This review appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

During the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, not a few voices could be heard asking why no high-ranking figures chose to step down and assume at least part of the blame for offering poor advice leading to a botched leave-taking operation. The question itself points to a broader reality: leading officials—from the president and the vice president down through the ranks of cabinet officers and other political appointees—are increasingly prone to slinking away from acknowledgment of serious errors. Nor do underlings any longer resign as a point d’honneur when they cannot in good conscience abide by a policy decision.

Instead, we encounter gaslighting, moralizing, condescension, deflection, and overmastering concern to retain status and influence. Every problem becomes an occasion for political strategizing: Factoring in members of the press as allies or opponents, what can we say about x that will improve—or do least damage to—our odds of passing y? Not straightforward truthfulness but carom-shot calculation becomes the order of the day and the operating mode of public messaging.

It’s impossible to miss this ebbing of any sense of public shame, a deficiency that forestalls a sincere, full-throated admission of responsibility. Much of the legacy media is equally susceptible to this temptation of moral ease.

Even if we now see a much higher proportion of cold-blooded careerists in government and other sectors of the ruling class, this fact alone cannot account for rampant shamelessness because questions would remain about these individuals’ formation, appointment, and continuation in their posts. What was the social matrix that produced them, and what is the ethical environment that tolerates, reinforces, and rewards them?

This essay is an effort to answer that: a trying and testing of some themes, an interim report comprising tentative proposals. In one form or another, these matters have been debated for centuries. Although the solutions are hard to find, the salient issue is readily apparent: it is a question of honor—or, more precisely, a set of related questions about this hoary concept. What is honor? Can its antinomies be resolved? Are there ways to think more usefully about honor and its pertinence to what is to all appearances an inauspicious seminary for its nurture, today’s impersonal, divided, and technocratic mass society?

Honor’s Ambiguity

The first difficulty with “honor” is that its meaning is ambiguous. Not only can the word refer to two different states of affairs, but ethically these referents also appear to occupy positions with their backs to one another, the first definition oriented toward self-concern and investing the individual ego, the second toward self-denial and serving the larger community. To add to the confusion, sometimes in real life these meanings do not stay separated.

The noun “honor” has two basic meanings. The first definition is glory, fame, esteem; the bestowal of high regard. In his famous dictionary (1755) Samuel Johnson includes reputation and respect as synonyms for honor, which he says may also refer to “privileges of rank or birth.”

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues in his Second Discourse (1755), with its explicatory note number 15, amour-propre—self-love, pride, vanity—can easily turn needy, even ferocious, becoming jealous and competitive, more and more dependent on recognition by other human beings for the self to feel not just important but superior. Amour-propre goes well beyond natural self-preservation and can inspire harm of other persons. It is, says Rousseau, “the true source of honor.” Still very much alive today, this form of honor can be descried in widely praised protest movements.

It can be detected as well in the acceleration over the last thirty years of academic degree inflation, which has baleful effects on the least advantaged members of society and increases inequality. In a recent City Journal article titled “Dr. Biden’s Lesson,” Kay S. Hymowitz ably discusses the “slow-motion disaster” of “hyper-credentialism,” resulting in a “demoralizing, self-perpetuating [graduate program] arms race.” This educational trend is abetted in part by amour-propre, status-seeking.

Egocentric and insecure, a self-aggrandizing person needs to feel paid attention to and lifted up as worthy, a big man on campus, a top dog in business, the most virtuous resident of the neighborhood, the most powerful person in the legislature. In this way, in its overheated state, honor as esteem functions as the catalyst in a scramble for distinction. This restless quest for prestige can lead to misery, however, because comparison, as Theodore Roosevelt said, is the thief of joy. On the other hand, a cooler concern for acknowledgment and respect in the eyes of the wise and estimable can lead to greater virtue.

The second meaning of honor is integrity; possessing a clear sense of right and wrong; strong, steady adherence to principle; moral excellence. Samuel Johnson offers the following phrases in his definition: “nobility of soul” and “a scorn of meanness.” Honor in this second sense refers to a combination of personal integrity and virtuous conduct, which, over time, builds up nobility of character.

In Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon (trans. Daphne Hardy, 1941), No. 402, a prisoner of the state who is one of the few remaining “authentic counter-revolutionaries,” personifies honor in this form—and thereby incurs the antagonism of the apparatchik Rubashov, a leading proponent of “consequentialist logic.” From the perspective of a modern revolutionary, No. 402’s “narrow conception of honour belonged to another epoch.”

Anyone can immediately discern the distance between these two definitions of honor. In his chapter “Of Honor in the United States and in Democratic Societies” in the second volume (1840) of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville grapples with the “radical difference” between—in his terms—“honor” (“the glory or the shame that our fellows attach to” our actions) and “virtue” (tied to the “good and evil” which “exist apart from the blame or the praise of” human beings). A person who performs a deed according to honor, he says, acts “not with absolute good or evil in view, but in consideration of what our fellows think of it”; that is, in line with “opinion.” A person who performs a deed according to virtue acts in consideration of no other motive than “the pleasure of doing it and the idea of complying with a duty”; that is, in line with “conscience.” Acting virtuously requires “judgment, discernment, spiritual effort.” Striving for recognition is easier: it requires only having to recall what one’s peers will praise; hence, honor needs only “memory.” The “principal and almost unique goal” of honor is “to be seen and approved,” which is why, Tocqueville observes, honor always has a “theatrical” character.

In this text’s fully annotated Liberty Fund edition, translated by James T. Schleifer and edited by Eduardo Nolla, Tocqueville strikes the reader as being a bit unsettled by what he has found: not only the stark discrepancy between these two concepts but also by the way in which honor (equivalent to our first definition) appears to relativize right and wrong, as they are seen from the vantage points of various peoples, in different historical periods, locales, and occupations (or, as with the nobility, in no occupation at all). In his notes, Tocqueville promises to return to these conclusions when he is less tired, for the idea of values being relative is a conclusion “I would be very upset to reach, for I believe it false.”

The incongruity between esteem and virtue is conspicuous in real life. Many renowned persons, recipients of considerable glory in their day, have been lacking in personal or professional integrity; while, in the words of Ecclesiasticus 44, other men and women have perished relatively unknown, “as though they have never been,” but they were “merciful,” and their “righteousness hath not been forgotten.” Our culture honors any number of individuals who are ethically subpar. Because of the attention these celebrities receive, young onlookers are drawn to their glow and grow up seeking to resemble them. Many upright Americans—and not only the bluestockings and fuddy-duddies among us—can see that the qualities which in any particular season the crowd chooses to praise or ignore often fail to overlap with what they themselves would call honorable or dishonorable. Consequently, ordinary citizens are a trifle mystified, uncertain of exactly what this word “honor” is meant to denote.

In addition, notwithstanding the fissure between these two definitions, in empirical situations “honor” does not invariably capture one discrete condition or the other but on occasion two realities, with a serviceable bridge between them—a sight which can blur in the perception of the casual observer. In fact, honor’s third dictionary definition, female chastity, means both conscience-guided purity and a woman’s reputation for sexual abstinence (if unmarried) or for fidelity (if married). This third meaning is merely a specific historical instance of our two essential definitions turning, meeting, and shaking hands.

Or, to take one of my own heroes as an example, George Washington embodied both meanings of honor in one personage. He frequently employed the word “honor” in his writings, having given the concept considerable thought, and he unquestionably cared about others’ regard for him. He was ever eager to maintain and augment his reputation in the eyes of his countrymen.

On this point, however, in Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader, Robert Middlekauff intervenes with a critical amplification: Washington cared about more than his high standing among his peers or within the public at large. His inner being—incorporating a powerful sense of duty—had to conform to virtue’s requirements. A base motive would be doing what is right only to win plaudits for one’s efforts. To George Washington, honor resided deeper in his nature than mere fame or others’ regard for his virtue. For him, Middlekauff notes, honor also signified and summoned “attachment to truth, honesty, and responsibility to others.” As his character formed, his personal strength increased, resulting in “a disposition to hold to his certainties, all summed up in a profound sense of ‘honour.’” Washington’s honorable character took shape through his commitment to virtue—including the hard-won habit of patience, responsiveness to the initiative of others—and in the helpful context of a community that appreciated what he stood for as a principled leader.

