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Honour and shame:

modern controversies and
ancient values
When I began to work on honour and shame in ancient Greece in the
late 1980s, the predominant view of honour among classicists was one
drawn from studies of modern Mediterranean societies.1 On this view,
honour was a scarce non-material commodity, pursued mainly by men
in small-scale, face-to-face communities in more or less aggressive
forms of zero-sum competition. For men, honour was intimately bound
up with assertive, traditional forms of masculinity, and so was
fundamentally related to female chastity, the source of such honour
as women possessed and a crucial conduit through which mens
honour was vulnerable. This model was felt to be typical of traditional
Mediterranean societies, both Christian and Muslim. It put all the
emphasis on the standards of society, on the public, visible nature of
ones actions and their evaluation by their audience. Bourdieus classic
formulation was typical: The point of honour is the basis of a moral
code of an individual who sees himself always through the eyes of
others, who has need of others for his existence, because the image he
has of himself is indistinguishable from that presented to him by other
people.2 On this view, honour has very specific normative characteristics; it belongs with values of a specific sort; it is characteristic only of
some forms of social organisation; and it is associated with certain
specific types of action, motivation, and personality.
This approach to Mediterranean sociology no longer seems to enjoy
much currency in its own field. But the view of honour that it
promulgated lives on. An egregious example of the tendency to
associate honour with a very specific set of values and behaviour is a
2006 volume by James Bowman.3 For Bowman, honour is an essentially
primitive phenomenon: a matter of bravery, indomitability and the
readiness to avenge insults . . . for men and chastity for women, it is
always intimately related to manhood.4 It involves identification with
a specific group, and requires aggressive retaliation when the honour
of that group is impugned or attacked. This kind of honour, which
Bowman calls primitive honor, persists (he claims) unchanged in
modern Islamic societies, because those societies themselves have

24 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

hardly changed or developed for millennia and remain different only
in detail from the primitive cultures studied by anthropologists.5
In the West, on the other hand, the notion of honour has gone through a
series of transformations: in the earliest works of the Western literary
canon, the Homeric poems, it exists in something like the primitive
form still found in Muslim societies, but a tradition of scepticism
about honour arose in classical Greek and Roman thought, and
Christianity exerted a strong pressure to moralise the notion that
became increasingly strong in the Renaissance and reached its zenith in
the nineteenth century, when honour had at its core an attachment to
Christian morality, to personal integrity, to ideals of fair play, to good
manners, and to patriotism. All this was fatally undermined by the
First World War (regarded in retrospect as having been fought for
reasons of national honour), and was finally destroyed by the 1960s
and the Vietnam War. Honour is now the motive that dares not speak
its name, to the extent that (in the US) attachments to ideals of honour
allegedly now survive only in countercultural contexts such as innercity gangs,6 where people are excluded from or do not aspire to join the
dominant anti-honour culture of mainstream society. As a result,
Bowman argues, US leaders were unable to acknowledge what was in
fact the true motive for the second Gulf War, namely that America
needed to restore its national honour after 9/11 and to demonstrate a
will to do what it takes to deter further aggression by attacking a nation
that, though uninvolved, could plausibly be regarded as sympathising
with that atrocity. Instead, a moral reason for going to war, the elusive
Weapons of Mass Destruction, had to be supplied. In Bowmans view,
this deplorable state of affairs leaves America vulnerable to the threats
posed by two primitive honor cultures, one Islamic and military and
the other native or immigrant and criminal, which challenge its
hegemony in ways that may require it to do something more than
denounce them as unenlightened.7 The remedy, he argues, is for
America to recover its sense of national honour and its virility. This is
to be achieved, interalia, by means of a new acceptance of old forms of
inequality as a way of encouraging merit.8 But the real challenge,
Bowman thinks, will be turning back the tide of womens rights9 as a
way of giving free play to that masculine pride that is fundamental to
patterns of dominance not only between men but between nations.10
In fact, the role of honour in the foreign policy of modern nation
states is widely acknowledged, even by conservative US historians.11
Its relevance as a factor in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was
recognised at the time and has since been the focus of serious historical
analysis.12 More broadly, Bowmans polemic is both transparent in its
agenda and unlikely to persuade the unconverted. Yet his book is not

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 25

so easily dismissed. As a history of the notion of honour in the West,
and especially in the modern novel, it has substantial strengths. More
broadly, the increasing polarisation between liberal and conservative
standpoints in the US that it reflects is an issue for us all. No doubt one
of the least worrying aspects of Bowmans worldview is his
characterisation of honour as a fundamentally primitive thing,
surviving only in countercultural and regressive contexts; but this is
the point on which I want to focus, for it typifies a dominant strand in
contemporary attitudes to the concept.
There are, however, other strands. Frank Henderson Stewart not
only gives a multifaceted account of the variety of forms, senses, and
manifestations of honour (with a particular emphasis on its appearance
in the law codes of a range of different societies), but also
demonstrates, in his account of the institutionalisation of honour
among the Bedouin of the Sinai, the historical development, complexity, and sophistication of that notion in at least one set of Muslim
communities.13 Sharon Krause attempts a rapprochement between
honour and liberal democratic politics that goes back to the political
theory and ethics of the Enlightenment.14 Most recently, Alexander
Welsh has offered a wide-ranging account of the pervasiveness of
honour as a significant issue in the literature and thought of the West
from Homer to the present day.15 Welsh defines honour as the respect
that motivates or constrains members of a peer group.16 As the values
of groups differ, so honour will relate to whatever norms or values the
group holds dear. Though he does on occasion17 refer to something
called true honor, Welsh is much less inclined to limit honour to a
specific range of values and behaviours. The wide range of evidence he
cites bears out his contention that the values to which honour relates
vary with the nature of the group to which one belongs (e.g. p. 189).
Welsh sees the attachment to honour as a function of socialisation in a
wide range of groups and societies (esp. p. 97); it develops as the
obedience to the standards inculcated by parents is replaced by
emulation of the standards of the peer groups that one joins as one
comes of age. With this relation to group standards, honours relation
to morality is not something that develops in particular (unusual)
historical circumstances, but rather a central function of the individuals identification with the group. This identification is not just a
matter of prudent accommodation to other peoples standards.
Becoming a full member of the group entails subscribing to those
standards, achieving an identity in which self-respect is formed and
informed by the respect of others. Since all identity is social, there is no
absolute dichotomy, but rather a continuum, between heteronomy and
autonomy.18 We see the evidence of this in the way that attachment to

