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The Art of Manliness Podcast #41: The Gentlemen & The Roughs With Dr. Lorien Foote

Welcome back to another episode of the Art of Manliness podcast!

A few months ago we did a massive series on the history of manly honor in the West. In one of the posts, we explored what honor meant to men living in the American North at the time of the Civil War and how different codes of honor clashed in the Union Army. One of the sources we used while researching for that post was a fascinating book entitled The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army


gentlemen and the roughs book cover dr. lorien foote

In today’s podcast, I talk to the author of that book, Dr. Lorien Foote. Dr. Foote is a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas where she specializes in 19th century American history.

Highlights from the episode include:

  • Why calling a fellow soldier a “son of a bitch” when you killed him made a difference in the type of punishment you received in the Union Army.
  • How the honor of officers and enlisted soldiers differed.
  • What’s a “rough and tumble” (hint: it involves eye gouging).
  • What role dueling played in the Union Army at the time of the Civil War.
  • How Northern and Southern honor differed.
  • And much more!

If you enjoyed our series on manly honor, I highly recommend finding a copy of the Gentlemen and the Roughs. Out of all the books we read on the history of honor, this was definitely the most enjoyable and interesting read.

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Read the 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

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Well if you are reading this site a few months ago you probably saw that massive series we did on the history of Manly Honor in the West and in one of the articles we wrote we focused on what honor meant to men living in the American North at the time of the Civil War. And one of the sources that we used for that article was a book called The Gentleman and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army, a fascinating read, very good book. And today we are lucky enough to have the author of that book on the podcast. Her name is Dr. Lorien Foote. She is a professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. She is also a fellow Okie and a fellow Sooner. She is from Oklahoma originally and she got her PhD in American history from the University of Oklahoma. And so we are going to talk to Dr. Lorien Foote today about the history of Manly Honor in the Union Army. Well, welcome to the show Lorien Foote. I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today.

Lorien Foote: Thank you. I am just thrilled to talk to you. I love your site.

Brett McKay: Oh, thank you very much. So your book The Gentleman and the Roughs it is Violence, Honor and Manhood in the Union Army. How did you get interested or what piqued your interest to start researching about honor in manhood, specifically in the Union Army during the Civil War. It is such a narrow topic. What piqued your interest to research that?

Lorien Foote: Well what happened, this book actually evolved out of the sources because I did not originally intend to write about this. I was interested in questions of discipline in military justice. So I’d gone to the national archives to read court martial records. And as I was reading these cases they just raised all these questions for me about honor, about manhood. So, for example, I would be reading trials of men who were court-martialled for conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. And in some cases these were men who had shot an opponent or beaten somebody up. And it would be a 50- or 60-page trial and 10 to 15 pages of this would be long discussions about whether or not this person had used the phrase of ‘son of a bitch’. And I am thinking, okay he killed somebody so why do they care whether he said son of bitch while he killed someone. And you know those kind of questions led me down the road of looking at how these men conceived of honor and how they conceived this manliness and it was really driven by what I found in the sources.

Brett McKay: Well that is fascinating. So let us talk a little bit of that, because it is a lot more complicated than you think. Lot of people think honor, “Oh, yeah. I know what honor means.” And, of course, you do not need to write whole book about how men and women perceived honor. But you found that there was actually honor for the Union soldiers were sort of this, there is two kind of main threads, but it was sort of ambiguous. Sometimes you had one view and then sometimes you just slip in this other view. So it was like the honor of the gentlemen and then the honor of the roughs. Can you kind of briefly explain what those two types of honor meant to these guys?

Lorien Foote: Sure and let me do it by rephrasing a little bit how we think about honor. Because one of the things that I found when people think about that concept and it was a mistake that I made as well, is they think of honor almost synonymously with virtue. When I talked to people about the book I have noticed that they think of honor to be someone with good character. And honor is a particular way of looking at the world where you only have as much worth as other people give to you. And so you truly can’t have any self-esteem or any sense of self-worth unless your peers recognize your claim. And so that definition of honor applies to different cultures and different groups in different periods of history and different places in the world.

So if we look at the United States and the Confederacy during the Civil War, we can apply that definition of honor and say, Okay what groups lived by the definition and then how do they display honor. So what I found was a difference in how men displayed honor. So for both the Roughs and the Gentlemen their self-worth comes from whether their peers give them worth, whether they have public recognition of what they are claiming. But they have very different rituals about how they display their honor and what they do if they are shamed in front of other people.

Brett McKay: Okay, so just to clarify for the readers the Roughs were primarily lower class…

Lorien Foote: Right.

Brett McKay: …immigrants and the and they usually the infantry men, typically.

Lorien Foote: Yes, roughs are men from the lowest social economic classes in the north and they can be both immigrants, but also and they could be rural farm laborers. Men who did not have property and who were moving from place to place trying to find work. So regiments from Indiana and Illinois had men in them that they called Roughs and these men generally weren’t immigrants, they were native born Americans but they were men without property, without education, and the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder and then the Roughs, their version of honor was very much a, if you are shamed in public it is a violent response. And then they proved their manhood through rituals they showed that they can take and give pain. So they got a reputation among their peers by showing how tough they were that they could give pain that they could take it in brutal fights.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you called, they called them Rough and Tumbles, right?

Lorien Foote: Yes, yes.

Brett McKay: Can you describe what are Rough and Tumbles exactly is, what it entails?

Lorien Foote: Sure. A Rough and Tumble is they would called it is also a no holds barred fight where there is basically no rules and you put two men inside a ring where other men are watching and they just fight each other using their hands until one of them is incapacitated and cannot go on.

Brett McKay: And there is often eye-gouging. That was the thing that surprised me.

Lorien Foote: Yes. Yes. And I in particularly that comes from men in the rural areas. But yeah men would actually grow finger nails several inches long in order to use that as a weapon to gouge out somebody’s eye and, of course, because in honor it is about this reputation for toughness for these guys, if you had an eye missing from one of these fights, I mean that was actually a mark of honor.

Brett McKay: Wow! And so not only was violence a part of it, I also, you also talk about how drinking was an important aspect of displaying of honor and manhood amongst the Roughs as well.

Lorien Foote: Yes. I mean it’s how much liquor can you consume and how much can you drink and then, of course, the liquor lead to a lot of the fighting as well.

Brett McKay: Oh, yes, so that was the honor of the Roughs. What about the Gentlemen. So these were typically upper class and they were officers, correct?

Lorien Foote: Right. And even though they were men who considered themselves gentlemen who would have been in the infantry as well, but generally the gentleman are men who have some kind of economic status, education, they are recognized in society as gentlemen, and then for them they cannot endure a public insult, and neither can the Roughs but for a gentleman your response is, I guess, in some ways more refined, it is still violent response, but it is a challenge. So if you receive a verbal insult as a gentleman, you have to respond to that to that with a public vindication by showing that you are willing to fight to defend your honor. So if somebody, liar, puppy, coward, words like that, those words were applied to another man, that is an indication that you have shamed him and a man of honor among the gentlemen class will know that he now has indicate himself publicly by responding with an offer to fight.

Brett McKay: And how was, what was the form of fighting? Was it like rough and tumbles or did they actually use duels?

Lorien Foote: No, gentleman would not do a rough and tumble fight. Generally, it is a formal, either written offer to duel or there are some men in some regions of the Union who the fight would be a fist fight or some of them did offer to shoot at each others with pistols, but it was not quite to the same form as a duel.

Brett McKay: So how did that, you talk about this too in your book, dueling was illegal in the military.

Lorien Foote: Yes.

Brett McKay: How did they get around that and I mean what sort of conflict that have with these men where they had to vindicate themselves, but at the same time the military was saying, ‘No, you can’t do that’?

Lorien Foote: Right. Where it really places a lot of the pressure is on some of the officers of the regiment, so men who were the lieutenants and the captains. Because no one would be prosecuted unless an officers brings a charge against someone. So what we see is that in some regiments men do these fights of honor and they never even get prosecuted because their officer believe in that kind of honor and so the officers just aren’t going to bring charges against them.

For men who do get formally charged, it is a real issue. Because they have to defend themselves and claim that they are gentleman, which is why they had to defend their honor. But, yeah the military has told them to do this is not gentlemanly and that so now they feel the shame as being put on trial for what they’ve done and it creates a lot of conflict for them internally, but also conflicts among officers. And I see, that is why we see that it the cases of men who are charged with dueling that there is a most inconsistent application of justice, that there is in the Union Army. I mean there are some men who are found guilty, some men who are found not guilty and it just depends on whether the members of the court martial who are trying the case agree that dueling is a form of honor.

Brett McKay: And then like you said sometimes like the fact that they said ‘son of a bitch’ would, when you – when that would change things somehow?

Lorien Foote: Yes. Well because what is interesting about it is you can be charged during the Civil War under the 83rd Article of War with conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. And then what that conduct is, is what has to be proved in the trial and then you have to prove that that conduct is not the conduct of a gentleman. So those were some of my favorite cases because they were many men in the Union Army who believed that profanity is one of the worst vices. That it is using profane language corrupts your mind and then leads you down the path to other vices, to sexual immorality or to drinking. So they viewed profanity as truly an act that no gentleman would over publicly use. Well as for other men, speaking in that kind of language is part of their display of manliness. I mean they curse and they drink and they fight. So it really becomes a place where these different definitions of manhood gets sorted out, is in these trials where an officer uses a phrase like that.

Brett McKay: And another issue I thought was fascinating the difference between the Roughs and the Gentlemen, it seems like the honor of the Roughs on the manhood of the Roughs is very passionate and you know as soon as something happened you had to respond right away. And then Gentlemen seemed a little bit more reserved and I liked to how they described it as you had to keep your cool. That was the goal of the Gentlemen. Can you describe that sort of like stoic honor that those guys had?

Lorien Foote: Yeah. So the idea of being cool is that in any circumstance you can act with complete calm and indifference as if nothing unusual was happening to you. So I mean in battle you would be walking through this hail of bullets and shrapnel and walking as calmly as if you are just walking down the street at home. And if somebody is in your face and stoking you are responding cleverly, making jokes, but just as if nothing was wrong. And so that was interesting because the Gentlemen, I mean a duel, you could kill someone, but in their mind what’s key is that their violence is restrained. They are only going to display violence in a ritual under certain circumstances that showed that their violence is under their control. Or as with the Roughs their violence is out of control.

Brett McKay: And another I felt was interesting too as well that idea of being in control the temperance movement was really big amongst the Gentlemen, the officer class. And I thought that was, there is also very humorous antidotes where the officers tried to start temperance movements amongst their men and the men where sort of rebelled against it and the infantry men went.

Lorien Foote: Yes. Now even though and that is what is interesting. I think that is why in so many companies and regiments in the Union Army there is that being a lot of conflicts between men because there are infantry men and privates who, they also believe in a manliness that has a lot of more character and you don’t drink and you don’t curse. And so sometimes you have officers allied with their unlisted men, whereas there’s other officers and other unlisted men who drink and fight. And when these men get together in the same regiment, it can really cause conflicts. So I think one of the stories that I told in the book is in one particular regiment there are some officers who have temperance meeting with some of the men in their regiment and then, so then some of the other men in the regiment throw mule urine on their tent when they are trying to meet. And then there is another regiment where officers and men form an anti-temperance society and where they say the purpose of the society is to drink as much as possible. And so that is what I think is interesting. Because sometimes gentleman have men I think who are hoping some day to become gentleman themselves that want to display these values of gentility and refinement.

Brett McKay: Okay, let’s talk a little more about the conflict between the Rough and the Gentlemen. That was another really fascinating part of your part book. Because these are two completely different ideas of manhood. One, you have more refined, more, you had to be control of your emotions. The other one is more violent and you just, you act whenever you need act. How did – besides the temperance issues how else did that conflict arise? Were there any incidents in particular where it really, you found that was a perfect example of these two conflicting views of men who did not honor, but in heads.

Lorien Foote: I think a big way that I saw was in the issue of cleanliness. This is the time period where Americans are only just now coming to embrace the idea of bathing and taking good care of themselves and so Gentlemen carded their belief in what makes you a man is that you are clean in your presentation of yourself, clean cloths, clean nails, your hair is trimmed. And I mean the worst, we have to picture that these men are dirty and that they have long hair and untamed hair and that they rebel in that as part of their mainlines. And so when you have gentle officers, some of them want to clean up these men. They want to force them to cut their hair. They want to force them to take a bath two or three times a week and there was a lot of conflict over that issue.

Brett McKay: So do the – I know one aspect of the honor of the Gentlemen was you were not supposed to ever duel or fight someone that was beneath you.

Lorien Foote: Yes.

Brett McKay: But were there instances where that was ignored and they actually did dipped it out with someone from the Rough class?

Lorien Foote: Well dipped it out, yes but not in a sense that they would call it a duel. So what found is that officers who were Gentlemen when they were trying to discipline or punish Roughs, they would inflict incredible physical corporal punishment on these men, beat them, kick them, tie them up and use water torture on them in some cases. So they are using very physical punishments. So that is in their capacity as an officer to an unlisted man. They could never have fought with any of these men you know with their uniform off or you know just as an issue, as a personal issue between them.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that is interesting about the bars, right? Like they talked about the Roughs, we talked about the, to the Gentlemen. Oh it is only those bars that are keeping you safe. If you did not have these bars on you I would give you a licking.

Lorien Foote: Yeah if you take off those shoulders straps and fight me. Yeah, they will always, because they knew, of course, with army regulations trying to impose the automatic beatings of privates, the officers I mean you could really, you could face the death penalty if you hit an officer. So it was important for these soldiers whom they were trying to assert their manhood to these officers they wanted these officers to take off their uniform, go outside the lines of the camp, you know, and fight it out man to man. And I think it was also on assertion of their quality to these officers.

Brett McKay: So how, so a lot of the focus on, the history of honor in America typically focused on Southern or Confederate honor.

Lorien Foote: Right.

Brett McKay: That, you know, South were very famous for their honor culture. How did the, I mean in your research, what is the difference between Southern honor and the honor of the Northern men?

Lorien Foote: Well I think the biggest difference is just that there is a class of Northern men who, they would have a ritual of honor where they would issue a verbal offer to fight and if someone call them a coward they will say, “Okay, let’s go fight”. And by that they just mean kind of a fist fight. Whereas for Southerners they really do embrace that virtual of the duel and there were Northern men who dueled and that is what I think my book brings out and make clear. But I think with dueling ritual was much more widespread in the South. But I think part of what I am trying argue in the book and one has seemed to resonate with historians who’ve read the book if there wasn’t as big a difference between Northern and Southern honor as we as have tried to claim.

Brett McKay: Very interesting. So how did the Civil War, do you think, shape America’s conception of honor in manhood? Do we still see these trends today or didn’t one form of honor went out, what is your take on that?

Lorien Foote: Well, I think that dueling as a ritual, the Civil War kind of is part of a process of putting end to that. But certain ways of thinking about honor, I think the Civil Ware actually gives it a shot in the arm too because I mean both sides viewed the war itself as a test of honor. I mean men talk about this. “We are fighting for the honor of our nation or the honor of our state or…” So they think about it in terms of honor and historians who have look at the Philippine war, for example, have found that men viewed a lot of the language of honor in talking about the Philippine war and why that war needs to be fought and why some of the men fight in the war. I got to show my honor in this war. So I think in terms of men thinking about I have or the section of the country that I live or then even my country has honor that must be defended. that must be fought for. I think that way of thinking really continues too today. And I think it is interesting because sometimes when I made presentations about my book and there have been veterans in the audience, I mean they will come up and say, “It is still like that in the military. It does not sound that different to me.”

Brett McKay: Well, Dr. Foote. thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

Lorien Foote: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about my work.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Dr. Lorien Foote. She is author of the book The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army and you can pick up her book on

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check up the Art of Manliness website at And until next time stay manly.

Manly Honor VII: How and Why to Revive Manly Honor in the Twenty-First Century

Over the last few months, we’ve defined traditional honor, and then taken a look at the different ways that definition has been interpreted and lived by men over the centuries.

Traditional honor consists of having a reputation judged worthy of respect and admiration by a group of equal peers who share the same code of standards. In primitive times, these standards were based on strength and courage. In the medieval period, outward integrity and chivalry were added to these primal qualities of manhood. In the 19th century, the Stoic-Christian honor code drew from the philosophy of ancient Greece and the faith which gave the code its name, by seeking to form a new kind of honor – one that wed together ancient bravery with character traits like industry, coolness, sincerity, chastity, self-sufficiency, self-control, orderliness, and dependability. In the 20th century, traditional honor unraveled as urbanization and anonymity dissolved the intimate, face-to-face relationships that honor requires, people grew uncomfortable with violence and shame, individual feelings and desires were elevated above the common good of society at the same time a shared idea of what constituted that common good was lost, and people began to form their own personal honor codes which could not be judged by anyone else but themselves. This completed honor’s transformation from wholly public and external to completely private and internal. Honor became a concept almost entirely synonymous with personal integrity.

The story of the evolution of honor is sweeping in breadth and amazingly complex and we’ve offered an immense amount of detail in order to offer as rich and in-depth an understanding of this incredibly important and historically influential force as possible.

But today in this final post I want to strip away many of those layers and try to get back down to the heart of manly honor – the basics of why it’s worth preserving and how we can, and must, revive elements of it in this anti-honor-honor world.

This is the final and longest article in the series. Think of it as the last chapter in a book, and block off some time to read it. I think it will be worth your while, and I want you to join what will hopefully be a robust discussion of the topic.

Why Honor Should Be Revived

These days honor gets a bad rap for, among many things, inciting violence, being anti-egalitarian, creating intolerance, inducing shame, and motivating hypocrisy.

But honor does have definite upsides:

Honor is the moral imperative of men; obedience is the moral imperative of boys.

At the crux of the argument for the revival of honor is this: honor based on respect is a superior moral imperative to obedience based on rules and laws.

When you’re a child, you do the right thing out of obedience to authority, out of the fear of punishment.

As you mature, you begin to see that the world does not revolve around you, that you belong to groups larger than yourself, and with this discovery comes a new awareness of the needs of that group and how your behavior affects others. This change in perspective (should) shift your motivation in doing the right thing from obedience to authority/fear of punishment, to respect for other people.

For example, as a boy I did chores because I had to, and I didn’t want to get in trouble with my folks. As I grew into a young man, I began to do them because I respected my parents – I came to understand that I was part of a family and had a duty to keep the household running and pull my own weight.

The latter point is the key to the superiority of honor as a moral imperative – operating out of honor rather than obedience means realizing that you have a role to play in helping a group survive and thrive – that your actions directly correlate to the group’s strength or weakness. When men function out of rules and laws, they do the bare minimum they can without being punished. When they function out of honor, they seek to at least pull their own weight, and then add further to the strength of the group to the best of their abilities. This is why, as Jack Donovan argues in The Way of Men:

“Part of the reason that honor is a virtue rather than merely a state of affairs is that showing concern for the respect of your peers is a show of loyalty and indication of belonging…Caring about what the men around you think of you is a show of respect, and conversely, not caring what other men think of you is a sign of disrespect. In a survival band, it is tactically advantageous to maintain a reputation for being strong, courageous and masterful as a group. A man who does not care for his own reputation makes his team look weak by association. Dishonor and disregard for honor are dangerous for a survival band or a fighting team because the appearance of weakness invites attack.”

Honor moves a man’s motivation to act from base, childlike fear of authority to a higher, mature respect, even love – love of family, love of church, love of country, even the love of honor itself. A man will not let those he loves (or himself) down by slacking off.

Honor is more powerful than rules and laws in shaping human behavior.

Not only is honor a more mature moral imperative than obedience, it’s often much more effective too. Studies have shown that social pressure — the very thing that drives honor — is more powerful than rules and laws in getting people to do the right thing. The book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness documents several studies that demonstrate individuals will modify their behavior when they know or simply believe their peers are watching them. Despite the way modern civilization has greatly transformed our lives, we are still social animals at heart – we still fear shame and desertion above all.

Social psychologists are now confirming with experiments what philosophers understood centuries ago. John Locke wryly observed “that he who imagines condemnation and disgrace, not to be strong motives to men … seems little skilled in the nature or history of mankind.” In other words: don’t underestimate the power of shame. Mandville and Montesquieu were equally as adamant as Locke on the power of honor to shape human behavior. According to Mandville, “the Invention of Honour has been far more beneficial to the Civil Society than that of Virtue, because honor demands recognition from your peers.” That addition of the social element is the linchpin that makes honor “a better bet than virtue for constraining and directing social lives.”

Without honor, mediocrity, corruption, and incompetence rule. Honor is based on reputation, and when people stop caring about their reputation, and shame disappears, people devolve into doing the least they can without getting into legal trouble or being fired. This leads to mediocrity, corruption, and incompetence. Navigating any business or customer service network these days, you encounter the most egregious examples of the latter. Because few potential employers check references anymore, and your reputation is unknown when you apply for the job, people have no fear of their history following them from job to job, and thus little incentive to perform their work with excellence, as opposed to mind-blowing ineptitude.

Honor both constrains AND frees.

The paradox of honor, and the constraints of any virtuous life, is that while the commitment to live with certain principles limits you in some ways, it also frees you in others. A man may willingly consent to and even impose on himself certain restrictions that he believes will actually lead to greater freedom and/or more opportunities. For example, a man may choose not to smoke, so that he can be free from addiction, and from that addiction dictating his choices.

Similarly, as a youth, the more you showed your parents and other adults you could be trusted to do the right thing, the more they removed their rules, gave you more freedom, and allowed you to make your own decisions.

