Traditional Honor’s Decline in the West, Ancient Greece to the Romantic Period

Widespread agricultural development led to the emergence of city-states and a new way of living. As societies evolved, people lost their connection with the land and its natural resources. Today we are fighting the same battle in a different form – our nature is being developed at an alarming rate by society’s advancements.

The “examples of honor in history” is a topic that has been discussed and debated for centuries. The term “honor” has evolved over time, with the definition changing from one civilization to another.

Manly honor sword illustration.

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We’re back with another installment of our series on masculine honor. Among my last essay, I defined honor as having a reputation in a group of equal peers that is deserving of respect and admiration. This reputation is made up of both horizontal and vertical honor (your admission as a full member of the organization) (the praise you receive from excelling more than other members within the group). This kind of traditional, male dignity is highly visible and public. It necessitates a man’s membership in an honor society and the imposition of social sanctions for failing to follow the group’s rules. This is the form of honor intended by primitive tribesmen, knights, and the Founding Fathers when they talked of high honor.

This classical notion of exterior honor developed into our contemporary understanding of private, inner honor — a form of honor with synonyms like “character” and “integrity” – throughout the years, for a number of reasons we’ll discuss today and next time. Today, a man’s honor isn’t established by a group of his peers who show great regard for him; rather, it’s a highly personal issue that only he can assess. In a speech in the nineteenth century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck effectively encapsulated the concept of individual honor:

“Gentlemen, my honor is in no one else’s hands but mine, and it is not something that others can pour on me; my own honor, which I carry in my heart, is enough for me, and no one can assess it or determine if I have it.” My honor before God and others is mine; I give myself as much as I feel I have earned, and I refuse to accept anything more.”

In today’s essay, I’ll start delving into why this shift from public to private honor took place. The changeover was a lengthy and difficult process in the West, encompassing various political, intellectual, and cultural shifts. While I had wanted to cover this history in a single piece, the quantity of dense, significant material that has to be covered necessitates two. In part one, I discussed how the seeds of honor’s demise were sowed as early as Greece in the past and persisted throughout the Romantic Period. Then, in part two, we’ll look at how those seeds grew into full bloom throughout the modern age, from the Victorian era to the present day.

A Quick Guide to Where These Roads Are Leading

Before we begin our journey through the history of honor (and dishonor), let’s take a look at how all of the topics we’ll be discussing are related.

The conventional concept of honor has been eroded by two major issues. First, respect became centered on moral characteristics rather than bravery and power throughout time. This condition of honor may have persisted – your public reputation could have been determined by your honor group’s assessment of whether you were leading a virtuous life (this state of honor was last seen during the Victorian gentleman’s period, which we’ll explore next time). But, as honor evolved, being the receiver of great respect became not just based on moral values, but also wholly private – each man could construct his own, personal honor code and define what honor meant for himself, and only he could assess whether or not he was living up to it. This obliterated any notion of a common honor code (“to each their own!”), and with it, shame – there were no repercussions for breaking the code of honor.


As previously stated, we shall discuss the political, social, and philosophical shifts that propelled these two elements in this and subsequent posts. While it may be tempting to interpret these posts as saying that these cultural forces are bad and that personal honor is bad, my goal is to simply outline as objectively as possible why the traditional ideal of honor vanished and was entirely replaced by private honor, and then to argue that private and public honor do not have to be mutually exclusive and can and should coexist.

Ancient Greece to the Renaissance: From Public to Private Honor

Ancient Greece

Orestes in ancient Greece large crowd of people painting.

While it’s tempting to think that the loss of public honor and the growth of private honor is a modern phenomena, the roots of honor’s change from a public to a private idea were sown far back when Western civilization began.

Honor served as a harsh enforcer of justice in civilizations without formal legal systems, as the desire to be regarded in high public respect kept what was deemed unacceptable conduct in check. As a result, democracy and the rule of law, two significant achievements from ancient Greece, run against to traditional honor in certain respects, making it less relevant to community functioning.