26 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

notions of honour is (in the literature reviewed by Welsh) typically a
feature not of slavish conformists, but of proud, independent figures,
people who, having made the standards of the group their own, feel
able to use their position to counsel, cajole, and even defy it. Most of
Welshs evidence comes from the literature and philosophy of the
Renaissance and Enlightenment periods (precisely those in which
Bowman alleges that the moralisation of honour was at its height); but
he himself is in no doubt that what he is describing is what Adam
Smith saw as the natural desire of all human beings for the esteem of
their fellows.19
This view is supported in a fascinating study by an economist and a
philosopher, Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit.20 Their notion of an
economy of esteem is not a metaphor. On the assumption that the
esteem of others is a good that most human beings desire, they
construct a series of abstract models that show how variations in its
supply and demand exhibit the characteristic features of an economy,
in which individual actions produce aggregate patterns that feed back
into individuals choices in [a] distinctively self-organizing manner.21
There is too much here to summarise in detail; but one point in
particular deserves attention. Brennan and Pettit acknowledge that
some scholars believe that concern for honour or esteem is not a feature
of all societies or of all levels of a society (that it is found only in smallscale, face-to-face societies, that it is purely aristocratic, or that it is a
feature only of marginalised countercultural groups); but they regard
this as a grievous error.22 In particular, their model explains how the
concern for esteem that pervades a whole society can produce
concentrations of esteem-seeking behaviour in socially marginalised
groups. By virtue of the diminishing marginal utility of all goods,
esteem will mean more to people who have less of it. So other things
being equal, an agent will work harder to avoid disesteem than to gain
positive esteem: shame is the stronger force for anyone who cares about
esteem.23 Those who have considerable reserves of esteem will be most
concerned to avoid the risks of losing, perhaps even in a moment, what
they have spent considerable time and effort in building up,24 while
those who have little or none will be risk-takers. In addition, because a
basic condition for esteem is that ones actions (even ones existence)
should be recognised, those at the bottom have significant incentives to
seek recognition even by means of activities that do not, in the eyes of
the majority, provide esteem.25 Further,26 individuals who see
themselves as excluded from mainstream sources of esteem (and
whose demand for it can thus be predicted to be high) can be expected
to join forces with like individuals in their contempt for the culture that
rejects them. In such countercultural groups the sole source of esteem is

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 27

the group itself, and these will thus be groups in which peer-pressure is
most intense. The model predicts that the violence and anti-social
behaviour of inner-city gangs, far from representing the isolated
survival of a concern for honour that no longer pervades the rest of
society, are in fact a function of a wider economy of esteem in which all
members of a society are implicated.27
The empirical evidence that this is so comes from the work of
epidemiologists such as Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson.28
Marmot was first alerted to the effects of status on health by his
extensive longitudinal studies (the Whitehall I and II studies) of UK
civil servants. In this extremely hierarchical organisation morbidity and
mortality rates were found to be closely correlated with ones position
in the hierarchy. Differences in lifestyle (smoking, consumption of
alcohol, etc.) did not explain (all of) the difference, which Marmot
attributes to the chronic stress induced by lack of control over ones
work and the sense of being regarded as inferior to others further up
the hierarchy. These findings exist against the background of a wider
phenomenon, an important feature of which is the so-called epidemiological transition, a label applied to the process by which, in the
developed world, the diseases and conditions which were once
confined to the rich (obesity, type-2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease)
become more prevalent among the poor as absolute poverty and its
associated ills are eradicated. Marmot and Wilkinson are perhaps the
most prominent among a number of scientists and scholars who have
related this shift and the prevalence of the diseases concerned to
income inequality. It is now well established that rates of morbidity and
mortality in developed economies are closely correlated with income
inequality. But ill health and early mortality are not the only social ills
of which this is true: also correlated with income inequality are
differentials in homicide rates, in the incidence of teenage motherhood,
in the prevalence of mental health problems, in levels of drug abuse, in
educational performance, in the size of prison populations, in the
extent to which individuals invest in the lives of their communities,
and in self-reported levels of happiness and satisfaction.29 The societies
with the smaller discrepancies between the highest and lowest earners
do better on all these measures in a pattern that is stronger than chance
and cannot be attributed to other factors. The same patterns on the
same measures are seen among US states, and the international and
internal US data provide valuable mutual confirmation of the relation
between income inequality and social problems. Two points are worth
noting: (1) the effects of inequality are discernible at all levels of society
the more equal societies do better at the top and at the bottom of the
scale (i.e. the best outcomes in more equal societies are consistently