As society has become more complex and anonymous, and the bonds of honor have dissolved, we’ve had to rely more and more on obedience – rules and regulations — to govern people’s behavior. Because we no longer trust people to do things because they swore an oath to do so, and because concern for their honorable reputation compels them, we’ve created ever more elaborate rules and regulations to enforce ethics. Instead of feeling safe in the knowledge that a man has internalized an honor code to the extent that he may be trusted to do the right thing, even when no one is watching, now he must be constantly checked up on and videotaped. The reason the minutia of rules at your office feel infantilizing…is because they are. We must be policed by an external authority to check our behavior in the absence of honor.

This web of rules and blanket mandates constrains our choices, prevents us from exercising practical wisdom in taking into consideration the specific circumstances of a specific situation in order to make the best possible decision, and thus curtails our freedom and stunts our moral development.

For example, at Brigham Young University all students sign an honor code which states, among other things, that they agree “to be honest,” and to “avoid academic dishonesty and misconduct in all its forms, including but not limited to plagiarism, fabrication or falsification, cheating, and other academic misconduct.” In exchange for this oath of honesty, student exams are administered at the “testing center,” a building on campus dedicated to this purpose; at any given time there may be six hundred students there taking six dozen different tests for as many different classes. The way it works is that a professor gives his or her class a several-day period over which they can come to the testing center to take the exam, which the students pick up and return to the front desk. They can come in to take the test anytime during the testing period — morning, afternoon or evening – that best fits their schedule; they can get it done right away or wait for the very last hour. This flexibility and freedom is given students because those who take the test first can be trusted not to share what is on the exam with those who choose to take it later.

Honor acts as a check on narcissism.

Honor begins as an inner-conviction of self-worth, but then you must present this claim to your peers for validation. Other people serve as a mirror of the self and a check to your pride – they are there to call bullocks on an inflated or false self-assessment. Without this important check, people become like Narcissus – staring at only themselves all day and absolutely loving what they see. At the same time, the ability to give and receive feedback openly and honestly creates affability among you and your peers – the bonds of respect.

Too many men today think they are the sh*t, when they’ve never had to prove themselves to anyone else – they’ve never shown their abilities outside their own bedroom. An honor group is crucial in teaching you that not only are you not wearing any clothes, you ain’t the emperor either.

Honor creates community. A shared honor code and the reliance on mutual respect to enforce that code can bind a community together stronger than laws, rules, and regulations. Honor forces us to think about what’s best for the group, and not necessarily what’s best for our individual needs. It also forces us to deal with one another and sort problems out ourselves, instead of relying on some third-party authority to resolve our problems for us. That social friction, while certainly uncomfortable, strengthens social ties because it requires us to engage our neighbors and actually be social with them.

Honor creates meaning. There’s a reason people tend to like old movies and books better than the modern variety. It’s not because of nostalgia. And it’s not because writers aren’t as talented as they once were. It’s that there’s nothing much to write about anymore. The drama of old literature captures our attention because the characters lived and moved in a culture of honor. There was structure to navigate and push against. There were many layers to life, and people tried to move up and avoid shame, and earn honor. These days authors have to invent their own drama in the form of self-created experiments in order to generate some fodder for a book (eg., living all the commandments of the Bible for a year, going a year without throwing anything away, living a year as a woman disguised as a man…). Because the rest of life is flat and borring.

The longer I live, the more I appreciate the benefits of structure, of rules, of friction. Today we are amoebas floating in an Age of Anomie. Life seems empty and insubstantial. Evil goes unpunished. Good goes unrewarded. Merit goes unhonored. There’s no clear way to earn honor or avoid shame. Instead of a few earning the just fruits of their valiant labors, everyone is given a tiny portion of the egalitarian pie of praise, a crumb that offers no nourishment, does nothing to satiate our hunger for glory. Nobody cares what you do. There’s no in or out. We each construct our own realities, but without the comparison with, the competition with, the esteem of others — it all feels sometimes like a great charade where we’ve all convinced ourselves that the world’s never been better, while shoving down the empty pit in our stomachs.

How to Revive Honor

When I started this series all the way back in September, I thought it would be easy to lay out a plan on how to revive traditional honor in the 21st century. But as I delved deeper and deeper into the infuriatingly complex history and philosophy of traditional honor, I realized creating a roadmap for honor in the 21st century would be much, much harder than I initially thought.

As we’ve mentioned many times, for honor to exist there must be an honor group that enjoys intimate, face-to-face relationships (only those who truly know you can judge your reputation for honor), and a shared honor code – one that everyone in the group understands and has agreed to uphold.

These honor prerequisites are pretty hard to find in a globalized world in the age of the Internet. Your country probably has a lot of diversity and very little agreement on what constitutes the common good. And good luck trying to revive honor among Facebook users. In the immortal words of Wayne Campbell, “Shyeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt!”

Will a society-wide honor culture ever re-emerge? It seems highly doubtful now, but because of my belief in the generational cycle, and the dismal job people always do predicting the future, I wouldn’t rule it with 100% certainty. However, either way, its comeback is not in the hands of individual men; rather, if it has any chance of reemerging, it will do so as a result of a nation-wide or global crisis that would dramatically alter the landscape of life, force people to come together, and greatly shift ideas about things like the common good, gender roles, and so on.

So what’s a man to do…twiddle his thumbs and hope that the Mayan calculations for the apocalypse were a day off?

While we can’t single-handedly revive honor across the country, we can live traditional honor the way it was created to be experienced at its most essential core – among a group of fellow men.

Below, I humbly offer my suggestions for reviving traditional honor in the 21st century. It’s not perfect, but the motto of the Art of Manliness from its inception has been that it’s better to do something, anything, than to sit around waiting for “the real thing” to arrive.

What I outline below is simply a starting point for a conversation that I hope you all will contribute to.

Every Man Needs a Platoon: Creating/Joining an Honor Group

We all belong to large groups that provide us a sense of identity and belonging. A nation, a state, a town, a company, a church, or a political party are just a few examples of the large groups a man might associate with. These groups are often too large and impersonal for honor to exist in – on these levels nobody cares if we’re living with honor or not. If we want to revive honor today, we need to give up on the idea of trying to revive it on the macro-level and focus our attention on resurrecting it on the micro-level.

How do we do that?

Each of us needs to find a platoon of men.

“Dunbar’s number” — 150 — has been getting a lot of play this year. 150 is supposedly, on average, the maximum number of people you can have stable social relationships with at any given time – where you know each person individually and where they fit in the group. In a group this size, honor and shame can govern effectively; beyond this limit things begin to break down and restrictive rules and laws must be introduced to enforce stability and cohesion. For this reason, ancient villages would typically break off once they reached around 150 people in order to form their own settlement.

150 is also the average size of military companies both in ancient Rome and today.

Within each company are 3-5 platoons.

Containing 24-50 men, platoons are the smallest “self-contained” unit in the regular army (each includes a medic, radio operator, headquarters element, and forward observer for calling in airstrikes). A platoon of men sleep together, eat together, fight together, and sometimes die together.

Traditional honor can thrive in a group the size of a company, and because of the level of intimacy present, it manifests itself most acutely within the platoon.

When journalist Sebastian Junger asked soldiers about their allegiance to one another, “they said they would unhesitatingly risk their lives for anyone in the platoon or company, but that the sentiment dropped off pretty quickly after that. By the time you got to brigade level— three or four thousand men—any sense of common goals or identity was pretty much theoretical.”

The apex of traditional honor is experienced by those platoons that engage in combat firsthand. As Junger puts it, “For some reason there is a profound and mysterious gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which that happens regularly.”

Only a small percentage of those in the military are directly involved in regular firefights. The rest serve in support roles and experience an honor culture lower than combat soldiers, but higher than civilians, as do police officers and firefighters who may not have their lives directly threatened every day, but constantly work under the risk that they could, and know that their comrades are willing to risk their own lives to protect them.

But in our current society, not every man can be a soldier or a firefighter, even if they wanted to.

Regardless of his individual vocation, every man can, and should, take a lesson from military platoons by joining or forming their own small, tight-knit honor groups.

Your platoon (the word platoon simply comes from the French word peloton, for “little ball,” or  a small group of people) or your “gang of men” as Donovan calls it, is your best bet at experiencing traditional honor in the 21st century and becoming the man you want to be.

One of the reasons traditional, cultural honor dissolved was that it often conflicted with a man’s personal convictions. Joining an honor group of your choosing solves this dilemma; you still agree to subvert your own needs to those of the group, but you do so willingly because you’ve chosen an honor group and code which aligns with your own personal standards. Your group, in turn, can help you think through what to do in situations where your own conscience conflicts with the cultural code of the society around you. For instance, you could discuss the matter of how to behave at work when the coworkers around you are crass and tell derogatory jokes throughout the day. Or what do about the neighbor whose dog barks all night. An honor group can help you sort through such issues, as well as keep you accountable when you decide on a plan of action.

But where can you find your platoon of men?

It could be a sports team, a men’s group at church, a college fraternity, or a professional group (professions often have oaths of ethics that used to be important but are no longer taken seriously).

If you can’t find a group to your liking, take the initiative and start your own. It doesn’t have to be formal and you don’t need a lot of people — where two or more are present, honor will be present as well.

My personal platoon is my Freemason Lodge, Lodge Veritas #556. We’re a group of a little more than 20 men from different backgrounds, but with the common goal of becoming better men and upholding the values and virtues of Freemasonry. I know that when the chips are down, these men will have my back because they’ve sworn a sacred oath that they would. We all strive to comport ourselves so as not to bring shame and dishonor to the Fraternity of Freemasonry as a whole, as well as to our individual Lodge. Being part of a lodge has definitely helped me become a better man, as well as experience traditional honor.

Why You Should Become Part of a Platoon of Men

Joining groups is highly out of favor in our individualistic society.  Men want to be great, but they want to make the journey entirely on their own. A potent symbol of this is the overwhelming popularity of superhero movies these days. Not only are superhero movies more popular than ever, but in contrast to superhero tales of yore, the movies often concentrate on the hero’s backstory – his dark psychological angst, his reluctance to take on the role, his loneliness in being different than others, and his inability to maintain romantic relationships. These are heroes for a time when the light of honor has set: they have their own code, act alone, are isolated, and elevate a man’s psyche and inner reality to great importance.

After the shooting that occurred during the screening of Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, there was an image from a video of people coming out of the movie theater that really struck me deep down — one that I’ve thought about many times since. There was this grown man, head down, walking out in a full-on Batman costume. An image of a childish fantasy utterly deflated. To me this was a searing symbol of the gap between the fantasy of the lone hero and the reality that men need to band together. I’m not saying that one man in the theater couldn’t have taken out the shooter himself, I’m talking bigger picture than that – that what you have now are men completely isolated from each other, with nobody to check up on them, nobody to keep them centered. The shooter should have been stopped long before he ever stepped foot in that theater.

The popular meme of the lone superhero taking on a dozen enemies who have circled him looks awesome, but is nothing more than a boy’s fantasy. Or as Donovan puts it, “Claims of complete independence are generally bulls**t. Few of us have ever survived or would be able to survive on our own for an extended period of time. Few of us would want to.” Rugged frontiersmen weren’t out there all alone. Men formed tribes in mining camps, posses in the Old West. The legend of the lone cowboy…is just that; cattle drovers worked together and formed unions. When people on the frontier were truly isolated from each other, they went nuts – men and women alike. If you don’t believe me, do yourself a favor and check out Wisconsin Death Trip.

For their physical survival and their psychological health, men need to belong to a group. Men want meaning in their lives, meaning that comes from being part of something larger than themselves. But they are often unwilling to trade their unfettered individualism to get it. They want honor, but they don’t want obligation to others, duty to others, responsibilities to anyone other then self that go along with it. They want honor, but they are unwilling to trade their time, and the freedom of gratifying their own desires whenever, and wherever they’d like, in order to sacrifice for the good of the group. In short, they want honor, but are unwilling to embrace the means necessary to attain it.

But brothers, the tradeoff is infinitely worth it.

In joining a group, in return for a promise of loyalty, for a pledge to pull your own weight, to strengthen the group, and to have each of your brothers’ backs, no matter what, you can do more, and become more than you ever could on your own. Studies done decades ago showed that men who belonged to a group that was close-knit showed less fear when jumping from an airplane than groups of men who shared only weak ties. Men could also withstand greater pain from electric shocks when they were part of a highly-bound group, as opposed to one with loose and impersonal associations. The military has found that tightly-knit units suffer less cases of breakdown and PTSD than units where morale and bonding is low. The reason for these findings is that men in a tightly-bonded group both know that the man on the right and left of him have his back, and they also fear letting their fellow men down; the fear of dishonor drives them to overcome their own fears and move forward. As one of the men Junger interviewed said, “As a soldier, the thing you were most scared of was failing your brothers when they needed you, and compared to that, dying was easy. Dying was over with. Cowardice lingered forever.”

As it is in combat, so it is in life. Men around us are breaking down because of the stresses of their own battles. They lack strength to deal with life’s difficulties because they don’t have honor pushing them on, and they don’t have honor because they don’t belong to a platoon of men.

What Should Be the Code of Honor for Your Platoon?

Honor can’t exist without a code – every honor group must have one that is agreed upon by all members and enforced through shame.

While we now equate honor with integrity, honor is essentially amoral. A chivalrous knight and a mafia gangster both live a code of honor. And in any small group of men, if you strip everything else away, the essential core of the honor code comes down to 1) not engaging in behavior that will weaken the group, and 2) having each other’s backs. For example, while patriotism and the desire to protect freedom may be part of a man’s motivation for joining the military, during battle he is not thinking about his love for America, but rather only about protecting his brothers. As Junger puts it, “the moral basis of the war doesn’t seem to interest soldiers much, and its long-term success or failure has a relevance of about zero.”

Nevertheless, a broader, overarching code of honor is what brings the men together in the first place and greatly informs the character of the group. Every honor group needs a framework of honor that explains why the group exists, how it operates, and what is expected of the men who are members. So what should be the honor code of your platoon?

The standards that make up any honor code are based on motivating men to do what’s best for the group. And for this reason the code of your particular platoon will vary based on the needs of your particular gang. An actual military platoon facing combat is going to have a different code than a men’s group at church.

However, I’m not a fan of all-out relativism. Are there principles we can say are universal to the code of men? Principles that may act as a lodestar to each and every platoon?

I think there are.

Perhaps the best definition of “true honor” I have read comes from Bertram Wyatt-Brown:

“The unity of inner virtue with the natural order of reason, the innate desire of man for the good, and the happy congruence of inner virtue with outward, public action.”

What does this mean? In The Code of Man, Waller Newell writes: “The best recipe for happiness, according to the ancient thinkers, is the right balance of contemplative and active virtues gradually achieved over a lifetime of experience in the trials of public and private life. It’s a teaching that weaves a golden thread throughout every period of reflection on the meaning of manliness down to the present.”

In primitive times, strength and courage were all the tribe needed for survival. But ever since the dawn of civilization, the honor of men has demanded what Newell calls the contemplative and active virtues, and what Aristotle called arête: strength coupled with virtue, bravery combined with character. In times of crisis, a man must be able to fight and prevail; in times of peace he must be able to care for his family, cultivate his mind, and serve his community and state civically. At all times he must stand ready to serve in whatever capacity he is needed.

This, to me, is the ideal — circumscribing the hard virtues and soft virtues into one whole. This is the “complete man.” He is a loving husband and father, loyal friend and brother, and yet would also not just be able to survive, but to competently lead in a disaster, and could be called up by the military tomorrow to serve without breaking a sweat in boot camp.

Unfortunately, we have too much division in these camps in our modern world; nerdy types deride the physically fit as meatheads, and think “real” men are enlightened and sensitive, that true manhood can be found exclusively in intellect and virtue. And “bros” think knowledge and morality is for sissies, and that men should be able to do whatever they wish in pursuit of a good time.

Plenty of men have known better, and have sought arête, true excellence in all aspects of life. None embody the ideal better than one Theodore Roosevelt.

TR was a rancher (he owned and worked a cattle ranch in the Dakotas) and statesman (police commissioner, governor, president); he was a soldier (leading the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War) and writer (he penned over 35 books); he was an explorer (he navigated an uncharted Amazonian river) and voracious reader (he consumed tens of thousands of books over his six decades of life); he loved boxing, hunting, and wrestling, as well as spending time with his kids and his wife. In short, he was both kinds of man – strong and gentle, courageous and moral. In an address to a graduating class of boys, he told them:

“When I speak of the American boy, what I say really applies to the grown-ups nearly as much as to the boys…I want to see you game, boys; I want to see you brave and manly; and I also want to see you gentle and tender. In other words, you should make it your object to be the right kind of boys at home, so that your family will feel a genuine regret, instead of a sense of relief, when you stay away; and at the same time you must be able to hold your own in the outside world. You can not do that if you have not manliness, courage in you. It does no good to have either of those two sets of qualities if you lack the other. I do not care how nice a little boy you are, how pleasant at home, if when you are out you are afraid of other little boys lest they be rude to you; for if so you will not be a very happy boy nor grow up a very useful man. When a boy grows up I want him to be of such a type that when somebody wrongs him he will feel a good, healthy desire to show the wrong-doers that he can not be wronged with impunity. I like to have the man who is a citizen feel, when a wrong is done to the community by any one, when there is an exhibition of corruption or betrayal of trust, or demagogy or violence, or brutality, not that he is shocked and horrified and would like to go home; but I want to have him feel the determination to put the wrong-doer down, to make the man who does wrong aware that the decent man is not only his superior in decency, but his superior in strength.”

This was the same message TR gave to his son Ted, telling him “that he could be just as virtuous as he wished if only he was prepared to fight.” Roosevelt took his father as his example of “an ideal man,” a man who “really did combine the strength and courage and will and energy of the strongest man with the tenderness, cleanness and purity of woman,” and “certainly gave me the feeling that I was always to be both decent and manly, and that if I were manly nobody would long laugh at my being decent.”

In other words, Theodore Roosevelt believed that honor was found not only in living a life of virtue, but being brave and strong enough to defend that virtue if needed. That was the kind of man he respected.

Truth is a fuzzy thing to a lot of people these days, and not everyone will agree with my universal code of manly honor. I believe it because whenever I read things that describe the code, and meet men who embody it, it enlivens my mind, and causes my heart to swell within my chest. It tastes good to me. It feels like truth in both my heart and my mind, and when I find this congruence, I take whatever it is, cherish it, and incorporate it into my life.

General Guidelines for Reviving Honor in Your Platoon

Keep it all-male.

It sure isn’t politically correct to say these days, but there’s a need for all-male groups in this world. Once women join the group, the dynamics change. It loses its potential as a channel of traditional, manly honor. Donovan argues that, “As a general rule, if you introduce women into the mix, men either shift their focus from impressing each other to impressing the women, or they lose interest altogether and do just enough to get by.” Or as Kate likes to say, “Women want to join all-male groups because they’re so cool. But what they don’t realize is that once they join, they ruin the exact thing that made them cool in the first place.”

Swear an oath.

From ancient antiquity to Victorian times, men solidified their fidelity to each other through the giving and taking of oaths. Oaths created a sacred obligation of loyalty to men who were not kin, but wished to purposefully swear allegiance to each other and become brothers.

Oaths are an essential part of forming honor groups. They symbolize the fact that all men know and have agreed to the same code, and are willing to place their most valuable possession – their word, their very reputation, on the line.

I’d like to do an article, or whole series on the history and nature of oaths sometime…

Meet face-to-face.

An online community can never be an honor group. No. No. No. There’s no way to be sure that who you talk to online is really who they say they are. There’s no true accountability.

Embrace healthy shame.

In order for honor to exist, shame must exist. But as we saw in our last post about honor, shame in the 21st century has often been labeled a neurosis that sickened the psyche. We go out of our way to not shame people because we don’t want them to feel bad. But shame is what motivates people to follow the honor code and carry their weight in the group. When people begin to see that there’s little or no risk in failing to live by the honor code, the temptation is to slack off and cut corners.

Shame can be uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes very painful, but if you want to revive honor, you must accept it. Public shame is crucial to maintaining excellence among those who have agreed to live a certain code. Don’t be afraid to call your brothers out when they fail to uphold the group’s code. The group and each person will be better for it.

At the Virginia Military Institute, the school honor code – “A cadet will neither lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do,” is memorized by each cadet (or “Rat,” as freshmen are called) their very first day at the school and is strictly enforced through a harsh but highly effective ritual of public shame:

“The ‘drumming out’ ceremony — the official discharge of a cadet found guilty of an honor violation by the Honor Court there — is an experience that stays with one forever. That is just the very intent of it at VMI. Witnessing your first one is a very frightening experience. You are pulled from your deep sleep in the middle of the night, say 2 or 3 in the morning. And, after a day you put in at the ‘I’, you are guaranteed to be in a deep sleep by that time of night. An eerie roll of drums awakens you, that gets progressively louder. Then, you have about two minutes to get your butt out of your ‘hay’ and on your stoop outside in front of your room. Everyone in the Cadet Corp must get up and go out on the stoops to witness the drumming out. The drums are played under a covered arch so you can’t see the drummer. But the dull roll of the drums in the pitch blackness of night right out of a deep sleep is the worst thing in the world to experience. There are all 1200 cadets standing outside lining the barracks stoops, in their underwear or robes, in the total darkness.

Once the entire Corps is out on the stoops, then there’s another five to ten minutes of grace drum roll to make the experience as graphic as possible. Then the drum roll stops, and the President of the Honor Court appears in the middle of the courtyard in his formal, parade dress, shako hat, virgin white slacks, and white gloves. He then commences walking in circles within the paved circle in the middle of the courtyard, in the dark. A sole spotlight then appears on the Honor Court President. ‘Cadet… has put personal gain over personal honor.’ ‘He has been found guilty of violating the Honor System.’ He has been dismissed from the Institute and his name will never be mentioned here again.'”–Mike Horan, The National Militia

Horan adds: “The experience in itself surely prevents dozens of future violations.”

