Civic Immortality: The Problem of Civic Honor in Africa and the West
From Thomas Hobbes to Steven Pinker, it is often remarked that cultures of honor are destabilizing and especially dangerous to liberal institutions. This essay sharpens that criticism into two objections: one saying honor cultures encourage tyranny, and another accusing them of undermining rule of law. Since these concerns manifest differently in established as opposed to fledgling liberal democracies, I appeal to Western and African examples both to motivate and allay these worries. I contend that a culture of civic honor is perfectly capable of offering those with soaring ambitions all the civic distinction they could hope for—including civic immortality—without tempting them to seize undemocratic levels of power. And as for rule of law and public order, an “irrationally” defiant response to the indignity of state-sanctioned oppression has often animated citizens to resist illiberal regimes despite great peril. Thus, cultures of civic honor are not only compatible with, but sometimes necessary to, founding and maintaining liberal institutions.
KeywordsDemocracy Honor Honor culture Thomas Hobbes Liberalism Steven Pinker
The research and travel informing this essay would have been impossible without generous funding from the Templeton Foundation and the University of California, Riverside’s Immortality Project. I am very grateful for their support, feedback, and invitation to contribute to this volume. My thoughts and feelings on these issues have been ennobled by Ajume Wingo, who shared with me not only his ideas, but also the community and sacred places of his people, the Nso of Northwest Cameroon.
- Adair, Douglass. 1967/1974. Fame and the founding fathers. In Fame and the founding fathers: Essays by Douglass Adair, ed. Trevor Colbourn. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Appiah, Kwame Antony. 2010. The honor code: How moral revolutions happen. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Bell, David. 2007. The first total war: Napoleon’s Europe and the birth of warfare as we know it. New York: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
- Boehm, Christopher. 1999. Hierarchy in the forest. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Cartledge Paul. 2006. Ostracism. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/ostracism-selection-and-de-selection-in-ancient-greece.
- Cave, Stephen. 2012. Immortality: The quest to live forever and how it drives civilization. New York: Crown.Google Scholar
- Delapalme, Nathalie. 2014. Executive director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, in discussion with the author, July 8, 2014.Google Scholar
- Demetriou, Dan. 2015. Fighting fair: The ecology of honor in humans and animals. In Beastly morality: Animals as ethical agents, ed. Jonathan Crane. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
- Forde, Steven. 2016. Liberalism and honor through the Lens of Darwin. In Perspectives on modern honor, eds. Johnson, Laurie and Dan Demetriou. Lanham: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
- Freeman, Joanne. 2002. Affairs of honor: National politics in the new republic. Yale: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
- Gates, Bill. 2012. A conversation with Steven Pinker: When does honor become dishonorable? http://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/A-Conversation-with-Steven-Pinker-When-Does-Honor-Become-Dishonorable.
- Graham, Tim. 2013. Rest in whitewash: Networks set to ignore Mandela’s communist party ties, dictator friends. Newsbusters. http://newsbusters.org/blogs/tim-graham/2013/12/07/rest-whitewash-networks-set-ignore-mandelas-communist-party-ties-dictato#ixzz2nOd7DzR9.
- Gunner, Liz, and Mafika Gwala (eds.). 1991. Musho! Zulu popular praises. East Lansing: Michigan State Press.Google Scholar
- Hobbes, Thomas. 1996. Leviathan (Revised Student Edition). Richard Tuck, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Iliad, Samuel Butler, trans. http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.9.ix.html.
- Iliffe, John. 2005. Honor in African history. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Jantzen, Grace. 2004. Foundations of violence. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Johnson, Laurie. 2009. Thomas Hobbes: Turning point for honor. Lanham: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
- Kiriamiti, John. 1994. Son of fate. Nairobi: Spear Books.Google Scholar
- Krause, Sharon. 2002. Liberalism with honor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Kraut, Richard. 1989. Aristotle on the human good. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
- Mandela, Nelson. 1964. I am prepared to die: Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial. http://db.nelsonmandela.org/speeches/pub_view.asp?pg=item&ItemID=NMS010&txtstr=prepared%20to%20die.
- Mandela, Nelson. 2008. Long walk to freedom. New York: Little, Brown and Company.Google Scholar
- McNamara, Peter (ed.). 1999. The noblest minds: Fame, honor, and the American founding. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
- Mo Ibrahim Foundation. http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org/prize/.
- Moynihan, Michael. 2013. Nelson Mandela was undeniably great but he doesn’t need a halo. Daily beast. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/05/nelson-mandela-was-undeniably-great-but-he-doesn-t-need-a-halo.html.
- Nisbett, Richard, and Dov Cohen. 1996. Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the south. Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
- Pettit, Philip. 1997. Freedom with honor: A republican ideal. Social Research 64(1): 52–76.Google Scholar
- Pinker, Steven. 2011. The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
- Rahe, Paul. 1999. Fame, founders, and the idea of founding in the eighteenth century. In The noblest minds: Fame, honor, and the American founding, ed. Peter McNamara. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
- Rosler, Andrés. 2013. Civic virtue: Citizenship, ostracism, and war. In The Cambridge companion to Aristotle’s politics, eds. Marguerite Deslauriers and Pierre Destrée. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Salopek, Paul. 2000. ‘Big Man’ rule haunts Africa. Chicago tribune. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2000-08-28/news/0008280177_1_nigeria-transition-from-military-rule-president-olusegun-obasanjo.
- Skultety, Steven. 2016. A neo-aristotelian theory of political honor. In Perspectives on modern honor, eds. Johnson, Laurie and Dan Demetriou. Lanham: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
- Smith, Craig Bruce. 2015. The character of George Washington: Ethical leadership through honor. Mt. Vernon: George Washington Leadership Institute curriculum, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.Google Scholar
- Stewart, Frank Henderson. 1994. Honor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Strauss, Leo. 1952. The political philosophy of Hobbes: Its basis and genesis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Strobridge, Truman. 2002. Africa’s black Napoleon. Military History 19(4): 30.Google Scholar
- Thomas, Emory. 1997. Robert E. Lee: A biography. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
- Wills, Garry. 1984. Cincinnatus: George Washington and the enlightenment. Garden City: Doubleday.Google Scholar
- Wood, Gordon. 2006. Revolutionary characters: What made the founders different. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
- Yoon, Robert. 2012. Bill Clinton has most lucrative year on speech circuit. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/03/politics/clinton-speaking-fees/.