Honor’s Moral Flaws

In addition to both lexical and empirical ambiguity, a second difficulty with honor is that even when its meaning is clear its substance is vulnerable to attack. Not only is honor seen as redundant and expired, it is adjudged morally flawed. Appraised from the standpoint of universal human rights, it is deemed inferior to dignity. Weighed in the balance of Christian ethics, it is less than agape. For these reasons, it presents the appearance not only of a moral relic but also of damaged goods and an ethical light weight.

Peter Berger offers a trenchant analysis of honor in his 1970 essay in the Archives européenes de sociologie, “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor.” He describes honor as an “aristocratic concept” that was bound up with “a hierarchical view of society.” The age of chivalry operated on the basis of a moral code that had varying expectations of different groups and therefore attached unequal weights to their actions, “according to the principle of ‘To each his due,’” making the transactions of everyday life relative to a person’s status in society. With the rise of the bourgeoisie, “not only [was] the honor of the ancien régime” and its hierarchy “debunked,” in its place “an understanding of man and society emerged that would eventually liquidate any conception of honor.”

This new construct, Berger writes, was “the solitary self,” which modern consciousness perceives as “the bearer of human dignity and of inalienable human rights.” And dignity is what modern men and women prefer: it confers status not according to rank but by virtue of one’s personhood. In its light, an abandoned baby on a rubbish heap possesses a worth equal to that of a squire in his country house on the hill. Dignity adheres to the individual, no matter what his or her estate; it asserts a humanity behind the roles and customs of a particular society and its divisions.

This view is enshrined in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus honor’s deliquescence has resulted not in moral decline, Berger believes, but in ethical gains, particularly for racial and religious minorities, the poor, and exploited classes. Dignity derives from a person’s intrinsic humanity, apart from his or her profession, academic degrees, wealth, or family background. Moreover, dignity, freshly brought to the fore in modernity, is not a recent invention: it has an honorable lineage, with roots going back to the Bible, to Sophocles (in the crux of the confrontation between Antigone and Creon), and to other texts from ancient and medieval times.

Notwithstanding dignity’s merits, Berger affirms that a “rediscovery of honor” is desirable if, along the way, honor is revised. Even in the turbulent wake of the modernizing process—including the well-known forces of technology, industrialization, bureaucracy, urbanization, increased social mobility, and pluralism—honor has a chance because human beings need institutions to provide ordered realities for themselves; and with new institutions will come, he believes, “a return to honor.” This updated version of honor will not simply restore the mores of past cultures but will incorporate the modern commitment to human dignity and freely chosen institutional roles.

From a Christian perspective as well, traditional honor is problematic. In some respects, it bears affinities with the pluses and minuses of classical philia. Friendship can be a virtue, but it is selective: the love of the mutually attractive, forming a coterie that enforces exclusionary boundaries. Its in-group nature makes philia morally and theologically inferior to the comprehensive love of agape, which is love for the ungodly and the stranger, love oriented to what needs love but has not earned it (Romans 5:6, 8). Honor’s embedded status within social hierarchies—Tocqueville notes that it is positively correlated with “inequality of conditions”—means that it carries a similar ethical burden.

In his notes to his chapter on honor, Tocqueville observes that of all the world’s religions, Christianity most stresses the unity of humankind and the universality of its demands, based on “the general needs of humanity,” not on “social state” and the customs of particular times and places. For this reason, Christians have been wary of honor-as-esteem: “Christian peoples have always been and will always be very constrained in using honor….” Although this constraint has brought about “the weakness of Christianity” as a movement in “certain periods and among certain peoples,” this universalizing attitude—recall Galatians 3:28—also accounts for Christianity’s “general strength and what assures its perpetuity.”

What these analyses point to is not the complete failure of honor but the need for its reconstruction. Might, for example, a system that supports honor as integrity also confer dignity on all its participants? And might not honor, like philia in relation to agape, be open to its own transformation by an inclusive set of norms and practices?

Despite problems in both the theory and the operation of honor, it could yet have a distinctive, positive role to play in the ethical recovery so badly needed not only at the highest but throughout all levels of contemporary society.