I think this tradition is awesome. And there needs to be much more of it. Shame involves doing something we hate to do in a nuanced-to-death, wishy-washy culture – drawing clear lines. Honorable or despicable. Courageous or coward. In or out.

Bringing back shame also means reviving the language of honor. Get rid of therapeutic terms — saying something is “inappropriate,” or that someone “made bad choices.” Wearing a tuxedo t-shirt to a wedding is inappropriate. Cheating is shameful. Killing the innocent is evil. Not keeping your word is wrong. Failing to pull your weight and meet the code of honor is despicable.

When General Petraeus resigned, he said his actions showed “extremely poor judgment” and that his behavior was “unacceptable.” What he should have said was that cheating on his wife and potentially compromising national security was shameful, wrong, and dishonorable.

Put team above self. Chastise, and possibly expel, those who don’t.

If you want to experience traditional honor in your own life, you’ll need to be willing to subjugate your personal wants beneath the needs of your honor group. That’s a hard concept to swallow in our hyper-individualistic society. But in return for your loyalty you get to be part of an excellent group of brothers who have your back no matter what. By helping others survive and/or thrive, you help yourself do likewise. Those who put self first compromise the goals of the rest of the group, and for that reason, are subject to chastisement and shame.

Sebastian Junger’s book War highlights this exchange perceptibly. In 2007 and 2008, Junger was embedded with members of the Army’s Second Platoon (of Battle Company) during their 15-month deployment. Second Platoon was stationed in the rugged mountains in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Their “base” consisted of cement slabs and some boards they had jerry-rigged together into bunks. The men would go a month without showering, their clothes became so permeated with sweat they’d stand up from the salt, and they wore flea collars around their necks, and yet were still inundated with the pests. To test each other’s loyalty and readiness for battle, the men created a unique ritual: “blood in, blood out,” where every member was given a pretty savage beating whenever they came into, or left the platoon. Officers were not excluded.

The enemy was all around them, and the men could come under fire at any time, and did – bullets would come whizzing in while they slept or ate breakfast. During this time, Battle Company saw nearly a fifth of the combat being experienced by 70,000 NATO troops. A constant worry was an attack that would overrun the base and kill them all.

Isolated and surrounded by the enemy, the men had to count on each other for their lives. In such a situation honor is not optional — it’s required.

For this reason, the men policed each other’s behavior. One man’s laxity or weakness, or desire to put his own feelings and desires above the group, could get his brothers killed. Junger argues that the essence of combat comes down to the fact that “the choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies.”

Every detail, whether in the midst of a firefight or back at base, mattered, and each member of the platoon was open to scrutiny and judgment about their behavior; “every solider had de facto authority to reprimand others.” If you weren’t drinking enough water, or didn’t tie your shoes, or weren’t taking care of your equipment, you got disciplined by the group. Your personal lack of vigilance could compromise the safety of everyone else; “There was no such thing as personal safety out there; what happened to you happened to everyone.”

Junger tells the story of how once

“they were clawing their way up Table Rock after a twenty-four hour operation and a man in another squad started falling out. ‘He can’t be smoked here,’ I heard O’Bryne seethe to Sergeant Mac in the dark, “he doesn’t have the right to be.’ The idea that you’re not allowed to experience something as human as exhaustion is outrageous anywhere but in combat. Good leaders know that exhaustion is partly state of mind, though, and that the men who succumb to it have on some level decided to put themselves above everyone else. If you’re not prepared to walk for someone you’re certainly not prepared to die for them, and that goes to the heart of whether you should even be in a platoon.”

This is the core of honor – to act in such a way as to not let down the men to your right and left when they need you most.

If an individual in your honor group refuses to pull his weight even when chastised by the others, putting the group’s needs ahead of the individual’s may require that you shame and expel him.

Back when I played football in high school, there was a guy who would do anything he could to avoid practicing. When we were doing drills, he’d sort of hang out in the back, hiding behind everybody else, drinking all the water while everyone else was sweating their butts off in the 100-degree Oklahoma sun. When it was time for wind sprints at the end of practice, he’d have some sort of injury. But he sure loved wearing that jersey to school on Game Day and enjoying the accolades and perks that came with being on the football team.

Us starters let it slide for a bit. We figured he just needed some positive encouragement, which we tried, but didn’t work. Things finally came to a head one hot afternoon. We were in the middle of an intense drill to prepare us for the upcoming game and we needed fresh bodies to rotate in and out on the scout team so we could get the best training possible. While everyone else was taking their turn and going all out, Mr. I’m-Going-To-Sit-This-One-Out was hiding behind the trainers, chilling with a water bottle in his hand.

One of the starters called him out on his loafing, but it didn’t faze this guy. After a few more repetitions, another player called him out. Still nothing. Finally, one guy finally just said, “If you’re not going to practice, just quit. It’s obvious you don’t want to be here and we don’t want you here either.” Other players joined in. “Yeah, dude. Just quit.”

And he did. The guy walked right off the field in the middle of practice, never to return.

I remember feeling sort of bad about it when it happened, but in the long run it was the best thing for the team, and probably for him.

If you want to experience honor, you have to put the group before the individual.


I believe that true manliness means being a man of both conscience and honor – inner conviction and concern for reputation among men should work together. When outside your honor group, and nobody is watching, your conscience keeps you living the standards you believe in; when back with your platoon of men, they strengthen your motivation to live those standards.

That much I know, but to be honest, after four months of studying and writing about traditional honor, I’m left with as many questions as answers. Questions I’d love to hear your insights on, such as:

  • Can any form of honor survive in the absence of the threat of violence? Anciently, honor that was not worth dying for was not considered true honor. But violence of any kind can get you thrown into court these days. Is shame enough to motivate people without the risk of having to defend their behavior and words with a fight? [As a side note, it has been interesting to me to hear several times in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting that it happened because we are a culture “obsessed with violence.” But having read about a culture just a hundred and fifty years ago in which men shot each other on the spot when insulted and would saunter into the home or workplace of someone who had insulted them whom they felt was a social inferior, and start horsewhipping them, and in which brawls were decided by gouging another man’s eye out, the truth is not that we’re more obsessed with violence than before, but that almost all violence has become an abstraction of film and video game. Could it be that mass shootings are huge eruptions of an impulse for violence that is otherwise suppressed and has no real, tangible outlets in society?]
  • Is it more manly to fight when insulted or to be Stoic and above it all and walk away? Men of honor only fought with those whom they considered their social equals. If you’re attacked on the internet, it’s impossible to know if someone is your equal or not, so how do you know if you should respond or ignore them? What constitutes a “social equal” on or offline these days anyway? Are quotes like, “A gentleman will not insult me, and no man not a gentleman can insult me,” noble or cop-outs for men who don’t want conflict?
  • Honor groups often used sarcasm and verbal putdowns to jockey for, and enforce status in the group. So is being polite and civil to everyone manly, or should you call ’em like you see ’em, and call a spade a spade, and an idiot an idiot?
  • Speaking of conflicts…when is it appropriate to confront someone outside your honor group for what you believe is a violation of the universal code of men?
  • What role do women play in motivating men to keep the code of honor, and what role does the current culture of womanly honor play in the current culture of male honor? Is it really a stalemate where each side blames the other, and say that they would change if only the other changed first?
  • What’s the current state of honor in the military? How has the integration of women into units changed or not changed the culture of honor? Would integration of women into combat units affect these units’ culture of honor?

So yeah, honor…it’s a trip, man. You can think about it non-stop for days, even weeks on end (I would know!). It’s like a slippery fish that just as you think you’ve grabbed it, swims away again.

Don’t let it tie you up in knots though. I don’t. Honor helps inform my worldview and goals, but from day-to-day I just try to be the best man I can be in all areas of my life, and to do my best to strengthen my family, my lodge, my church, and my community however I can.

I want to leave you with a quote that sums up the current state of honor:

“We say we want a renewal of character in our day but we don’t really know what we ask for. To have a renewal of character is to have a renewal of a creedal order that constrains, limits, binds, obligates, and compels. This price is too high for us to pay. We want character but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality but without the emotional burden of guilt or shame; we want virtue but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist upon it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom. In short, we want what we cannot possibly have on the terms that we want it.” –The Death of Character, James Davison Hunter

In short, people talk a lot about honor and they say they want honor, but they only want the ends, not the means. This is why, for now, honor will only live on in small platoons of men who are willing to accept and carry the burden and responsibility that comes with it. Will you be one of those men?

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



War by Sebastian Junger

The Way of Men by Jack Donovan

Honor: A History by James Bowman

The Code of Man by Waller Newell


Manly Honor VI: The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West in the 20th Century

manly honor horizontal long sword illustration

Our last three posts – on Victorian, Northern, and Southern honor respectively, detailed the final manifestations of traditional honor cultures in the West, while also hinting at the cultural forces that were emerging even then that would eventually erode them almost entirely.

Today we will cover how those forces were amplified, manifested themselves, and led to the disappearance of traditional honor in the West over the course of the 20th century. At the same time, a discussion of these elements provides an excellent opportunity to review the concepts we’ve discussed so far. We’ve come a long way since the first post, and this is such a complicated topic that I think this re-orientation will be quite beneficial.

On that note, this post does admittedly have more of a scatter-shot quality than the rest. The complex nature of the history of honor cannot be reiterated too many times. Without excusing the limitations of our writing abilities, which are myriad, there is no clear coherent narrative to the evolution and death of honor, and it is impossible to construct one. What we offer below are sketches of cultural forces which could each be their own book; each is interconnected with the others, and multi-layered. In the absence of a tome-length treatise on each cultural force/change, what we have given is a snapshot that is simply designed to give you an overview of the element and provide you fodder for further pondering and connection-making to history and your modern life.

Also, it is very important to mention that the list below is not a list of “bad” things. Each cultural movement discussed has its advantages and disadvantages – as does traditional honor itself. Were it not so, traditional honor would not have disappeared in the first place! What you will find here is not a laundry list of complaints about culture, but a description of what happened to traditional honor. In my opinion, these societal movements brought about both positive and negative changes, and reviving those positive aspects will be the topic of our next and final post in the series.

This post is as beastly as the last – if it helps you, try to think of this not as an article but as a chapter in a book. Read it when you have a quiet block of time.

Urbanization and Anonymity

Traditional honor can only exist among a group of equal peers who enjoy intimate, face-to-face relationships. It is entirely external, and completely predicated on one’s reputation as judged by fellow members of the honor group. Without close ties, there is no one to evaluate your claims to honor, and thus the possibility of a traditional honor culture vanishes.

In 1790, 95% of Americans lived in small, rural communities. By the 1990s, 3 out of 4 citizens made their home in urbanized areas. While in small towns everyone can keep track of the doings of their neighbors, in cities and suburbs relationships tend to be more impersonal and anonymous; any city dweller has experienced the sensation of being in a large group of people and yet feeling entirely alone. In large populations you can live out your whole life without anyone checking up on what you’re doing, much less judging your reputation as honorable or dishonorable.

In cities and smaller towns alike, civic participation and community-mindedness has fallen significantly since WWII. And while honor formerly centered on one’s clan, extended families no longer live close together and familial relations have constricted to the nuclear family alone, which itself is often split up.

As a result of these shifts, immoral, unethical, and cowardly behaviors are rarely known outside one’s immediate circle of family and friends. And even then, for reasons we’ll discuss below, they are more likely to shrug and say, “It’s none of my business,” or, “To each his own,” than to condemn and challenge the errant behavior.

The internet has only accelerated the shift towards impersonal and anonymous relationships. Traditional honor is designed to act as a check on people’s claims to merit and force them to stand behind and defend their insults; exaggerations of one’s deeds or shameful actions are called out and challenged by one’s associates. On the internet, however, people can claim to be a Navy SEAL or issue the basest of insults to another person without having to prove their claim, suffer consequences for their character, or allow the insulted person to defend themselves. They can be anyone and say anything, all while safely ensconced behind a screen.

Diversity, Leading to Conflicts Between Conscience and Honor

As we have explored in previous posts, during the 19th century in England and the American North, the honor code began to shift from being based on outward behaviors (like prowess and strength) to inward moral virtues and character traits. Despite these changes, the Victorian, or Stoic-Christian honor code, remained rooted in traditional honor. For while the standards of the code had shifted to internal virtues, a man’s adherence to those virtues was not judged solely by his own conscience but also by his peers – his public reputation continued to matter.

This evolution in the meaning of traditional honor also sowed the seeds of its eventual destruction as a cultural force. An honor code based on moral virtues and character traits can only survive when the necessary virtues and character traits are agreed upon by the culture as a whole; besides intimate, face-to-face relationships, the second key element that makes a traditional honor culture possible is a shared code. Each member of the honor group understands the standards that must be kept to attain and keep horizontal honor, and everyone knows how honor may be lost; this is key – honor that cannot be lost is not true honor.

While the manly honor of courage and physical strength transcends culture, a moral honor code, because it deals with issues of philosophy and faith, is more open to differences of opinion and can vary from society to society and man to man. Could a man gamble and drink and still be honorable? Was it more honorable to fight over everything or to have the self-control to walk away from a challenge? Should a man’s honor code include Christian beliefs? What about Muslims and Hindus, did they not have their own codes of honor? These questions led to conflicts between a man’s allegiance to his conscience and his loyalty to the code of his honor group. This prompted debates about which allegiance – conscience or honor — to give higher priority, and which decision on that count was more honorable, or at least more deserving of respect. These conflicts in turn eroded the stability of an honor culture, as Frank Henderson Stewart explains:

“Once the shift is made from basing honor on a certain kind of behavior (always winning in battle, always keeping one’s promise) or on the possession of certain external qualities (wealth, health, high rank) to basing it on the possession of mostly moral qualities (the ones we refer to compendiously as the sense of honor) then the way is open for the whole notion of honor to be undermined. Imagine a German army officer of a hundred years ago who is challenged to a duel. He declines the challenge because is a devout Catholic, and the church strongly condemns dueling. Now for the honor code to be really effective, the officer must be treated as having acted dishonorably. Yet people may find it difficult to do so, since they are sure (we will assume) that he acted as he did not out of cowardice but because of his attachment to his faith. They are convinced (we will further assume) that he is profoundly committed to everything in the honor code that is not incompatible with his religious beliefs. In these circumstances people may feel it appropriate to say of him that he has a strong sense of honor; even if they do not, they will have to admit that he is a man of integrity, and having said this they will find it hard to say that because of his refusal to accept the challenge their respect for him is much diminished. And if the loss of his right to respect is not accompanied by any actual loss of respect, then the honor that is assigned by the honor code has been emptied of his primary content.”

The more diverse Western societies became, the greater the chance that a man’s personal values of faith and philosophy would not exactly align with the cultural honor code, increasing the likelihood of men opting out of certain provisions of the latter when they contradicted their conscience. Yet as Stewart points out, it was not possible for this trend alone to cause the unraveling of traditional honor – its effect was contingent on another cultural shift: tolerance. Traditional honor is inherently intolerant; if you fail to follow the code, you are shamed, you are despicable, you are out. In the hypothetical example of the German army officer above, his peers could have judged his decision to excuse himself from the duel on religious grounds as dishonorable and unworthy of their respect, thus maintaining the strictures of the traditional honor code.

However, a trend towards respect and tolerance for different viewpoints, which began in the 19th century, would become, some have argued, the virtue of the latter part of the 20th. The relativistic ideal of  “to each his own” would allow each individual to choose his own set of values without cultural repercussions – without shame.

Diversity, Leading to Tolerance and Relativism

Another one of the key elements of a traditional honor culture is the belief in the absolute superiority of one’s honor group, and that this excellence can directly be traced to the superiority of the group’s honor code to all others. Honor cultures are based on an “us vs. them” mindset. When tribes and communities were more isolated, maintaining this belief wasn’t hard; honor groups didn’t encounter too many others groups that were much different from themselves, and when they did, a battle between them would quickly and clearly establish the validity of their respective claims.

But the globalization that began in earnest during the 19th century and accelerated during the 20th, greatly diversified the populations of Western societies, bringing different cultures physically together, while also increasing general knowledge of societies halfway around the world. That each culture had their own variations on what constituted honor created doubt in some minds about the superiority of their own. It began to be posited that absolute belief in the rightness of a certain way had led to terrible societal ills – racism, chauvinism, war, slavery, persecution, and so on. At the same time, using violence or war to prove one’s honor fell out of favor (see “Wariness of Violence” below).

Instead, in an attempt to live peaceably with each other and avoid conflict, traditional honor was replaced with the ideal of tolerance and respect for all groups, even those on the fringe who did not fit into the majority culture. Whereas outsiders had formerly been treated badly, but invited to join the insiders and earn their esteem through adherence to the honor code, they were now encouraged to celebrate their own values as opposed to assimilating to dominate norms.

The only value most of society can now agree upon is openness. People generally fall into one of two camps. Either they do not believe that any specific honor code is the “right” one and that one is not necessarily “better” than another, or they remain an “absolutist” and believe they are following the one true code, they know that they should not shame or condemn others for not living up to their own chosen standards, should never assert the superiority of their code in public, and must at least give lip service to respecting the beliefs of others. You do your thing, and I’ll do mine.

This “to each his own” ethic is incompatible with traditional honor, for, as philosopher Allan Bloom argues,

“Men must love and be loyal to their families and their peoples in order to preserve them. Only if they think their own things are good can they rest content with them. A father must prefer his child to other children, a citizen his country to others. That is why there are myths to justify these attachments. And a man needs a place and opinions by which to orient himself…[In traditional honor societies] the problem of getting along with outsiders is secondary to, and sometimes in conflict with, having an inside, a people, a culture, a way of life. A very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people, whereas with great openness it is hard to avoid decomposition.”

Choose Your Own Honor Code

Traditional honor codes are designed to motivate people to adhere to a standard that the group believes promotes its best interest. In seeking to avoid shame, group members are impelled to submerge their own personal interests for the sake of the common good.

In the increasingly diverse society of the 20th century, ideas of what constituted the common good splintered. And with that splintering came uncertainty about who should be shamed or honored for what. Thus with more and more people opting out of certain provisions of the shared cultural honor code without any consequences, a cycle began: because people who opted-out weren’t shamed, this decreased the honor given to those who kept the code (see “Egalitarianism” below), making them more likely to opt-out too, and the cycle would continue, unraveling the honor code further.

As the benefits of keeping the shared honor code dried up, people became increasingly unwilling to deny their own personal needs for the good of the group. They rebelled against authority — “the man” — and the idea that a common good should be dictated. In the absence of a shared honor code and an agreed upon common good, people began to celebrate pursuing whatever one deemed to be their personal good (follow your bliss!).

Because no honor code was judged to be better than another, individuals were free to pick and choose values from each of them in order to assemble their own personal patchwork honor code. While each individual man’s assertion of his own values could have caused great conflict in theory, in practice it was used to eliminate discord: “I’ve got my values. You’ve got your values. To each their own.” Bloom elaborates:

“Conflict is the evil we most want to avoid, among nations, among individuals and within ourselves. Nietzsche thought with his value philosophy to restore the harsh conflicts for which men were willing to die, to restore the tragic sense of life, at a moment when nature had been domesticated and men become tame. The value philosophy was used in America for exactly the opposite purpose–to promote conflict-resolution, bargaining, harmony. If it is only a difference of values, then conciliation is possible. We must respect values, but they must not get in the way of peace.”

Because every man has the freedom to assemble his own set of values, respect is now given to a man not based on which values he chooses to live, but that he chooses to live with values, any values, at all. Deprived of the chance to earn honor from one’s peers, but still desirous of finding meaning in life, the goal becomes selecting values that together add up to and convey a unique lifestyle – one that embodies a morally-neutral attribute: purpose. Bloom again:

“A value-creating man is a plausible substitute for a good man, and some such substitute becomes practically inevitable in pop relativism, since very few persons can think of themselves as nothing. The respectable and accessible nobility of man is to be found not in the quest for or discovery of the good life, but in creating one’s own ‘life-style,’ of which there is not just one but many possible, none comparable to another. He who has a ‘life-style’ is in competition with, and hence inferior to, no one, and because he has one he can command his own esteem and that of others.”

The amount of esteem one gets from living their values now depends on their fidelity to their personal code. Or as Bloom puts it: “Commitment is the moral virtue because it indicates the seriousness of the agent. Commitment is the equivalent of faith when the living God has been supplanted by self-provided values.” We often admire men, even when we don’t agree with their values, as in, “I don’t really understand it myself, but he sure is sincere/serious about it/passionate/totally into it.”

The ability to choose one’s own code evolved honor’s meaning from outward displays of behavior centering on valor, to personal suffering – holding to your private code despite criticism from others or obstacles in the way.

The Shaming of Shame

In traditional honor cultures shame is seen as an essential part of life – it’s what motivates members of the honor group to behave in ways that benefit the common good of the tribe. Moreover, without shame, honor itself is not possible (see “Egalitarianism” below).

But beginning in the 20th century, with the rise of psychology and the shift to individualism over group identity, shame began to be seen as a neurosis that sickened the psyche, and as an impediment to resisting authority and following one’s personal passion and inner compass. Shame, it was argued, had outlasted its usefulness in a modern society that had solved the problems of basic survival, and was now a hindrance to the fulfillment of personal potential and destiny. Shame, it is now said, gets in the way of being comfortable in your own skin and being whoever you want to be.

For example, refusing to procreate or go to battle could get a man shamed in a primitive tribe that depended on reproduction to keep the tribe going and needed to defend itself from enemies. But in a peaceful modern society, on what some see as an already crowded planet, there no longer seems to be a pressing need to get men to adhere to such traditional (some would say outdated) standards. We have lost the sense of an immediate connection between an individual’s behavior and its effect on society as a whole. A prevailing modern view is that one person’s lifestyle choices will have absolutely no effect on the lifestyle choices of another, or on society as a whole.