28 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

better than the best outcomes in the less equal, and so on at all levels,
though the gap is smaller at the top of the scale than it is at the bottom);
these are not things that affect only the (relatively) poor or that depend
only on the number of relatively poor people in a given society; (2) in
developed economies, in which absolute poverty is rare and many of
those on less than half the average income have access to the standard
commodities of consumer society, income inequality is to a large extent
a matter of status, of what ones wealth and the things one can buy
with it say about ones standing relative to others, and of the extent to
which one can participate in the social contexts in which esteem is
achieved. In this regard, the relativity of status is crucial. We are
occasionally urged to ignore relative inequality in societies in which
absolute poverty is rare or in which standards of living are rising
overall. But when enough is never enough for the rich, it is
understandably not enough for the less well off either. Dissatisfaction
with ones own relative status intensifies as discrepancies increase.30
The notion that greater disparities in wealth and income drive the
struggle to increase ones status relative to others, and thus contribute
to a variety of social ills, is not a new one, but a basic insight of ancient
political thought. Platos proposal, that the richest citizen should be no
more than four times wealthier than the poorest, recognises that, even
after basic economic needs are met, relative levels of wealth still matter
as measures of status. The programme of balancing the interests of the
rich and the poor that we find not only in the Politics of Aristotle but
already in the fragments of the sixth-century Athenian statesman Solon
is as much a matter of honour and status (time) as of the distribution of
The findings of Wilkinson and others with regard to homicide rates
are particularly relevant. Homicides main catalyst is disrespect, and it
is above all committed by young men: the distribution curve by age of
perpetrator is similar in all societies, showing a sharp rise in the rate at
ages 1014, followed by a peak at ages 2024, and falling off sharply
thereafter.32 But differences in annual rates between countries
correspond to their relative levels of income inequality. These findings
confirm Brennans and Pettits predictions: in societies in which
discrepancies in esteem are large, those at the bottom of the range,
for whom a little esteem matters most, will take the biggest risks, even
of their own lives and liberty, to gain the respect of their peers and the
recognition of society. The existence of sectors within society in which
perceived disrespect may provoke extreme levels of violence and
mayhem is not a sign that these groups care about something in which
the rest of society has lost interest; the level of violence attributable to
these groups is one of the effects of the status competition that

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 29

pervades the rest of society. The honour of allegedly paradigmatic
honour societies such as inner-city gangs is related to a wider set of
phenomena rooted in human sociality and reflexivity, to a general
human attachment to esteem that is capable of taking a wide variety of
This has implications for the study of honour in other cultures and
in past societies: concern for honour and shame is not a phenomenon
that we should approach from the outside looking in. Though honourwords are clearly attached to different ideals in different societies, and
though honour (and its analogues) may take on specific senses at
different periods and in different contexts, still there is a general sense
in which what mattered to (for example) Homers heroes is a reflex of
something that still matters to us. We need to pay attention to the
particular, but to avoid letting particular differences obscure general
similarities. We need to look at honour both more closely (at what it
really is) and more widely (beyond the salient and paradigmatic cases
in the ghetto, the Mafia, and the Mediterranean).
To conclude this discussion, I want to focus on what has often been
seen as the paradigm of the primitive honour society, that of the
Homeric poems.33 The study of honour and shame in Homer needs to
be informed by the study of honour as a cross-cultural phenomenon,
but should also in its turn inform that study. In particular, developmental or teleological views of honour in the West and primitivist
views of honour as a limited and highly specific phenomenon should
be precluded by an appreciation that in the Homeric poems, too,
honour is a complex, dynamic, and inclusive thing.
Honour is a stock translation of the Greek time, which denotes both
ones value in ones own and others eyes and the esteem conferred by
others. The value of an individual may rest on a wide variety of
qualities, such as prowess in warfare (Iliad 9. 319, 12. 31021, etc.), rank
(Iliad 1. 278), wealth (Odyssey 14. 2056), noble birth (Iliad 9. 2379), age
(Iliad 9. 16061), special skill or profession (Odyssey 8. 480, Iliad 5. 78, 16.
605), kinship (Iliad 13. 176), being a good wife (Odyssey 7. 669), being a
good slave (Odyssey 1. 432), and friendship (Iliad 9. 63031, 17. 5767,
22. 2335, Odyssey 19. 2478). Equally, esteem may be expressed in a
wide variety of ways: in the form of material goods, such as the gera
(prizes or marks of distinction) awarded from the spoils of war to
successful and high-ranking warriors (the issue in Achilles quarrel
with Agamemnon); the choice cuts of meat, full cups of wine, and
grants of land mentioned by Sarpedon as the communitys way of
honouring its leaders (Iliad 12. 31014); or gifts and prizes in general.
But non-material forms of deference are more common, such as gazing
at another in admiration (Odyssey 2. 13, 17. 64) as one would at a god

