Manly Honor: Part I — What Is Honor?

by Brett on October 1, 2012 · 84 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood

Across cultures and time, honor and manliness have been inextricably tied together. In many cases, they were synonymous. Honor lost was manhood lost. Because honor was such a central aspect of a man’s masculine identity, men would go to great lengths to win honor and prevent its loss.

If we take even a cursory look at history, honor pops up over and over again as a central theme in literature and life. The epic poems of Homer are primarily about honor and man’s quest to achieve and maintain it. If you read Shakespeare’s plays with a close eye, you’ll find that honor and manhood take center stage as reoccurring themes. During the 17th and all the way into the early 20th century, upperclass men in Europe and the United States regularly engaged in duels on “fields of honor” to defend their manhood. When signing the Declaration of Independence, the American Founding Fathers “mutually pledged to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

But what exactly is honor?

We throw the word around quite a bit in our modern lexicon and give it a lot of lip service, but if you were to ask someone, “What is honor?” you’ll likely be answered with furrowed brows and head scratches. We think we know what it is, but often find it difficult to articulate when pressed. If you’re lucky enough to get an answer out of someone, they’ll likely say that honor means being true to a set of personal ideals, or being a man of integrity.

Honor=integrity is the point to which the definition of honor has evolved and what it generally means in our society today. In fact, it’s how we defined honor in our book, The Art of Manliness Manvotionals

That definition of honor, while correct in our modern use of the word, doesn’t really capture the concept of honor that Homer wrote about, that countless duelists died for, and that our Founding Fathers swore upon. Except for a few pockets of society like the military, fire departments, and criminal gangs, honor, as millions of men from the past understood it, barely exists in the modern West. When folks in the mainstream do bring up this type of honor, it’s usually done in jest. (See Man Code or Bro Code).

And while there are certainly some very troubling aspects of honor as it was understood in the past (which we’ll explore), I believe that part of the decline of manhood in America and other Western countries can be traced in part to a lack of a positive notion and healthy appreciation of the kind of classic honor that compelled (and checked) our manly ancestors.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore honor — what it is, its history and decline in the West, and its moral quandaries. We’ll also investigate how we can revive manly honor in a culture that fears, mocks, and suppresses it.

Today, we’ll begin by exploring what honor is. This post will lay the foundation of our discussion over the next few weeks. I’ll be honest with you: once you move beyond surface definitions, honor is not an easy topic to understand and requires you to really get your cognitive gears in motion. Surprisingly little has been written on such an important subject, and the anthropologists, sociologists, and historians who have tackled it have tended to describe various parts and expressions of it, without ever seeming to find its core. For example one of the few books on the subject, Honor: A History by James Bowman, is filled with a ton of fascinating insights into the history of honor, but at the end, one is left with the impression that Bowman himself wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. It is simply extremely difficult to recapture and describe something that was once so intrinsic to people’s lives that they did not feel the need to explain it. I cannot hope to do better than the academics who have come before, but I have tried to synthesize and distill out the most salient and important points to understand about the classic idea of honor and what it means for manliness.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Honor

Anthropologist Frank Henderson Stewart makes the case that honor comes in two types: horizontal and vertical.

Horizontal Honor

Horizontal honor is defined as the “right to respect among an exclusive society of equals.” 

Horizontal honor = mutual respect. But don’t let the term “mutual respect” fool you. We’re not talking about the sort of watered-down “respect-me-simply-because-I’m-a-human-being” kind of respect that pervades our modern culture. For horizontal honor to mean anything, it must be contingent upon certain unyielding standards in order to maintain honor within the group.

The existence of horizontal honor is premised on three elements:

A code of honor. A code of honor lays out the standards that must be reached in order for a person to receive respect within a group. These rules outline what it takes to obtain honor (or respect), and how it may be lost. That last stipulation is paramount: honor that cannot be lost is not honor.

Codes of honor often lay out very high standards for the group, but despite their difficulty, codes of honor are always viewed as minimum standards for inclusion. If you can’t meet them, then you’re seen as deficient, even despicable, and are thus shamed.

An honor group. An honor group consists of individuals who understand and have committed to live the code of honor. That everyone in the group has done this is understood by all other members of the group. Because honor depends on respect, an honor group must be a society of equals. Honor is based on the judgments of other members in the group, therefore the opinion of those members must matter to you, and they won’t if you don’t see them as your equals. Respect is a two-way street. While you might respect someone above you in the social pecking order, it’s hard to respect someone you think is beneath you.

Honor groups must also be exclusive. If everyone and anyone can be part of the group, regardless of whether they live by the code or not, then honor becomes meaningless. Egalitarianism and honor cannot coexist.

Finally, the honor group needs to be tight-knit and intimate. A society governed by mutual respect requires everyone in the society to know each other and interact face-to-face. Honor cannot exist in a society where anonymity dominates.

Shame. A person who fails to live up to the group’s code loses his honor — his right to the respect of the other honor group members as equals. A healthy feeling of shame, or the recognition that a person has failed to live up to the honor group’s code is necessary for honor to exist. When individuals stop caring whether they’ve lost their right to respect in the group (i.e. living without shame), honor loses its power to compel and check individuals’ behavior.

Horizontal honor is an all-or-nothing game. You either have the respect of your peers or you don’t. Bringing dishonor upon yourself by failing to meet the minimum standards of the group (or showing disdain or indifference for those standards) means exclusion from the group, as well as shame. Thus, in a tribe/team/group/gang, horizontal honor serves as a dividing line between us and them, between the honorable and the despicable.

