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Book Review: Gentlemen’s Blood (Barbara Holland)

Barbara Holland’s “Gentlemen’s Blood” is a series of jaunty anecdotes about dueling through time and around the world. Most of it focuses on America and Britain, with side tours into Germany, France and Russia, touching on famous duelists like Pushkin (who ended up the worse for wear as a result). The book is interesting for those anecdotes, and reading it is a reasonable way to kill some time and get a glimpse, if a circumscribed and brief one, into the ways of the past. But it is most interesting as an exploration of honor, a concept today generally viewed far too simplistically.

Holland covers everything from medieval duels to modern duels, not neglecting Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. (She notes that in popular culture Hamilton is largely forgotten—but then, this was 2003, before Hamilton became a national culture phenomenon again. And I did not know that Burr was a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, the famously strident Puritan minister.) Holland is not actually wholly opposed to dueling. “There was much to like about the duel. It was a regulated way for one man to prevail over another when he felt the need to do so, and an improvement over the informal ambush, or sending out henchmen to break the enemy’s skull by night on the highway.” Elsewhere Holland refers to the “confrontational glory” mostly missing from modern life, which is part of the key to understanding the view of honor that drove dueling.

Implicit in Holland’s semi-endorsement, of course, is that it’s men, not women, who are driven to duel. It is in the nature of men that they, and others, tend to measure their hierarchical worth by their relative physical prowess to other men, measured by the perceived ability to win a fight. Although it is not fashionable to admit it, everyone knows that a young unattached man entering a bar looks at the women, ranking them by appearance and desirability, and looks at the men, ranking them by who is a potential physical threat and who can, and cannot, be dominated if necessary. The young man’s goal is the same as that of a 19th Century French writer quoted by Holland: “A duel makes of every one of us a strong and independent power.” This same set of impulses, dominance, glory and independence, with a consequent implication of hierarchical position for the man (for as social creatures our hierarchy matters to us) must lie behind much dueling.

But “hierarchy” isn’t what one thinks of when one thinks of why men dueled. It’s “honor” one thinks of. But what is honor, and why did dueling retain or increase honor? For instrumentalists like psychologist Steven Pinker, honor is merely “credible deterrence.” A man cultivates a reputation for upholding his honor, by retaliating after some mistreatment, real or perceived. He does this, according to Pinker, because he’s a sheepherder. No, really. Pinker, citing a study finding (unsurprisingly) that Southern Scots-Irish have a hair trigger sense of such honor, concurs with the authors of the study that since many Scots-Irish were herders, and it was easy to steal sheep, having a reputation for a violent response deterred sheep stealing, which would otherwise be commonplace, and this created the honor culture of the American South.

This isn’t a totally fair summary of Pinker (who wrote on this topic after Holland wrote “Gentlemen’s Blood”), because Pinker generalizes this principle to that the more anarchic a region, the more the local culture is an honor culture. If you fail to deter other predatory humans, you face more challenges, and someday you’ll lose a challenge. If you prevent the challenge from arising by ex ante behavior, such as a reputation for dueling to punish slights towards you, you risk less overall. In a stable society with the rule of law and a functioning criminal justice system, the state assumes the role of deterrence and alleviates the need for individuals to provide personal deterrence. Thus, the more anarchy, the more focus on honor (and the more dueling). In today’s American society, we see that honor-based violence is more common among cultures with lower socio-economic status, whose members often don’t feel adequately served by the criminal justice system, or whose cultural norms (“No Snitching”) prevent active participation in the criminal justice system and thus the receipt of its benefits.

