zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Honour or reputation?

Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Honour or reputation?

[by Natalie Sambhi]

Should we discuss honour and war?

The question struck me when thinking about the three reasons Thucydides offers for going to war: fear, honour and interest. Fear and interest seem, to some degree, straightforward: ‘fear’ is an emotion to which we respond by pursuing security, and ‘interest’ defining the upper limits of when we should pursue the use of force. But what role does honour play?

Broadly defined, honour encompasses a sense of justice, what is morally right, values and beliefs. It could also encompass reputation, if that is intimately tied with a sense of doing what is right. However, the meaning of honour can vary from person to person, from state to state, and changes over time.

In his post on Book 1, Mark quotes Archidamus at length. In the excerpt, Archidamus assesses whether Sparta should go to war with Athens by comparing the relative military strengths and warfighting skills of Sparta and Athens. After establishing that the military balance favours the Athenians, he adds:

“Meanwhile our honour will be pledged to keeping on, particularly if it be the opinion that we began the quarrel. For let us never be elated by the fatal hope of the war being quickly ended by the devastation of their lands. I fear rather that we may leave it as a legacy to our children; so improbable is it that the Athenian spirit will be the slave of their land, or Athenian experience be cowed by war.”

It is not just for reasons of military inferiority that Sparta will lose, Archidamus is concerned that the Spartans might be compelled to fight for reasons of honour, and drag out the war. This prompted me to consider how the role of honour has changed in our consideration of war since Peloponnesian times. How is it defined today and what role should it play in war?

Today we do not speak about honour as blatantly as we do security and strategic interests when going to war. Leaders do not state they plan to commit troops on the basis of ‘saving face’ (as Mark points out in his Book 5 post), ‘guarding honour’ or even to pursue revenge, even if that may be the case.

An obvious problem is ‘honour’ can be quite subjective and defined in myriad ways depending on its context. We are encouraged often to ‘do the honourable thing’, in other words, to ‘do the right thing’. But in its extreme, doing something just for ‘honour’ can also appear irrational or illegal. The example that springs to mind is an ‘honour killing’ where a family member who has shamed the family is killed by a relative as a form of restoring the group honour or community standing.

In the context of war, how do we talk about restoring honour at a state level? We are far prone to think about the commitment to war in terms of strategic interest. But I’d like to use the example of Australia to show how ‘honour’ as a concept in pursuing war has lingered.

Then Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001. The next day, he told a press conference he intended to support a US military response, admittedly without yet receiving an American request. In a speech to the Australian Defence Association in October 2001, Howard explained why he chose to invoke the articles of the ANZUS Treaty and to commit troops to fight in Afghanistan:

“If we left this contest only to America, we would be leaving it to them to defend our rights and those of all the other people of the world who have a commitment to freedom and liberty. We will not do it. We admire their strength and greatness, but Australians have always been a people prepared to fight our own fights.

To do anything less on this occasion would be both strategically inept and morally indefensible, especially given the strength of our mutual commitment with the United States under the ANZUS Pact.

Other civilised countries of the world have also recognised the global nature of the threat and the need to meet it.

The UN Security Council unequivocally condemned the attacks in New York and Washington, and affirmed the need for all nations to combat by all means the threats to international peace and security caused by such terrorist acts.”

He clearly states a desire to be a good ally but an intention to uphold Australia’s reputation as a defender of Western norms; as Howard saw it, to sit out that conflict would have made the country appear cowardly. Australia’s strategic rationale for participation was defined in terms of fighting terrorism, assisting our American ally, and liberating the Afghan people from the tyranny of an oppressive regime.

In Howard’s case, ‘doing the the right thing’ sounds like ‘honour’ but is actually ‘reputation’. If Australia were to fight for ‘honour’, what would that have looked like? Fighting to uphold reputation as ‘willing to fight’ and ‘being a good ally’ could be seen ironically as a face-saving way of appearing honourable. It allowed Australia to commit a mentoring and reconstruction force to one province and special forces deployments on specific missions to meet that reputational threshold, without having to clearly define what defending honour looked like.

By 2013, ‘doing the right thing’ was characterised as building girls schools in Uruzgan province. That is, of course, an honourable thing to do. But it was not the reason ADF personnel were committed to Afghanistan. Did Australia fight for ‘honour’ or ‘reputation’?

Should we acknowledge honour in war? What do we mean when we go to war, in the 21st century, for ‘honour’?

9 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: Honour or reputation?”

