Beyond shame and guilt

January 14, 2022 5 Comments

When I was a young student and easily impressed by big theory, I was struck by a book by E.R. Dodds called The Greeks and the irrational.  Its origin was a series of lectures Dodd gave in California in 1949.  Or, going further back, a conversation he’d had, while studying the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum, with someone who said he could not be moved by them because they, and the ancient Greeks, seemed to him too cool and ‘rational’.  This provoked Dodds into thinking about the less rational aspects of ancient Greek culture.

In the first two chapters of his book Dodds introduces two concepts he borrowed from anthropology and in particular Ruth Benedict, shame culture and guilt culture.  His thesis is that the Homeric poems primarily reflect a shame culture.  The heroes of the Trojan War are motivated mainly by ‘honour’ (τίμη, status or public esteem) – a concern about how their actions will be seen by their peers.  Their worst nightmare is to lose honour, or lose face, by making a bad decision or doing a disgraceful action, often brought about by a madness attributed to divine intervention.  ‘Why should I fight’, asks Achilles in the Iliad, sulking in his tent, ‘if the good fighter receives no more τίμη than the bad?’ 


In ‘archaic’ (early classical) Greek times, Dodds argues, this early shame culture was replaced by, or supplemented by, a guilt culture .  Now the gods sit in judgement on the arrogance and other sins of humans, and mete out justice or vengeance.  So, the Erinyes or Fates pursue and madden Orestes, in Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays the Oresteia, for the killing of his mother Clytemnestra.  Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother, carries his guilt with him into blindness and exile.  Even if sinners escape punishment for wrongdoing in their lifetime, descendants may still pay the price: guilt could be inherited.  Aeschylus wrestles with this belief system and suggests, in the final play of his trilogy, Eumenides, that it might be tamed and socialised into a system of civic justice.

Shame and guilt have been powerful regulators of public human behaviour for centuries.  Arguably they’re still alive today, now usually detached from divine intervention, in ordinary, day-to-day social interaction.  You could say that social networking has even given shame culture in particular a new impetus.  The ability to feel and express shame and guilt, after all, is actually necessary to underpin any shared set of social values that give coherence to a community. 

Orestes and the Erinyes

But things are very different in the way politics are now conducted in Britain (I mean Westminster).  Events of the last two years have shown that shame and guilt are in such short supply that they no longer have any restraining force on how the UK government behaves.

Let’s take shame first.  Boris Johnson feels no shame about any of his many lies, or his actions, even illegal ones, like trying to abolish parliament (‘prorogue’ is the euphemism), or holding parties in Downing Street in breach of his own legislation.  And he cannot be made to feel shame.  Τίμη is a concept entirely foreign to him.  He cares nothing for his personal honour or standing in the eyes of others.  Until recently it has been enough for him that large numbers of electors were sufficiently mesmerised by him to vote his party into government.  He is so egotistical that the gods – in modern terms, courts, electors or other governments – hold no fear for him.

It’s the same with guilt.  Johnson feels none, no matter how serious his wrongdoing.  It’s often said that Johnson is immoral.  But this can’t be right, because the immoralist has a sufficient grasp of what might be right or wrong in order to be able to choose the latter.  Rather, he’s amoral.  In his personal and public life alike he’s unable to appreciate that he should be bound by any ethical standards.  Johnson’s only successful career so far has been as a humourist and clown, and the Shakespearian clown, unrestrained by morality and licensed to say whatever he wishes, is the closest analogy to his own character.  Clowning and power, though, are dangerous partners.

This disease, an absence of shame and guilt, is more serious than the failings of one person.  Much worse is the fact that has infected so many other powerful people.  Cabinet members, who owe their positions entirely to Johnson’s favours, share his amorality.  Or, if they don’t, they’re willing to overlook his, and reflect it in their own behaviour.  The same is true of Tory MPs, media owners and other supporters and voters, all prepared to condone or overlook gross misuse of power and immoral behaviour, as long as they can see political advantage or their own interest.

Louis McNeice

Misuse of power has led to a creeping authoritarianism.  Those in power, freed from the restraints of shame and guilt, are increasingly eager to limit the freedoms of others – protestors, courts, refugees, parliament, electors who vote the wrong way, and many others.  An unwritten constitution is an easy target for people who no longer believe in explicit or implicit standards of public life.  And authoritarianism is one step on the way to dictatorship.  Thanks to the UK’s unjust electoral system we already suffer from ‘elective dictatorship’, as Lord Hailsham said in 1976.  It’s no longer fanciful to imagine our current regime mutating into a state like Turkey or Hungary, democratic in name only.