All this makes sense. But it doesn’t really explain dueling, because, as Holland’s book shows, dueling was almost exclusively, in every time and place, an upper-class pursuit. (It may be that the lower classes fought at the drop of a hat, to maintain honor with the end of deterrence, but those aren’t duels, which contemplate a formal system and code, as well as broader societal participation of the class involved.) Sometimes the upper class was anarchical: Pinker notes that in medieval Italian city-states dueling served a criminal justice function, in that the law was weak and dueling limited extensive blood feuds. But generally, the upper class was subject to a very well-functioning criminal justice system, which in fact (in the person of nearly every European monarch) tried very hard to stamp out dueling. Cultivating a reputation for dueling could, for a nobleman, serve no instrumental function, at least as far as preventing predation by others. That dueling persisted suggests that anarchy is not the cause of dueling. So why did the focus on maintaining upper-class honor exist, and consequent dueling?

The solution to this conundrum, I think, is to understand that honor as deterrence is a too-narrow conception of honor, and honor as creating and maintaining hierarchical position is the correct template through which to view dueling. “Honor” covers at least two tenuously related concepts: honor as valor vs. honor as virtue (a distinction made in David Hackett Fischer’s “Albion’s Seed,” in its discussion of Virginia early colonial aristocracy and their focus on honor, with no mention of dueling). Each of these have a signaling function that serves to maintain an individual’s hierarchical position (and hierarchy is always more important to the upper classes, who dominate any society). In fact, more than one contemporaneous writer in Holland’s book refers to dueling as necessary to maintain a man’s “position in society,” and resultant “social invisibility,” not predation by others, is frequently cited as the reason to not refuse a challenge.

Honor as valor, “physical courage and tenacity of will” in Fisher’s terms, implies the possibility of violence. That potential violence is threatened against other social equals who would impugn the holder’s status; that is it threatened reduces the chances the holder’s status will decline. Honor as valor can also be outward-directed, toward the enemies of the holder’s class or other group, In this sense it also maintains hierarchical position, but not by deterring social equals, but by aiding the group by showing the holder’s commitment and value to the group, an act that necessarily maintains hierarchical position. And honor as valor shades into honor as virtue, which more broadly benefits both the holder and his group. Honor as virtue, showing gentility, breeding, character and good conduct (again in Fischer’s words), and also including, in part, honor as valor to the extent valor is a virtue, maintains a man’s place in the hierarchy, merely by its show of superiority to the lower classes and to the less honorable members of his own class. Honor as virtue has the additional benefit of allowing all relationships to be smoother, since it increases trust in the holder, and higher trust levels are beneficial both for individuals and societies in accomplishing goals. All this together maintained a man’s hierarchical position, and dueling was part, but only part, of maintaining that position.

Similarly, it is commonly noted that much dueling resulted from offended masculinity and the need to restore it by fighting. This is, of course, something men do—they perceive each other differently based on their physical ability to harm each other, and an erosion in a man’s perceived ability drops him in the hierarchy. Mostly today, under the influence of harridan feminists and neutered pseudo-men, both held up as ideals by the enemies of society, we are told that the pursuit of masculinity is a toxic combination of irrational and evil. There is some truth in this: masculinity creates many problems, while at the same time it solves others and is wholly necessary to drive a society forward. But masculinity, in its many facets, although it is part of male human nature, not a social construct, also serves a valuable signaling function, and so it should not be surprising that duels, with their role of maintaining a man’s hierarchical position, often sprang from threats to masculinity.

What does this imply for today, when the idea of honor, however defined, is viewed as something either faintly ridiculous or something oppressive and smacking of insufficient commitment to the new and decadent ways of social justice? It means, I suppose, that a man’s hierarchical position has to be maintained by something different than honor as valor, or honor as virtue. Maybe it’s money. Maybe nobody cares about hierarchical position in the same way—after, all, “social invisibility” is not generally regarded today as a crushing blow, since a man can generally simply find a new society that manages to find him not invisible. In any case, there was probably a fair bit of societal benefit to a society that valued honor to a high degree, balanced by the sheer waste and stupidity of dueling. All the societies in which dueling flourished were vibrant, growing societies. In part, we remember dueling because we remember the success of those societies. But dueling didn’t cause that flourishing, and it is not coming back. On balance, that’s probably good.

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