can be a lonely and isolating place for anyone,” and that “sports are one area where students can establish connections with the larger community.” I certainly remember more than a few students feeling insecure––whether or not they had any power––but I’m not so sure Sommers’s gospel of honor is correct to conclude “school athletes feel greater support from their teachers and families and experience lower rates of depression.” These doubts derive from my own experiences playing football, as well as Seneca’s quip that the relationship between coach and athlete is akin to voluntary slavery. There’s also Boethius’s remark that the honor of public service, which might include playing high school football for the community one lives in, eventually degrades into barbarity and bureaucracy, and barbarity and such bureaucracy seems to be the “vulgar Philistinism” to which Weber was referring.6

Whether we won or lost, I don’t remember my high school football team learning anything much about honor, at least not in the reverential sense I take Sommers to mean with the word. Maybe that’s because I took too many knocks to the head. If anything, playing (or more often practicing) football in rural Texas taught me, and I suspect a few of my teammates, to be self-reliant. Coaches come and go. But small-town politics stay the same. Players graduate or move away, and a few may die before midseason. Self-reliance ends up being the only thing that remains, and self-reliance seems very nearly the opposite of voluntary slavery.

A Shortcut through the Woods of Honour.

For Pericles of Athens, not only does honor snuff the ambitious flames of youth, but it pleases the elderly by helping them forget about their aches and pains.

STILL, BESIDES BEING a social relation, what exactly is honor? Evidently the ancient Greeks considered it to have utilitarian benefits. Honor to them was simply seen as something useful. Thucydides reports that Spartan King Archidamus believed honor leads to self-control, which then quashes restlessness in the citizenry. For Pericles of Athens, not only does honor snuff the ambitious flames of youth, but it pleases the elderly by helping them forget about their aches and pains.7

In Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2001) Paul Woodruff of the University of Texas explains how King Agamemnon’s craving for honor at the beginning of the Iliad was out-of-proportion to the Greek listener’s understanding of the term at the time. This disproportionality is part of what provokes his best solider Achilles to go absent without leave from the field of battle.

I admit Aristotelian commentary on ethics is so thick that the late Alexander Welsh may rightly have felt no need to elaborate, but one point upon which I wish he’d expounded more, in his otherwise illuminating discussion of the philosopher in What is Honor? A Question of Moral Imperatives (2008), is that, for Aristotle, honor is a means to some other end. Just as honor is not an end in itself, so “no one chooses happiness for the sake of honor.” The end is usually happiness or pleasure, such as the relief from aches and pains mentioned by Pericles. Aristotle goes on to say, seemingly following Archidamus, that the happiness and pleasures reached after attaining honor also carry the additional benefit of placating ambitious citizens who threaten to disturb the status quo of the current leadership.8

At the dawn of the dark ages, Boethius followed Aristotle’s counsel that the best way for a ruler to achieve political stability is to have that ruler confer private favors and public honors on to those few ambitious (and annoying) heel-nippers. While Machiavelli was generally not an advocate of Aristotle’s political philosophy, the Florentine, like the Athenian, also observed that honor has two advantages. First, it satisfies and silences ambitious individuals by elevating their social status. Second, it allows rulers to overrule the insatiable desires the plebs have for freedom.9

Honor and honors are similarly described by cynic and satirist Bernard Mandeville (1670–1733) as things that “seem to have been Invention to influence Men, whom Religion had no Power over.” This is because “a virtuous Man thinks himself obliged to obey the Laws of his Country; but a Man of Honour acts from a Principle which he is bound to believe Superiour to all Laws.”10

So, from ancient Athens to the Enlightenment, the utility of honor was advocated for the way it pacified those who were honored. It made them content and prevented political uprisings. Mandeville recognized, as Machiavelli had before him, that those republics which neglect to impart honors onto their citizens don’t last long. While such neglectful governments may survive, the form of those governments will no longer be truly republican. Too much honor, says Machiavelli, too often leads to tyranny, and tyranny always ends in the dishonor of the tyrant.11

Why Pit Honour Against Dignity?