I like to think of horizontal honor as your membership card into a club. To get the card, you need to meet a baseline of criteria. When you present the card at the clubhouse door, you have access to all the rights and privileges that come with being a member of that club. To maintain your status and inclusion in the club, you must conform to the club rules. Failure to conform results in your membership card being taken away and exclusion from the club.

This card analogy still resonates today in the few corrupted threads of honor that remain in our culture. Men will talk about taking away each other’s “man cards” — but the violations that invoke this mocking “punishment” are for frivolous things like drinking a fruity cocktail at a bar, and bear only the faintest echoes of the original code of men.

Vertical Honor

Vertical honor, on the other hand, isn’t about mutual respect, but is rather about giving praise and esteem to those “who are superior, whether by virtue of their abilities, their rank, their services to the community, their sex, their kinship, their office, or anything else.” (Stewart p. 59). Vertical honor, by its nature, is hierarchical and competitive. Vertical honor goes to the man who not only lives the code of honor, but excels at doing so.

So, vertical honor = praise, esteem, admiration.

In What Is Honor? Alexander Welsh makes the case that for vertical honor to exist, horizontal honor must first be present. Without a baseline of mutual respect among equal peers (horizontal honor), winning praise and esteem (vertical honor) means very little.

To illustrate this point, imagine you write a novel. Your mom and dad say it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. Two published novelists also read it and say it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. Whose praise means more to you?

The praise from the other novelists, of course.

Sure, kudos from your parents is nice, but their opinion doesn’t mean too much to you because you don’t respect them as fellow writers. Getting praise from your fellow writers? That means a lot.

To add on to my club analogy, vertical honor is like the awards and trophies that clubs bestow on members. To even be considered for the award, you need to be a member of the club; you need the membership card (horizontal honor). But being a card carrying member isn’t enough. To win a trophy, you must distinguish yourself from your peers by outperforming them and achieving excellence according to the club’s code.

Honor = Reputation

So “honor” as our forebears understood it consisted of two parts: respect from the honor group (horizontal honor) and praise from the honor group (vertical honor). Implicit in this bipartite notion of honor is that it depends on the opinion of others. You can have a sense of your own honor, but that isn’t enough — others must recognize your honor for it to exist. Or as anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers put it:

“Honour is the value of a person in his own eyes, but also in the eyes of his society. It is his estimation of his own worth, his claim to pride, but it is also the acknowledgment of that claim, his excellence recognized by society, his right to pride.”

Thus, honor is a reputation worthy of respect and admiration.

Manhood and Honor

So we’ve uncovered that honor is a reputation worthy of respect and admiration, and you earn that reputation by allegiance to an honor code. The next questions that naturally arise are: What code of honor must a man abide by to have respect from men, to be thought of as a man, and be included in the group of men (horizontal honor)? And what must he do to win praise and esteem from his fellow men (vertical honor)?

While honor is universal to both men and women, its standards have historically been gendered. While codes of honor have varied across time and cultures, in its most primitive form, honor has meant chastity for women and courage for men. To courage and honor itself, Jack Donovan, author of The Way of Men, convincingly adds strength and mastery to the traits that constitute the most basic code of men.

How did this connection between manhood, bravery, and honor evolve?

During times when the rule of law was weak, and professional military and law enforcement bodies did not exist, honor acted as the moral force that governed the tribe and maintained its survival. Men were expected to act as the tribe’s protectors, a role in which strength and courage were vitally necessary. If they were not strong physically, they were expected to contribute in another way through mastery of a skill (shaman, medicine man, scout, weapons and craft-maker, etc.) that benefited the tribe. Honor is what motivated men to fulfill these expectations. If they showed courage and mastery, they were honored as men (horizontal honor), and with that honor came the privileges of being a full member of the tribe. If they excelled at the honor code, they were granted even more status, and thus more privileges (vertical honor). But, if they showed cowardice and laziness, then they were shamed as unmanly, and lost their access to those privileges.

Defending One’s Honor

This is why defending one’s honor, or reputation, was (in many cases) a matter of success and ruin, life and death, for our manly ancestors. Even as late as 19th century America, maintaining your honor was essential to getting a good job as a lawyer or politician, and moving into good society. Thus in order to continue to enjoy the privileges due the honorable, men were highly motivated and incredibly vigilant about staying on the honor side of the shame/honor line. It was for this reason that in many honor cultures (although not all) any injury or insult to one’s reputation required immediate remedy. If you got hit, you hit back. Saving face was paramount, and retaliation was done to prove you were “game” — you still had the courage that made you worthy of honor and would not be trifled with (think of dueling).

This retaliatory honor, called reflexive honor by anthropologists, was both inspiring and troubling for Western society going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. If taken to extremes, reflexive honor becomes an “irrational pissing contest” that can destroy the community. For this reason, as societies become more civilized, they try to temper man’s base instinct to retaliate when their honor has been impugned by giving reflexive honor a moral and ethical framework, and adding virtues like mercy and magnanimity to the code of honor which had to be kept. This tempering of reflexive honor is what gave us knightly chivalry and Victorian gentlemanliness with its notions of “fair play.”

A Man’s Honor, The Group’s Honor

Concern for one’s honor was both a selfish and selfless pursuit. On the one hand, men wanted to be thought of as men and respected members of the tribe, and desired the privileges that went with that (horizontal honor). Membership in the group also entitled them to the opportunity to gain vertical honor and further status and privilege through their worthy deeds. Their reputation for strength and courage also kept other men within the tribe from messing with them.

At the same time, a man’s honorable reputation benefited the tribe as a whole. Each individual man’s reputation for courage in the group added to the group’s reputation for courage and strength. The more formidable a group’s reputation, the less likely it would have been for other groups to try to mess with it. This is why men who do not care about their honor are shamed by the group — their disloyalty puts the whole group at greater risk. Or as Bowman puts it, “The worst of the sins against honor–culminating in actual cowardice and flight–always elevated the individual above the group.”