A tempting approach to the problem of honor’s duplex signification is to take the word’s definitions and to reconfigure these reportive meanings into one coherent stipulative definition, incorporating the needful elements in a higher synthesis. Alas, this work of verbal renovation is easier imagined than accomplished. A more promising tack lies along a different course: narrative rather than proposition.

The Senf Gateway, unveiled in 1916, stands at the east entrance to the grounds of the University of Virginia. Inscribed in marble at its apex are these words, attributed to University President Edwin A. Alderman:


As a sixth-former planning to matriculate at the university the following fall, I read these lines and was stirred all the way down to my Bass Weejuns. Quoting these words in a school publication, I included only what I took to be the heart of the matter, the three thumping iambic phrases, and omitted the less dramatic build-up, “Enter by this gateway….” But now I see that my seventeen-year-old self was too impatient, for in this inscription the invitation is as crucial as the threefold discovery, the imperative as fascinating as the objects.

The University of Virginia has always stressed student accountability, so the verb “seek” was not surprising to me: it was consistent with the university’s entire modus operandi. Much depends on individual endeavor, the engagement of will and conscience, going beyond scholastic aptitude.

The “way of honor” refers to the means and the stamp: the way is followed so consistently—no matter what a student’s prior practice may have been—that it becomes habitual, a trait impressed deep within his or her character.

The “light of truth” refers to the core function of the university—it’s a phrase encapsulating a singular purpose that’s now become more controversial right across higher education than anyone could have predicted forty years ago.

The “will to work for men” points to the virtues of industry and beneficence: a call to a life beyond self-aggrandizement and narrow careerism.

Accordingly, within the university the light of truth is the chief object (the intramural end), not the spotlight of fame or the glitter of fortune. Working on behalf of others is the larger purpose of students’ training (the extramural end). And in all the strivings and achievements of both students and faculty: honor.

“Enter by this gateway” means that the student is not alone in his or her efforts but enters a community of honor, a key source and support for standards that all students are roused to live by. The Lawn, the central quadrangle which was Mr. Jefferson’s original “academical village,” reflects his Enlightenment ideals, particularly the fearless search for truth. The honor system, established sixteen years after the founder’s death, is a call to pursue truth honestly—that is, with no tolerance for lying, cheating, or stealing by any student in the community.

Especially to a green first-yearman, the Lawn illuminated in the evening is an imposing sight, a correlative to the hortatory phrases on the Senf Gateway. Another sort of entrance is afforded by the honor orientation. In my day, it featured all the first-year students gathered in University Hall to hear the annual honor address by a revered member of the faculty: solemn remarks delivered from a podium behind which were arrayed the student presidents of the ten schools, sitting in high-backed, red-leather armchairs.

The point of this little narrative—really just a series of snapshots in recollection—is that honor is best understood as referring to an individual’s living by right principles, but honor tends to draw out a person’s finest attributes when it functions within a community that has a good purpose, and preferably in a microcosm with its own distinctive, awe-inspiring places and time-honored rituals. Such an environment inspires and forms a person, in fact transforms almost everyone, giving even those students who enter with a loose sense of right and wrong an opportunity to firm up their resolve, and offering all students at least for a time the prospect of a community set apart.

The words on the gateway, the palpable reality of a noble tradition at one’s feet, even the sight of the Lawn in the gloaming—it’s all borne in upon the young student that now he’s not merely a visitor but rather a part of this entire enterprise. These and parallel experiences can flow into identity in a positive way; they can spark pride, shape character, and summon responsibility. Pace Tocqueville, the two essential meanings of honor as esteem and integrity are not necessarily far distant from one another. The right kind of pride in one’s country, family, or school can pull each of us a little higher.

In a recent essay in the New Criterion, Allen Guelzo and James Hankins distinguish between “proper” pride and sinful pride. The former can be morally uplifting; the latter can be reduced by humility (we are sinners all) and by gratitude (so much that we have achieved we owe to others).