30 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

(Iliad 12. 312, Odyssey 7. 71, 8. 173), verbal greetings (Odyssey 7. 72), the
best seat at table (Iliad 12. 311), or carrying out an order (Odyssey 16.
3047); and the showing of respect is a fundamental feature of Homeric
etiquette in all its forms. The set of honourable qualities and the range
of honorific behaviour are highly inclusive.
The same is true of the subjective sense of honour (Greek aidos).
Aidos has two related but distinct senses in Homer.34 First, it is the
emotion which focuses on actions and states of affairs which are ugly,
unseemly, or which are said to excite others indignation (nemesis); in
this sense it is normally translated shame. The range of these
categories is wide: it includes personal failure, especially in battle, but
also failures in ones obligations to others. In its second sense
(translated respect), aidos can directly express these obligations: to
say I feel aidos for you is a way of saying I honour you.
If a proper sense of honour requires the limitation of ones own
claims out of respect for those of others, there is an expectation that
legitimate claims to honour will be recognised: references to allotted
shares of time or to the time that one ought to receive show that time
may be a prerogative or entitlement; people complain indignantly
when denied the honour they feel they deserve; and failure to show
honour where it is due is condemned (e.g. as hybris).35 This entitlement
to honour is widely distributed. A prime category is that of ones philoi
(members of a cooperating group). But the entitlement can also be
extended to outsiders, such as strangers, beggars, and suppliants, all of
whom fall under the Odysseys category of aidoioi (respectworthy).36
The degree to which a community honours its obligations to such
people is regularly presented as an index of its civilisation (Odyssey 9.
1756, 1889; cf. 17. 487, 19. 3334).
Finally, the obligations to behave honourably and to respect the
honour of others can be internalised and generalised: in Homer, the
emotion of nemesis (indignation) functions as the correlative of aidos
its target is shameless or disrespectful behaviour. Characters regularly
observe that one should not oneself do things that excite ones own
nemesis when others do them (Iliad 23. 494; Odyssey 6. 286, 15. 6971),
and the nemesis that individuals feel over others shameful behaviour
can also be directed at the self (Iliad 16. 5446, 17. 2545, Odyssey 1. 119
20, 2. 64, 4. 1589). Honour in Homer is an ethic of specific
interpersonal obligations enforced by popular disapproval and
individual sentiment, yet it also allows the impartial, universalisable
perspective that is essential for any ethical system worthy of the
This rather bloodless picture of the richness and diversity of the
notion of honour in Homeric society can be fleshed out by looking at

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 31

some salient situations. First, Nestors attempt to defuse the quarrel of
Achilles and Agamemnon in Iliad 1 (ll. 24553, 27584):
Thus spoke Peleus son and dashed to the ground the sceptre
studded with golden nails, and sat down again. But Atreides
raged still on the other side, and between them Nestor
the fair-spoken rose up, the lucid speaker of Pylos,
from whose lips the streams of words ran sweeter than honey.
In his time two generations of mortal men had perished,
those who had grown up with him and they who had been born to
these in sacred Pylos, and he was king in the third age.
He in kind intention toward both stood forth and addressed them:
You, great man that you are, yet do not take the girl away
but let her be, a prize as the sons of the Achaians gave her
first. Nor, son of Peleus, think to match your strength with
the king, since never equal with the rest is the portion of honour
of the sceptred king to whom Zeus gives magnificence. Even
though you are the stronger man, and the mother who bore you was
yet is this man greater who is lord over more than you rule.
Son of Atreus, give up your anger; even I entreat you
to give over your bitterness against Achilleus, he who
stands as a great bulwark of battle over all the Achaians.38

The first thing one notices is the care with which both the poet and
Nestor himself establish his right to give advice. This is a function of
his status (i.e. his honour); it derives not just from his age, but from the
wisdom and eloquence that his experience has given him. This status
gives his words authority and allows him to pronounce impartially
upon the quarrel. Nestor is upholding group values to which
Agamemnon and Achilles should subscribe, and his authority derives
from the honour in which he is held by the group, but that authority in
itself allows him the independence of mind to tell two powerful figures
what neither of them wants to hear. In honouring Nestor as a
counsellor, this independence, the willingness to speak out and
persuade others that they are wrong, is precisely what the group
wants; this is why he is valued.
Next, we notice Nestors diagnosis of the grounds of the quarrel:
behind the dispute over women-as-prizes (i.e. the relative status of
Achilles and Agamemnon as mirrored by the marks of esteem
conferred by their fellows) lies a deeper dispute over claims to
precedence of incommensurable qualities, rank versus prowess. This,
then, is a society which entertains a plurality of claims to honour, and
in refusing to reduce the competing claims of Achilles and Agamemnon to a single criterion of value, Nestor is urging each to give the

32 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

others claims their due. This idea, that there are entitlements to honour
that it is right to acknowledge is specifically identified as an aspect of
justice by Odysseus in Book 19 (ll. 1813):
And you, son of Atreus, after this be more righteous [dikaioteros] to
man. For there is no fault when even one who is a king
appeases a man, when the king was the first one to be angry.