This early clash between conventional honor and democratic aspirations was the central topic of Aeschylus’ trilogy of Greek plays. The Orestia tells the story of King Agamemnon’s family being cursed when he comes home from the Trojan War. When the goddess Athena arranges a jury trial to convict Orestes for the murder of his mother, a series of inter-familial murders, all in the name of avenging and upholding the honor of one killed family member after another, comes to an end. As the dominating force in Greek society, personal and family honor is supplanted by loyalty to democratic law. This isn’t to claim that honor and revenge murders ended when democratic juries were established, but they did become increasingly frowned upon.

Playwrights weren’t the only ones who questioned the status quo in terms of public honor. In some of their teachings, the philosophers Socrates and Aristotle expressed reservations about the ideal. Socrates believed that it was better for the collective if he submitted to the reign of unjust state laws rather than risking his honor or reputation among his friends by avoiding punishment. Concern about one’s reputation, according to Socrates, was reserved for foolish men. What mattered to the great philosopher was that he lived according to what he believed was right, not what others thought (which was the foundation of conventional honor). To put it another way, Socrates prioritized his own ideal above his followers’ public dignity.

Aristotle had a similar disregard in other people’s opinions. While Aristotle spoke about honor as an external virtue in his Nicomachean Ethics, he didn’t like the concept of it being founded purely on the opinions of others. Rather, Aristotle presented a shaky case that respect should be earned by personal virtue. Excellence means living up to your full potential. It was more noble to be loyal to virtue itself than than to a group’s code of honor.


Christianity in its early stages

Jesus on rock teaching crowds painting.

Three characteristics of Christian philosophy’s emergence and expansion would have a significant influence on the West’s cultural force of honor: 1) inclusivity and universality; 2) focus on inner purpose rather than external appearances; and 3) pacifism.

Universality and inclusiveness. Traditional honor is reserved for a select few. The club does not invite everyone, and the code of honor does not apply to everyone — only members. Christ and his followers preached a theology that was both inclusive and global. Anyone who believed was welcome. Paul’s letter to the Galatians effectively summarized this notion of inclusivity and universality when he declared, “There is none Jew nor Greek, there is neither bound nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Outward looks are less important than inner purpose. Traditional honor is founded on your “good name,” or public reputation. What the world thinks of you isn’t as significant as what God thinks of you, according to Christianity. It also highlights the significance of personal will and faith. It’s not enough, for example, that you don’t have real, physical intercourse with another man’s wife; you can’t even consider it. Because only the individual (and his God) can view the chamber of a man’s mind and heart, only the person (and his God) can decide if his aim and faith are sufficient.

Pacifism. While numerous battles have been fought “with the cross of Jesus on the ground before,” Christianity has also motivated many of its followers to choose a life of devout nonviolence. The radical teachings of Christ to “turn the other cheek” and “bless those who curse you” flipped honor upside down; a Christian could find abundant evidence in his scriptures that it was more honorable not to respond when insulted or assaulted than to fight back. Countless Christian martyrs would be inspired by Christ’s willing submission on the cross to lay down their lives rather than fight back physically. The concept of a Christian receiving full military honors at death would have been an oxymoron to early Christians.

Europe in the Middle Ages

Knight on horse going into castle maiden nearby painting.

The clashing demands of ancient honor culture and faith posed a moral and intellectual conundrum as Christianity grew and became the official religion of kingdoms and empires. Men still possessed a primordial sense of respect, but portions of their new religion appeared to contradict it utterly. To overcome this apparently irreconcilable gulf, Christian monarchs developed the aristocratic Code of Chivalry to “Christianize” traditional honor throughout the Middle Ages. Chivalry combined primitive honor’s focus on public reputation with new moral values that had to be maintained in order to sustain that reputation and consequently the respect of one’s peers.