In conjunction with a healthy pride, honor can play a beneficial role. Led and steeled by a measured pride, a sense of honor can stir us to identify with and support the best that our traditions represent. It can draw us away from dishonorable acts that would discredit both our university’s community of trust, for example, and us. Thus it reinforces an appropriate self-esteem: a respect for ourselves as moral persons, acting according to duty rather than interest or desire. “We want to be worthy of our inheritance,” Guelzo and Hankins write, “and we want to be honored by people and institutions that themselves deserve honor.” In this way are honor as integrity and honor as esteem properly entangled.

A university honor system takes into account the duality of our nature. Like the U.S. Constitution, its anthropology is Madisonian. To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr, human beings’ inclination to justice makes democracy possible, but an individual’s or a clique’s tendency to abuse power once gained makes democracy necessary. Honor systems are concrete representations of the recognition that most students will rise to the occasion and embrace the ethical ideal, but a few will not: deontological norms (binding prohibitions against plagiarism, for example, or against cheating on an organic chemistry final) may be pushed aside and abrogated by someone who covets a good grade so that he can become a physician who will work among impoverished people and save lives. These goals become the teleological justification, the moral cover or excuse, for sinking to unjust means.

In the UVA honor system, students receive a great deal of freedom and many privileges, including unproctored exams. Their authority to administer the honor code, through their elected representatives, is delegated directly to them by the Board of Visitors, without any faculty oversight or administrative intervention.

But on the other side of these privileges are a formal judicial apparatus, heavy penalties, and the whole ethos of honor, inculcated and sustained via poems, inscriptions, speeches, the prestige of the Honor Committee, pledges on papers and exams, periodic debates and referenda, and historical accounts of the system’s founding and development through many years. The honor system represents the long-standing belief that students are good enough to make the honor code work with impressive consistency but sufficiently tempted by wrongdoing to require elaborate mechanisms and regular reminders to shore up personal dedication.

Moreover, the honor system reflects the interplay of individual conscience and the community’s judgments about which acts are esteemed, and which are repudiated, within the microcosm of the university. Thus it comprehends both of the meanings of honor which we have been considering. But integrity is now primary, for without moral excellence, the other kind of honor is no good at all and not worth having.

Honor Today

This narrative instance reduced to propositional form would assert that honor is a concept still meaningful in parts of today’s society. Indeed, it is the only method at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels that takes students seriously as moral actors. Thus it affirms the dignity of all students, who become part of the community of trust not by birth or caste but by signaling their intention to live in a manner that is higher than the rules that prevail in the surrounding culture.

Therefore honor, according to a usefully reconstructed understanding, must first of all mean excellence of character, not renown, but the customs and norms of the subculture matter, for honor is most likely to flourish in a community—a civitas—oriented to a good purpose. In this regard it is like all the virtues, which are good habits conducive to good ends. A cat burglar who climbs to my neighbor’s fourth-story window is no coward, but his larcenous heart traduces the virtue of courage: hence no true honor among thieves.

A stipulative definition that incorporates language about this salutary relationship between individual and community is unlikely to succeed, however, because, if we start with honor’s ethical meaning as a commitment to abiding by standards of right and wrong, it is impossible to say that an individual cannot be honorable apart from her community. Indeed, some heroic souls act with stellar integrity by opposing the norms of the subcultures—including collegiate ones—in which they find themselves. These profiles in honor are laudable, and they no doubt occur thousands of times every day.

What we can say is that the modern administrative state and political realm bear all the hallmarks of ethical weakness that Max Weber, James Burnham, and more recent commentators on bureaucracy and the managerial revolution have identified. Which means that honor must be cultivated from the ground up, in the little platoons, and men and women of honor must not feel inhibited about shaming public officials not only about sexual and racial misdeeds—as serious and blighting of individual honor and community well-being as these are—but also in response to technocratic condescension and corporatist overreach, bearing false witness, failing to follow truth wherever it may lead, atrocious judgment, selfish opportunism and blinkered careerism, and usurpation of the prerogatives of citizens and elected representatives.

Honor is a catch-all term that is closely allied with the classical virtues: justice as fair play, fortitude, prudence, and temperance. Recent events and public responses demonstrate that the concept of honor still has some life left in it and a role to play for the commonweal, on behalf of the worthy traditions and institutions of a free republic.

David Hein is senior fellow at the George C. Marshall Foundation.