So while shame was formerly seen as the thing that made honor, and therefore manliness, possible, it is now the favorite target of men’s groups and male psychology gurus who argue that it’s actually what holds men back from discovering their manhood. For example, the Mankind Project, which holds weekend retreats with the goal of initiating men into manhood, argues that the “New Macho” code requires a man to “let go of childish shame.” They posit that “Shame is one of the primary emotional states that locks many men into a perpetual cycle of self-hatred and self-destructive behavior. This behavior has wide reaching damaging effects on those around him. It harms his ability to create healthy relationships and nurture healthy families.” For this reason, a big part of MKP retreats center on getting men to rid themselves of shame.

Similarly, Robert Glover, the author of the very popular No More Mr. Nice Guy, a guide to moving from unhappy pushover to confident, assertive dude, argues that “Nice Guy Syndrome” emerges during boys’ “formative years,” when they received “messages from their families and the world around them that it was not safe, acceptable, or desirable for them to be who they were, just as they are.” [emphasis mine] Glover argues that a rejection of “who they are” results in childhood feelings of abandonment, which, as the boy grows into a man, results in “a psychological state called toxic shame,” which is “not just a belief that one does bad things, it is a deeply held core belief that one is bad.” By ridding themselves of this “toxic shame,” Glover argues, men can stop trying to be “good” for others, hiding their flaws, and trying to become “what they believe other people want them to be.” In other words, they can free themselves from the basic strictures that once constituted traditional honor.

Egalitarianism and Inclusion

Honor groups are inherently competitive, exclusionary, and hierarchical. There can be no true honor without the possibility of losing it and being shamed and disgraced – without the possibility of either failing or excelling a clear standard and one’s peers. Esteem and respect doled out equally to all is empty and meaningless. Or as M.I. Finley put it, “When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone.”

In an honor group, certain rights are exclusively available to those who keep the standards of the code and achieve horizontal honor, while special privileges are open only to those who excel their peers and achieve vertical honor. At the same time, competition and set standards mean that not everyone will make the cut, and that those who fall short will suffer shame, or at least hurt feelings. Having to compare oneself to others can lead to feelings of inadequacy, and the pain of being excluded and deemed unworthy.

While traditional honor codes award esteem based on merit (although sometimes bloodlines as well), modern societies have moved towards granting more rights and privileges on the basis of the idea of human dignity, that all people — regardless of skill, popularity, or contribution to the group — deserve a basic level of compassionate treatment.

In the 1960s, as shame increasingly came to be seen as a negative, a movement emerged which posited that removing the feelings of pain that come with not performing as well as one’s peers could increase young people’s sense of well-being.

In 1969, psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published a very influential paper called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” in which he argued that “feelings of self-esteem are the key to success in life.” Brandon’s ideas were first institutionalized when a task force, charged by the California state legislature, formulated a set of recommendations entitled, “Toward a State of Esteem.” The report argued that low self-esteem caused a variety of ills ranging from academic failure to teen pregnancy, and that teaching self-esteem in schools would be a “social vaccine” to inoculate kids from these problems. It recommended that every school district in California strive for “the promotion of self-esteem…as a clearly stated goal, integrated into its total curriculum and informing all of its polices and operations” and that “course work in self-esteem should be required for credentials…for all educators.”

Other states and schools were swept up into this movement and incorporated self-esteem-boosting exercises into their curriculum and programs. These exercises and guidelines – which often revolved around eliminating competition from the classroom — were designed to make students feel good about themselves, under the belief that these good feelings would then beget all sorts of success for them.

However, as later researchers found out, true self-esteem actually has two components — feeling good and doing well. The self-esteem movement had gotten their order mixed up. While the California report posited that low self-esteem causes problems like teen pregnancy and welfare dependence, studies have shown that the opposite is true; low self-esteem is the consequence, not the cause, of such behavior. Thus you can’t start with “feeling good” and have it lead to doing well. It happens the other way around. Feeling good, and true self-esteem, naturally follow from doing well. You can’t pump kids full of self-esteem — it’s something they have to earn for themselves, through true merit.

Despite these findings, policies designed to protect young people from feelings of shame remain in place in nearly every school. At an awards ceremony, every child, regardless of their achievement, must receive an award. All players on a sports team receive a “participation trophy.” High school yearbooks are required to show a picture of each student an equal number of times, regardless of that students’ popularity or involvement in school activities. Schools have children use invisible jump ropes instead of real ones so as to not cause a child embarrassment for tripping up on his rope.

The Rise of Psychology

With Freud’s psychoanalysis, and Jung’s interpretation of dreams, people began to be more interested in the individual workings of their mind and the variations of their unique psyche. Whereas in a traditional honor culture, one’s personal identity could not be separated from one’s identity as part of the group, and one’s own feelings and needs were subservient to the common good, psychology encouraged people see themselves as distinct individuals and to view their own feelings and needs as just as real, and important, as those of the group. Psychologists argued that ignoring or suppressing those feelings was unhealthy and comprised one’s well-being.

The tension between psychology and traditional honor can be seen in debates over whether what were once seen as shameful character defects – drinking, gambling, obesity, serial infidelity – should better be relabeled and dealt with as diseases and addictions.

But perhaps the best and most memorable way to explain the conflict that arose between honoring traditional honor, and honoring one’s individual psyche, can be conveyed in a story from World War II.

In 1943, coming off his dazzling victories in the Sicily campaign, George S. Patton stopped by a medical tent to visit with the wounded. He enjoyed these visits, and so did the soldiers and staff. He would hand out Purple Hearts, pump the men full of encouragement, and offer rousing speeches to the nurses, interns, and their patients that were so touching in nature they sometimes brought tears to many of the eyes in the room. On this particular occasion, as Patton entered the tent all the men jumped to attention except for one, Private Charles H. Kuhl, who sat slouched on a stool. Kuhl, who showed no outward injuries, was asked by Patton how he was wounded, to which the private replied, “I guess I just can’t take it.” Patton did not believe “battle fatigue” or “shell-shock” was a real condition nor an excuse to be given medical treatment, and had recently been told by one of the commanders of Kuhl’s division that, “The front lines seem to be thinning out. There seems to be a very large number of ‘malingerers’ at the hospitals, feigning illness in order to avoid combat duty.” He became livid. Patton slapped Kuhl across the face with his gloves, grabbed him by his collar, and led him outside the tent. Kicking him in the backside, Patton demanded that this “gutless bastard” not be admitted and instead be sent back to the front to fight.

A week later, Patton slapped another soldier at a hospital, who, in tears, told the general he was there because of “his nerves,” and that he simply couldn’t “stand the shelling anymore.” Enraged, Patton brandished his white-handled, single-action Colt revolver and bellowed:

“Your nerves, Hell, you are just a goddamned coward, you yellow son of a bitch. Shut up that goddamned crying. I won’t have these brave men here who have been shot seeing a yellow bastard sitting here crying…You’re a disgrace to the Army and you’re going back to the front lines and you may get shot and killed, but you’re going to fight. If you don’t I’ll stand you up against a wall and have a firing squad kill you on purpose. In fact I ought to shoot you myself, you God-damned whimpering coward.”

When the first slapping incident leaked to the press, it became an international scandal; many were horrified and called for Patton’s removal from command altogether, and even the Army itself. Faced with an intense public outcry, Eisenhower was incensed with Patton, but ended up retaining him, feeling he was “indispensable to the war effort – one of the guarantors of our victory.” Still, Ike gave him a sharp censure, relieved him of command of the 7th Army, promoted Omar Bradley to lieutenant general over him, kept him from having a central role in the D-Day invasion (although strategic factors were also involved in that decision), and also ordered him to apologize to the two soldiers he slapped, the hospital staffs, and his troops.

And yet despite the brouhaha Patton’s slapping incident created, and the vehement protest of many over what they labeled as brutal and out-of-control behavior, the great majority of the public (about 9 to 1) sided with Patton; even Kuhl’s own father wrote to his Congressman to express forgiveness for the general and his desire not to see him disciplined. And the reaction of Patton’s own men is most telling in gauging the life left in traditional honor, even at this point mid-century.

When Patton went to issue an apology to his troops, who were gathered in a large olive orchard and seated on their helmets, his penitent address never got past his first word – “Men!” It was at that point, Major Ted Conway of the 9th Division remembered:

“…the whole regiment erupted. It sounded like a football game in which a touchdown had been scored, because the helmets started flying through the air, coming down all over, raining steel helmets and the men just shouted ‘Georgie, Georgie’ – a name he detested. He was saying, we think he was saying, “At ease, take seats,” and so on. Then he had the bugler sound “attention” again, but nothing happened. Just all these cheers. So, finally General Patton was standing there and he was shaking his head and you could see big tears streaming down his face and he said, or words to this effect, “To hell with it,” and he walked off the platform. At this point the bugler sounded “attention” and again everybody grabbed the nearest available steel helmet, put it on, being sure to button the chin strap (which was a favorite Patton quirk) and as he stepped into a command car and again went down the side of the regiment, dust swirling, everybody stood at attention and saluted to the right and General Patton stood up in his command car and saluted, crying…He was our hero. We were on his side. We knew what he had done and why he had done it.”

Leon Luttrell of the 2nd Armored Division, who was in the same hospital as one of the slapped soldiers, also affirmed his loyalty to Patton:

“I was in the hospital recovering from my wounds, for which I received the Purple Heart, when he slapped the solider and branded him a coward. I can only say that none of us felt sorry for the soldier…I never heard anyone say that he was not the great leader, and best general in the Army.”

What accounts for the supportive reaction of Patton’s men? Combat represents the rawest distillation of the purpose of traditional honor; in war, submerging one’s own needs to the common good is not an abstraction, but a true matter of life and death. As another of Patton’s soldiers put it in commenting on the slapping incident, “his reaction was not entirely unnatural for a man who had seen many brave men die for their country’s safety and who realized the unnecessary casualties that can be caused by one weakling who fails to do his duty.”

Patton represents a fulcrum in the evolution of honor – the civilian media found his actions abhorrent, while the general public and his own troops thought they were perfectly understandable.

The media view would gather strength among civilians and military personnel alike in the ensuring decades. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was officially identified in 1980, and admitting to suffering PTSD and seeking treatment for it has become far more acceptable. There are even those who believe a Purple Heart should be awarded to those who suffer from it, and that PTSD should be applied retroactively to pardon and overturn decades-old dishonorable discharges and even executions. For example, in 2006 British Parliament voted to pardon the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers who had been executed during WWI for cowardice, desertion, and falling asleep on guard duty, under the assumption that the men may have failed in their duty because they were suffering psychological distress caused by the war. Similarly, American veterans of the Vietnam War who were given an “other-than-honorable” discharge during that conflict for things like desertion and drug use have recently launched a class-action lawsuit against the armed forces, claiming they were suffering PTSD at the time and demanding that their discharges be retroactively upgraded. Said John Shepherd Jr. a claimant in the suit who was given an “other-than-honorable” discharge for refusing to go on patrol: “I want that honorable. I did do my part, until I really felt it wasn’t worth getting killed for.” What’s so interesting about Shepherd’s statement is that his claim to honor is based on a contradiction to traditional honor, which dictates that a man cannot abandon the group because of personal inclinations and beliefs.

The military has had a difficult time sorting through these issues since WWI, as they have had to weigh difficult questions as to whether you can make an ethical or moral distinction between bullet and shrapnel wounds and invisible psychiatric scars, whether the latter merits disability pay or even a Purple Heart, and whether those awards sap a man’s motivation to make a recovery. The main dilemma has been, as Edgar Jones, author of Shell-Shock to PTSD, put it: “How does the military avoid encouraging individuals to shirk their duties (and hence increase the risk of others getting killed or wounded) without burdening commanders with soldiers who will fail to carry out their duties, while also looking after those who breakdown as a result of combat?” In short, what role should traditional honor play within a traditionally honor-bound organization operating in a modern world?

Authenticity & Sincerity

It’s rather hard to wrap our minds around now, as honor has become synonymous with integrity, but traditional honor was only concerned with a man’s public reputation, not his inner thoughts and private behavior. What mattered was only what your peers saw you do – this alone was the evidence they used to judge your honor. For this reason, one of the sort of paradoxes of traditional honor is that it has always involved the hiding and covering up of one’s flaws.

Think of the many presidents who had an affair during the course of their tenure in the White House. In some cases the press knew about the canoodling going on at the time, but they never printed a word about it. One, because “snitching” about such a thing was considered dishonorable, and two, because they did not think that such private liaisons had anything to do with the effective fulfillment of the POTUS’ duties. As long as they maintained an honorable front, the demands of traditional honor were met, and everything was gravy.

Today, we demand congruence between a man’s private life and his public persona. To offer the appearance of an upright reputation, while doing some not-so-upright things behind closed doors, strikes us as rank hypocrisy. We believe that a hypocrite cannot be a good man, or a good public servant. So when his private indiscretions are discovered, a man is quite often drummed out of office.

Wariness of Violence in a Litigious Society

In the most basic, primal form of traditional honor, if you got hit, you hit back, and might made right. If a man was insulted, he would challenge the accuser to a physical throwdown – perhaps to the death; if he emerged triumphant, then his honor was maintained, even if the accusation had been true, and even if he lost, his willingness to fight helped him preserve at least some face. Men also fought and used violence to solve disputes, to initiate newcomers and test their worthiness for being included in the group, to gain status among existing members, and to test and prepare each other for battling a common enemy.

Starting in the 19th century with the emergence of the Stoic-Christian honor code, the use of violence to maintain and manage honor began to be questioned. Self-control and self-mastery were celebrated as Stoic ideals and also essential to rising in the new economy; for this reason, violence began to be associated with the “brutish” lower-classes who weren’t interested in becoming gentlemen and getting ahead. Self-discipline was needed to navigate the new landscape, and violence began to be seen as wild and destructive — an impediment to the ordered, civilized society the upper classes were trying to build. Gentlemen no longer felt that maintaining an increasingly anemic concept of honor was worth dying or even fighting over; they considered themselves above it – that such scuffles were a waste of their time and energy.

In the 1960s, fighting and aggression were also painted as incompatible with the push to make men more sensitive and compassionate. The traits were linked to things like domestic abuse and rape, and the idea that many men will become predators to women if not taught to control their dark, macho impulses. In schools, fighting was condemned as leading to injury of body and feelings, the weak being unfairly dominated by the physically strong, and the potential for volatile distractions from their educational mission. Instead of being encouraged to duke it out in the schoolyard to resolve disputes and confront a bully, boys were taught to use strategies of conflict resolution and to tell an adult what was going on so they might intervene.

Honor and its attendant violence had also been a part of rough societies as a method of enforcing justice — when formal legal systems were non-existent or seen as inadequate for satisfying honor’s demands. But as court systems became more established in Western societies, solving disputes mano-a-mano became less necessary…and legal. With the closing of the American frontier, vigilantism was no longer tolerated. In the 19th century, in both the North and South, men had shot and killed an insulter point blank, without even a duel, and been completely acquitted for the deed – because, the killer would argue, it was the only honorable reaction, and what else could their peers have expected them to do under such circumstances? In the 20th century, simply punching another man could land you in court and jail. In an increasing litigious society, disputes began to be settled with a civil suit in a courtroom, not with a revolver on a field of honor.

Perhaps most importantly, personal violence suffered from its association with its ultimate manifestation: war. Just as men in traditional honor societies fought with each other for a variety of reasons, going to war as a tribe could be justified on several grounds. It was not just for protection of the tribe or the acquisition of territory, but simply for the sake of honor itself — a display of strength, retaliation for insults real or perceived, or the simple assertion of superiority.

In the aftermath of World War I this approach to war was called into serious question. It was argued that a globalized, technological society now made possible war with a level of scale, intensity, duration, and ultimate death toll and destruction that could now only be justified in the most dire of circumstances and under the clearest, most immediate threats. The decision to go to war could no longer be trifled with, or done under the “senseless” rationale of honor, for the mere flexing of national muscles in the modern age could have dire and wide-ranging consequences. War for the sake of honor had to be reigned in lest the world turn into one blood-splattered battlefield.

World War II only strengthened this nascent attitude. European powers waited to enter the war until the threat of German invasion became overwhelmingly real, and America stayed out of it until the Japanese directly attacked Pearl Harbor. Once the full extent of the horrors of the Holocaust became known at the end of the war, a staggeringly powerful moral reason was retroactively added to the rationale of getting involved. The war could clearly be seen through the lens of good and evil, and is in fact referred to as the “Good War” for this reason. All future wars have been judged by the yardstick of WWII and found terribly wanting. Vietnam of course became the ultimate symbol of senseless war and the senselessness of honor generally. Some felt that it continued for so long simply because LBJ would not let himself be dishonored — that he was willing to let thousands of men die in order to save personal and national face.

All armed interventions after Vietnam have had to be sold to the public based on threats to safety and moral obligation. For example, in a traditional honor culture George W. Bush would have only needed to rationalize the Iraq War as a way to avenge his father’s honor, or simply as a way to demonstrate American strength after 9/11 – a general flexing of muscle done as a warning to others in the Middle East. But because we live in a post-honor society, the reasons he gave for the war were the liberation of an oppressed people and the threat of WMDs – even if the latter had to be pulled together on shaky evidence.

In the absence of a clear good vs. evil storyline post-WWII, the West has avoided total war in favor of limited war — holding back on marshaling all its resources and men, and restricting goals to attrition and hazy humanitarian concepts of “nation-building.” Despite the number of armed engagements the United States has fought in the past decades, war has not formally been declared since the Big One.

General MacArthur, who was denied his desire to expand the Korean War into China, believed that limited war broke the bonds between the leaders and the led, as it gave them a dishonorable goal — anything short of total victory – and robbed the value and purpose of their sacrifice.

Limited wars are fought by necessity because of the public’s opposition to the draft. Because society and its leaders believe that wars should only be fought under the most overwhelmingly compelling of reasons, they feel that men should only be forced to fight under the same requirement. Compounding this resistance to universal conscription has been the rising belief in each individual’s uniqueness and worth, and the smaller size of families. Parents are unwilling to risk the lives of their children when they only have one or two to begin with. For these reasons, military service has been taken up by an increasingly small proportion of the citizenry, creating a yawning gap between warriors and civilians.

The State of Honor Today

For the reasons outlined above, traditional honor cultures unraveled over the course of the 20th century. The only widespread form of shared honor that thrives today is what James Bowman calls “anti-honor-honor.” The anti-honor-honor group consists of those who see traditional honor as anti-feminist, anti-egalitarian, hypocritical, an incitement to violence, exclusionary, and uncompassionate – thoroughly silly, if not dangerous and wholly outdated. Those who ascribe to the anti-honor-honor philosophy do not believe men should be shamed into conforming to traditional standards of masculinity, and celebrate a new kind of manhood, where men are free to be whoever they wish.

Yet, a shadow of honor in its most basic form – bravery for men, chastity for women – continues to linger on. “If you doubt it,” Bowman writes, ”try calling a man a wimp, or a woman a slut.” And you can’t reverse that either; men will generally shrug if you call them a slut (tellingly, there still really isn’t a popular derogatory word for a man who sleeps around), and women won’t usually be offended if called a wimp.

Bowman puts it best when he says we now suffer from “cultural phantom limb syndrome.” “Any coherent idea of honor was amputated from Western culture three-quarters of a century or so ago, leaving nothing behind but a few sensitive moral nerve endings that make themselves felt every now and then when our residual sense of propriety and public virtue is outraged and we don’t know why.”

When these moral nerve endings make themselves felt, the result is a kind of short-term orgy of outrage, that, because there are no structures in today’s culture to which to channel and deal with the emotions, ultimately dissipate as quickly as they arose.

Take the case of Sandra Fluke. When Rush Limbaugh called her a slut in February, his comments provoked widespread outrage…and then the wave crested and went away as quickly as it had risen. In a traditional honor culture, Fluke’s father would have challenged Rush to a duel (now that is something I would have paid to watch) in order to defend her honor and to resolve the scandal in a clear and definitive way. The interesting thing about the Fluke affair is that at the same time she advanced a liberal, progressive cause, she appealed to the ethics of traditional honor. That she considered being called a slut the basest of insults, and that she appreciated President Obama for standing up for her and essentially defending her honor, directly harkened back to an ancient culture of honor. It was an interesting juxtaposition.

In some ways, the standards of traditional honor have endured more for women than for men. For example, during this past election Newsweek called Mitt Romney a wimp on its cover, which in ancient times would have been the most inflammatory of insults, essentially an invitation to single combat. But Romney was utterly unfazed and did not bother responding at all. At the same time, tabloids in the UK published photos of Prince Harry nude, but declined to do the same for naked pictures of Kate Middleton, in order to protect her modesty.

Women are more likely to be respected for their chastity, or at least suffer no ill consequences for it, while men who fight for no “good” reason are considered thugs, lunkheads, or deviants, and told to correct that behavior or be kicked out of school or put in jail.

Traditional manly honor, both as it relates to primal honor based on bravery and strength and higher moral virtues, continues to live on in pockets of modern society: police and fire departments, fraternal lodges, some churches, and in the military, most especially in those units which see combat firsthand.


Traditional honor unraveled in the 20th century as agreement was lost as to what constituted the common good of society, and people opted out of the code to pursue their own personal good without shame. Lacking a shared honor code and a close-knit honor group to judge one’s behavior, honor moved from being an external concept synonymous with “reputation,” to a wholly internal and private thing, identical to “integrity.” Everyone is free to construct their own honor code, and only your own conscience (or God) can be the final arbiter of your honor. At least for those who still pay attention to their conscience (or God).