Donovan explains this intra/inter group dynamic of honor well:

“Men who want to avoid being rejected by the gang will work hard and compete with each other to gain the respect of the male gang. Men who are stronger, more courageous and more competent by nature will compete with each other for higher status within that group. As long as there is something to be gained by achieving a higher position within the gang—whether it is greater control, greater access to resources or just peer esteem and the comfort of being higher in the hierarchy than the guys at the bottom—men will compete against each other for a higher position. However, because humans are cooperative hunters, the party-gang principle scales down to the individual level. Just as groups of men will compete against each other but unite if they believe more can be gained through cooperation, individual men will compete within a gang when there is no major external threat but then put aside their differences for the good of the group. Men aren’t wired to fight or cooperate; they are wired to fight and cooperate.

Understanding this ability to perceive and prioritize different levels of conflict is essential to understanding The Way of Men and the four tactical virtues. Men will constantly shift gears from in-group competition to competition between groups, or competition against an external threat.

It is good to be stronger than other men within your gang, but it is also important for your gang to be stronger than another gang. Men will challenge their comrades and test each other’s courage, but in many ways this intragroup challenging prepares men to face intergroup competition. Just as it is important for men to show their peers they won’t be pushed around, the survival of a group can depend on whether or not they are willing push back against other groups to protect their own interests. Men love to show off new skills and find ways to best their pals, but mastery of many of the same skills will be crucial in battles with nature and other men. The sports and games men play most demand the kind of strategic thinking and/or physical virtuosity that would be required in a survival struggle. A man’s reputation may keep men in his group from messing with him, and a group’s reputation may make its enemies think twice about creating animosity.”


Hopefully, unless your brain tuckered out halfway through, you’ve now gained a working framework for understanding what honor is, and how it used to operate in the West (and still does in places like the Middle East).

Two weeks from now, we’ll explore the reasons for the decline of honor in the West. Then in my final post about honor, I’ll propose a solution to the modern male honor gap by providing a framework for a positive notion of manly honor that avoids the senseless violence of primitive codes of honor and the farce and inanity of modern Man and Bro Codes, and lays out a framework for a code of honor that motivates men to become the best they can be.

Manly Honor Series: 
Part I: What is Honor?
Part II: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West, Ancient Greece to the Romantic Period
Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor
Part IV: The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North
Part V: Honor in the American South
Part VI: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West in the 20th Century
Part VII: How and Why to Revive Manly Honor in the Twenty-First Century
Podcast: The Gentlemen and the Roughs with Dr. Lorien Foote



Honor by Frank Henderson Stewart

What Is Honor: A Question of Moral Imperatives by Alexander Welsh

Honor: A History by James Bowman

The Way of Men by Jack Donovan


Illustrations by Ted Slampyak



{ 84 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tevya October 1, 2012 at 10:41 pm

Great stuff Brett! Thanks as always, for your great work.

2 TheCricket October 1, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Wow. Something I’ve been looking into for a while now, and this came at just the right time. Kudos for tackling such a tough subject, and I’m really looking forward to the follow-up posts.

3 pete perron October 1, 2012 at 11:12 pm

In the movie Rob Roy Liam Neeson tells his sons, when they ask him what honor is, “honor is the gift a man gives himself that no other can take away”. Will your series consider the more personal or intrinsic aspects of honor? The kind that make the social type…horizontal and vertical possible? I appreciate the work that goes into this website and have learned from it and used it to help articulate my own thoughts to my sons and granddaughters as well as my friends. Thank you for your work and care.

4 Ryan October 1, 2012 at 11:13 pm

I always figured that honor was one’s own personal code of morality. The rules one will never break, thus giving him a wall to brace himself against pressure and hardship, forging one into a man of steel.

5 Geoff October 1, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Good job Brett. It enjoy reading your articles, specifically ones like these on the nature of things. It is obvious you guys put a great wealth of time and effort into you work.
Please keep it up.

6 Brett McKay October 1, 2012 at 11:34 pm

@Pete and Ryan-

The history of honor is pretty much its evolution from being almost entirely external in nature (based on the opinions of the fellow members of your honor group), to completely internal and private — your own code. While modern society has primed us to see this change as an entirely good thing, and it is indeed good to have your own moral code, a completely private concept of honor has its downsides and led to the dissolution of the classic sense of honor laid out here. I’ll get into this a lot in the next post.

Thanks for the kind words, gents. This was definitely the hardest subject I’ve covered, and taxed my brain to the max, so the encouragement is much appreciated.

7 Dom October 1, 2012 at 11:45 pm

I’ll add my voice to the chorus: Nice work Brett. I look forward to the other two parts!

8 Sam October 1, 2012 at 11:45 pm

“I cannot hope to do better than the academics who have come before,”

Actually I just went through a recent phase where I was very interested in this subject and I read 2 of the 4 books listed in the sources. But after reading them I felt more confused than when I started and very discouraged that I would just never understand it. But this post totally brought it together for me and made it really clear! Thanks so much Brett and I really look forward to the next installment.

9 Milo Morris October 2, 2012 at 12:46 am

This is quite good, Brett. You’ve done a good job of simplify a rather daunting subject. Not only have you gotten a good start at explaining what honor is, but you’ve also given us a glimpse of why it is important.

I look forward to reading more.

10 Jay October 2, 2012 at 4:24 am

Really surprised to read an article on Honor and the term Samurai didn’t pop up. Will these only cover Western ideals of honor? I noticed knights and chivalry popped up.