Old Motlog el Awar, owner of el Jedha, the finest she-camel in North Arabia, rode her in our van. We looked at her with proud or greedy eyes, according to our relationship with him. My Ghazala was taller and more grand, with a faster trot, but too old to be galloped. However she was the only other animal in the party, or, indeed, in this desert, to be matched with the Jedha, and my honour was increased by her dignity.

––T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Ch. LXIV)

ONE OF THE main points Sommers makes throughout Why Honor Matters is that the value of dignity in a particular culture adversely affects the value of honor in that culture. The single most determining feature regarding the structure of Sommers’s book is in fact its dualism of dignity and honor. This dualism is based on Peter Berger’s 1970 essay, “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor” (“Honor occupies about the same place in contemporary usage as chastity. An individual asserting it hardly invites admiration and one who claims to have lost it is an object of amusement rather than sympathy”), and it confuses more than it attempts to explain. It disguises the issue at hand, so that the deliberative reader of Berger and Sommers—like the boy seeking to understand fear in the Grimm’s fairy tale—must ignore the disguises their writings sometimes assume, for only by ignoring the masks might one find out what lies beneath them.

When I first read Berger’s essay, I got the feeling its feelings remained trapped in 1970. The triumphalist attitude conveyed throughout the piece, celebrating dignity’s displacement of honor across North Atlantic cultures, seemed to my meagre millennial eyes and ears to be utter Baby Boomer Weltanschauung—just another product of the Summer of Love.

In fact, Berger’s jubilant mood reminded me of the Roman army’s slow victorious march across Caledonian lands after they vanquished the “Celtic” Boresti peoples. Tacitus reports that the Romans purposely marched slow “in order to overawe the recently conquered tribes by the very deliberateness” of the victors’ movements.12 In contrast, let us be thankful Berger’s essay and Sommers’s book are both reasonably brief.

Yet it also seems more than understandable that Berger’s essay conveys a victorious attitude. Born a Viennese Lutheran to parents who were Jewish converts, he became a naturalized American following World War II. Later he died a Bostonian. In other words, he survived the Shoah, sided with victors who happened to embrace an open society, and got to pursue his scholarly interests––including coauthoring a canonic text with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966)—amid all the comforts of Beantown.

It is one thing to wax nostalgic how humans used to be in Paradise but now must toil in the wilds, and quite another to declare (as Berger did in his essay), that North Atlantic peoples had, by 1970, found themselves arriving at some sort of Promised Land. Fortunately Sommers doesn’t make this mistake. Yet, in discussing the violence and rhetoric at Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017, Sommers does concede toward the end of his book that “the past few years should make us more appreciative of the morality of dignity and its focus on equality and respect for human rights.” But for counterpoint he then goes on to spot “a smugness to the most triumphalist champions of liberalism, an elitist ‘let-them-eat-dignity’ quality, that ignores or undervalues the serious problems of modern life.” While I agree with Sommers’s reading of Berger with regard to smug and triumphant attitudes, I cannot accept Sommers yoking himself to Berger’s nearsighted dualism of dignity-versus-honor.

This mistake made by both Sommers and Berger is comparable to a passage in Livy where––after emerging victorious at the battle of Clastidium––Marcus Claudius Marcellus mistakenly conflated the concepts of honor and courage. Although Marcellus was pious enough to consecrate a temple honoring the gods of Honor (Hodos) and Courage/Valor (Virtus) for his victory, the consequences turned out to be dire. About a century after Marcellus, Cicero wrote to his friend Lucius Plancus that “honour is not meant to impart a momentary impulse, but is the reward of unvarying excellence.” The distinction for Cicero was clear: courage is a momentary impulse, and honor is the reward for what is courageously done in that impulsive moment. But when Marcellus thought he could get away with building one temple for two gods, the officiating priests protested his maneuver. That is, the legal authorities determined that just as two soldiers deserving honor don’t receive a single medal for bravery, two gods can’t share the same temple. Aristotle might’ve said that in this instance there was an element of disproportionality in the way honor was being conferred.13

Honour and dignity are but two kinds of fragile human relationships among many, and they therefore count as sociological behaviour.