The result of this shift in the meaning of honor has been an exponential increase in individual freedom. But it has its downsides as well. What those downsides are, why reviving some aspects of traditional honor is desirable, and how to do it in an anti-honor-honor world will be the subject of the next and final post in this series.

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: A History by James Bowman

Honor by Frank Henderson Stewart

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom

I Was With Patton: First-Person Accounts of WWII In George S. Patton’s Command by D. A. Lande



Manly Honor Part V: Honor in the American South

confederate soldiers standing around broken down building civil war

Welcome back to our series on manly honor. Today we tackle Southern honor in the 19th century. Now, be prepared: this is and will be the longest post in the series by far. The complexity of traditional honor and its various cultural manifestations cannot possibly be underestimated, nor can the difficulty in distilling these complexities into an accessible, coherent narrative. We have done our best with that task so far, and here as well; however, understanding Southern honor requires a more in-depth exploration. We could have just sketched out the very basics, but truly grasping those basics necessitates an understanding of the framework which underlies them. Also, as we shall see, because the South’s culture of honor still influences that region today, it’s a good subject to become knowledgeable about if you want to understand the country. Plus, it’s just really interesting!

We didn’t set out to do it, but I’m proud of the fact that this series has turned into a resource unlike any other that is out there. I don’t imagine there’s a huge audience among blog readers for 7,000-word posts about Southern honor, but those who are interested in the subject will hopefully really dig it, and anyone who girds up his loins and reads the whole thing will be rewarded.

Southern Honor: An Introduction

In our last post about the history of honor, we took a look at how honor manifested itself in the American North around the time of the Civil War. Yet when most folks think about honor in the States, both then and now, what first comes to mind is invariably the South.

There’s a reason for that. While honor in the North evolved during the 19th century away from the ideals of primal honor and towards a private, personal quality synonymous with “integrity,” the South held onto the tenets of traditional honor for a much longer period of time.

Unlike the Northern code of honor, which emphasized emotional restraint, moral piety, and economic success, the Southern honor code in many ways paralleled the medieval honor code of Europe — combining the reflexive, violent honor of primitive man with the public virtue and chivalry of knights.

The code of honor for Southern men required having: 1) a reputation for honesty and integrity, 2) a reputation for martial courage and strength, 3) self-sufficiency and “mastery,” defined as patriarchal dominion over a household of dependents (wife/children/slaves), and 4) a willingness to use violence to defend any perceived slight to his reputation as a man of integrity, strength, and courage, as well as any threats to his independence and kin. Just as in medieval times, “might made right” in the American South. If a man could physically dominate or kill someone who accused him of dishonesty, that man maintained his reputation as a man of integrity (even if the accusations were in fact true).

Anthropologists and social psychologists believe this form of classical honor survived and thrived in the American South and died in the North because of cultural differences between their respective early settlers, as well as the North’s and South’s divergent economies.

Herding, the Scotch-Irish, and the South’s Culture of Honor

northern european herdsmen cattle illustration drawing

To understand why a more primal and violent culture of honor took root in the American South, it helps to understand the cultural background of its early settlers. While the northern United States was settled primarily by farmers from more established European countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and especially England (particularly from areas around London), the southern United States was settled primarily by herdsmen from the more rural and undomesticated parts of the British Isles. These two occupations — farming and herding — produced cultures with starkly different notions of honor.

Some researchers argue that herding societies tend to produce cultures of honor that emphasize courage, strength, and violence. Unlike crops, animal herds are much more vulnerable to theft. A herdsman could lose his entire fortune in one overnight raid. Consequently, martial valor and strength and the willingness to use violence to protect his herd became useful assets to an ancient herdsman. What’s more, a reputation for these martial attributes served as a deterrent to would-be thieves. It’s telling that many of history’s most ferocious warrior societies had pastoral economies. The ancient Hittites, the ancient Hebrews, and the ancient Celts are just a few examples of these warrior/herder societies.

As it happened, the Scotch-Irish settlers that poured into the Southern colonies from the late 17th century through the antebellum period were genetic and cultural descendants of the war-like and pastoral Celts. Hailing from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the English Uplands, these Scotch-Irish peoples made up perhaps half of the South’s population by 1860 (in contrast, three-quarters of New Englanders, up until the massive influx of Irish immigrants in the 1840s, were English in origin). As the Celtic-herdsmen theory goes (and it is not without its critics), their influence on Southern culture was even larger than their numbers. These rough and scrappy Scotch-Irish immigrants not only brought with them their ancestors’ penchant for herding, but also imported their love of whiskey, music, leisure, gambling, hunting, and…their warrior-bred, primal code of honor. Even as the South became an agricultural powerhouse, the vast majority of white Southerners – from big plantation owners to the landless — continued to raise hogs and livestock. Whether a man spent most his time working a farm or herding his animals, the pastoral culture of honor, with its emphasis on courage, strength, and violence — characterized by an aggressive stance towards the world and a wariness towards outsiders who might want to take what was his — remained (and as we will see later, continues even to this day).

Agrarian Economics

While the South’s ethno-cultural background may explain the origin of its primal and sometimes violent code of honor, it doesn’t explain why it remained so entrenched in Southern life for so long while contemporaneous Northerners were quick to adopt the more modern, private notion of honor. To answer that question we simply need to look to the divergent economies of the two regions.

While industrialization transformed the Northern landscape in the 19th century and sparked the rise of urbanization, the antebellum South remained largely agrarian and rural. This created two important effects in the region: economic opportunities were fewer in number and less diverse, and kinship ties remained very strong.

Land Ownership and Class

idyllic farm in mountain valley smoking chimney drawing

While for many, slavery is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the Old South, only 25% of the white population owned slaves, and 73% of those who did held fewer than ten. In other words, three-quarters of the white population were nonslaveholders. While it is common to imagine there were only two white classes in the South — rich, slave-holding planters and poor whites — there was actually a middle-class majority of non-slaveholders (around 60-70%) who owned their own land. All told, about 75% of all white males in the South owned land. Another number were professionals and artisans, and the remaining percentage were “poor white trash” (yes, this derogatory term originated way back in the 19th century). Alternately referred to as “squatters,” “crackers,” “clay/dirt-eaters,” and “sand-hillers,” these poor whites eked out a subsistence living in isolated settlements nestled in the hills and mountains, planting perhaps a few crops and raising a few animals, but mainly getting by through hunting and fishing.

wealthy plantation horses carriage slaves working field painting

The richest planters might own thousands of acres and hundreds of slaves, while a yeoman farmer worked a hundred acres and held no slaves; 90-95% of all agricultural wealth in the South was in the hands of slaveholders by 1860. Despite this deep inequality, the culture of the South was quite different than the walled-off oligarchy of the Old World nobility. Whereas Europe’s landed aristocracy held a monopoly on power and claimed honor as exclusively their own, because of the accessibility of land in the South – even if men’s holdings vastly differed – a common bond between the two groups existed.

Yeoman farmers typically lived close to plantation owners, and the two groups frequently intermingled through both trade and kinship. While entering the upper echelon of Southern gentlemen depended partly on family lineage, there was a degree of social and economic mobility; non-landowners acquired land, non-slave owners acquired slaves, and non-planters married into planter families. Yet, most yeoman farmers sought not great wealth, but being a “good-liver” — attaining a simple, comfortable self-sufficiency surrounded by one’s family and enough land to pass onto one’s sons. Striving to get ahead was too much work; while industry was perhaps the sine qua non of honorable virtues both in Victorian England and the American North, Southerners valued leisure in their lives. In this they harkened back to their Celtic forbearers, who had employed the least labor-intensive method of herding — the open range system – and used the rest of their time for feasting, fighting, and merriment.

This satisfaction with self-sufficiency was rooted in both cultural ideals and practical considerations. While industrialization in the North had opened up a new stratum of diverse professions, options in the South outside of agriculture were far fewer; the only other honorable professions were law, medicine, clergy, and the military, but even then, many men hoped these positions would simply serve as stepping-stones towards becoming a planter. And while Northern men were celebrated for having the pluck and initiative to leave home in pursuit of personal goals, Southerners wished to stay close to hearth and home, and some saw such pecuniary striving as crass. Again, this viewpoint derived from both cultural and utilitarian considerations; the ability to move into professions and politics in the South relied less on the egalitarian boot-strapping that defined the North, and more on personal and familial connections.

Honor in the South

The differences between the industrialized North and agrarian South led to differences in their honor codes. While the North equated honor with economic success, and economic success with moral character, honor in the South hinged on hitting a more basic threshold.

The Southern ideal, in theory, if not always in practice, was that the rich man was no better than the poor man; all whites of all classes considered themselves part of the same honor group. As all traditional honor groups are, it was a classless hierarchy not of wealth, but of rank. The military makes a good comparison. All soldiers are equals as men of honor, but there are higher and lower ranks; each strata has greater or lesser responsibilities and privileges, and its own culture.

Every white man acknowledged the personal equality of every other – horizontal honor – while also acknowledging that some, because of blood and talent – had risen higher than others and achieved greater vertical honor. Most who occupied a position below the top respected that setup as proper and natural; differences in status did not hold moral significance. Southerners also did not see hierarchy as incompatible with democracy, but rather as a necessary way of bringing order to what would otherwise be a society dominated by chaos and mob rule.

While the poorest whites were seen as dishonorable and despicable because they did not contribute anything to society, and just as importantly, chose to live in isolation from the “tribe,” such a label was only possible for those who could perhaps be members of the honor group, but failed to meet the code. While some Northern gentlemen did not even acknowledge the common manhood of “the roughs” because of their failure to meet any of the requirements of the Stoic-Christian honor code, poor whites in the South had the potential to be included because basic Southern honor was not dependent on gentility (clothes/education/manners), but things that were accessible to every man. While poor whites weren’t generally concerned about the integrity part of the Southern honor code as much as the farmers and planters were, all were united in honoring independence (not working for another man and being master of one’s own “little commonwealth”), strength and personal valor, and a man’s willingness to use violence to defend his reputation. Men from every rank in the South believed that honor required a man to take an aggressive stance to the world – a constant readiness to fight for what was his against the encroachments of outsiders and the insults of scalawags of all varieties.

What About Slavery?

When discussing the differences between North and South in the 19th century, obviously the huge elephant in the room is slavery. Slavery definitely affected the honor code inasmuch as it shaped the South’s economy and was part of the way of life whites wished to defend. It influenced it in other ways as well, but historians disagree on exactly how. Some think the fear of a slave uprising made Southerners more prone to engaging in reflexive violence – demonstrating strength as a warning against would-be mutineers. Some say that by including all whites in the Southern honor group, rich and poor alike, they pacified possible resentment from the lower class, and thus headed off the possibility of their teaming up with slaves in a rebellion against rich plantation owners. Slavery helped solidify the Southern hierarchy, and traditional honor thrives in an environment of “us vs. them.”

It’s obviously a complex subject, which sits outside the purview of this article. Since an honor group can only consist of those who consider themselves equals, for Southern whites, blacks were obviously excluded. Thus, honor for whites in the South was something generally only judged, jockeyed for, and mediated amongst each other (with the exception of black on white crime, in which a white man’s honor necessitated his meting out justice himself, sometimes in the form of a lynch mob.)

As with the North, we know that just because one group claims exclusive right to honor, doesn’t mean those left out don’t have their own code (i.e., the gentlemen and the roughs). Slaves assuredly had their own code of honor too, but unfortunately no one has tackled that subject yet that I know of. A Ph.D. dissertation waiting to be written…

The Public Nature of Southern Honor

That a man’s public reputation remained the basis of his honor, as opposed to shifting towards private conscience as in the North, was due to the close communities and kinship ties in the South. In the North, waves of immigration, coupled with urbanization, created a diverse society dominated by impersonal relations, making agreement on a single honor code difficult, and sparking the development of personal codes of honor. The South, on the other hand, remained agrarian and sparsely populated; at the start of the Civil War, the North had 10+ million more residents.

Southerners preferred to live physically close to their relatives, and the foundation of every community was one’s extended family. One of the interesting signifiers of the way Southerners were more tied to tradition and familial interests versus Northerners can be found in the diverging naming practices of the two regions. For example, at the beginning of the 1800s, only 10% of boys in a typical Massachusetts community were given non-familial names, but that jumped up to 30% by the time of the Civil War. In contrast, Bertram Wyatt-Brown reports that as late as 1940, a rural sociologist in Kentucky “discovered that only 5% of all males had names not affiliated with traditional family first and middle names. Over 70 percent of the men were named for their fathers.” Giving sons familial names symbolized the patriarch’s important position in Southern families, tied grandparents and grandchildren together, and imparted to sons a sense of pride and place in a long lineage – a lineage he was charged with honorably upholding.

As a result of the close-knit, more homogenized nature of Southern society, two fundamental requirements of traditional honor remained in place: a cohesive honor code that everyone in the group understood and ascribed to, and frequent face-to-face interactions that allowed members to judge each other’s reputations. This also left in place traditional honor’s mechanism for dealing with social deviants: public shame and group justice.

Honor acted in tandem with the formal legal system in the South. For Southern men, some matters of honor could not possibly be justly settled in a court of law; the matter had to be resolved mano-a-mano, sometimes in the form of a duel. On her deathbed, Andrew Jackson’s mother (Scotch-Irish herself, and an immigrant to the Carolinas) told him: “Avoid quarrels as long as you can without yielding to imposition. But sustain your manhood always. Never bring a suit in law for assault and battery or for defamation. The law affords no remedy for such outrages that can satisfy the feelings of a true man.” Jackson took his mother’s advice to heart, participating in at least 13 “affairs of honor.”

Crimes and disputes that did end up in court were discussed in the taverns and parlors about town, and judges were swayed by the public’s opinion of the crime and of the accused when rendering their sentences. Southerners wanted it this way; impersonal justice seemed too Northern — a justice system which incorporated local circumstances preserved local autonomy.

When the community felt that justice, according to the dictates of honor, had not been served by the court, they believed it within their rights to step in and mete out the proper punishment themselves. This often took the form of lynch mobs, which frequently went after blacks, but sometimes fellow whites as well. Whites in need of shaming were more likely to be on the receiving end of a “charivari”, which was an ancient ritual that dates back at least to the Middle Ages in which the townspeople would gather outside the home of one who had violated the community’s norms – perhaps through adultery or wife-beating – and beat on pots and pans, hoot and holler, and sometimes give the accused a tar and feathering. The duly shamed would quickly get the message and high-tail it out of town.

For Southerners, these extra-legal forms of justice were not a substitute for the court system, but a supplement; as Wyatt-Brown puts it: “Common law and lynch law were ethically compatible. The first enabled the legal profession to present traditional order, and the second conferred upon ordinary men the prerogative of ensuring that community values held ultimate sovereignty.”

Yet it was the threat of simple, informal shunning — being made an outcast — that was enough to get most Southerners to conform to the code. As in all traditional honor societies, a Southerner’s relations with others and their inclusion in the community were the heart of life; one could not separate their personal identity and happiness from their membership in the group. What Moses I. Finley said of the world of Odysseus was true of the South as well: “one’s kin were indistinguishable from oneself.” Thus to be abandoned was the worst possible fate. Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish writer who was popular in the American South, described this tribal mindset well:

“Isolation is the sum-total of wretchedness to man. To be cut off, to be left solitary: to have a world alien, not your world, all a hostile camp for you; not a home at all, of hearts and faces who are yours, whose you are! … To have neither superior, nor inferior, nor equal, united manlike to you. Without father, without child, without brother. Man knows no sadder destiny.”

These strong bonds with kin, along with their deep connection to the land, created an honor culture extraordinarily rooted in people and place.

The Three Pillars of Southern Honor Culture

While it is true, as Wyatt-Brown asserts, that “honor in the Old South applied to all white classes,” it was still lived with “manifestations appropriate to each ranking.” If you remember our military analogy above, it can be compared to the way officers and privates are equals as men of honor, but each group has its own culture and way of interacting with each other.

For example, the code of honor of the upper middle class and the wealthy was tempered by gentility. Their aggressive stance to the world was refined and balanced by an emphasis on moral, dignified uprightness, clothes and manners, and education. The latter was typically devoted to classical literature from ancient Greece and Rome; The Illiad and The Odyssey were instruction manuals on living a life of honor, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was considered second only to the Bible in importance.

There were, however, three pillars of Southern honor culture that transcended socio-economic status, even if they sometimes manifested themselves differently according to class. For all white Southern men, these three pillars were public, ritual encounters which served to test a man’s honor, and Wyatt-Brown argues, “helped Southerners determine community standing and reaffirm their membership in the immediate circle to which they belonged. In all of them honor and pursuit of place muted the threat of being alone and provided the chance to enjoy the power in fellowship.”

1. Sociability and Hospitality

1800s wedding virginia men on horses painting

Generosity, friendliness, warm-heartedness, and expressive sociability were points of honor for a Southerner and one of the primary ways in which he “distinguish[ed] himself from the Yankee.” If the watchwords for the Northerner gentleman were “coolness and detachment,” the watchwords for his Southern counterpart were “passion and affability.” While Southern men honored the Stoics for their apathy towards death and centered calmness in times of both crisis and fortune, they made more allowance for joviality in social situations than their more restrained Northern brethren. Even today, Southerners take pride in their region’s friendly and big-hearted ways.

To combat the fear of solitariness discussed above, Southerners looked for any excuse to get together with friends and kin and held frequent dances, corn huskings, barn raisings, picnics, and militia musterings, amongst many other types of gatherings.

But it was the ancient ritual of hospitality that held the most central role in a Southern man’s sociability and acted as a test of his honor. Wyatt-Brown defines hospitality as “the relationship of an individual and family to outsiders on home turf.” But it started with taking care of one’s own kin. Southerners contrasted their generous approach in aiding their relatives to that which they perceived as the impersonal and tightfisted way in which Northerners more frequently relied on public assistance – leaving the job to asylums, poorhouses, and charitable organizations.

And of course when it came to strangers and visitors, Southerners felt duty-bound to show hospitality to whomever showed up. An element of competition existed in Southern hospitality – households which pulled out more of the stops in entertaining won status in the eyes of the community.

The honor-bound obligation to show hospitality to everyone who appeared on your doorstep could lead to financial distress. When Jefferson returned to Monticello after serving in the White House, even folks who had simply voted for him felt entitled to swing by and say hello; having to entertain this constant stream of well-wishers contributed to the large debt with which the president died.

2. Gambling and Drinking

While Southerners were a religious people – often Baptist or Methodist in their faith – the Second Great Awakening that swept the Northeast did not have as transforming an effect in Dixie. In the North, a revival in evangelical Christianity led to an emphasis on seeking moral perfection – both individually and as a community. This desire for purification sparked the creation of reformation groups, such as temperance societies, and led some gentlemen to believe that abstinence from things like alcohol and gambling were requirements of a man’s code of honor.

While such things fell out of favor with Northerners (and some Southerners as well) most Southern men continued to heartily believe that drinking and gambling (what one contemporary referred to as a “generous and manly vice”) were not incompatible with their faith or morality, and greatly contributed to maintaining a social, honorable culture. Their piety on Sundays with their families and the rowdy good fun they had with each other could be compartmentalized, like two different roles in their life. As has famously been said, “The South votes dry, and drinks wet.”

1800s horse race crowds standing along track painting

In a time before basketball, football, and hockey, horse racing was America’s most popular sport. Especially anticipated were races that played up sectional hostilities — pitting a Southern-bred horse against a Northern one

Southern men felt that vices like drinking and gambling didn’t make them less of a man, but more of one, because they, just like their Scotch-Irish ancestors, saw its role in building and managing the honor group. As we’ve discussed, in honor groups men challenge and test each other to earn status, and also to prepare each other to face a common enemy. In peace-time, men use games, sports, and drinking to accomplish this. Such diversions give men a chance to best their rivals without rocking the social boat. And through all this friendly competition, camaraderie is built and bonds between men are strengthened.

1800s gander pull sport man on horse illustration

The “gander pull” was a popular Southern pastime. An old tough male goose (gander) was strung up and its neck slathered with grease. Male contestants, fortified with whisky, would ride under the goose, reach for its neck, and attempt to pull the head off. The ladies would cheer for their “knights,” and hope their man would be the one to present the head to them as a trophy.

Sports gave Southern men a chance to demonstrate their physical prowess — gambling, one’s strategic skill. Even in games of chance, winning boosted a man’s status. Johann Huizinga explains that a lucky win “had a sacred significance; the fall of the dice may signify and determine divine workings.” Winning meant God favored you and deemed you worthy of praise from your brethren. That’s why cheating constituted the ultimate dishonor and was worthy of death; it was an attempt to unfairly gain status and thwart the will of the gods.

1800s men playing cards shooting each other drawing

Cheating was sometimes punishable by death.

Fathers in the Old South initiated their sons into the “manly art” of gambling at an early age so they would be ready to take part in the world of men. “Betting,” according to Wyatt-Brown, “was almost a social obligation when men gathered at barbecues, taverns, musters, supper and jockey clubs, race tracks, and on steamboats.” To not ante up was to deny your equal standing with your fellow men, and thus refusing to play “implied cowardice, differentness, unwholesome and even antisocial behavior.”  However, compulsive gambling, which consumed one’s inheritance, and the failure to pay a gambling debt were seen as very shameful.

Drinking served the same purpose as gambling. It brought men together and acted as a sorting mechanism for status within the group. The man who could drink the most and hold his liquor showed hardihood and earned the admiration of his peers. Intoxication also heightened the chances that men would provoke or dare each other into fights or hijinks – opportunities for a rollickin’ good time and further tests of manhood.