Will the series cover famous examples of groups who practiced horizontal honor?

11 Joseph October 2, 2012 at 4:32 am

An interesting part of the group’s honor that you could highlight is that the honor of the whole group is greater than the sum of its parts, and equally when the parts are dishonored, the whole is dishonored disproportionally to the sum of its parts. A fantastic example of this dishonor is the Catholic Church, another group that gets the concepts of horizontal and vertical honor. Priests (many of whom are the manliest men I know), though honorable, do not bear honor equal to the honor of the Church as a whole. In contrast, the despicable actions of a small number of priests in the sex scandals has cast a pall over the Church disproportionate to the number of perpetrators, and the honor of all members of this group has been tainted by it.

12 Alex October 2, 2012 at 5:05 am

Great column, been thinking about this recently, looking forward to the next ones.

13 Dan B October 2, 2012 at 5:25 am

I teach at a school that fancies itself to have an “Honor Code”, and I greatly look forward to learning how to put meat on them bones, in a way that is meaningful and that students can understand. Great work, Brett!

14 Tate Pope October 2, 2012 at 7:04 am

Great article. Reminds me a lot of Louis L’Amour’s books. I just finished one titled “Reilly’s Luck”; Mr. L’Amour doesn’t specifically explain what honor is, but you sure get a sense of what it is from reading his stuff. It was a great book; couldn’t put it down.

15 Darren October 2, 2012 at 7:23 am

“Honor cannot exist in a society where anonymity dominates.”

Anonymous says: “You worthless pile of crap. If I could I’d break off your leg and beat you to death with the bloody end.”

Translation: “If I ever met you face to face, I’d wet myself and cry like a baby.”

The internet has done much to undermine civil discussion. It’s now possible for people to be anonymous and berate people without the risk of getting a rapier across the cheek. Unfortunately. Someone, please, invent a cyber-rapier.

Thank you, Brett. I read this to my son this morning.

16 Dan Barto October 2, 2012 at 7:36 am

Can’t believe this is the first time I’ve seen this topic come up here!

I kept thinking of the bathtub scene from Ridley Scott’s “The Duellists.” Or that whole movie for that matter.

17 Tunde October 2, 2012 at 8:18 am

Hello Brett and Mary,
This is my first comment on this site and that’s not because I haven’t had things to say. I stumbled on this site sometimes this year and I consider it to be the best website on the Internet when it comes to inspiration and getting motivated as far as a man goes. Since i stumbled on AoM, i have been going into the archives trying to wring every lesson i can frim the articles. Personally, this is the website I consider my best. Your articles are always inspiring and thoughtful and I think you guys are really smart people.

As regards this topic, I deeply understand the balance you are trying to inspire between in-based, person codes of conduct versus out-based, societal codes of conduct as in-based codes alone can and have in the past fueled violent behaviour in men. To give an example, a person who believe he should provide for and give his family the best, while having a healthy in-based code, if he doesn’t balance it with the societal codes that require honesty, hardworking etc, can easily become a robber based on his in-based conviction that it is his family alone that is his business due to the lack of balance. I can give more examples, but then I would be creating my own post. Lol.

Great article, great site. I agree with you 100% and you guys have a fan. Love you guys.

18 J. Delancy October 2, 2012 at 8:26 am

I’ve never tried to describe honor but I think I know it when I see it.
Maximus Decimus Meridius of “Gladiator” tries to retain his honor throughout the movie even though he is forced into dishonorable situations.

Good post I look forward to the rest of the series.

19 Nate October 2, 2012 at 8:53 am

Wonderful post! I thought I’d hear more crying about the potential for a class system and the exclusion of others through no fault of their own, which are valid concerns, but not to the extent that we should abandon the concept of honor as the West has. I can’t commend Darren’s comments enough, but the insidious nature of the internet doesn’t lie in anonymity alone. I can post inflammatory remarks under my one name with good reason to believe that I will never have to face the person I have offended face to face. It is a gorwing problem which society needs to address.

20 Chase Morgan October 2, 2012 at 9:34 am

Great post, Brett. I am very much looking forward to the rest of this series. Honor is something that cannot be discussed enough.

21 ToB October 2, 2012 at 9:55 am

I’m glad you’re doing posts on this topic, since I’ve noted vertical social alignments (including honour but also family) giving way to leveling and egalitarian horizontal ones (class, generations (age groups), gender ethnicity, etc) in the 20th c. My post on generations:

While horizontal and vertical honour are valuable when they work properly, what happens when equals and authority figures alike renege on the social contract, allow standards to collapse while still milking profits from the shell of a system that once was based on honour and superficially still is? For example, in the liberal professions, where values and systems have been compromised, their residual authority still confer power upon those who gutted those same values and systems.

22 Grant Schooley October 2, 2012 at 10:49 am

Great article, very interesting deconstruction of what honor is.

23 LEGO LeopardKing October 2, 2012 at 10:51 am

Howzit boss.
I congratulate you on your blog as a whole, it speaks about things that are Intristic for man and REALLY motivates me to be a man myself.
Im small in stature and used to battle with creating the man i want to be, but you’re blog acts as a light for one to know WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO BE A MAN.
God bless you and your post, I doubt you understand its impact and how its FUNDAMENTALLY helping real men.

24 Alexander October 2, 2012 at 11:20 am

Great post Brett, as usual! Looking forward to the follow-up posts.

And Darren, your idea for a “cyber-razor” is the best one I’ve heard in a long time. To the drawing board!

25 Mike October 2, 2012 at 11:28 am

In the army we define honor as such: Honor is a matter of carrying out, acting, and living the values of respect, duty, loyalty, selfless service, integrity and personal courage in everything you do.

