sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 5

Christophe Badel / Henri Fernoux: Honneur et dignité dans le monde antique

This collection of fourteen articles, with introduction and conclusion, aims to go beyond concentration on "the Homeric model" and bias towards literary sources in order to recontextualize the notion of honour, focusing, in contexts ranging from archaic Greece to late antiquity, on the relation between individual and community, on the nature of familial (especially women's) honour, on honour and violence, and on forms of dishonour (21). This entails a four-part structure, each with its own brief introduction: 1. Honneur et compétition; 2. Les Énigmes de l'honneur familial; 3. Les Modulations de l'honneur militaire; 4. Déshonneur. There are three excellent indexes, but no bibliography. The balance is tilted towards the Roman world: only four chapters deal primarily with Greek sources.

Though they vary in length, detail, and adherence to the volume's theme, each chapter provides a wealth of fascinating evidence and detail, analysed with considerable historical acumen. As often with edited volumes that set out to explore a given phenomenon in a range of contexts, the chapters are sometimes more informative about the contexts than about the phenomenon. Those who specialize in those contexts will find these discussions useful, but it is debatable whether the volume succeeds in its stated aims with regard to the notion of honour.

It is excellent that the editors and many of the contributors see honour and dignity as complementary objects of a single enquiry. But this needs to be defended against those who would reject this position, whether in philosophy (e.g. Stephen Darwall's sharp distinction between genuinely second-personal respect for the dignity of persons and "honour respect" for rank and status [1]) or in social and cultural psychology (e.g. the distinction between "honour societies" in which individuals are oriented towards the approval of others and "dignity societies" in which "others are de-emphasized and what matters is one's own norms, values, and beliefs" [2]). Not only does one need to engage with and challenge these antitheses on their own terms, it is also essential to weigh these antitheses against the sociocultural realities to which ancient terms such as τιμή, ἀξία, honos, and dignitas relate.

By contrast, the interpretative paradigm that is central to this volume is what the editors and contributors refer to as the "anthropological" model of honour, as developed in studies of Mediterranean societies from the 1960s to the 1980s. This sees honour as "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", something that is "intimately bound up with assertive, traditional forms of masculinity, and so [...] fundamentally related to female chastity, the source of such honour as women possessed and a crucial conduit through which men's honour was vulnerable". [3] The editors recognize that this was challenged within anthropology in the 1980s (21), but they believe that it has survived largely unscathed. It has not: it was fundamentally undermined by Frank Henderson Stewart's 1994 volume [4], Honor (cited in this volume only by Jacotot) and no longer enjoys any currency in anthropology.

Since the 1990s a steady stream of studies in other disciplines has given us all we need for a root-and-branch re-evaluation of honour in the Greek and Roman worlds. [5] On these views, honour is not simply one value among many, a concern only for certain elements of a society, or a feature only of some forms of social organization, but rather a fundamental mechanism by which individuals are socialized as members of the groups and societies to which they belong, calibrating their self-esteem against the esteem of their fellows, balancing their own claims to recognition against those of others, and underpinning whatever norms a group or society upholds. On this approach, honour and dignity go hand in hand. Dignity is impossible without self-esteem or self-respect. Already in 1994, Stewart highlighted how these are formed through the interaction of our esteem and respect for others and their esteem and respect for us. Dignity is, in effect, a sense of honour, acquired and performed in a social context. Developmental psychology, Erving Goffman's explorations of the rituals and protocols of social interaction, and the philosophical tradition of recognition theory analysed and extended by Axel Honneth all converge on the point that human beings, from the earliest stages of life, inhabit a world in which their identity, their sense of self, and their claims to recognition are intersubjectively constituted and interactively developed in an expanding circle of social contexts and relationships. [6] These are the theoretical approaches from which any contemporary re-examination of Greek and Roman concepts of honour and dignity needs to start.

There are signs throughout the book of how attention to these currents of scholarship would have made a difference. Space constraints permit only one example. Egon Flaig's study of the collective honour of the Roman imperial army is one of the best and most theoretically informed of the book's many strong chapters, yet opportunities to draw wider conclusions are missed. As Flaig observes, soldiers serving in the Roman army sought more than the respect of their fellows - the recognition of society was also essential for the self-esteem (or dignity) of the army as a whole (211). The donativum that Galba denied the army on becoming Emperor had symbolic rather than purely material significance (213-215), and it was the change in political status rather than the material loss that rankled (215). These, however, are typical features of the ways in which both individuals and groups seek to have their claims to honour, their sense of their own dignity, recognized by others - in contexts from the ultimatum game to Aristotle's analysis of stasis, contemporary studies of wealth and income inequality, and Honneth's emphasis on the importance of recognition even in the pursuit of redistribution, material wealth is intimately related to issues of status, social comparison, and recognition. [7] What Galba insisted on for himself, and denied the army, was what Stephen Darwall calls "recognition respect" [8], yet the distinction between recognition and appraisal respect - between respect for another's claims and esteem for their qualities - is never raised in the volume.