3. Fighting and Dueling

“The Palmetto State: Her sons bold and chivalrous in war, mild and persuasive in peace, their spirits flush with resentment for wrong.”  — toast of J.J. McKilla, at Independence Day militia banquet in Sumterville, South Carolina, 1854

As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, traditional honor began with your own claim to honor, but then that claim had to be ratified by one’s peers. If one of your fellows disavowed your claim, and said the image you projected was false, this was a grave insult; if you tolerated the insult, you essentially let another man dominate you, and thus lost status in the group. Fighting the accuser allowed you to maintain your honorable reputation; if you beat or killed him, you demonstrated that he was wrong, whether his insult had been true or not.

An accuser knew when he was intentionally drawing a man into a fight; calling another man a coward (or in the parlance of the time a “poltroon” or “puppy”) was essentially a declaration you wanted to duel or duke it out. Insulting a man’s honesty in the South, known as “giving the lie,” had the same effect and was sure to provoke instantaneous rage. Ditto for doing wrong to a man’s wife, mother, or daughter; Southerners prided themselves on their chivalry. But whether it was a man’s courage or his integrity that was questioned, the recourse was always the same: violence.

While childrearing in the North emphasized the cultivation of inner conscience, and the feeling of guilt in wrongdoing, Southern parents instilled in their progeny a sense of honor, and feeling shame for violating the code. Young boys were encouraged by both their parents and the community to be aggressive and manly, and to fight to defend one’s honor from an early age. And it wasn’t just fathers who sought to impress upon their sons the importance of personal valor; mothers were equally adamant on this point. For example, Sam Houston’s mother urged him to fight in the War of 1812, and when he decided to join up, she gave him a plain gold ring with “Honor” engraved inside it, and then handed him a musket saying, “Never disgrace it; for remember, I had rather all my sons should fill one honorable grave, than that one of them should turn his back to save his life.”

vintage cartoon little boys fighting trousers vests

Boys were taught that even if you got creamed, simply showing your willingness to fight demonstrated your manhood. A story recalled by James Ross, born 1801, illustrates this well. When he was six, Ross bought a knife, but then lost it, and in his naivety, returned to the storekeeper who had sold it to him for a refund of his money. The boy argued with the shopkeep for a while, and some other boys in the store began laughing at him, making him feel ridiculous. When Ross saw a boy he already disliked among the laughing crowd, he fell upon him, and the two proceeded to engage in a long and unmerciful scuffle as the other boys gathered in a circle to watch. When he could no longer go on, Ross was told he had been whipped, and began to make his way home, thoroughly dejected and humiliated. But then an older, more respected boy who had witnessed the fight came over and offered him this advice: “I must cheer up—adding that I had done exactly right; every man ought to fight when insulted; being whipped was nothing; he had been whipped twenty times and was none the worse for it; I had fought bravely; all the boys said so; and he thought a great deal more of me than he did before. This talk comforted me wonderfully and all my troubles soon vanished. It is true my ribs felt sore for several days, but I cared little for that.”

Seldom did a boy of any class make it to adolescence without getting into a fight, or several. For poor boys, as they grew into men they were expected to begin to participate in what was called the “rough and tumble.” A rough and tumble was a no-holds-barred fight where the first man to cry “uncle” lost, and opponents sought to disfigure and maim each other to claim victory; fights often ended when one employed “The Gouge” – scooping the other man’s eyeball out of its socket.

“As far as it can be done, we should live peaceably with our associates; but, as we cannot always do so, it is necessary occasionally to resist. And when our honor demands resistance, it should be done with courage.” –Advice of North Carolinian William Pettigrew to his younger brother

For middle and upper class boys, schoolyard scraps quickly evolved into true “affairs of honor;” teenage duels were not uncommon in the South. Introduced to the US by French and British aristocrats during the Revolutionary War, the Southern upper classes saw dueling as a way to fight and show courage that distinguished itself from the heedless, ugly “rough and tumbles” of their lower class brethren. While theirs were bodily fights of immediate passion, duels were carefully orchestrated rituals between gentlemen who considered each other equals (an insult from an inferior was not worthy of notice). That it required a man to resist the urge to punch a man right on the spot made the duel seem a much more gentlemanly and honorable form of combat. Duels were governed by an elaborate set of rules, and could take weeks and even months to arrange. During that time, the men’s chosen “seconds” (a man’s representative and duel referee) would try to negotiate a peaceful resolution in order to avoid bloodshed.

vintage drawing illustration 1800 men dueling guns

Even for those showdowns that did make it to the “field of honor,” only 20% of duels ended in a fatality. Gentlemen often aimed for an appendage or deliberately missed. Dueling was much more about demonstrating one’s willingness to literally die for one’s honor, than it was about killing another man; it symbolized the culture’s belief that dishonor was worse than death. Southerners scoffed at the way Northern men used the word honor, but defended an insult with a fist fight or a contemptuous laugh and turn of the heel; an honor not worth dying for was not honor at all.

Dueling was seen by some as a way to head off feuds, and as an incentive for gentlemen to conduct themselves in the most upright manner. But it always had its critics and was the most controversial of the three pillars – even Jefferson Davis condemned it. Yet even as Southern states outlawed the practice and anti-dueling societies arose, gentlemen continued to participate in the ritual without much public censure during the antebellum period. Including violence, even if in a ritualized way, allowed upper class men to hold onto the essential nature of traditional honor; the celebration of personal valor tied all classes of whites together.

Southern Honor and the Civil War

While folks still debate whether the Civil War was primarily about states’ rights or slavery, an argument can in fact be made that it was also largely about something that has subsequently been lost to time: honor.

Both sides saw and referred to the struggle as a duel; as Wyatt-Brown puts it, “for many, the Civil War was reduced to a simple test of manhood.”

In the South, William L. Yancey told the 1860 Democratic convention in Charleston:

“Ours is the property invaded; ours are the institutions which are at stake; ours in the peace that is to be destroyed; ours is the honor at stake–the honor of children, the honor of families, the lives, perhaps, of all.”

In the North, Lorien Foote describes a report in the popular magazine Harper’s Weekly “about the private meeting among some of the leading gentlemen of New York City in the tense days of the secession crisis. When one participant proposed to ‘accede’ to all the south’s demands, others jumped to their feet to denounce such a ‘total, unqualified, abject surrender in advance of all national and individual honor.’ They demanded that the men of the north at least ‘strike one blow for our own honor’ rather than ‘deliberately to relinquish our manhood.’”

vintage political cartoon lincoln davis boxing

vintage political cartoon lincoln fighting davis

The conflict between North and South was depicted by cartoonists as a fist fight between Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

While both the North and the South saw the war in terms of honor, what motivated the men to fight differed greatly. In the North, volunteers joined the cause because of more abstract ideals like freedom, equality, democracy, and Union. In the South, men grabbed their rifles to protect something more tangible — hearth and home — their families and way of life. Their motivation was rooted in their deeply entrenched loyalty to people and place.

But what if a man felt allegiance both to the principles espoused by the North, and the honor of the South? The ancient Greeks had grappled with what to do when one’s loyalties to one’s honor group conflicted with one’s loyalty to conscience. Such a conflict has been a struggle for warriors ever since, and is best embodied during this time in the life of Robert E. Lee.

general robert lee confederate portrait in full uniform

Lee was the perfect example of the South’s genteel honor code and what William Alexander Percy called the “broad-sword tradition:” “a dedication to manly valor in battle; coolness under fire; sacrifice of self to succor and protect comrades, family, and country; magnamity; gracious manners; prudence in council; deference to ladies; and finally, stoic acceptance of what Providence has dictated.” He had also served and greatly distinguished himself in the United States Army for 32 years, so much so, that as the Civil War loomed, Lincoln offered Lee command of the Union forces. Lee was torn; in the days before secession, he wrote, “I wish to live under no other government & there is no sacrifice I am not ready to make for the preservation of the Union save that of honor.”  Lee did not favor secession and wished for a peaceable solution instead; but his home state of Virginia seceded, and he was thus faced with the decision to remain loyal to the Union and take up arms against his people, or break with the Union to fight against his former comrades. He chose the latter. Lee’s wife (who privately sympathized with the Union cause) said this of her husband’s decision: “[He] has wept tears of blood over this terrible war, but as a man of honor and a Virginian, he must follow the destiny of his State.” In a traditional honor culture, loyalty to your honor group takes precedence over all other demands — even those of one’s own conscience.

group of confederate confederate soldiers looking at camera

Many other Southerners of divided loyalties made the same choice as Lee. United in opposition to the encroachment of outsiders, the perceived threat to their autonomy, and simply the necessity of showing honor by adopting an aggressive stance and fighting when insulted, the vast majority of white Southerners, whether slave-owners or not, took up arms for the Confederacy. Because of their shared honor code, there was, at least at first, a great deal of unity in the “solid South,” and less of the socioeconomic clashes that arose between the gentlemen and the roughs in the Union Army. For example, while the average personal wealth for company officers in the Confederate Army was $88,500, for noncoms and privates it was $760 – an incredible gulf. And yet company officers were elected by troops themselves – showing that they saw such men as their natural leaders.

vintage harper's cartoon souther chivalry civil war

Northerners were long critical of the South’s claims to chivalry, as depicted in this Thomas Nast cartoon from Harper’s Weekly.

Greater conflict would arise in the South, as it had in the North, when the Confederacy instituted conscription. Some chafed at this insult to their personal mastery of their lives, as well as Jefferson Davis’ suspension of habeas corpus, wartime inflation, and laws that exempted men who owned 15 slaves or more from the draft. These and other onerous effects of the conflict led some lower class men to grumble that it was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

In some ways, the South’s traditional honor code worked against the Confederacy’s efforts. A man would sometimes only agree to enlist if given a guarantee that he’d be retained in his own county or state – he was interested in fighting to protect his kin, not on some anonymous battlefield a few states over. For that same reason, drafted men, particularly if married, would often desert their unit if they were transferred far from home. And if a family emergency arose, or his wife and children needed help bringing in the crop, a man felt justified in going AWOL. Southern honor demanded loyalty to one’s people and place above all, and devotion to family and home was the highest of those sacred obligations.

Southern Honor Culture Lives On

Although the Civil War ended almost 150 years ago, 4 in 10 Southerners still sympathize with the Confederacy. While I won’t wade into the endless debate over whether, and to what extent, this attachment to history is appropriate, I will say that what is invariably missing from the debate, and crucial to fully apprehending it, is an understanding of the culture of Southern honor. The echoes of that culture go far beyond the displaying of the Confederate flag, and still influence the behavior of many Southern men to this day.

Since the end of the war until now, the South has had an overall higher rate of violent crime and of homicide specifically, than the Northeast. Compare, for example, two quintessential Southern and Northern states: South Carolina and Massachusetts. According to the US Census, in 2007 SC ranked first in the country as to the number of violent crimes per 100,000 people (788), while Massachusetts came in at twenty-second with nearly half that (432).

Chart Source: Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South by Richard E Nisbett and Dov Cohen

However, when you start to analyze the data further, things get much more interesting. Psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen looked at homicide stats for the North and South, and found that once you separate the murders into two categories —  argument/conflict-related and felony-related — the South only has a significantly higher rate when it comes to the former. What this means is that murders in the North are more likely to occur during the course of another crime, like burglary, and involve strangers, whereas murders in the South are more likely to arise from a personal conflict, such as a barfight or love triangle. Other studies have shown that only homicides that involve a victim personally known to the perpetrator are elevated in the South compared to other regions of the country. Most interesting of all is the fact that this effect is correlated to the size of a town or city. In medium-size cities (pop. 50k-200k), Southern white males commit murder at a rate of 2 to 1 when compared to the rest of the country; in small cities (pop. 10k-50k) the ratio is 3 to 1; in rural areas it is 4 to 1. After reading this post, you can probably guess why this is so – a small town provides the intimate, face-to-face relationships that are essential to an honor culture, and creates an environment where everyone knows your reputation, and an insult to it can lead to violent altercations.

Nisbett and Cohen followed up their findings with a study that looked at the differences between the emotional and physiological responses of Northern and Southern white men when faced with an insult. They had both Northern and Southern college-age men come into the lab under the pretense of taking part in an unrelated study. They were asked to take a questionnaire to a room at the end of a long and narrow hallway, and as they made their way down it, a confederate to the experimenters would bump into the subject, and call him an “asshole.” During this altercation, the subjects’ emotional response was recorded, and afterwards their levels of cortisol (which is released from arousal and stress), and testosterone (which increases when gearing up for something that will involve aggression and dominance) were measured. The result? Nisbett and Cohen found that Northern men reacted with more amusement to the insult than anger, while the Southerners reacted with more anger than amusement. Their physiological response differed too. The cortisol levels of insulted Northerners rose 33%, even less than the control Northerners who walked down the hallway without being bumped at all. But the cortisol levels of insulted Southerners went up more than double that: 79%. The testosterone levels of Northern increased by 6%, but went up 12% for Southerners.

Chart Source: Culture Of Honor: The Psychology Of Violence In The South by Richard E Nisbett and Dov Cohen

All of which is to say that in their reaction to insult, Southern men today remain tied, both culturally and physiologically, to their antebellum forbearers, and to their Scotch-Irish ancestors.

general of the confederacy civil war painting

This is true when it comes to those ancestors’ warrior values as well. Before the Civil War, Southerners occupied nearly every important position in the US Army, could claim the lion’s share of its most distinguished commanders, and had served as Secretary of War every year in the decade and a half prior to secession. Overall, Southern families contributed more sons to the Army than the North, despite the difference in population. And this too remains true today. As you can see from this map (which is controlled for population), many more service members are based in the South (and in the Western frontier states where an honor culture also thrived in the 19th century) than in the Northeast:


Since this has gone on so long, let’s make this the shortest conclusion possible. While we said in the last post that after the Civil War, the North’s Stoic-Christian honor code triumphed over the South’s traditional one, it would really be more accurate to say that each region’s respective code continued on for a few more decades. But despite the echoes that remain in the South today, the public, cultural nature of neither code were any match for the increasing urbanization, diversification, and shifting values of the US in the 20th century. Which is where we’ll turn next.

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


Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

Plain Folk of the Old South by Frank Lawrence Owsley



Manly Honor Part IV — The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North

Welcome back to our series on manly honor.

In our last post, I said that Northern and Southern honor would be covered in one article, and that future posts would be shorter. Neither turned out to be true. Well, this one is a little shorter, but we’re giving Northern and Southern honor their own posts – there’s just too much interesting stuff to cover. And as all my projections have been wrong thus far, I will refrain from making any more moving forward. Just come along for the ride!

An exploration of honor in the American North during the 19th century offers a fascinating framework from which to build on and expand many of the concepts we discussed in our post on Victorian England’s Stoic-Christian honor code, while also digging into the tensions that emerged as a result of its creation – tensions that are still with us today. So if you haven’t read that post yet, I recommend doing so before jumping into this one.

The Stoic-Christian Honor Code in the American North

The Middle and Upper Classes: The Honor of Gentlemen

The North experienced many of the same economic, geographic, and social changes – the rise of industrialization, increased mobility and urbanization, the spread of evangelical Christianity (which took the form of the Second Great Awakening in the US) — that had shaped Victorian England. So this region of the country unsurprisingly experienced a very similar shift in their ideal of honor. Because of the unique nature of the American landscape, the various component parts which made up the new Stoic-Christian honor code in the North were emphasized and de-emphasized in different ways than they were across the pond.

For example, the “gentility” part of the Victorian honor code – an emphasis on education, decorum, manners, style, and above all, “taste” – did not enjoy that same widespread popularity on these shores. For some, a focus on refinement and formal rules of conduct, no matter how nominally democratized, smacked too much of the European aristocracy they had only recently won independence from. Zealous converts to evangelical Christianity found the standards of gentility overly materialistic and worldly. There were also men who thought real manhood required a degree of rough coarseness, and found such refinement effeminate and contrary to the rugged nature of the country, and even its democratic spirit; some worried that outward polish might hide a man’s inner rotten nature, allowing him to get ahead over a man who looked a little rough, but whose heart was true.

On the flip side, the ideal of the self-made man was never as celebrated as it was in America. In a nation of newcomers who were freed from tradition and inhabited a land of great opportunity, the ethic of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps became practically synonymous with the American spirit, and still is. Even at the turn of the 19th century the country already had real-world success stories like Benjamin Franklin to look to, exemplars of the promise that any man who adopted the values of industry, thrift, self-sufficiency, and integrity could rise in the world as far as he wished. For this reason, the virtues and character traits connected with economic success played an even larger role in the North’s code of honor.

vintage upper class young man portrait wearing nice trousers and vest

The middle and upper classes’ emphasis on earning status through virtuously-won wealth, coupled with the even greater mobility in the North than in England (Americans have been famous for relocating for the sake of opportunity since the country was settled), and the American penchant for individuality and independence, pushed the evolution of honor from public to private even faster in the States. Public reputation still mattered to gentlemen – a history of immoral and lazy behavior could follow a man via letter and gossip and close doors of social and business opportunity. But in a social, economic, and geographic landscape that was increasingly dependent on impersonal relationships, and in which the chief virtue was self-restraint, the need to physically retaliate against anyone who impugned your honor began to seem silly; un-manly, in fact. Who cared what other people thought of you? A man could simply point to the fruits of his labors to rebut a critic. Gentlemen began to assert a self-worth that was less dependent on the opinions of others and more focused on the contents of his conscience. In turn, dueling greatly fell out of favor in the North (although it did not die out altogether), and while a Northern gentleman was still prepared to at least have a fistfight when insulted, he could decide to walk away and still retain his sense of honor. It became a matter of honor to resort to violence only under extreme provocation – the point at which the insult and harassment reached a point that the gentleman could say with a clear conscience that he had “no choice” in fighting back (a subjective standard, of course, that varied from man to man).

Yet despite these slight differences in emphasis and acceleration, the Northern code of honor was very much like that of Victorian England: a standard predicated on civility, piety, morality, Stoicism, and hard work. The watchword of Northern honor, as it was for the English, was self-restraint. This was the virtue that tied the others together; the man who had mastered himself had the discipline to consider how his actions affected others, the will to resist the temptations of sin, the power to control his emotions, and the ability to set aside frivolous distractions and work hard to get ahead. Self-restraint gave a man the defining quality of Northern honor: “coolness.” A Northern gentleman was to be cool in personal and physical confrontations; he didn’t give in to extreme emotions, could laugh off the insults of others, and never caused a scene. A Northern man who suffered a lapse in his self-restraint and failed to be cool would often say he had “forgotten his manhood,” or had been “unmanned” by the incident.

The Northern variety of the Stoic-Christian honor code also paralleled its English counterpart in that it was adopted by both the middle and upper classes, but did not reach very far down into the working class. Those on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder in the North — who more upper-class gentleman referred to as “the roughs” — had an honor culture too, but it was very different than that of their well-heeled brethren.

The Working Class: The Honor of Roughs

vintage gang of men in alleyway 1800s

Honor for the roughs was very much like the primal honor of ancient times – centered on physical prowess and strength, and proven through physical feats and plenty of fighting. The austere self-control of the upper classes was disdained, and camaraderie was built through unchecked aggression, boisterous noise, rowdy behavior, heavy drinking, and licentious indulgence. In place of the middle-class emphasis on sentimentality and sincerity, roughs engaged in constant mocking, teasing, and what one contemporary called “relentless sarcasm.”

Roughs were always challenging and testing each other and getting into brawls to prove who was stronger and more “game.” Honor was premised on never letting another man dominate you. At a great remove from the white-collar work of the expanding middle class, roughs earned honor and status through the giving and receiving of pain, as they were either unable or unwilling to acquire it through the climbing of the economic ladder. More well-off gentlemen thought it was the latter; because a central tenet of the Stoic-Christian honor code was its democratic nature – that any man who so willed it could, at least hypothetically, cultivate its traits – men who refused to do so were shamed, and seen as despicable.

men boxing in outdoor ring vintage painting 1800s

Physical culture was a point of contention for gentlemen. Some thought it too working class and vulgar, while others believed working out at a gymnasium was an excellent way to release the masculine energies a man was restraining in other areas, while also building up more discipline at the same time. Boxing was a particularly debated pastime. Some though it too violent for gentlemen to partake in or watch, and it was banned in many states. Other gentlemen thought it was a healthy way to keep oneself from becoming too soft and refined.

While there was debate among adherents to the Stoic-Christian honor code as to whether things like drinking, swearing, gambling, and fighting were compatible with true manliness, there were plenty of men in every class who enjoyed such things, and felt they were, along with a little scrapping and hazing, good for manly camaraderie. But even gentlemen who indulged in such “vices” scorned the roughs, for they did not balance such activities with more civilized and refined qualities. As Lorien Foote put it, many Northerners believed that true manliness “combined the ‘soft’ virtues of womanhood with the ‘hard’ virtues of manliness.” Or as a writer from the time argued, “Always with the highest courage there lives a great pity and tenderness. The brave man is always soft-hearted. The highest manhood dwells with the highest womanhood.” A man was to be both brave and moral, strong and kind, stoic in crisis and affectionate at home. As civilization had progressed, the markers of manliness had shifted from those that most harkened to the savage – strength and aggression – to those that set a man apart from his primitive origins – a shift from more biological traits to those which required higher cognitive power, reason, and willpower to earn. Thus, because of the roughs’ lack of tenderness, constant need to fight, and unchecked aggression, gentlemen saw them as degenerate, immoral brutes whose lack of self-restraint made them little higher than the beasts – and unworthy of the designation of honor, and, the title of man.

1800s vintage cartoon irish man ape sitting on gun powder barrel

That middle and upper class gentlemen not only rejected the working class as equals, but  as fellow men too, can be seen in cartoons of the time which often depicted the Irish as apes.

From the founding of the country, American leaders had argued that the strength and vitality of the nation – this new experiment in democracy– was directly dependent on the virtuous manhood of its citizens. That virtue originally centered on civic-mindedness and involvement — having a true stake in society — and the ability to set aside selfish concerns for the common good, and had evolved to include other virtues as well, like moral character and economic independence. Gentlemen thus saw the roughs as dishonorable because they believed their economic dependence, lack of education, and penchant for savagery and vice could lead, ultimately, to the failure of the republic.