26 Jorge October 2, 2012 at 11:39 am

Great article, had to comment. To be honorable is a personal choice and commitment. To have honor is to dedicate oneself to “higher” moral ideals and ultimately to defend them against those aiming to have one compromise said ideals. I do not necessarily think that honor has declined in our current society, we have often just been told to or asked (directly or indirectly) to “let it go” (infractions against our honor) as to stand up for something may cause unease in others. If you are an honorable man, then you should defend your honor and be honorable towards others. If disrespected, your honor should be defended even if you are the only one who sees your behavior as appropriate. In a world going soft where ideals (especially manly ideals) are often looked on as relics of the past, it is every man’s responsibility to uphold their honor, their ideals, and to preserve this way of life. To be an honorable man is not easy as it requires a significant moral code. Codes of honor in this society do not always jive as tradition is sometimes looked on as passe. “Stand for something or fall for anything” is what I say. We should strive to be the keepers of tradition and the guardians of ideals. It is a noble task and one that any honorable man would respect.

Regards brethren,
- Doc

27 Martin October 2, 2012 at 11:41 am

Thank you for the wonderful posts and all the time it takes to create such things. I’m looking forward to the other articles on this topic.

28 David Y October 2, 2012 at 11:53 am

Interesting post Brett & Kate.

I agree that manliness requires both personal and group honor.

Being the biggest badass in a criminal gang may show a sort of group honor. But, you aren’t really an honorable man or woman.

Or, you can be personally honest. But, if you let the group or society as a whole down by not living up to your responsibilities, you will also lack true honor.

Looking forward to the rest of this series.

29 Todd October 2, 2012 at 11:58 am

This is an excellent article and made me think about some of Heinlein’s novels, specifically Beyond This Horizon, where he built a society where there was a distinct code of honor that men lived by.

This quote, among others, is quite telling about modern society: “When individuals stop caring whether they’ve lost their right to respect in the group (i.e. living without shame), honor loses its power to compel and check individuals’ behavior.”

Looking forward to the next installment.

30 Bill H October 2, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Great article Brett! I look forward to the following articles. I’m hoping these help make an impact on the men (and women) of our nation where honor seems to mean nothing anymore.

31 Jason Gaines October 2, 2012 at 12:48 pm

U.S. Border Patrol motto “Honor First”; see more about it here:

In “honor” of the B.P. agent who lost his life in a killing this morning. God speed brother!

32 Matt October 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Looking forward to the rest of the series. It’s about time that the bro codes were challenged.

33 Steve From New England October 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm

This couldn’t have shown up in my reader at a better time. I teach middle school and we were starting “Mateo Falcone”, by Prosper Merimee, which is heavily dependent on the theme of personal honor.

I always struggle to get the kids to wrap their heads around the concept of honor without resorting to stereotypes. The frame of horizontal and vertical honor was just what I needed.


34 Brent October 2, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I did not attend school there, but when I think of honor I think of the code at West Point. “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Substitute “honorable man” in place of “cadet” and that pretty much works for me.

35 T October 2, 2012 at 3:06 pm

First time posting, I just wanted to say this has the potential to be one of the best series you guys have ever written keep up the good work

36 Auria October 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Great work. Overlooking honor or taking it lightly due to misundertsandings and lack of caring shows up strong among many men that I see. Sometimes I long for a place that had a strong set of this value working in place. Perhaps, why military appeals to me bacause of the standards set by those like marines. Looking forward to the rest of the online. Just a touch on honor still in the middle east reminded me of a story in the news not too long ago…

37 Tyler October 2, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Great post! Really enjoyed it.

38 Robert L. Oprisko October 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm

I adore this exploration, however, I feel that you’re missing the most progressive, relevant, and contemporary book on honor and its incarnations. Check out my book – Honor: A Phenomenology to see how honor remains relevant in all things today.

39 Joe October 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm

The military is big on honor, but the long quote by Donovan fits combat units specifically perfectly. When my dad was a Cold War pilot, his squadron mates would dogfight each other and have duels to see who was the best; then every fighter squadron participated in a Fighter Derby, where they found the best squadron.

And all of that was in preparation to go against the Soviets. Exactly what Donovan describes, and something we see, like I said, in every combat unit in the military – air, ground, or sea.

40 Oskar October 2, 2012 at 9:42 pm

I think honor is something that is different for each individual, this is why it is so difficult to quantify. I think only the broadest descriptions are adequate to describe honor in society.

For as long as I can remember, I have always held myself to what I consider “honorable” standards. For me this boils down to 3 basic rules.

Be honest.
Be respectful.
Be dependable.

All of these can be translated into a more broad statement- An honorable man realizes there are greater things than just a single person.
The group, the cause, your family.
All of these are greater than the individual, and being honorable means you would gladly give your time, energy or even life to protect them, whatever the cost.

Just a slice of my opinion.

41 Cody October 3, 2012 at 12:17 am

Brett, I think you hit the nail straight on the head with this one.

While I was reading this article I couldn’t help but compare the concepts in the article against personal experiences to see if they jived; and I can confidently affirm that these thoughts on honor very concisely describe some of the phenomenon that occur within modern military communities. So concisely in fact, that it explains much of the behavior and culture that I have, not only observed, but been a seemingly oblivious participant in.

You’ve definitely shed light on something that I always thought was a vague and unspoken code that people unconsciously adhered to without giving much thought to it.

I look forward to the rest of the series.