These are the final words of a speech in which Odysseus prescribes the
ceremonies, both public and private, that will finally and formally
bring an end to the estrangement of Achilles and Agamemnon. The
link between honour, rights, and morality is not something that
emerges only as the putative Western notion of honour develops; it is
right there, in the supposedly primitive honour culture of Homer.
Honour in the Iliad is not something a man can pursue without limit;
and the limit is imposed by the honour, the duty of respect, that he
owes others.
For his part, Achilles becomes embroiled in a quarrel with
Agamemnon in order to champion group values against arbitrary
manipulation by a powerful individual; he then finds the power of that
individual turned, arbitrarily, against himself. From that point on, his
strategy involves a series of interlocking negotiations of individual
claims and group standards. On one level, Achilles stance resembles
that of Nestor: he uses his status within the group in an attempt to
persuade the group to see things his way. His withdrawal from the
fighting is in one sense a demonstration of his independence, so that in
Book 9 he can say, in response to Phoenix (an older retainer who is
acting as an intermediary on Agamemnons behalf), that he does not
need the time that the Achaeans can offer him, but can rely on the
honour he derives from Zeus (9. 6078). But Phoenix has just pointed
out (6025) that the community can withhold time even from a warrior
who fights well, if that warrior does not fight on their terms; and
Achilles own appeal to Zeus is itself part of a strategy designed to
achieve public acknowledgement of the status that Agamemnon failed
to respect. Achilles view of himself is most certainly not dependent on
the view that others have of him; but he does need others to endorse
the view that he takes of himself, and this is what he attempts to coerce
the Achaeans to do. In this situation, both the individual and the group
are powerful, and there is no question either of an autonomy that
excludes all notion of others approval or a heteronomy that wholly
determines the individuals view of himself.

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 33

Achilles grievances (in Books 1 and 9) turn on norms that are
widely shared. His complaint is not just about disrespect, but about a
denial of due respect that negates the reciprocity that should obtain
among peers. There is principle as well as pride behind his stance, and
a notion of group standards that should apply equally to all. But of
course it matters that he was the victim not just because we all put a
higher value on social norms when we are the ones who suffer from
their breach, but because achieving glory at Troy is a fundamental part
of what it is to be Achilles. This is the life he has chosen (Iliad 9. 400
For not
worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable
were won for Ilion, that strong-founded citadel, in the old days
when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaians;
not all that the stone doorsill of the Archer holds fast within it,
of Phoibos Apollo in Pytho of the rocks. Of possessions
cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting,
and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,
but a mans life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted
nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeths barrier.
For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.

This apparently total identification of himself with the everlasting fame

of martial glory goes some way to explaining why Achilles sees
Agamemnons actions as a complete negation of his status anybody
who would put up with such treatment is a nobody (he says at 1. 231,
293); Agamemnon has treated him like a rootless refugee, someone
completely without honour (9. 648, 16. 59). Agamemnon shows
disrespect for all that Achilles has invested, not just in the Trojan
war, but in being Achilles. Achilles prodigious, quasi-divine fury
indicates his commitment to this identity: he is someone for whom kleos
(fame) is definitive and who will go to enormous lengths to punish
disrespect. In the Achaean economy of esteem, both Achilles and
Agamemnon are haves. Though each regards the other as motivated
by a positive desire to enhance his honour, it is in both their cases the
threat of losing honour that produces the extreme reactions that are the
reasons for the quarrels escalation; in terms of status, their captive
women mean more to them at the point of loss than they do at the point

34 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

of acquisition. At the same time, however, Nestors intervention in Iliad
1 (above) reminds us that, in a sense, there is more at stake for Achilles
than for Agamemnon. Agamemnons honour derives to a substantial
extent from his rank, whereas Achilles depends much more on what
he can achieve by his own prowess as a warrior doomed, if he is to
achieve honour at all, to die young. The high stakes in his own case are
at the core of his argument in Book 9 and a large part of the explanation
for the extremity of his response.
Because he is determined to demonstrate to all that Agamemnon
cannot get away with his offence (1. 23944, 40812), to make
Agamemnon pay in full for the outrage (e.g. 9. 3867), Achilles decides
that the attempt to make amends in Book 9 is not good enough. But the
Ambassadors remind him of other aspects of Iliadic honour, in
particular of the honour he owes his friends. Ajax, the last of the three
to speak, observes (Iliad 9. 63031): He is hard, and does not remember
that friends affection/ wherein we honoured him by the ships, far
beyond all others. He concludes with a direct appeal (64042):
Respect your own house; see, we are under the same roof with you,
from the multitude of the Danaans, we who desire beyond all
others to have your honour and love, out of all the Achaians.

Like King Lear, Achilles discovers that he has taken too little care of
this with the loss of his best friend, Patroclus. When his mother, Thetis,
observes that Zeus has fulfilled his promise to honour him by
favouring the Trojans against the Achaeans, Achilles laments (Iliad
18. 7983, 88104):
My mother, all these things the Olympian brought to accomplishment.
But what pleasure is this to me, since my dear companion has perished,
Patroklos, whom I loved beyond all other companions,
as well as my own life. I have lost him, and Hektor, who killed him,
has stripped away that gigantic armour . . .
As it is, there must be on your heart a numberless sorrow
for your sons death, since you can never again receive him
won home again to his country; since the spirit within does not drive me
to go on living and be among men, except on condition
that Hektor first be beaten down under my spear, lose his life
and pay the price for stripping Patroklos, the son of Menoitios.
Then in turn Thetis spoke to him, letting the tears fall:
Then I must lose you soon, my child, by what you are saying,
since it is decreed your death must come soon after Hektors.
Then deeply disturbed Achilleus of the swift feet answered her:
I must die soon, then; since I was not to stand by my companion
when he was killed. And now, far away from the land of his fathers,

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 35

he has perished, and lacked my fighting strength to defend him.
Now, since I am not going back to the beloved land of my fathers,
since I was no light of safety to Patroklos, nor to my other
companions, who in their numbers went down before glorious Hektor,
but sit here beside my ships, a useless weight on the good land . . .