With this great divide between the two honor groups, the gentlemen and the roughs did not often interact, and fairly inhabited two different universes. That would all change, cause great conflict, and widen the divide even further when they were forced to serve together during the Civil War.

The Gentlemen and the Roughs During the Civil War

north civil war soldiers sitting in field mid 1800s

The North’s two competing ideas of manhood – one undomesticated and primal, the other restrained and moral — came into direct conflict during the course of the Civil War.

When the war first broke out, volunteers made up the Army’s ranks — men driven by a sense of honor and duty to fight for the Union. Well-educated gentlemanly elites from New England’s middle and upper classes signed on to lead regiments largely composed of men from a similar socio-economic background.

But once the draft was enacted in 1862, the Army was flooded with conscripts — 2/3 of which were immigrants — who came from the lowest tier of Northern society (well-off men who were drafted could pay for a substitute – again invariably a man from the working class — to serve for them). The Army’s ranks were greatly diversified, creating a common scenario where refined, morally upright middle and upper class gentlemen had command over an enlisted group of hard-drinking, oft-fighting, working-class roughs.

civil war north solider portrait full dress uniform

A clash in codes of honor arose. You had one company of men sitting quietly at temperance society meetings or scripture study, and another going off to drink and wench and brawl, and then coming back to bust up the temperance meeting and pour mule urine on the teetotalers. On the one hand you had 17-year-old chaps like Charlie Brandegee, who was aghast at the amount of profanity in the army, and wrote to his father: “I have not used any form of swearing since my arrival, although I have it on every side. There are 100 men in this co. on an average each man uses 25 oaths [swear words] a day — 2500 oaths a day! I have always protested against profane language and think there is less swearing in our tent than in any other. Whenever anybody commences to swear the rest sing out ‘English language, English language in this tent.’” (Interesting fact: 5,223 men were court-martialed for the use of profanity during the war, in violation of the 83rd Article of War requiring conduct appropriate to one’s status as an “officer and a gentleman.”) On the other hand, you had men who cheekily formed anti-temperance societies, that pledged “to destroy (by drinking) all the liquor they could get,” and created anti-moralizing clubs like “The Independent Order of Trumps,” whose bylaws proclaimed that members would always act with decorum, and then added: “drinking, eating, smoking and chewing will be considered decorum.” The Trumps “resolved to acquit ourselves like men, and other things.”

A Clash of Manhoods in the Union Army

union army soldiers civil war in uniform looking gruff

The two groups eyed each other warily. Each had absorbed the American ideal of all men being created equal, and each wanted their manhood to be recognized by the other. But the gentlemen thought the roughs were brutes, and the roughs thought the gentlemen were effete; neither would acknowledge the other’s respective code of honor. This tension, understandably, would often compromise the unity of Northern regiments.

As aforementioned, the strength and vitality of the American republic had, since its founding, been linked to the virtuous manhood of its citizens. The North believed it would win the war because of the superior character of its citizens. Thus, the roughs’ unapologetic revelry in vice and licentiousness was seen by gentlemen as draining vital virility from the Union effort.

What had been more of an abstract concern before the war crystallized into a more immediate worry during it; gentleman commanders felt that the roughs’ drinking and lack of discipline prevented them from becoming effective soldiers, and thus compromised the chances of Northern victory on the battlefield. Adherents to the Stoic-Christian honor code believed moral courage and physical courage were linked, and that without the former, the roughs would have to be physically compelled to fight and would drag the Union army down with them.

union army soldiers fighting in camp fist fight civil war

Soldiers in the Union Army not only fought the South, but each other as well. See here for a not so uncommon story about one company getting into a “bench clearing” brawl with another.

In a way they were right. The roughs’ honor code of aggression and physical prowess was suited to the battles of primitive man – when war parties consisted of a group of equal peers, the fighting could be flexible, impromptu, and hand-to-hand, battles were infrequent and short-lived, and the reason for fighting was the protection of the tribe and the defense of kin.

The Civil War, on the other hand, was a modern battle that bore little resemblance to the primal skirmishes of old. Men served in a strict hierarchy, stood in organized battle lines to face increasingly mechanized and impersonal weapons, and fought not for the immediate protection of kin, but for abstract principles of union, democracy, and patriotism. In this new type of war a soldier had to be able to obey orders from a superior, fight out of duty, and have the self-control — the “coolness” — to hold the line as cannon fire ripped through the ranks. Unfettered aggression, a plus for primal man, now had to be corralled through proper channels.

A man also had to be in battle-mode not simply for days, but for years — living away from family in spartan camp life. In such conditions, raw courage became less important in earning honor than a man’s ability to bear suffering.

Unsurprisingly then, the roughs rebelled against such demands, and saw little in the war that benefited themselves. They were reluctant to give up the equality of their honor group, and felt that submitting themselves to their officers – whom they often referred to as the “shoulder-strap gentry” — resulted in a loss of manhood. They believed status had to be earned through competition, but many of their commanders had gotten their positions through influence and family connections. Their code of honor did not allow them to let another man falsely claim status and thus domination, and they would have loved to have brought their elite officers down a peg. But they were frustratingly forbidden from establishing their honor in the way they desired — by having a physical throwdown. They would often tell an officer whom they felt was lording their authority over them that if it weren’t for his shoulder straps, he would have given the man a merciless pummeling. For example, Union soldier John Clute told his Captain, Daniel Link, “If you will lay off your shoulder straps I will give you a damn good whipping.” Another soldier told an officer, “All that saved you was your shoulder straps, if you hadn’t them on, I would whip you in a minute.” Sometimes privates couldn’t control this urge to physically lash out; striking a superior officer was in fact the second-most common offense during the war.

Enlisted men also sometimes joined together in rebellion against officers they felt abused their authority; 2,764 men were charged with exciting, causing, or joining in a munity during the war. And these numbers greatly underestimate the true number of such cases, as the majority were likely given an immediate punishment or tried with a regimental or field-officer courts-martial.

Rough soldiers also resisted the authority of their gentlemen officers in less violent ways. They were slow to obey orders, talked back when they received them, refused to salute, and would yell and even make farting noises when their officers tried to talk. Complete desertion was also quite common.

union army civil war officers on steps

For their part, officers were not above using violence themselves in order to compel obedience from their men. As Lorien Foote writes, “Because army regulations sanctioned the use of physical coercion from officers when inferiors disobeyed lawful orders…Officers grabbed, hit, kicked, and pulled swords on recalcitrant enlisted men.” Some elite officers shot disobedient men outright, and some regiments established the position of “file closer,” whose job it was to hold the ranks during battle by shooting or bayoneting any soldier who straggled or tried to flee from cowardice.


At the end of the War Between the States, the North had bested the South, while in the battle between two competing codes of honor and manliness, the gentlemen had triumphed over the roughs. Having already ascended prior to the war, the Stoic-Christian honor code consolidated its status as the North’s cultural ideal. Those in the middle and upper classes believed, as Foote writes, that “The men who had truly saved the Union…were its gentlemen, men with domestic virtues, moral character, and proper manners.” They had pulled out the victory, despite the dangers the roughs had posed – men whose lack of discipline and indulgence in vice had, Stoic-Christian gentlemen believed, threatened the strength of the Union Army, and in turn, the future of the whole nation.

union soldiers civil war playing cards at table

Things like drinking, and even playing cards were gray areas among those who aspired to be gentlemen. Some embraced such vices in moderation, while others thought it was honorable to abstain entirely.

But it’s important to point out that the above discussion represents a simplification of the issues surrounding honor in the North during this period. The gentlemen and the roughs represent extremes on a spectrum of manliness, and there were plenty of men whose codes of honor fell somewhere between them. All classes agreed on the necessity of physical courage to manhood. And outside the roughs, there was general agreement about the importance of good character – being honest, hardworking, resolute, and respectful to others. But beyond that was a gray area. Some men believed that things like strict purity, temperance, and proper manners were important parts of the code, while others enjoyed swearing, drinking, fighting, and oat-sowing in moderation, and didn’t feel such indulgences compromised their honor, or even their designation as gentlemen.

The reason I wanted to flesh out the subject of Northern honor in the 19th century is that the question as to where to draw the line on the spectrum of manliness is still very much with us today. In fact, I get a front row seat to it with the feedback we get on our posts. “How to dress with style? Real men don’t care about how they look!” “How to field dress a squirrel? Real men don’t kill innocent animals. Do more about style!” “Gambling? That’s immoral! Real men never gamble!” “Etiquette? Real men do whatever they want to do!” “A real man saves himself for marriage.” “A man should be able to have sex with whoever he wants to, as much as he wants.” “Swearing is manly!” “No it’s not!” “What does it mean to be a man? A real man doesn’t think about it. Do more practical stuff.” “Your philosophical posts are the most important. You should do more of them.”

The heart of the debate both for the 19th century man and for today’s, is whether manhood, and thus the honor code of men, should be based on primal, biological traits or in our capacity for higher virtues. The first type of manhood is made up of instinct, aggression, virility, violence, strength, and the need to earn status through physical prowess and martial courage — the essential traits that all men shared anciently, and transcend culture and time. Here manhood is defined as what is unique from womanhood. The second type roots manhood in the ability to overcome lower urges and master self – the cultivation of the higher traits of mind and character that separate man from beast, and man from boy. The type of manhood one ascribes to influences one’s view of what is good for men; as Foote puts it: “Within this complex discourse, some men feared that excessive civilization produced weak, decadent, and effeminate men, while others warned that those who had not developed civilized restraint and refinement were savage boys rather than fully developed men.”

No matter how messy, the possibility of combining the virile traits of essential manhood with the moral virtues has been explored since ancient Greece, and is a tradition we continue today, and will explore more in the last post in this series. But for now, next up is a look at Southern honor.

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


The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army by Lorien Foote (A fascinating read)


Manly Honor: Part III — The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor

manly honor long sword illustration

Welcome back to our series on manly honor. Now, I originally planned for the history of honor to be one post, and then decided I could cover it in two, and now I’m thinking it’s going to take five posts, counting the one two weeks ago and today’s. Who was I kidding? The topic of manly honor is both far more complicated and much more fascinating than I had anticipated.

Now brace yourself – today’s post is a doozy. The topic of honor in the Victorian period is the most complex part of a complex evolution, as it involves a myriad of influences and factors. The workload on this one, and the remaining historical installments, necessitated my enlisting of Kate’s historical research and writing chops, and together we pored through over 1500 pages of research, and took dozens of pages of notes. After two weeks of banging our heads on our desk, throwing things, several near mental breakdowns, and one all-nighter, we have completed this article. All of which is to say, while I pledge my honor that we have done our very best to make everything as accurate as possible, if there are any errors in our historical facts or terminology, we welcome your very kind and gentle corrections in the comments. Also welcome are any encouraging comments. Twil be like manna for the soul.

Okay, let’s get started.

Understanding the Class System in England

At the start of the Victorian era (1830s-1900), English society was highly stratified and hierarchical, and the population fell into three main classes. The idea of classes is hard for us to fully grasp from our modern viewpoint. We often think of them as having to do entirely with income level, and while that was certainly a factor, it also depended on values, education, occupation, family connections and history, birth, as well as your manners, speech, and clothing.

At the top of the heap was the landed aristocracy (meaning land ownership was part of their noble privilege). This “peerage” held titles of nobility and largely descended from the warrior nobility of the Middle Ages who had successfully battled for fiefdoms and then defended those territories from would-be usurpers. They owned land, but rented it to others to work. Right below the peerage was the gentry. Because of the system of primogeniture, only the first born sons inherited a title. Younger sons belonged to the gentry, and though they lacked a title, they were still considered nobility, and true “gentlemen.” Whether titled or not, one of the defining qualities of the upper class was that they did not have to work, nor taint themselves with the commonness of trade to earn a living; their income came wholly from owning and renting out land.

The middle class consisted of those who performed “clean,” salaried work. The most distinguished of the middle class were clergymen, military officers, lawyers, doctors, and the professors and headmasters of prestigious schools. Farmers who rented a large piece of land but had others do most of the physical work for them were considered middle class too. Clerical workers were included but considered lower on the middle class totem pole. Manufacturers, merchants, and bankers were some of the newer members of the middle class (more on this below), and as white-collar work expanded, the new journalists, police officers, and insurance agents joined the ranks as well.

The working class consisted of those who did any of the “dirty,” physical work that remained.

For centuries, people had generally accepted the class system and their place in the hierarchy. Each class had its own rules, standards, culture, and even terminology. It was considered unthinkable to ape the class above or below you – you had to follow the rules of your own class.

The middle class had only recently emerged. Prior, there had generally been two classes: those who owned land were the noble – everybody else, ignoble. As we’ll discuss more in the next post, there are different types of honor in every class, but the landed aristocracy laid exclusive right to the term. Commoners were decidedly outside their honor group, and contrary to the system of honor that had existed in primitive times, they could not earn their way into it through adherence to the group’s honor code. Instead, honor had now become inheritable – passed down to the aristocracy’s sons. An aristocrat who displayed bad manners or behavior with members of his own class could theoretically lose the title of gentleman, but the distinction was largely the product of birth.

The rise of the middle class during the Victorian period created a social fluidity that would challenge this system, and necessitate the creation of a new honor culture that transcended all classes.

The Rise of the Middle Class and the Expansion of Honor

g for gentleman wearing long overcoat illustration

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The rise of industry powered sweeping changes in the technological, sociological, and economic landscape of the West.

When 18-year-old Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne in 1837, very few of her subjects had traveled more than 10 miles from the rural spot in which they were born, goods and messages could only travel as fast as a horse could carry them, and only half of English citizens could read and write.

When Victoria died in 1901, the pace and texture of life had dramatically transformed. 80% of English citizens now lived in towns and cities, and some of their homes were outfitted with electric lights, had cabinets stocked with canned foods, and sat on gaslight-dotted streets. Telegraphs carried messages in a blink, railroad tracks criss-crossed the land, and luxurious steamships fairly whisked passengers from England to America in only nine days. A man could now write a letter on his typewriter, get his portrait taken by the local photographer, have an x-ray, vaccination, or chloroform administered by his doctor, and shave with a safety razor at home instead of visiting the barber to have his whiskers trimmed. Education for the young had become compulsory, and literacy soared to nearly 100%.

The most important change of the 19th century, however, was the rise of the middle class. The Industrial Revolution not only created manufacturing work, but a booming expansion in trade and banking, along with a whole new stratum of white-collar jobs.

While England’s economic center of gravity was shifting away from agricultural and towards industrial capitalism, and while many of the nascent middle-class were earning incomes greater than those who owned acreage, the status and political power of the new rich in manufacturing, business, and finance did not keep pace with their rising contribution to the nation’s wealth. The aristocracy, a centuries-old honor group that had ever been hostile to incursions from outsiders, vehemently fought against the relinquishing of their position. But the middle-class would force them to give way, not simply by attaining wealth and fighting for a voice in government, but by creating a new honor code – one that was open to all, regardless of class — a code based on ethics and virtues that would come to supplant the one based on birth.

What Were the Tenets of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor?

The code of honor that developed from the middle-class of the Victorian age was truly an amalgam of several influences:

Rebellion against the values of the aristocracy. Many felt that during England’s Regency era (roughly 1795 to 1837), the upper classes had grown decadent, reveling in flamboyance and dandyism, and focusing too much attention on appearance and clothes. It seemed, to some Victorians, to have been a period in which materialism had sapped society’s spirituality – the rich walked around in fine attire, but were rotten to the core. Victorians reacted against this with a movement towards sobriety and rectitude.

The middle-class also had disdain for the way the aristocracy held up idleness as a virtue, and looked down upon those who worked for a living. The rising business class turned that idea on its head — arguing that idleness was a vice, while work was a nearly sacred virtue.

Revival in evangelical Christianity. Evangelical Christianity moved away from traditional Calvinist beliefs in total depravity (humans are essentially rotten sinners) and predestination, and instead emphasized a person’s free will, and that salvation was open to any who chose to believe and cultivated an inner faith. At the same time, evangelical Protestants preached that a continued relationship with God was predicated on living righteously, and that believers should strive for an individual moral perfection, while also working to purify society, reform corrupt practices, and uplift the downtrodden.

Nostalgia. The Victorians, like the folks of the Renaissance, were at the same time progressive and forward-looking, and nostalgic – they looked to past societies for inspiration on how to improve their own. From the medieval period, they drew from the ideals of chivalry (or at least the folklore of chivalry that had been passed down). From Ancient Greece, they adopted parts of Stoic philosophy.

Expanding Democracy. For centuries, the landed nobility had constituted a near iron-clad oligarchy — controlling Parliament, and the culture as well. But during the Victorian Era, those in the middle class pushed back against the idea that the right to vote and to hold government office were reserved for the owners of major acreage. Reform bills during this period expanded the franchise to millions more men, creating a greater sense of egalitarianism and fostering the idea that gentility, and the title of “gentleman,” could transcend class.

The Rise of the Self-Made Man. As previously mentioned, for centuries people largely accepted being a member of the class they were born into, and there was almost no chance of moving up into a higher class – a commoner couldn’t work his way into the aristocracy no matter how hard he tried. The shift from agriculture to industry opened the possibility (no matter how long the odds were in reality) of social mobility, or what the English called “removable inequality.” High status in society could be earned, but only if a man cultivated the skills and character traits necessary to rise in an industrial economy.

If you put all these influences in a pot, and mix them together, what you come up with is the tenets of the Victorian honor code or what Bertram Wyatt-Brown terms “Stoic-Christian honor,” and what Victorians often used interchangeably with “respectability.” The expanding democratic spirit had inspired a code based on merit over birth, and each of the other influences imparted several qualities to the standards that comprised this new honor code.

The reaction against the perceived excess of the aristocracy resulted in a push for the “reformation of manners,” and new rules for proper behavior and decorum as it concerned things like dress and conversation. Sincerity and earnestness were prized; vanity, frivolity, and foppishness spurned. The evangelical movement stressed the importance of morality, particularly chastity, piety, and charity for others. Nostalgia for the idealized chivalry of medieval knights inspired respect for women, while adherence to ancient Stoic philosophy put a premium on self-sufficiency, self-control, and unflappable reserve – the famous British “stiff upper lip.” Most of all, the Victorian code of honor emphasized the virtues connected with economic success – those that could help working and middle class men rise in the world: initiative, pluck, ingenuity, independence and personal responsibility (going into debt was shameful), ambition, thrift, punctuality, orderliness, cleanliness, patience, dependability, and most of all hard work.

What Were the Practical Functions of the Stoic-Christian Honor Code?

In a minute we’ll get to the overarching purpose behind the creation of the Stoic-Christian honor code, but let’s talk first about a few of its more practical functions:

The Victorian honor code helped create structure in a rapidly changing society.

With the rise of industry, the population shifted from rural areas to cities. Cities bred anonymity – gone were the face-to-face interactions between kin that were essential to the enforcement of public, primal honor. How should strangers interact, and how would people’s behavior be checked and public reputations be maintained in a society full of impersonal relationships?

The Victorian honor code addressed these concerns by making adherence to the rules of manners and etiquette part of the standard of respectability. Manners were designed to foster decorum, but they also eased the interactions between strangers. Each party knew how to behave and what was expected of them in various situations. And adherence to the code of conduct was a way to build your public reputation for honor; good manners were easily observable markers by which others could judge you, and were seen as outward manifestations of the inner virtues of self-control, courtesy, and respect.

You couldn’t remain entirely anonymous even in large cities. A reputation for bad manners, immorality or lax character, or a poor work ethic at your employer would slam shut the doors of both society and business; when meeting a new social or business contact, you had to present letters of recommendation and introduction from others who could vouch for your character. The reputation you earned in one place could follow you wherever you went.

The Victorian honor code created new standards for emerging professions.

Part of the reasoning behind what had been the landed aristocracy’s exclusive control of politics and culture, was the idea that because they didn’t work for a living, they would be able to serve society with a value highly prized during this period: disinterest. Since they didn’t care about money, the thinking went, the landed aristocracy could be morally and intellectually independent, and would do the right thing regardless of circumstances – always putting community needs over self-interest.

But as brand new professions emerged, traditional professions greatly expanded, and the middle-class gained in political power and cultural influence, the question arose of how to ensure that professionals acted with that same disinterested ideal. In response, professional codes of ethics were developed, shaped by the principles of the Victorian honor code; that is, the members of the professions should place virtues like honesty, accountability, and respect above self-interest. While it may be hard to believe, in the absence of many legal restraints, the standard of business morality was quite high, and despite the inevitable swindles of a few scoundrels and cheats, the honor system kept corruption largely in check.

The Victorian honor code created a more universal code that helped unify the classes.

Before the 19th century, travel and communication was greatly limited, as was trade, and communities were largely self-contained and self-sufficient. The coming of the railroads collapsed distances and made travel cheaper, and national newspapers and popular entertainments eroded distinct regional customs. But while physical and cultural boundaries were eroding, class distinctions remained. Thus a broader code of honor helped unite the country and create national cohesion. As Richard D. Altick argues, “In a nation riven by economic and social disparities, the widely accepted principles of moral Evangelicalism had a reconciling effect, bringing classes together in what might be called an ethical democracy. Their often abrasive relations were eased by their possession of a common morality.”

The Victorian honor code fostered the use of oaths and the creation of smaller male honor groups.