The book is rich in observations of the ways in which honour takes on different characteristics in different contexts, but no general conclusions are drawn as to the fundamental lesson to be learned from this - that honour is not simply one specific and determinate form of value, but rather a dynamic mechanism that underpins group values of innumerable different sorts. A central finding (especially in Badel's chapter on familial honour and Greggi's on women's honour) is that the "anthropological" or Mediterraneanist model does not work for the ancient societies they examine. This will at least indicate that it will not serve as a model of honour in all societies. But the authors do not consider whether this is because it works for some societies, but not others, or rather because it fails as a model of honour in any society. Accordingly, though the book does successfully test this model and find it wanting, no alternative paradigm emerges to take its place.


[1] See Stephen Darwall: The Second-Person Standpoint, Cambridge MA 2006; Honor, History, and Relationship: Essays in Second-Personal Ethics II, Oxford 2013.

[2] E.g. Sheida Novin / Daphna Oyserman: "Honor as Cultural Mindset: Activated Honor Mindset Affects Subsequent Judgment and Attention in Mindset-Congruent Ways", in: Frontiers in Psychology 7 (2016), (quotation p. 2).

[3] I quote my own synopsis in "Honour and Shame: Modern Controversies and Ancient Values", Critical Quarterly 53.1 (2011), 23-41 (quotations p. 23).

[4] For a measure of the challenge posed to the Mediterranean model by Stewart's book, see the review by J. Pitt-Rovers in L'Homme 143 (1997), 215-217.

[5] See in primis Sharon Krause: Liberalism with Honor, Cambridge MA 2002; Alexander Welsh: What is Honor? A Question of Moral Imperatives, New Haven 2008; Kwame A. Appiah: The Honor Code. How Moral Revolutions Happen, New York 2010; William Lad Sessions: Honor for Us. A Philosophical Analysis, Interpretation and Defense, London 2010; Anthony Cunningham: Modern Honor. A Philosophical Defense, New York 2013.

[6] For developmental psychology, see the recent syntheses by Michael Tomasello: Becoming Human. A Theory of Ontogeny, Cambridge MA 2019 and Shaun Gallagher: Action and Interaction, Oxford 2020. For Goffman's sociological approach, see Erving Goffman: Interaction Ritual, New York 1967. For recognition theory see Axel Honneth: Kampf um Anerkennung. Zur moralischen Grammatik sozialer Konflikte, Frankfurt/Main 1992 as well as Anerkennung: Eine europäische Ideengeschichte, Frankfurt/Main 2018.

[7] See (on the ultimatum game) Richard H. Thaler: "Anomalies: The Ultimatum Game", in: Journal of Economic Perspectives 2 (1988), 195-206; Martin A. Nowak / Karen M. Page / Karl Sigmund: "Fairness versus Reason in the Ultimatum Game", Science 289 (2000), 1773-1775; on Aristotle, see Douglas Cairns / Mirko Canevaro / Kleanthis Mantzouranis: "Recognition and Redistribution in Aristotle's Account of Stasis", Polis 39.1 (2022), 1-34; on inequality, see especially Michael Marmot: Status Syndrome. How Your Social Standing Directly Affects Your Health and Life Expectancy, London 2004; Richard G. Wilkinson: The Impact of Inequality. How to Make Sick Societies Healthier, New York 2005; Richard G. Wilkinson / Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level. Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, London 2009; on recognition and redistribution, see Axel Honneth / Nancy Fraser: Umverteilung oder Anerkennung? Eine politisch-philosophische Kontroverse, Frankfurt/Main 2003.

[8] See Stephen Darwall: "Two Kinds of Respect", in: Ethics 88 (1977), 36-49.

Rezension über:

Christophe Badel / Henri Fernoux: Honneur et dignité dans le monde antique (= Collection "Histoire"), Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2023, 358 S., ISBN 978-2-7535-9282-7, EUR 26,00

Rezension von:
Douglas Cairns
University of Edinburgh
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Douglas Cairns: Rezension von: Christophe Badel / Henri Fernoux: Honneur et dignité dans le monde antique, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2023, in: sehepunkte 24 (2024), Nr. 5 [15.05.2024], URL:

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