42 Jules October 3, 2012 at 4:02 am

Interesting and timely article. Alas, honour is thin on the ground where I live (Western Australia) & has been for many years imho. Was in the Army as a youngster – haven’t seen a lot of it since then. Too many now tied up in ‘the cult of the individual’ out for what they can get. Young bloke up in karratha the other day summed it up for me when he said “people around here are only interested in others in terms of what they think they can get out of them”. Which about sums up what I see around me. Saw a guy (well into his 30s ) push past 2 old ladies who had been waiting to be let into the post office – all so he could be 1st at the counter to complete his important business. You could tell he thought nothing of it & no doubt would have been bewildered (as well as self importantly enraged) if someone had fronted him over it. Behaviour so common now that if you tackled every instance you saw – you would be in a constant state of war.
Whatever happened to ‘do as you would be done by?’ . RIP honour, you are near death in Australia.

43 Robb October 3, 2012 at 4:10 am

It seems to me, that trying to define honor (or ‘honour’ for us brits) could be as difficult as Pirsig’s search for a definition of Quality.

I see honour as a figurehead on the prow of a ship. In my eyes, it defines you, it represents you, and goes before you wherever you are.

44 Cephas October 3, 2012 at 7:39 am

Honor is a great theme, one that I’ve also thought a lot about. I’m perplexed to read that it’s apparently not related to ‘honesty’ (see ) and I’m not inclined to believe it, but I haven’t found anything on my personal theory that it must be related at the root.

On the discussion in the comments whether honor be individual, it seems all arguments for its individuality overlook that it’s still a societal expectation. When we speak of true honor, we appeal to an abstract notion of honor that exists in society at large, man as man, or before the eye of God, take your pick, but all consistent with the idea of it being primarily a societal expectation.

45 Justin October 3, 2012 at 8:55 am


Great article. However, it leaves me with a lingering question that I hope you address in the upcoming posts. How can conflicts created by differing honor codes be resolved? To illustrate, you mention military organizations and crime syndicates. Each group has their own code of honor but both of them overlap definitions that would likely be in a Manly code of honor. It’s a bit simpler (albeit not easier) to resolve on the personal scale through contemplation of personal ethics and making choices based on them, but I could see group honor being much more difficult to resolve.

@Darren (post 15 above): your post describes a notion known informally as the John Gabriel Greater Internet F***wad Theory described here ( I’ll agree that anonymity hinders honor in the realm of cyberspace, but that’s not to say it’s completely absent. For examples of honor at work online, look to online gaming communities and specifically the groups (guilds) they generate. Additionally, there are communities like Reddit where honor has a weird dichotomous existence that supersedes the definitions provided here.

Again, fantastic post. I look forward to reading more.

46 Bryan October 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm

One facet that I see as integral to honor is the willingness to make personal sacrifices, even to the point of suffering and death, for the sake of something outside of one’s self: protecting the weak, a greater cause, justice, providing for family, etc. If self-sacrifice is such a crucial part of honor, then honor is incompatible with a “have-it-your-way” culture. (Sorry BK, you didn’t create the problem, you just identified it)

47 Benjamin Andelman October 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm

Excellent work, really a solid work on a difficult subject. Something to chew on is how does a man of religious belief that centers not on the praise of man but on the ‘honor’ of living a faithful life still stay horizontally and vertically honorable in the honor society he lives in? In some religions, to be ‘faithful’ in life you must run askew of societal norms for what is honorable. Not an argument point, just something I’ll be thinking about and maybe someone else will too.

48 EJ October 4, 2012 at 12:12 am

Honor can have multiple meanings but in the beginning when you asked what honor was I thought:

Honor is a kind mutualistic relationship between human males (at least in most cases). It is a society-a way for people to organize themselves.

Honor creates rules and expectations that add order to chaos. Without honor codes, what we call ‘cheating’ would prevail.

49 EJ October 4, 2012 at 12:21 am

Reminds me of the thieves code in Russia, a 100 percent non compliance policy of Russian criminals who embraced a sort of anarchist philosophy.

I also believe honor can be misused and employed by the propaganda machine to convince people that something is honorable, when in reality it is serving a master. Still, even in this situation, the manipulated embrace the honor in their own reality so perhaps it is still a form of honor.

50 Eddie October 4, 2012 at 9:25 am

We must use the term integrity with some caution. Honor contains integrity, however integrity is not always honorable. I know of men who are of great integrity but know not honor. I know honor when I see it though it is difficult to explain.

51 Jordan October 4, 2012 at 9:49 am

Great article! As a member of the military, I think the analogy of horizontal and vertical honor is right on the money. A fascinating piece… I look forward to the next article!

52 Brent October 4, 2012 at 12:27 pm

In Bavaria, Germany, the male locals of equal status commonly greet each other with a benevolent “servos”, pronounced SAIR-VOSE. It is used to convey mutual respect, similar to horizontal respect in this article. The concise expression conveys much:

1) You are not superior me, and I am not inferior to you
2) I have respect for you
3) A benevolent hello

The one greeted responds back with “Servos”, like we greet back with a hello, and said like it.

Naturally, it is not used for bosses or between family members, and is exclusively male to male. There are a few differences between this and horizontal honor. There is no “club” to be a member of and no standard of conduct to hold to. I suppose the only way the greeting is lost is if the nature of the relationship changes or if the individuals lose respect for one another.

Even as an American, German’s will greet me with a Servos if they know I work nearby and have seen me before. Once, I was representing my rugby club to another rugby club. When an opposing player saw me in uniform before the match, we greeted each other this way. It signifies the nature of the relationship. It would be a very honorable greeting between brotherly men in the States, better than “what’s up or “yo”. And mean something different than “gentlemen”.

Lastly, thanks for the great piece Brett. I would be at a loss if you stopped your work here.

53 Ara Bedrossian October 4, 2012 at 12:32 pm

In no disrespect to this post, I’ll quote one of the greatest movies of all time:

“What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the cost? Isn’t that that makes a man?”