By marshaling honor’s ancient focus on the virtues of strength and bravery towards the protection of the “least of these” in Christ’s kingdom, traditional honor finds a home within a pacifist Christian faith. Knights took pledges to defend the helpless and weak, especially women. The knightly code included characteristics like as honesty, purity, charity, and mercy, all of which are taught in the Gospels. Some organisations, such as the Templars, even forced its members to take a vow of poverty in order to follow Christ’s instruction to store up their riches in heaven rather than on earth.


Knights in field about to fight with swords painting.

Aside from these minor changes, medieval Christian chivalry remained mainly a conventional code of honor. Knights pledged to safeguard their own and their fellow knights’ honor. A knight had an obligation to retaliate if his honor or reputation was sullied by an equal. Might made right for the medieval knight. A knight may be morally deficient, but as long as he could beat the guy who exposed his flaw in “single combat,” he remained a man of honor. Sir Lancelot’s adulterous connection with King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, is an example of this; when the other knights discovered his transgression, Lancelot argued that it didn’t exist since he could battle and defeat his accusers.

The Renaissance was a period in history when people began

Hamlet holding skull Shakespeare black white drawing.

The Renaissance, which began in Italy in the 14th century, was a time of enormous achievements in art, science, and philosophy. Along with these cultural shifts, the Western mentality underwent a shift that would ultimately impair the traditional notion of honor: the creation of the concept of honesty.

Sincerity requires a person to speak and behave in line with his or her inner emotions, ideas, and desires. It’s tempting to imagine the notion has been around forever since it’s such a widely praised quality today (and has now transformed into a focus on “authenticity”). Prior to the 17th century, however, people did not place a premium on having an inner life in the way we do now — that is, atomizing and analyzing all of your feelings, emotions, and motives. As Renaissance men began to explore the depths of their minds and hearts, they encountered a new conflict between this inner life and traditional honor, which often requires an individual to put the group’s needs first, speaking and acting in ways that contradict his own personal thoughts, feelings, and desires. Because traditional respect is based on the opinions of others, it doesn’t matter if observing the code makes you feel like a hypocrite. You keep your honor as long as your external looks follow the honor group’s rule of honor. Showing and receiving respect that was opposed to one’s actual convictions, on the other hand, did not fit in with Renaissance principles.

As a result, Renaissance poets and intellectuals started to cast doubt on this component of honor, advocating instead for honesty as the ultimate ideal. In his plays, Shakespeare was a sharp critic of conventional honor and a passionate advocate for truthfulness. Characters in several of his books opt to be true to themselves rather surrendering to their tribe’s code of honor. See, for example, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet.

During the Renaissance, increased social expectations for honesty ushered in a dramatic transformation in how civilizations saw honorable individuals. An honor based entirely on public reputation didn’t sound all that appealing, particularly if it required battling or other severe activities to maintain one’s group’s high esteem. To be honorable, you had to be true to the core of your soul, not only because you behaved truthfully and people believed you were honest. It was no longer enough to respect your parents with your outward actions; you had to honor them in your heart.


The Age of Enlightenment.

Traditional honor, which is fundamentally intolerant and anti-egalitarian, was further weakened by the Enlightenment’s emphasis on tolerance and equality. If you follow the group’s honor code, you’ll be awarded rights and benefits; if you don’t, you’ll be disgraced and treated as a second-class citizen. You don’t win respect and appreciation just by existing; you must earn it by adhering to and exceeding the group’s code. However, Enlightenment intellectuals started to promote the concept that everyone was born with some inherent rights that could not be taken away. They also resurrected the ancient Greek ideal of democracy as a better form of justice to the honor system’s eye-for-an-eye rewards and penalties.

During the Romantic Era,

Wanderer painting man looking far off into crashing sea.

While Enlightenment thought weakened conventional public honor, another set of 18th and 19th century intellectuals, the Romantics, picked up the Renaissance’s baton of sincerity and called for a new kind of respect based on personal honesty. The Romantics, inspired by French writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, felt that the demands of the individual should take precedence above the requirements of the collective. According to Rousseau, respect based on the opinions of others (amour propre) was inferior to honor based on the individual’s own thoughts (amour de soi). Honor, according to Rousseau and the Romantics, should be personal, internal, and private, rather than social, outward, and public.