Friendship in Homer is a matter of mutual respect, a reciprocal relation

of honour, and Achilles now feels that he has let all his philoi down. He
says, almost in so many words, that the honour he expected once his
value as a warrior had been demonstrated now means nothing to him.
His life is now wholly invested in revenge: the honour that he will
attain in avenging Patrocluss death (and thereby assuaging his own
shame) matters more to him than his own life. There is no suggestion
here that the approbation of others matters at all. What matters is
Achilles own belated realisation of the duty that a man of honour owes
his friends.
But this is not the end of the story. Achilles final Iliadic exploit is
also explicitly a matter of honour, as Zeus first indicates when
arranging the return of Hectors body (Iliad 24. 10910):
[The other gods] keep urging clear-sighted Argephontes to steal the
but I am going to attach this glory [kudos] to Achilleus [i.e. of returning
the body voluntarily].

Priam confirms that his appeal is fundamentally directed towards

Achilles sense of honour (Iliad 24. 4867, 5034):
Achilleus like the gods, remember your father, one who
is of years like mine, and on the door-sill of sorrowful old age . . .
Honour then the gods, Achilleus, and take pity upon me
remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful.

In accepting Priams supplication Achilles honours an individual

whose special status is underwritten by the gods, but he also (on
Priams encouragement) generalises from the duty of respect that sons
owe their fathers (Priams words unleash a passion of grieving for his
own father, 24. 5078; the two weep, Priam in memory of Hector,
Achilles in memory of his own father and Patroclus, 25. 50912).
Because Achilles would hate to see his own father suffer so, denied the
privilege even of honouring his son with a decent burial, he will not so
dishonour Priam. We see here just how far notions of mutual respect
can go in support of universalisable moral values. By behaving in this
way, Achilles achieves the kudos that Zeus promises in Book 24, line

36 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

110. At every stage, Achilles conduct reflects ideals and practices of
honour; but at no stage is it simply a matter of male competition for
prestige. Ethical norms, themselves aspects of the complex of honour,
impinge from the outset, and the varieties of the respect that a man
owes others play as big a role as the esteem that he seeks for himself.
Finally, we turn to Hector: if the Iliad is the tragedy of Hector (as well
as of Achilles), then much of that tragedy lies in the inclusivity of
Homeric notions of honour.39 Hector could defend Troy from the walls,
as advised by Andromache in Book 6; he could return to the city after an
unprecedented day of success, as advised by Polydamas in Books 12
and 18; he could save himself for another day and think first of those
who most need his protection, as advised by his mother and father in
Book 22. But he does not in all cases because of his desire for honour
and his sense of shame. He cares acutely for his honour and his
reputation, but he is self-willed, independent, and determined in doing
what he thinks honour demands.
Hector refers twice to the sense of shame that motivates him (Iliad 6.
44065, 22. 99110). In the first passage, he rejects his wifes advice to
behave in a way that, though perhaps prudent, could be construed as
cowardly (6. 44046):
Then tall Hektor of the shining helm answered her: All these
things are in my mind also, lady; yet I would feel deep shame
before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments,
if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting;
and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for my own self great glory, and for my father.

Hector is explicitly concerned with what people will say of his conduct,
but the imagined judgement of others wholly coincides with his own
choice his spirit will not let him contemplate any other course; he has
learned to be brave. Bravery, winning glory for himself and his father,
has become an end in itself, part of what it is to be Hector. Yet Hector
also realises that the honour he craves entails an element of shame, that
the glory of bravery is only a second best if bravery fails to protect
ones dependants, especially ones wife (6. 44165):
For I know this thing well in my heart, and my mind knows it:
there will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish,
and Priam, and the people of Priam of the strong ash spear.
But it is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans
that troubles me, not even of Priam the king nor Hekabe,
not the thought of my brothers who in their numbers and valour
shall drop in the dust under the hands of men who hate them,

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 37

as troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armoured
Achaian leads you off, taking away your day of liberty,
in tears; and in Argos you must work at the loom of another,
and carry water from the spring Messeis or Hypereia,
all unwilling, but strong will be the necessity upon you;
and some day seeing you shedding tears a man will say of you:
This is the wife of Hektor, who was ever the bravest fighter
of the Trojans, breakers of horses, in the days when they fought about
So will one speak of you; and for you it will be yet a fresh grief,
to be widowed of such a man who could fight off the day of your slavery.
But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I
hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.

Society makes martial glory an end in itself for those who pursue it, but
inculcates that end as a means to its own protection. Hector realises
that this is something that he will ultimately fail to provide. The tension
between the simple norm that only cowards retreat and its wider social
implications is quite clearly not one between honour and something
else, but within the notion of honour itself.
A similar tension emerges in the second passage, where Hector
confronts the fact that his desire for military glory has led to a failure to
protect his people; he had been advised (in Book 18) to retreat, and as
in Book 6 had rejected the prudent course in favour of the prospect of
glory. But Hector does not just regret his failure to prevail in battle; nor
has he merely realised that the pursuit of honour can be misguided.
The shame that Hector feels focuses not (as in Book 6) on the
imputation of cowardice, but on the duties of leadership and care that
he owes his people (22. 99110):
Ah me! If I go now inside the wall and the gateway,
Poulydamas will be first to put a reproach upon me,
since he tried to make me lead the Trojans inside the city
on that accursed night when brilliant Achilleus rose up,
and I would not obey him, but that would have been far better.
Now, since by my own recklessness I have ruined my people,
I feel shame before the Trojans and the Trojan women with trailing
robes, that someone who is less of a man than I will say of me:
Hektor believed in his own strength and ruined his people.
Thus they will speak; and as for me, it would be much better
at that time, to go against Achilleus, and slay him, and come back,
or else be killed by him in glory in front of the city.