  1. A. E. Clark Says:

    I think you are right that intrinsic honor does not now play as great a role in Western deliberations over war as it did, say, from the Napoleonic era up through the midpoint of the twentieth century. I think that is simply because democratic societies need a strong consensus in order to go to war effectively. Moral values in these societies have been subject to two trends that militate against the emergence of a war-motivating social consensus
    (a) the dominant values have become comfort, prosperity, and tolerance; and
    (b) beliefs that involve obligations to a Deity or rationales for sacrifice have been banished from the public sphere and are kept within relatively small communities of the like-minded.
    The fact that moral considerations were invoked to justify past wars which are now seen as immoral also tends to make a war for honor, today, a tough sell.
    I think the passage in Howard’s October speech that most brings “reputation” — or extrinsic honor — to the fore is one that you did not quote:

    “But Australians will also take their place within that coalition as highly respected and highly prized comrades in arms. Through decades of close military co-operation, in peacetime and in war, America has grown to respect the quality of our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen. In training, equipment and, most of all, in personal courage and commitment, the men and women of the Australian Defence Forces are the equal of any in the world.”
    It is fair to read this as “we have a reputation to maintain.”

    In Howard’s speech, there is also a logic of both “fear” and “interest.” When Howard says the attack “had the twin goals of crippling fear and economic chaos,” he is supplying a reason why Australians should assist in “rooting out the evil” [a phrase from his Sept. 17 speech in Parliament http://tinyurl.com/hcpq3z2%5D — namely, that Al-Qaida is a threat to themselves as well, and they will secure their well-being by eradicating it.

  2. Graham Says:

    I’m under the influence of James Bowman’s theory about how ‘honour’ has evolved in the western world from classical through Christian to modern times, and how as a result our understanding of the term differs from not only that of other cultures but of our own past.

    With that in mind, is this:

    “Broadly defined, honour encompasses a sense of justice, what is morally right, values and beliefs. It could also encompass reputation, if that is intimately tied with a sense of doing what is right. However, the meaning of honour can vary from person to person, from state to state, and changes over time. ”

    really the definition of honour Thucydides is getting at? Particularly your decision to weigh the elements of justice, moral rightness, values and beliefs more heavily than or more consistently than the element of reputation, and in addition to actually incorporate a moral element into reputation itself.

    It’s not that I am unaware that the Greeks of that time considered issues of justice. Even if I had not been aware, this roundtable has addressed their concerns about defining and implementing justice. Rather it seems that justice is a separate albeit overlapping question, rather than an integral component of honour. Indeed, they can conflict insofar as the peer/honour group of any person or state [other comparable people or states] may impose different behaviour demands than those of any particular school of justice or any other observing parties who may take it on themselves to judge.

    A. E. Clark’s response above is valuable but also assumes morality and honour are essentially the same question, or at least conflates the decline of one with the decline of the other. I would suggest that western countries made it at least up to 1914 very much arguing from both of those considerations without actually treating them as the same thing. Even when making both arguments for the same end they are distinguishable- the moral obligation of defending poor little Belgium, the legal obligation of the 1830 treaty, and the honour obligation of British reputation and power are obviously intertwined, but not the same.

  3. Graham Says:

    Or to be less verbose:

    1. Honour and Reputation are partners, not opposites.

    2. Honour and Justice, though they may be allied, are the separate concepts.

  4. A. E. Clark Says:

    I would indeed distinguish between intrinsic honor (which I would describe as a subset of morality) and extrinsic honor, which is more a matter of maximizing one’s social credit, “face”, etc. And I argued in an earlier post that intrinsic honor plays what might seem to us a small role in the world of Thucydides, where honor (Gk. time) is extrinsic.
    It appeared to me that Ms. Sambhi, invoking a “sense of what is morally right . . . doing what is right,” was using “honor” in a modern sense and I continued the discussion on that basis.
    Graham is right to note the variety of motives that were adduced for coming to the aid of Belgium — distinguishing “noblesse oblige”/Christian charity” from a sense of legal obligation, for example.
    But these distinctions become otiose when morality is reductionistically based on utility.
    I remember the day in the late 1970s when a student at the University of Chicago Law School explained to me that justice is defined as whatever will in the long run maximize Gross National Product. When such a mindset becomes dominant in a culture, most of what has in the past been considered morality will find no place — and especially that constellation of loyalty, faithfulness to one’s word, acknowledgment of the rights of others, etc., which was for a few hundred years called “honor.”
    I am therefore inclined to stand by my “conflat[ing] the decline of [intrinsic honor] with the decline of [morality]:” the decline of the latter implies the decline of the former.

  5. A. E. Clark Says:

    If I may add: Graham’s choice of World War I as the turning point seems correct — that pretty much extinguished honor between nations. It took a generation or two for that demoralization to filter down from inter-elite relationships to the everyday life of the common people, but since we are talking about geopolitics, WWI is the right epoch to cite.

  6. David Ronfeldt Says:

    America’s exceptional rise as a world power, and the influence of U.S. policies and strategies, have stemmed in part from our not emphasizing honor. Dignity yes, but not honor. We’ve relied on other concepts, like credibility and reliability as a partner, that presume honor without parading it. Actors that emphasize honor tend to get sensitive, clannish, and fightin’-mad when pressured (like turf gangs). In some situations and for some groups, that can be ok, make sense at times, even be a big plus (e.g., in military units). But our positioning as a world power — American strategic culture, grand strategy, and diplomacy — have generally benefitted from not putting honor front and center, indeed from hardly ever mentioning it.
    For a mid 2011 discussion here that got into honor and dignity matters, including Bowman’s book, see

  7. T. Greer Says:

    The use of Australia as the main example here is an interesting change from looking at the issue from the American lens. Shortly after 9-11 I think a lot of Americans might have felt like their reputation for national power was damaged, but more than anything else, that vengeance was required. Is vengeance about justice, or is it about honor? Somewhere in between the two?