Sommers also writes that “honor is tenuous and fragile and it has to be preserved and defended with vigilance. Dignity, by contrast, is stable and enduring.” Honor for him is a precious asset, while dignity is but a durable good. Yet honor and dignity, though they can be very real, are also, to use the language of Charles Taylor, social imaginaries. They are but two kinds of fragile human relationships among many, and they therefore count as sociological behavior. Moreover, dignity and honor, as the passage from Lawrence quoted at the beginning of this section shows, remain fundamentally separate from, but not opposite to, one another.

For sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, the concept of honor is legitimate “so far as it is part of what the community believes in and approves of as the good.” In other words, it’s up to the community to decide whether or not honor is valuable, because “honour is experienced and thought of as a reality, and is identical with natural will itself, in so far as it is part of what the community believes in and approves of as the good––which must not only be good but must be seen to be good.” But that definition of honor has limited application: it applies only to the community that agrees to it. Dignity, on the other hand, is a multi-community affair.14

Yes, Sommers asks important questions about the limits of honor in terms of quantity (or what he calls “escalation”) as well as quality (“moral content”) within an honor group. These limits are needed to balance a “well contained honor framework.” Still, it often seems as if Sommers wants this framework to be all-encompassing, and therefore, too disproportionate for my rural sensibility. He writes how “honor’s emphasis on reputation is crucial for building a cohesive and responsible community.” But there are times when he doesn’t seem to realize that what benefits a single town may not be beneficial for an entire country. What’s good for the Gemeinschaft goose may not be good for the Gesellschaft gander. For honor concerns a particular in-group (the honor group), but dignity involves both in-groups and out-groups of all sorts; the former is structured around I–You relations, the latter around I–It relations.15

There is a strange moment when Sommers almost admits the possibility that honor can be a means toward dignity––and that, rather than being the opposite of honor, dignity can be an end in itself. Following Sharon Krause’s Liberalism with Honor (2002), Sommers writes that “honor helped motivate people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr. to fight for equality against serious opposition.” While Sommers says “you don’t have be from a warrior culture to appreciate the benefits, moral and otherwise, of a more courageous society,” this formulation makes it seem as though we must live in either a materialist (non-honor) culture or a martial (honor) culture. As though Westerners were fated to worship Mars or Pluto, war or wealth, but not both (and certainly not neither).

How Much Honour is Excessive?

“HONOUR,” AS THE mischievous Apuleius once put it, “is like a garment; the older it gets, the more carelessly it is worn. A contemporary to Apuleius, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, once counseled himself, not to worry over those who have yet to be born—not to fuss over those who will be born after he dies or whether they will honor him in years to come. Boethius, someone not an emperor, but an imprisoned statesman, nonetheless similarly asked: why do we look outside ourselves for happiness when it is surely to be found inward?16

Still, it’s good to remember Aurelius was a privileged (honored) person—an emperor, by Jove! He was advising himself in private contemplation. He never intended to publish his most intimate thoughts for a commoner like me to read. So, despite his oft-praised clarity, he must be read carefully. I doubt that he would’ve agreed that what works for an emperor would work the same for a pauper. A commoner might need to disregard his advice on embracing the disregard for others and instead meditate on things like honor.

But for how long?

If Sommers is correct to say present-day North Atlantic cultures carry a deficit in emotions for honor and a surplus in rationality for dignity––and if we in the West are more Vulcan than Klingon, as fans of Star Trek might say––it nonetheless remains unclear how much honor Sommers thinks should pervade an individual’s day-to-day life, and how much dignity he feels might better be denied from that life.

An honor group is its own intimate community. The more intimate a community becomes, the more claustrophobic it gets for individual members. As Larry McMurtry once noted on small town Texas:

I am not sure that I know what the civilized life is, but I am sure that I regard the violation of personal privacy as being one of the grossest offenses against it; and in the American small town privacy can be had only at the cost of considerable eccentricity—I was initially drawn to reading because I sensed in it, for the first time, the possibility of a private thing.17