“Umm, that and a pair of testicles.”

I look forward to your reasons as to honor’s trouble in the West and your solution. I just read an article about Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I think he hits upon a big reason for honor’s decline in the West.

54 Kyle Azzari October 4, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Certainly got me thinking about how i stack up to this. Great article. Looking forward to the next and perhaps some basic steps to be “honorable”. Thanks lots.

55 Sergey Zabarin October 5, 2012 at 12:52 am

An outstanding and very necessary post. I have tried to pin down a worthy and all encompassing definition of honor for quite some time now and this has added a wealth of perspective. I think it would be a great idea to create a code of honor for members of The Art of Manliness. Looking forward to read the next post. Great job!

56 Jared October 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm

This is one of the more inspiring pieces I’ve read in a long time. Thanks!

57 Derek October 5, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Very interesting article. When my son was born, I carefully considered the character traits I would like to foster (by exhibiting them myself). I choose dignity over honor.

58 Toby October 6, 2012 at 9:53 pm

I think you may have pinpointed it here Brett: “Egalitarianism and honor cannot coexist.”

Don’t forget in the past honour only really applied to elite groups (the gentry, etc). The sense of honour among, say, farmers and cab drivers was much, much weaker than among the elite, if it was present at all.

Myself being able to be among the elite and having honour these days would be nice, but egalitarianism is much more important for society, IMHO.

59 Bryan October 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm

These traits do still exist in the modern day. Scientists practice both horizontal and vertical honor. While physical violence is not resorted to in defense of this honor, the poison pen is still wielded with gusto.

60 Honorbound October 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm

perhaps we lost the concept of honor when we aloud huge amount of people from other places who had never had a concept of honor to live and integrate into our society…

61 Victor October 8, 2012 at 9:58 pm

This is a challenging topic to discuss but I think you guys did a great job. Its also my favourite type of AoM article.

If it works out, i hope you can include or inspire some type of framework for which men can compare and judge our own honour. The difficulty in explaining honour is equivalent in the difficulty to assess ones own honour. In considering my own honour I know what I expect of myself and other men, but as noted, if society does not equally value those ideals than honour doesnt really exist.

Perhaps a daunting comment, I know. But In making my decisions I often rely on what I think a true AoM man would do. I’d love if I had a better barometer of what that is.

Anyways, however it works out, these articles will be much appreciated.

62 Mattoomba October 10, 2012 at 2:11 pm

I think the ideas of strength, mastery/competence, and courage are excellent ways to define the caliber of “manliness” of a person (ideally, of a man). But if you are looking for a Code of Honor, the other qualities you mention — mercy, magnanimity, and even compassion, particularly for the weak — must be included. That is where the utility and outward strength of being a man intersects with the grace and inner strength of being a good, honorable man.

Integrity, to me, isn’t necessarily a good and honorable thing. As depicted in the book “The Road Less Traveled” by M. Scott Peck, if you lie to make things easier on yourself, then the lie weakens (and, thus, emasculates) you. If you lie to help one you love or to aid the weak, then it is actually noble. And sometimes it’s just polite to tell your wife that she doesn’t look fat in that dress.

63 Ryne October 10, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Excellent article! The discussion of vertical and horizontal honor makes a lot of sense. Some of the previous comments seem to believe honor is something more personal. I think they write of something closer to a personal integrity, not honor. You need a group dynamic for honor, how I see it anyway, to work. Nonetheless, great job and I look forward to the next post!

64 Jon October 11, 2012 at 3:41 am

I couldn’t agree more with Toby.

65 g.d. October 12, 2012 at 11:25 pm

The author glossed over the downsides of strict honour codes, especially for women. A society which teaches that it’s more important to save face or avoid shame than to act morally or compassionately can be very destructive. Just last week a couple in India were convicted for killing their daughter. She dared to fall in love with a man from a lower caste, and they planned to marry. The would have been dishonourable, so her parents thought it justifiable to kill her.
Creating a more honourable society is just fine but we should always be aware of the dark side.

66 Scott D October 14, 2012 at 12:02 am

First timer – a very interesting and difficult topic that you have handled well. Honor, I believe, is akin to gravity, you can’t see it, but it holds things together. As we have seen recently, a society run by the code of every man for himself, quickly becomes an ugly place.

67 Urbasm October 14, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Nothing says it like duelling with pistols at 20 paces, turn around and shoot!

68 Robert Barnes October 14, 2012 at 6:43 pm

My how we as a society have seemed to stray from these principles.
Being still a fairly young man (21) I love gaining insight on such things from this site! Just one more way to better myself and my community.

Thanks for the information! Now to go implement it!

69 Isadore Calderon October 17, 2012 at 9:16 pm

“Living the Martial Way” is a book that changed my life and has a wonderful chapter to help define honor as well as examining the differences between Asian and Western concepts of honor. By the Samurai definition a lot of what westerners dueled over and called honor was in fact “face” or reputation. The root of honor lies in obligation. Being a trustworthy man is honorable, but if a man calls you a liar while you may fight him in a duel it is self delusion to say that you are defending your honor because regardless of his words you are still a trustworthy man. Likewise with suicidal actions. The soldier that charges headlong into oncoming fire to be cut down in an ineffective display “courage” is acting out of interest for personal glory. The solider that sneaks and hides and stays alive to attack his enemy and succeed in his mission is fulfilling his duty even though the act might not seem as brave or glorious and is acting honorably because he’s better serving his obligation.