    The Aussies did not need to avenge anything–unwillingness to participate would have been a loss of face. Not too different from Japan’s loss of face in Gulf I.


    I probably agree with the argument, however, had the US limited its war aims to vengeance post 9-11, certainly America and probably Afghanistan would be in a better place than they are today.

  8. larrydunbar Says:

    “If we left this contest only to America, we would be leaving it to them to defend our rights and those of all the other people of the world who have a commitment to freedom and liberty. We will not do it. We admire their strength and greatness, but Australians have always been a people prepared to fight our own fights.”

    I don’t think you can single out honor. The three, fear, honor, and interests forms a venn diagram made up of three circles each holding one of the three domains. In the middle where the circles overlap is labeled war. I mean the quote I have included has all three, and where he has positioned Australia is right in the middle.

    The last line, “…,but Australians have always been a people prepared to fight our own fights.” pretty much says it all. Yeah, Australians have always been prepared to fight their own fights, but it will always be a losing one. I fear they are isolated and don’t have the resources to fight a war of attrition, unless men (and women) of equal honor join in the fight from around the world. The difference between war and peace for Australia depends on how much interest their economy attracts and by whom. Japan had great interest in Australia then–China has interest now. In
    between many nations have had an interest in Australia, but it was an open interest, i.e. no isolation.

    When the Japanese island-hopped their way down to Australia’s neck of the woods, it took men of honor, like the now nearly 100-year-old soldier, whose manuscript I read, that was sent to Australia from his home in Wasco, Oregon to turn back the Japanese. His job in pushing back against the Japanese, was to literally push back against the Japanese. We was an operator of a D-8 Caterpillar bulldozer and his job was to either dig the japanese out of the ground or cover them up. By his account he was very good at both, and the Japanese had nothing to defend themselves from his push.

    As I have said before, China now has the bulldozers and are using them to build their way south, jumping from island to island, which in the context of war, interest is fine. As long as the Chinese don’t isolate Australia into some type of a venn diagram. Without isolation, I am sure Australia has no fear of having to go to war with the Chinese people.

    The Australians, by being people of honor, giving up life and limb for another is a very good way of keeping Australia from being isolated. Let’s hope the USA can return that honor and not loose it in fighting the price of aluminum ore, or some other such thing, as the office of the POTUS becomes privatized.

    Without trying to be disrespectful, one could say that Howard had his and Australia’s self interest in heart and mind, when he wrote that paragraph joining the USA in its coming fight in Afghanistan.

  9. Graham Says:

    A.E. Clark,

    Thanks for furthering this discussion in partial reply to my earlier comments. I will be thinking through this post again in light of your comments.

    For the moment, your comment on our morality having become based on utility struck me most, though in a way probably wildly tangential. Have we moved from an age in which honour, understood as extrinsic, dominated alongside interest[I’d say as late as the early 19th century] to one in which honour, understood as intrinsic and heavily influenced by the period’s absolutist moral rules, dominated or vied with law for pride of place [say the long Victorian era], to one today in which morality, understood now in utilitarian terms, is all [evolving since Victorian times but with Versailles as the main marker]?

    I find that interesting not only in the triumph of intrinsic honour over extrinsic, but the colonization of intrinsic honour by morality/ethics. And, after that, by the transformation of morality/ethics into ever more utilitarian forms. That strikes me as a more complicated series of cultural/intellectual transformations, and one in which the concepts become very slippery very quickly. As my post demonstrates…

    What do we then call the principles actually driving debate today?

    Here’s an odd alternative way of looking at it. Perhaps rather silly to call it a paradox, but so it seems to me.

    If the morality we now invoke as a guide to state action is essentially utilitarian, the greatest good of the greatest number, that obviously has its Benthamite roots but it is hard to say it is the same thing as the morality that may have driven Victorian or Edwardian statesmen when morally-minded. It’s less religious, less absolutist*, and less particular. It’s also arguably more about public demonstration of virtue, and places more emphasis on winning the sanction of the public for the virtue of one’s policy.

    Is that not then the transformation of morality-based policy into a quest for public virtue, face, and extrinsic honour, albeit in a democratic mode?

    * I’m torn about calling it less absolutist. It can be very absolutist. What I mean here is that it draws less on authoritative sources or even conscience, and more on what the public audience believes to be moral or can be convinced is moral. This opens certain avenues of flexibility and places more weight on the moral performance of the statesman seeking public approval.

Switch to our mobile site