The Price of Honor

The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s–1880s

Bertram Wyatt-Brown
University of North Carolina Press, 412 pp., $55.00 cloth; $19.95 (paper)

Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Oxford University Press, 597 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Honor and Slavery

Kenneth S. Greenberg
Princeton University Press, 224 pp., $40.00; 176 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Few words in any language carry such a load of meaning as “honor.” It is an old word, unchanged even in its spelling from classical Latin to modern English. Spoken or written it does not seem to require much explanation; most people think they know what it means. But why have Latin scholars suggested that it derives from onus, meaning burden, a concept not usually associated with it? Why do dictionaries need so much space for it? The Oxford English Dictionary in 1901 listed eight meanings, Webster’s in 1996 fifteen. The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences in 1931 devoted a little more than three columns to it, the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences in 1966 gave it fifteen. And in the past twenty or thirty years the number of books exploring its application to different things at different times and places and in different situations has grown exponentially. Those examined here on the American South have to be seen as part of a larger development in the study of social relations that has placed honor in a central position.

It seems to have begun quietly in 1950 with a little book by Marcel Mauss called, as translated from the French, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies.1 In brief, the book argued that there has never been a free lunch. In archaic or premodern societies what appeared to be free gifts were never quite that. Every gift, though it might have seemed to be offered freely, indeed had to seem so, always had strings attached, always required reciprocation. The honor of both parties depended on the exchange. Failure to answer one gift or favor with an equal or better one was a badge of dishonor. In some cases, Mauss says, “the punishment for failure to reciprocrate is slavery for debt.” Gifts were, in fact, the principal mode of exchange in societies that had not, or had not yet, developed market economies. In these societies the sacredness of honor served the purpose that the legal obligation of contracts serves in modern ones.

In response to Mauss, anthropologists began to see the force of honor not merely in the economies but in practically all the social transactions of undeveloped societies from Melanesia to Alaska. More particularly, led especially by Julian Pitt-Rivers, they began to examine the role of honor in social enclaves close to home, especially around the Mediterranean, in Sicily, Spain, Morocco, Greece.2 As they did so, the complexities of the concept grew. Honor was the opposite of shame but could also accrue to the shameless. It was at once the reward of virtue and of violence, of hospitality and hostility, of acquiring property and of giving it away. It was one thing in an upper class and another in their dependents, one thing in men and another in women, one thing in Greece and another in Cyprus.

But it retained a solid core. Wherever it could be found, in whatever situation, it defined and limited…

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