Rousseau and his Romantic contemporaries devised a philosophy of human evolution that sentimentalized isolation in order to support this new concept of honor. Prior to the formation of tribes and organizations, man lived alone in nature, primarily concerned with his own pleasure and well-being. It wasn’t until after Adam and Eve’s fall that man started to form tribes and be worried about what other people thought of him. Anthropologists have, of course, demonstrated this hypothesis to be erroneous. Humans have always been social creatures, much like their ape counterparts, and have always been worried about their status in the community.

Despite being incorrect about the history of human development, Rousseau and the Romantics left a legacy that lionized the importance of the individual, a drumbeat that would reverberate throughout the twentieth century, eventually becoming one of the most significant nails in the coffin of traditional honor.

Traditional honor nevertheless retained a strong grip on Western culture throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, despite the challenges posed by the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Even though the practice was outlawed in most Western nations at the time, aristocratic gentlemen continued to challenge one other to duels when they believed their honor or reputation had been questioned. Young warriors went to war expecting to attain the feeling of honor that Homer and others described in epic poetry and stories of battlefield glory. These profound stores of martial passion would have to be cooled in the trenches of WWI.


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

As we can see, the shift from a public to a private sense of honor is not a new occurrence. The foundations for Western civilisation were truly formed before the dawn of time. The rule of law, democracy, personal honesty, equality, and individuality developed an atmosphere that was diametrically opposed to traditional honor. Honor, on the other hand, would not complete its change from “having a public reputation worthy of respect and admiration” to merely “staying faithful to one’s own principles” until the twentieth century.

As I said in the first essay in this series, many people talk about honor but don’t fully understand what it entails, at least historically. When they learn more about it, they may come to realize that it isn’t such a wonderful idea after all. Many of the seeds of honor’s demise, discussed here and next time, have unquestionably become accepted Truths in our contemporary society, and probably resonated with you more while you read than the concept of honor itself! If you’ll bear with me through this history, I’ll demonstrate that although personal, individual honor is a noble virtue, classic honor may also be a strong and good moral force.

Part I of the Manly Honor Series: What is Honor? Part II: The Western Tradition of Honor’s Decline, from Ancient Greece to the Romantic Era Part IV: The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Sto Part V: The American South’s Honor Part VI: The Western Decline of Traditional Honor in the 20th Century Part VII: How and Why to Resurrect Manly Honor in the 21st Century Podcast: The Gentlemen and the Roughs with Dr. Lorien Foote

Part I of the Manly Honor Series: What is Honor? Part II: The Western Tradition of Honor’s Decline, from Ancient Greece to the Romantic Era Part IV: The Gentlemen and the Roughs: The Collision of Two Honor Codes in the American North Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Stoic-Christian Code of Honor Part III: The Victorian Era and the Development of the Sto Part V: The American South’s Honor Part VI: The Western Decline of Traditional Honor in the 20th Century Part VII: How and Why to Resurrect Manly Honor in the 21st Century Podcast: The Gentlemen and the Roughs with Dr. Lorien Foote


Frank Henderson Stewart’s Honor

Alexander Welsh’s What Is Honor: A Question of Moral Imperatives

James Bowman’s Honor: A History




In the West, honor has been declining since Ancient Greece. It was not until the Romantic Period that honor became a major theme in Western culture. Reference: value of honor.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did aristocracy decline in ancient Greece?

What caused ancient Greece to decline?

A: The causes of the decline in ancient Greece is not exactly known, but its thought to be caused by a variety of factors including climate changes and over-exploitation of resources.

What did the ancient Greeks contribute to the history of Western?

A: The ancient Greeks are considered to be the inventors of Western culture. For centuries, they were responsible for creating many great works that we still see today such as Aristotles work on logic and science, Platos philosophy and his theory on forms, Socrates contributions to ethics, democracy and justice.

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