70 Leighton October 22, 2012 at 5:55 pm

I believe that personal virtue is found in defining morality and upholding integrity separate from the pressures of one’s social group. After all, if you aren’t strong enough of character to uphold your code of honor without the support or shame of an honor group, you exhibit weakness of integrity. My beliefs, therefore, clash with the principles of “traditional honor,” but it is certainly fascinating stuff. Very well-written.

71 Cory B. in B.A., OK October 23, 2012 at 11:56 am

Another fantastic source for this subject is Kenneth Copeland’s “Honor: Walking in Honesty, Integrity, and Truth”. This book first set my life on a course for true manliness some 20 years ago.

72 Andrew November 7, 2012 at 11:12 am

I love the way you structured your piece; the way you broke the idea of Honor down into separate categories using excellent anecdotes and visuals to elucidate your points.

Thank you for exposing the Bro Code for the trivial garbage that it is — I know people who are almost in their 30s that have found complacency in that cheap, unacceptable approach to ‘honor’.

We should be more ambitious in what we strive to achieve, in terms of honor; both for ourselves, and for our brothers.

73 Andrew Hill November 7, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Excellent post, Brett. I never really understood honor in this way until I read this- and it seems like this post took quite a bit of research. I’m going to go read the next two now.

74 John Gervasoni November 9, 2012 at 1:40 am

It all makes sense in my life: why I show people my kidney donor scar, why I need to be working, why I left my group of friends, etc…

Do you consider honor misogynistic?

75 Lance November 26, 2012 at 8:11 am

What a thought provoking article on honor. While I always knew about personal honor, it is interesting to see that honor can apply to a group. A bunch of us were talking about the importance of loyalty on a personal level and in a group setting. Loyalty toward family and friends determines our response to situations and our role in relationships. The concept of honor is sometimes lost or forgotten today. I am going to propose discussion in our next group meeting on this topic.

76 James December 19, 2012 at 12:29 am

I thank you much for your words of wisdom. They are much appreciated on my journey for manhood and are pearls of deep value. I look forward to what you have to say

77 James December 19, 2012 at 12:34 am

I thank you much for your words of wisdom. They are highly appreciated on my road towards manhood. I have already read a few articles and I look forward to reading your many other articles. Again, thank you very much.

– James from California

78 Jim Thorp February 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Finally got back to this — well done!

79 Mark July 14, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Very well done article Brett. It does justice to a difficult topic, and in this case that is no mean feat. I’m reading “Shakespeare’s Understanding of Honor” now by Alvis and that is why I came across the article. (Unfortunately out of print and expensive to get used, I got it interlibrary loan.) I look forward to reading the rest of the series shortly. I’ve already read Bowman, an excellent book.

One area of great interest to me is that the received understanding of the ethics, primarily through Aristotle, presents something of a challenge when understanding honor. For the adventurous or theoretically minded, I think these books can help to sort it out.

1) The Noblest Minds: Fame, Honor, and the American Founding by Peter McNamara (a couple of essays in it (one by Paul Rahe) deal with Aristotle’s purpose in Nicomachean Ethics that I think is revealing)

2) Moral Relevance and Moral Conflict – James D. Wallace (points out problems with the received understanding of Aristotle’s ethics that I think crucial, and helpful if we’re to harmonize morality and honor)

3) Morality and Conflict – Stuart Hampshire (same as 3)

Some parts of 2 and 3 are highly technical meta-ethics, and can be skimmed or skipped by those not into that. They still point out problems with the received wisdom on ethics and virtue that I think show how we ended up with, or at least don’t find challenged theoretically, a stale moralism where we believe all moral conflicts are resolvable and not to do so is a moral failure. I’d even go so far as saying that this moralism reflects a feminine understanding of the matter now that male understandings of honor are increasingly seen as archaic.

Also, in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology by Walter J. Ong one of the essays tells how in the old grammar school Latin was in the tradition of the ancient orators, and as such the inherent verbal sparring was ritualized combat. Along with the idea that learned Latin was an exclusive club outside the feminine home it served as (though not necessarily designed as) as a male puberty right. Co-ed education would have to remove the conflict that made it exciting for men if it wasn’t done before. Like Brett says, only a select few groups anymore still contain manly understandings of honor.

80 sam August 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Great Post.many thanks for share… expecting more.

81 Steve B October 1, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Pretty good definition I found.

“A man has honor when he adheres to a code of conduct when it is unpopular, unprofitable or dangerous to do so.”
-Walter Lippmann

82 Kyle October 1, 2013 at 7:43 pm

I think Ayn Rand defined it the best “Honor is Self Esteem made visible in Action”

83 Jigalo36 October 2, 2013 at 10:34 am

Honor is the manifestation of several desirable qualities that most people seek to achieve for themselves. Basically to be an example for others in your world to aspire to through your behavior and action for the betterment of everyone.
A few ways that come to mind:
To break from convention and do what’s right for you and yours in spite of popular opinion. When given to hold secrets, to not burden others by sharing them. To go in the direction of your fears. To love wholly and without reservation. To apply reason whenever you can, and be quick with decision when you must. To search for the root of trouble and try to heal the original wound, leaving blame behind. To know when to cut losses and where to take a stand. To play the game according to the rules of the day while seeking to level the playing field for everyone. To recognize the inescapable fight that lands at your door and face it ferociously.
When you leave the search for honor behind and realize that everyone is on the same search for pleasure and avoidance of pain…when you begin to help the people in front of you on their particular path to that goal, honor becomes an adjective that is a distant echo of a previous aspiration. Protect each other. Help each other. Start with honor.

84 Mark February 22, 2014 at 11:11 am

I appreciate this post a lot and can’t wait to see what part II brings me tomorrow!

Especially the examples concerning the difference between vertical and horizontal helped me to compare those to my own experience. It puts it in a understandable perspective.

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