As in the first passage, it is clear that Hector cares deeply about what
people will say; but these reproaches of the fantasy audience are
hypothetical, and the pejorative construction they place on Hectors
actions is his own (since by my own recklessness I have ruined my

38 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1

people, I feel shame, 1045). His projection of the fantasy audience is
an aspect of the way that he now views his own conduct he knows he
has failed, by his own standards. And so the only life worth living is
the short one in which he faces Achilles and tries to redeem some of his
lost honour by a noble death. Hectors sense of honour, like that of
Achilles, is part of his very being, central to his view of who he is so
central that it assumes a higher value than existence itself. But also as in
Achilles case, limited perspectives on honour are brought into explicit
confrontation with wider aspects of a more inclusive concept.
In the extreme cases of the greatest heroes, such as Achilles and
Hector, honour is so far from being just one external good among many
that it can be regarded as preferable to life itself. Each invests his being
and identity in the pursuit of honour, yet each becomes aware that
honour is a more complicated thing than he had thought, especially
when the individualistic pursuit of military glory is brought into
relation with the reciprocal negotiations of respect that characterise
relations with others. Already in the Iliad tensions and contradictions in
the notion of honour are being probed presumably to appeal to
audiences for whom the life of honour was likewise not a simplistic
notion. Homeric honour is neither unidimensional nor primitive. It
involves complicated and multifaceted negotiations between individual claims and others recognition and invokes the full range of norms
and values by which Homeric society operates. There is much evidence
for self-assertive masculinity, but also for a great deal else besides. The
association between honour and morality, identity, and integrity is
there already in Homer. Yet, though Homers heroes are proud and
independent, their pursuit of honour implies a community with both
the power to judge them and the ability to enlist individuals honour in
support of the security and cohesion of the group. Individual identity is
intimately bound up with group membership. Self-esteem depends on
the esteem of others. This is the only way it can be.


See esp. John George Peristiany (ed.), Honour and Shame: The Values of
Mediterranean Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965); David D.
Gilmore (ed.), Honor and Shame and the Unity of the Mediterranean
(Washington DC: American Anthropological Association, 1987). In
classics, see Peter Walcot, Greek Peasants, Ancient and Modern (Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1970). My own work was published as
Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek
Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). The thesis from which
that book derived was inspired and supervised by Douglas MacDowell

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 39




(19312010), Professor of Greek in the University of Glasgow from 1971 to

2001, the last and one of the most distinguished holders of a chair
established in 1704. This article is dedicated to his memory. I should also
like to thank my colleague Dr Martin Chick for much helpful advice and
the Leverhulme Trust for funding the research project from which this
article derives.
Pierre Bourdieu, The Sentiment of Honour in Kabyle Society, in
Peristiany, Honour, 191241 at 211; cf., with reference to the world of
Homer, Arthur W. H. Adkins, Merit and Responsibility (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1960), 49: the heros self only has the value which other
people put upon it.
James Bowman, Honor: A History (New York: Encounter, 2006).
Ibid., 21 and 22.
Ibid., 40.
Ibid., 265 and 286.
Ibid., 287; cf. 323.
Ibid., 31213.
Ibid., 31723.
Ibid., 320.
See Donald Kagan, Honor, Interest, and Nation State, in Elliott Abrams
(ed.), Honor among Nations: Intangible Interests and Foreign Policy
(Washington DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1998), 116.
See Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Ethic of Honor in National Crises: The Civil
War, Vietnam, Iraq, and the Southern Factor, Journal of the Historical Society,
5:4 (2005), 43160. Wyatt-Brown recognises that the motive of honour in
both foreign policy matters and martial affairs . . . applies to nearly all other
nations armed services and diplomatic staffs to a greater or lesser degree
(pp. 4323), but also regards the persistence of a culture of honour in the
southern USA as a contributory factor in the US context. For the southern US
as a paradigmatic honour culture, cf. James E. Nisbett and Dov Cohen,
Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder CO:
Westview, 1996); also Dov Cohen, Joseph Vandello, and Adrian K. Rantilla,
The Sacred and the Social: Cultures of Honor and Violence, in Paul Gilbert
and Bernice Andrews (eds), Shame: Interpersonal Behavior, Psychopathology,
and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 26182.
Frank Henderson Stewart, Honor (Chicago IL: University of Chicago
Press, 1994).
Sharon Krause, Liberalism with Honor (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
Alexander Welsh, What is Honor? A Question of Moral Imperatives (New
Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
Ibid., xv and 10.
Ibid., 163 and 190.
Ibid., 131.
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael, A. L.
Macfie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 116; cf. Welsh, Honor, 18:

