What Is Honor?

A Question of Moral Imperatives

Alexander Welsh

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What is honor? Has its meaning changed since ancient times? Is it an outmoded notion? Does it still have the power to direct our behavior? In this provocative book Alexander Welsh considers the history and meaning of honor and dismisses the idea that we live in a post-honor culture. He notes that we have words other than honor, such as respect, self-respect, and personal identity, that show we do indeed care deeply about honor. Honor, he argues, is a continuing process of respect that motivates or constrains members of a peer group. Honor’s dictates function as moral imperatives.


Surprisingly, little systematic study of the history of honor in Western culture has been attempted. Offering a welcome remedy, Welsh provides a genealogy of approaches to the subject, mining some of the most influential texts of the Western tradition. He rereads with fascinating results the works of Aristotle, Cicero, Shakespeare, Mandeville, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, Adam Smith, and others. With a sharp focus on the intersection of honor and ethics in both literature and philosophy, Welsh invites new and constructive debate on a topic of vital interest.

Alexander Welsh is Emily Sanford Professor of English Literature Emeritus, Yale University. His previous books include Reflections on the Hero as Quixote, George Eliot and Blackmail, Strong Representations, Freud's Wishful Dream Book, and Hamlet in His Modern Guises, as well as a book on Scott and three on Dickens.

"Intelligent, well-informed, and thought-provoking, this book maps and renders intelligible a formidably difficult terrain: the intersection of honor with ethics in both literature and philosophy. This is an important book."—A.D. Nuttall, author of Shakespeare the Thinker

"This splendidly rich and elegant study poses a challenge to views of honor as merely the competitive pursuit of external recognition, arguing instead for a more inclusive and internalized conception that underpins our integrity as moral agents. Ranging widely from Ancient Greece and Rome to modern social science, Welsh has produced a work that will be extremely useful to students and scholars of many disciplines."—Douglas L. Cairns, University of Edinburgh

"Fascinating, erudite, and beautifully written, Alexander Welsh’s new book draws on Aristotle and Adam Smith, Shakespeare and Defoe, in its sweeping but subtle exploration of the meaning of honor."—Amy Chua, author of Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall


"Welsh offers an impressive philosophical and historical analysis regarding the role honor has played in societies from the early Greeks through contemporary times. . . . This volume will be useful for advanced students and scholars concerned with the history of ethics and moral theory generally. Highly recommended."—Choice
ISBN: 9780300125641
Publication Date: July 1, 2008
256 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
Dickens Redressed

The Art of Bleak House and Hard Times

Alexander Welsh

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