But it’s not just small-town Texas as essayed and novelized by McMurtry. Tönnies also saw the need for limiting honor within a group because “fraternities of a purely intellectual and spiritual kind have found by experience that they can tolerate the physical proximity of actually living together only up to a certain point.” For Ahmed, too much intimacy within an in-group perverts that group––too much exclusivity always corrupts––creating what he calls “hyper-centricity.” The self-described “eccentric” McMurtry concludes that “in such places as my hometown (Archer City, Texas) it is a collective boredom that overwhelms privacy; the community’s hunger for drama is too intense.” Hence the love of juvenile sports in small towns.18

Berger and Luckmann have pointed out the obvious conundrum––how the procedure of having outsiders of a group recognize the honor insiders of that group share among themselves comes down to “the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure.”19 In other words, if I receive an honor from my neighborhood for catching the winning pass, I don’t expect people living outside my home town of Lampasas––such as some soccer hooligans in Liverpool––to acknowledge the honor I might receive. But, at the same time, that lack of expectation by insiders is not an invitation for them to accept ridicule from outsiders, whether they’re from Liverpool or Lampasas.

Berger was astute enough to recognize a need for an equilibrium between dignity and honor when, toward the end of his essay, he mentioned “stabilizing the discoveries of human dignity.” Perhaps he meant something like ihsan, which Ahmed defines as the Islamic concept of balance through compassion. My criticism of Sommers is that while he also recognizes some limits to honor are necessary and that a culture should “limit its excesses,” he fails to define where those limits are or where he thinks they should be.

Christopher Landrums work has appeared in the Fortnightly Review, the Berlin Review of Books, and Real Clear News of Chicago. He lives in Austin, Texas, and blogs about books at


  1. Between history and myth in Austin, Texas,” Fortnightly Review, November 2017
  2. Max Weber, Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (Oxford UP, 1958) 88.
  3. Justin Elliot, Jessica Huseman, and Decca Muldowney, “Texas county official after Harvey: The ‘Red Cross was not there’,” Texas Tribune, October 3, 2017.
  4. Ahmed, Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World, (London: Polity, 2003) 162–63; Ahmed, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute, 2007) 92–95, 104–05; Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, (New York: Oxford UP, 2016) 20, 45; Sommers, Why Honor Matters 31–32; Frank H. Stewart, Honor, (University of Chicago Press, 1994) 13, 28–29, 82–83, 124; Stewart, “The Woman, Her Guardian, and Her Husband in the Law of the Sinai Bedouin,” Arabica 38 (March 1991): 102–29 at 121–27; Alexander Welsh, What is Honor? A Question of Moral Imperatives, (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008) 3.

    Yet haggling has also been viewed as dishonorable. Weber once pointed out that for feudal Europe, the honors conferred from one’s social status limited one’s ability to haggle for economic goods. In those cases, haggling corrupts that which is conferred. There is also the old Spanish proverb: Honora y provecho no caben en un saco (Honor and money don’t belong in the same purse). Akshay Ganesh, “Nietzsche on Honor and Empathy,” Journal of Nietzsche Studies 48 (Summer 2017): 219–44 at 221; Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology 192–93. The proverb can be found in Schopenhauer, “On Books and Writing,” Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (New York: Penguin, 1970) 199.

  5. Boethius, Consolation III, v; Machiavelli, The Prince VII.
  6. Boethius, Consolation III, iv; Seneca, Moral Epistles XV.
  7. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War I, lxxxiv; II, xliv.
  8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics I, vii; III, v.
  9. Boethius, Consolation IV, ii; Machiavelli, Discourses I, x; III, xxviii.
  10. Bernard Mandeville, An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour and The Usefulness of Christianity in War (1732).
  11. Machiavelli, Discourses I, v, x, xvi.
  12. Tacitus, Agricola XXXVIII.
  13. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics IV, ii; Livy, History of Rome XXVII, xxv.
  14. Ferdinand Tönnies, Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887), II, iii, §37 in Community and Society, trans. Jose Harris, (Cambridge UP, 2001).
  15. Tönnies, Community and Society II, ii, §24.
  16. Apuleius, Apology III; Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI, xviii; XII, iv; Boethius, Consolation II, iv.
  17. McMurtry, Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987) 171–72.
  18. Tönnies, Community and Society “Argument,” ii; I, i, §7; I, ii, §37.
  19. Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, (New York: Doubleday, 1966) 79–81.

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