While the Victorian honor code provided a universal set of standards that could cross geographic boundaries and class lines, and also help men navigate impersonal relationships, the growth of rootless crowds and lonely anonymity spurred men to create smaller honor groups that could replicate the camaraderie and brotherhood of the past. The giving and taking of oaths grew in popularity as a chance to put the Stoic-Christian ideal of making one’s word one’s bond to the test, and to create promises of loyalty between men who were not kin, but had purposely decided to become “brothers.” The perfect example of the way in which these trends combined are the many college fraternities that were created during this time. Initiates had (and still do) swear an oath, which typically contains pledges of loyalty to one’s fraternity brothers and a promise to conduct oneself as a gentleman.

What Was the Overarching Sociological and Philosophical Purpose Behind the Stoic-Christian Honor Code?

All honor codes are created to motivate society’s members towards behavior that the group believes will fulfill its needs and ensure its health, happiness, and security. It accomplishes this by shaming individuals who don’t meet the code’s standards, and rewarding those who do, giving special amounts of praise and privileges to those who don’t just keep the code, but excel it.

In Victorian society, unlike in the primitive honor cultures we have discussed previously, raw survival was no longer the most pressing need. And justice – carried out in primitive times in a reflexive, eye-for-an-eye fashion — was increasingly administered by professional law enforcement and legal systems.

Thus, with those very basic needs taken care of, Victorian society turned to a higher aspiration for their honor code: progress – both moral and material. For the Victorians, the two types of progress went hand in hand. They believed that just as they had used human intelligence to channel the powers of steam and electricity, and had engineered ways to master their physical environment, so too could each individual harness his latent powers in order to master himself. Each man could morally progress as far as he determined to go.

Personal progress and material progress fed each other in a loop. As Altick puts it, “The well-being of society was derived from the spiritual health of its individual members.” In other words, Victorians believed that the more that individuals lived the virtues outlined above, the better and stronger the whole society would become. Conversely, each man who slipped into immorality played a role in sapping the whole nation’s strength (some even considered moral laxity treason during times of war). Men were motivated to follow the code to attain the status of a respectable gentleman, to avoid being shamed and maintain the opportunities open only to those with an honorable reputation. The more he excelled at the code, and the more he cultivated ambition, industry, discipline, and so on, the higher a gentleman rose in the ranks of society and the more status he gained. And the more men strove for status, the greater the economic and technological progress society experienced as a whole. Just as in the primitive tribe, but now with a new set of traits, what was good for the individual man was good for the group as a whole.

Was Stoic-Christian Honor a Public or Private Honor?

In the previous posts in this series, we talked about how the decline in traditional honor is rooted in its shift from being external and public to inner and private in nature. Traditional honor was based solely on your having a reputation worthy of respect and admiration in a group of equal peers, while inner honor is judged only by the man (and perhaps God) himself.

Despite Stoic-Christian honor’s addition of many other character traits and moral virtues to the simple primal standards of strength, courage, and mastery (and it was an addition, not a replacement – courage was still part of the honor code for a Victorian man), the Victorian honor code remained largely public in nature. Remember the definition from Julian Pitt-Rivers I shared in the first post: “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.” While the claim to pride for a Victorian gentleman rested on moral virtues rather than physical prowess, the process was the same for him as it was for primitive man – it began with an inner claim to excellence, but that claim had to then be recognized by one’s peers. You couldn’t act like a scalawag, and say you were a gentleman – no one else would recognize your claim to that title. Others watched and judged your behavior, and middle and upper class men, at least of a little eminence, had a public reputation. A slip in morality or the breaking of decorum could bring public shame, and ostracization from social and professional circles.

Boys in both private and public schools were taught to be gentlemen, and the older boys supervised and checked the behavior of the younger. According to Sally Mitchell, these peer mentors learned “to give orders in a way that would not arouse resentment and to internalize a sense of responsibility.” In the athletic arena, young men dedicated themselves to the concepts of teamwork and “fair play,” and upbraided those who violated the code of sportsmanship.

However, there was a shift to a greater emphasis on one’s personal conscience during the Victorian period. The Victorians simply picked up what the Renaissance thinkers had begun in championing the importance of sincerity — it wasn’t enough to simply act like a good man, you had to actually be a good man deep down. A man who achieved this congruence of outer behavior and inner virtue, adherents to the Stoic-Christian honor code argued, not only earned the approbation of others but enjoyed the satisfaction of a free and clear conscience. A Victorian man needed to get in touch with his conscience more than his predecessors, because increased geographic mobility and travel meant that, unlike his primal brethren, he had a good chance of finding himself outside his honor group and among strangers – or with no supervision at all. For a Victorian gentleman, this was a great test of one’s honor – would you keep your word and maintain your standards when no one was watching? (Contrast this standard with the advice that traditional honor-ist Thomas Jefferson gave to his nephew decades prior to “ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly.”)

The popular adoption of university honor codes during this period perfectly encapsulates the tension between private and public honor for the Victorians. University honor codes celebrated the ideal that simply by giving one’s word of honor, a student could be trusted to do the right thing – academically or otherwise – even when someone wasn’t looking over his shoulder. Yet, at the same time, some of these codes made it a provision of honor that if a student saw a fellow student cheating or otherwise doing something dishonest, he was obligated to turn him in – sometimes even tolerance of a violation was considered a violation itself. We moderns who have entirely lost the concept of public reputation and judgment, have questioned whether turning someone else in is truly honorable (and some students at the time grappled with this question too). I would personally posit that the provision made in some honor codes, such as that of the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy, which allows the observer of the violation to confront the accused without formally reporting him, aligns with the principles of traditional honor to a greater extent.


Oftentimes, when a modern man thinks about honor, his mind turns to the ideals of honesty and integrity, duels (we’ll get to those next time), university honor codes, “women and children first,” and a well-mannered, Stoic uprightness. What they think of, in other words, is the honor code of the Victorian Era. Stoic-Christian honor is still indelibly imprinted on our cultural consciousness for several reasons. First, the Victorian era represented the birth of the modern mindset, and its honor code developed in response to technological, sociological, and economical factors that are still with us today; the effort to deal the seemingly fast and ever-changing pace of life, the consequences of anonymity, and the pursuit of personal progress and professional goals still resonates with our own sensibilities. Second, the Victorian era represented the last manifestation of honor as a societal culture, not simply as a private concept. Third, many of the ideals of the Stoic-Christian honor code continue to have deep appeal (and often pop up here on AoM), the reasons for which I will discuss in the final post in this series.

Though the Victorian code had much to recommend it, it did not last – stumbling into the 20th century and finally expiring after the First World War. Although the stereotype of ridiculously repressed and prudish Victorians paints far too narrow a view of a much more diverse group, in overzealous hands, the honor code did indeed become priggish and austere – focused only on the don’ts rather than moderation and positive virtues. It was used by some more as a stick of judgment with which to swat others, than a personal yardstick for one’s own behavior. There was enormous pressure to conform to the code, and as the celebration of individualism – of following one’s own convictions and desires — increased in the 20th century, and shame became a negative, the Stoic-Christian honor code would be tossed aside as far too constraining.

Further, despite the (at least marginally) coherent picture we have tried to describe here, the Stoic-Christian honor code was never universally adopted by all men. Born of the middle class, while it had an enormous influence on Western societies that extended both to the upper and lower classes, its penetration to the latter was minimal. For the urban working class, honor still resembled the primal variety, with disputes settled with fists and status based on physical prowess and strength. And even those in the middle and upper classes struggled to reconcile what felt like a very manly urge to be aggressive and rowdy, with the ideal of being a refined and restrained gentleman, who was above such things.

This struggle between competing ideas of manly honor is vividly illuminated against the backdrop of the diverging societies and values of the American North and South. And so that is where we will turn next time. Then we tackle the evolution of honor in the wars of the 20th century, followed by the decline of honor during the countercultural movement and its modern state. I think. Maybe even all this week, so we can actually have time for working on other posts, and showering. Maybe. I assure you that the rest of the posts in this series will be shorter and pithier, so I hope you will continue on with us.

We shall leave you with a piece from a Victorian poet, Robert Nicoll, that couldn’t better sum up his contemporaries’ views of honor:

True Nobility

“I ask not for his lineage,
I ask not for his name;
If manliness be in his heart,
He noble birth may claim.

I care not though of world’s wealth
But slender be his part,
If yes you answer when I ask,
‘Hath he a true-man’s heart?’

I ask not from what land he came,
Nor where his youth was nursed;
If pure the spring, it matters not
The spot from whence it burst.

The palace or the hovel
Where first his life began,
I seek not of; but answer this—
‘Is he an honest man?’

Nay, blush not now; what matters it
Where first he drew his breath?
A manger was the cradle-bed
Of Him of Nazareth.

Be nought, be any, everything,
I care not what you be,
If yes you answer, when I ask
‘Art thou pure, true, and free?”

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

Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell
Victorian People and Ideas by Richard D. Altick
Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South by Bertram Wayatt-Brown
The Gentlemen and the Roughs by Lorien Foote
Honor: A History by James Bowman

Manly Honor: Part II — The Decline of Traditional Honor in the West, Ancient Greece to the Romantic Period

Welcome back to our series on manly honor. In my last post, I explained the classic definition of honor: having a reputation worthy of respect and admiration in a group of equal peers. This reputation consists of both horizontal honor (your acceptance as a full member of the group), and vertical honor (the praise you receive from excelling more than other members within the group). This type of traditional, manly honor is a very public and external thing. It requires a man to belong to an honor group and suffer social consequences for not living up to the group’s code. When primitive tribesmen, knights, and the Founding Fathers spoke of honor, this is the type of honor they meant.

Over the centuries, for a variety of reasons we’ll explore today and next time, this traditional conception of external honor evolved into our modern idea of private, inner honor – a type of honor often used synonymously with “character” and “integrity.” Today, a man’s honor isn’t determined by a group of his peers, rather, it’s a very personal thing judged only by himself. Nineteenth century German statesman Otto von Bismarck captured this idea of private honor perfectly when he said in a speech:

“Gentlemen; my honor lies in no-one’s hand  but my own, and it is not something that others can lavish on me; my own honor, which I carry in my heart, suffices me entirely, and no one is judge of it and able to decide whether I have it. My honor before God and men is my property, I give myself as much I believe that I have deserved, and I renounce any extra.”

In today’s post, I’m going to begin an exploration of why this change from public to private honor occurred. The transformation was a long and complicated process, involving several political, philosophical, and sociological changes in the West. While I initially hoped to explain this history in a single post, the amount of dense, important information to cover really requires two. In part one, I’ll cover how the seeds of honor’s dissolution began to be sown all the way back in Ancient Greece and continued through the Romantic Period. Then in part two next week, we’ll see how those seeds came to full fruition during the modern era — beginning with the Victorian Era and leading up to today.

A Brief Road Map on Where These Avenues Are Leading

Before we set out on this romp through the history of honor, I think it might be beneficial to give a short primer on how all of the factors that will be discussed tie together.

There are two main factors that weakened the traditional idea of honor. First, over time honor became based not on courage and strength, but on moral virtues. Honor could have continued in this state – your public reputation could have been based on your honor group’s judgment of whether you were living a moral life (this state of honor was last seen during the time of the Victorian gentleman, which we’ll discuss next time.) But in the evolution of honor, it did not just become premised on moral virtues, it also became completely private – every man could create his own, personal honor code, and only he himself could judge whether or not he was living up to it. This dissolved any sense of a shared honor code (“to each their own!”), which meant shame also disappeared – there were no longer any consequences for flaunting the code of honor.

As just mentioned, in this post and the next, we will get into the political, sociological, and philosophical changes that fueled these two factors. While it may be tempting to read these posts as saying that these cultural forces are bad, and that personal honor is bad, my goal is rather to simply delineate as objectively as possible why the traditional ideal of honor disappeared and was supplanted entirely with private honor, and then, to argue that private and public honor need not be mutually exclusive, and can, and should coexist.

From Public to Private Honor: Ancient Greece to the Renaissance

Ancient Greece

orestes in ancient greece large crowd of people painting

While it’s easy to assume that the decline of public honor and the rise of private honor is only a recent phenomenon, the seeds of honor’s transformation from a public to private concept were actually sewn at the beginning of Western civilization.

In societies without formal legal systems, honor serves as a rough enforcer of justice. Thus, democracy and the rule of law, two important developments to come out of ancient Greece, are in some ways contrary to traditional honor and made it less vital to the functioning of a community.

This early conflict between traditional honor and democratic ideals was actually the principle theme in a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus. The Orestia recounts the curse that befalls the family of King Agamemnon after he returns home from the Trojan War. A series of inter-familial murders, all in the name of avenging and defending the honor of one slain family member after another, comes to an end when the goddess Athena establishes a jury trial to try Orestes for the murder of his mother. Personal and familial honor is replaced by obedience to democratic law as the governing force in Greek society. This isn’t to say that honor and revenge killings stopped occurring after the establishment of democratic juries, but they did begin to be more frowned upon.

Playwrights weren’t the only ones questioning traditional, public honor. The philosophers Socrates and Aristotle raised concerns about the ideal in some of their teachings. For Socrates, it was better for the collective that he subject himself to the rule of unjust state laws than to maintain his honor, or reputation, among his friends by escaping his execution. According to Socrates, concern for reputation was something only for thoughtless men. What mattered to the great philosopher wasn’t the opinion of others (the basis of traditional honor), but rather knowing he lived according to what he thought was just. Put another way, Socrates chose integrity to his personal ideal over the public honor of his followers.

Aristotle showed a similar disinterest in the opinion of others. While he spoke of honor as an external good in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle was uncomfortable with the idea that it be based solely on the opinion of others. Rather, Aristotle made a tentative argument that honor be based on attaining personal virtue. Excellence meant fulfilling your potential. Instead of being loyal to a group’s code of honor, it was more virtuous to be loyal to virtue itself.

Early Christianity

jesus on rock teaching crowds painting

Three aspects of the rise and spread of Christian philosophy would have a huge impact in weakening honor as a cultural force in the West: 1) its inclusiveness and universality; 2) its emphasis on inner intent rather than outward appearances; and 3) its pacifism.

Inclusiveness and universality. Traditional honor is exclusive. Not everyone is welcome to the club and the code of honor doesn’t apply to everybody – just members.  Christ and his disciples taught a doctrine that was just the opposite: inclusive and universal. Open to any who believed. This idea of inclusiveness and universality was summed up nicely in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Inner intent over outward appearances. Traditional honor is based on your public reputation. Christianity teaches that what the world thinks of you is not as important as what God thinks of you. Moreover, it emphasizes the importance of private intent and faith. For example, it’s not enough that you don’t have actual, physical sex with another man’s wife, you can’t even think about it. Because the chamber of a man’s mind and heart can only be seen by him, only the individual (and his God) can judge whether his intent and faith are adequate.

Pacifism. While countless wars have been fought “with the cross of Jesus going on before,” Christianity has also inspired many of its believers to devoted pacifism. Christ’s radical teaching to “turn the other cheek” and to “bless those that curse you” turned honor on its head; a Christian could find ample support in his scriptures that it was more honorable not to retaliate when insulted or attacked than to strike back. The example of Christ submitting willfully on the cross would inspire countless Christian martyrs to lay down their lives rather than fight back physically.

Medieval Europe

knight on horse going into castle maiden nearby painting

As Christianity spread and became the state religion for kingdoms and empires, the competing demands of traditional honor culture and faith created a moral and philosophical quandary. Traditional honor still had a primal hold on men, but elements of their new religion seemed to run completely counter to it. To bridge this seemingly insurmountable divide, Christian rulers during the Middle Ages “Christianized” traditional honor by developing the aristocratic Code of Chivalry. Chivalry wedded together primitive honor’s emphasis on public reputation, but added new moral virtues to the code that had to be kept to maintain that reputation, and thus keep the honor of one’s peers.

Traditional honor found a place among a pacifist Christian religion by marshaling honor’s historic emphasis on the qualities of strength and courage towards the defense of the “least of these” in Christ’s kingdom. Knights swore oaths to protect the weak and defenseless, particularly women. Honesty, purity, generosity, and mercifulness — virtues taught by the Gospels — were part of the knightly code. In keeping with Christ’s admonition to lay up your treasure in heaven and not in the world, some groups, like the Templars, even required their members to take a vow of poverty.

knights in field about to fight with swords painting

Beyond these small adaptations, medieval Christian chivalry was still primarily a traditional code of honor. Knights vowed to defend their own honor and the honor of their fellow knights. If his honor, or reputation, was besmirched by an equal, a knight had a duty to retaliate. For the medieval knight, might still made right. A knight could indeed be lacking in virtue, but as long as he could defeat the man who brought to light his moral defect in “single combat,” he remained a man of honor. The story of Sir Lancelot’s adulterous relationship with King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, illustrates this; when the other knights discovered his sin, Lancelot insisted that his indiscretion didn’t exist because he was able to fight and best his accusers.

The Renaissance

hamlet holding skull shakespeare black white drawing

Beginning in the 14th century in Italy, the Renaissance was a period of huge advances in art, science, and philosophy. Alongside these cultural evolutions, there was a transformation in the Western psyche that would eventually greatly weaken the classic concept of honor: the development of the idea of sincerity.

Sincerity demands that a person speak and act in accordance with his inner thoughts, feelings, and desires. It’s such a commonly lauded trait today (and has now morphed into an emphasis on “authenticity”), that it’s easy to think the concept has been around forever. But prior to the 17th century, people didn’t focus on having an inner life as we understand it today – in which you atomize and analyze all your feelings, emotions, and motivations. So as Renaissance men began to plumb the contents of their minds and hearts, they ran into a new contradiction between this inner life and traditional honor — which often requires an individual to place loyalty to the group first, and to speak and act in a way that contradicts his personal thoughts, feelings, and desires. Because traditional honor depends on the opinion of others, it doesn’t care if you feel like a hypocrite when following the code. So long as your outward appearances conform to the honor group’s code of honor, you maintain your honor.

For this reason, Renaissance writers and thinkers began to question this aspect of honor and advocate for sincerity as the true ideal. Shakespeare was a harsh critic of traditional honor and a strong proponent for sincerity in his plays. In many of his works, the characters choose being true to oneself rather than submitting to their tribe’s code of honor. See Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.

The new societal demands for sincerity during the Renaissance began a rapid shift in how societies perceived honor. An honor based solely on public reputation didn’t seem all that desirable. It wasn’t enough that you acted truthful and others thought of you as honest, to be honorable, you actually had to be truthful to the core of your being.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment’s focus on tolerance and egalitarianism further diminished traditional honor – which at its core is inherently intolerant and anti-egalitarian. If you live up to the group’s honor code, you’re given rights and privileges; if you don’t, you’re shamed and seen as inferior. You don’t gain respect and praise simply by existing – your honor must be earned by your keeping, and excelling, of the group’s code. But Enlightenment thinkers began to forward the idea that all people had certain inalienable rights that they were born with and which could not be taken away. They also revitalized the ancient Greek ideal of democracy as a superior form of justice to the rewards and punishments meted out by the eye-for-an-eye concept of honor.

The Romantic Period

wanderer painting man looking far off into crashing sea

While Enlightenment philosophy eroded the concept of traditional, public honor, another group of 18th and 19th century thinkers, the Romantics, took up the baton of sincerity passed from the Renaissance and advocated for a new type of honor that was based on personal integrity. The Romantics, led by French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that the individual and his desires should come before the group’s needs. Rousseau argued that honor based on the opinion of others (amour propre) was inferior to an honor based on what the individual thought of himself (amour de soi). For Rousseau and the Romantics, honor should be individual, internal, and private; not social, external, and public.

To justify this new definition of honor, Rousseau and his fellow Romantics fashioned a theory of human development that sentimentalized solitude. Before man formed tribes and groups, he lived independently in a state of nature, concerned only for his own happiness and well-being. It wasn’t until the Fall of Adam and Eve that man gathered in tribes and began to be concerned about what other fellows thought of him. This theory, of course, has been proven false by anthropologists. Mankind, like their primate cousins, have always been social animals and have always been concerned about their place in the group.

Despite being wrong about the history of human development, Rousseau and the Romantics created a legacy that lionized the importance of the individual, a drumbeat which intensified many times over in the 20th century, and would ultimately be one of the biggest nails in the coffin of traditional honor.

Despite the challenges created by the Enlightenment and Romanticism, traditional honor still had a strong hold on Western society in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Aristocratic gentleman continued to challenge each other to duels when they felt their honor, or reputation, had been impugned, even though the practice was illegal in most Western countries by then. Young soldiers, who had grown up reading epic poems and tales of battlefield glory, went to war hoping to capture that sense of honor that Homer and others wrote of. It would take the trenches of WWI to cool these deep reserves of martial fervor.

Conclusion, or Is Honor Making You Feel Kinda Uncomfortable Right Now?

As we can see, the transformation of honor from a public to private concept isn’t a recent phenomenon. The groundwork was actually laid at the beginnings of Western civilization. Ideals such as the rule of law, democracy, personal sincerity, egalitarianism and individualism fostered an environment antithetical to traditional honor. However, it wouldn’t be until the 20th century that honor would complete its transformation from meaning “having a public reputation worthy of respect and admiration” to simply meaning “being true to one’s personal ideals.”

As I said in the first post in this series, many people give a lot of lip service to honor, but don’t really know what it means, at least historically. Once they do learn more about it, they may begin to feel like it’s not such a good thing after all. Certainly, many of the seeds of the dissolution of honor, talked about here and next time, have become unquestioned Truths in our modern culture, and probably resonated more with you as you read than the idea of honor itself! But if you’ll stick with me, after this history, I’ll come back to explain that while personal, individual honor is a laudatory value, classic honor can also be a powerful and positive moral force as well.

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

Manly Honor: Part I — What Is Honor?

manly honor sword illustration

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.

Watch the Video

Horizontal vs. Vertical Honor

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

Horizontal Honor

horizontal honor roman soldiers brothers peers illustration

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 roman emperor placing crown on solider's head illustration

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

manly honor vertical horizontal roman soldiers illustration

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