40 Critical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1







we need to demystify honor and treat it as one kind of motivation that all
are subject to.
Geoffrey Brennan and Philip Pettit, The Economy of Esteem (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2004). Cf. also (on esteem as a factor in both gift
exchange and market economies) Avner Offer, Between the Gift and the
Market: The Economy of Regard, Economic History Review, 50:3 (1997),
Brennan and Pettit, The Economy of Esteem, 66.
Ibid., 8.
Ibid., 156.
Thus, regarding honour as in other respects, people are loss-averse: they
hate a loss more than they value an equal gain (Richard Layard,
Happiness: Lessons from a New Science (London: Allen Lane, 2005), 141; cf.
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about
Health, Wealth, and Happiness (London: Penguin, 2009), 367).
Brennan and Pettit, The Economy of Esteem, 187.
Ibid., 2236.
For the relation between subcultures in which violence is driven by the
pursuit of respect and inequalities of esteem in society in general, cf.
Michael Marmot, Status Syndrome: How Your Social Standing Directly
Affects Your Health (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 102; Richard Wilkinson
The Impact of Inequality (London: Routledge, 2005), 222, 226; Richard
Wilkinson and Kate E. Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies
Almost Always Do Better (London: Allen Lane, 2009), 134, 14041.
See previous note.
For the data, cf. www.equalitytrust.org.uk/why/evidence. For UK trends
since the 1980s, see Alissa Goodman, Paul Johnson, and Steven Webb,
Inequality in the UK (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); John Hills
and Kitty Stewart (eds), A More Equal Society: New Labour, Poverty,
Inequality, and Exclusion (Bristol: Policy Press, 2005); John Hills, Tom
Sefton, and Kitty Stewart (eds), Towards a More Equal Society? Poverty,
Inequality and Policy since 1997 (Bristol: Policy Press, 2009); and now John
Hills, An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK: Report of the National
Equality Panel (January 2010, available at http://www.equalities.gov.uk/
national_equality_panel/publications.aspx). Cf. also Daniel Dorling,
Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists (Bristol: Policy Press, 2010).
On the ways in which growing discrepancies in income lead to increased
competition for positional goods and increased dissatisfaction even
among those who may be comfortably off in material terms, see Robert
Frank, Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class
(Berkeley and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 2007); cf.
Layard, Happiness, esp. 418, 15053.
See Plato, Laws 744a745b (cf. 754d755a, 756e758a); Aristotle, Politics
1265a28b23, 1266b141267b16, 1280a1125, 1282b141284a17, 1297a613,
1301a251303a13, 1308a711, 1308b101309a32, 1310a212, 1318a9
1319a4. For Solon, see esp. fragments 46, 13, 24, and 367 West, and

Honour and shame: modern controversies and ancient values 41







for a brief discussion of classical Greek attitudes to income and status

inequality, see H. Phelps Brown, Egalitarianism and the Generation of
Inequality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 1821.
See Richard Wilkinson, Why is Violence More Common Where Inequality is Greater?, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1036 (2004), 1
12; Wilkinson, Impact, 14567; Wilkinson and Pickett, Spirit Level, 12944;
Pickett, Jessica Mookherjee, and Wilkinson, Adolescent Birth Rates, Total
Homicides, and Income Inequality in Rich Countries, American Journal of
Public Health, 95:7 (2005), 11813; cf. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly,
Competitiveness, Risk-taking, and Violence: The Young Male Syndrome,
Ethology and Sociobiology, 6 (1985), 5973; Martin Daly and Margo Wilson,
Homicide (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988); Helena Cronin, The Ant
and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 3313, 3424; Martin
Daly, Margo Wilson, and Shawn Vasdev, Income Inequality and
Homicide Rates in Canada and the United States, Canadian Journal of
Criminology, 43 (2001), 21936.
See Bowman, Honor, 456; cf. G. Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of
Self-Assessment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 547. Both draw
on the classic study of E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley
and Los Angeles CA: University of California Press, 1951), whose own
characterisation of Homeric society as a paradigmatic shame-culture
was influenced by Ruth Benedicts The Chrysanthemum and the Sword:
Patterns of Japanese Culture (London: Secker and Warburg, 1947).
For shame, see e.g. Iliad 22. 1057 (discussed below); respect, see e.g.
Iliad 9. 640 (ditto). Cf. Jean-Claude Riedinger, Les Deux Aidos chez
Home`re, Revue de Philologie, 54 (1980), 6279; Cairns, Aidos, passim.
Allotted shares: Iliad 1. 278, 9. 608, 15. 189, Odyssey 5. 335, 8. 480, 11. 302,
338; due time: e.g. Iliad 1. 353, 23. 649; complaints: e.g. Iliad 23. 571, Odyssey
2. 5567; condemnation of those who do not honour others: Odyssey 22.
41415, 23. 656; hybris: Agamemnon, Iliad 1. 203, the Suitors, Odyssey 1.
368, etc. Cf. Stewart, Honor, passim, on honour as right. On hybris, see Nick
Fisher, Hybris: A Study in the Values of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greece
(Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1992).
See e.g. Iliad 9. 63032, 640 (in-group); Odyssey 7. 165, 9. 271, 15. 373, cf. 14.
568 (strangers, beggars, and suppliants, qua respectworthy).
On the varieties of impartiality, cf. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits
of Philosophy (London: Collins, 1985), 60, 825, 92, 115; Thomas Nagel, The
Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 11225; Amartya
Sen, The Idea of Justice (London: Allen Lane, 2009), 11452, 15573, 194
207, 2924.
All translations from the Iliad are by R. Lattimore (Chicago IL: University
of Chicago Press, 1951).
See James M. Redfield, Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector
(Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 1975).

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