One of E.R. Dodds’s close friends – they were both Ulster men – was the poet Louis McNeice.  In his poem ‘The trolls’, written after an air raid in 1941, McNeice likened the dictators of the day to would-be gods:

Barging and lunging out of the clouds, a daft
Descent of no-good gods, they think to
Be rid for ever of the voice of men

‘No-good’ implies both malevolence and incompetence – a combination that’s become very familiar to Britons in recent years.  It will take more than the overthrow of Johnson or a few booster jabs of shame and guilt to reverse the course of the disease.

Comments (5)

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  1. Ms Sioned-Mair Richards says:

    Spot on. Unfortunately.

  2. Lyndon Jones says:

    Dear Andrew,

    Thank you so much for all your wisdom and erudition; it tumbles from every phrase. Your writing is a joy and an inspiration.
    I’ve particularly enjoyed this one because it takes aim, so accurately, at Johnson’s supposed expertise in the classics; and demolishes him utterly on those particular terms.
    I live in the (perhaps deluded!) hope that we’re living through a sea-change moment, rather like the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, in which a wholesale repudiation of accepted ideas creates the opportunity for something better. Please don’t laugh……
    With every best wish,


  3. David Jones says:

    BJ memorably described by Max Hastings (his editor at the Daily Telegraph) as a “gold medal egomaniac”.

  4. I was just now thinking about E.R. Dodds’ work in terms of modern conservatism or what goes for it. This article of yours randomly popped up in a web search and I’m glad I read it. It definitely got me thinking. You offer an interesting portrayal of some seemingly new kind of creature. Dodds got his distinction from Ruth Benedict, in her comparison of Japan and the United States. Her point was that we in the West were operating under a guilt culture, as premised on trust.

    That might be an important point. She wasn’t applying this to individuals. The thing is conservatives might’ve inherited much of the shame-based psychology from traditionalism, but traditional shame-based culture no longer exists in the modern West. It could explain the conundrum of what seems like individuals lacking in both shame and guilt. Well, that is if we ignore the cases of dark personality traits/disorders (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) that might be on the rise; at least within positions of power (e.g., Donald Trump).

    For argument’s sake, let’s assume that Boris Johnson doesn’t have some kind of severe psychiatric derangement or other abnormal personality structure, maybe an overly generous assumption to make. If that were the case, what could explain his behavior? First off, one might point out that the aspects of shared culture and individual psychology are two separate issues. Someone like Johnson apparently never developed a capacity for guilt and trustworthiness, which would’ve been fine in a culture centered in shame, and hence honor.

    The thing about shame is it is always enforced externally by others, never by the individual. Shame, by nature, forms from a shared standard that when broken leads to public acts of contrition, compensation, punishment, banishment, imprisonment, execution, or suicide. Shame can’t operate within an individual in isolation, as with Anglo-American society. Not all of the West, though, has seen such erosion of shame culture. In Iceland, when the Prime Minister was discovered to have had a secret offshore account, she stepped down of her own choice because of a sense of shame. And if she hadn’t stepped down, the public would’ve shamed her with punishment, by whatever means necessary.

    Anglo-American conservatives, though no longer held accountable by a shame and honor culture, can neither hold themselves accountable through guilt and trust psychology. Intuitively, conservatives seem to understand this; and can’t comprehend that others also can’t control themselves in needing external and authoritarian enforcement of moral behavior. This is why conservatives argue for an oppressive moral hierarchy because they realize that, without it, they would commit evil acts. They then project this fear onto caricatures of the left and marginal groups, for the purpose of straw man arguments and scapegoating.

    All of this seems to explain the strangeness of modern conservatism. And it goes a long way to support Corey Robin’s theory of conservatism as being anti-traditional and reactionary through and through. In having lost shame culture, and in not having gained a sense of guilt, conservatives find themselves empowered like never before, in feeling free to do anything. This makes them formidable opponents. And one might suspect they feel torn because, if they could reinstate a shame culture to displace guilt culture, it would constrain and undermine their own present wanton power. Modern Anglo-American conservatives have lost all grounding in traditionalism and what is lost is not coming back.

    The response of these conservatives is to erase the past with historical revisionism, invented traditions, and nostalgic fantasies. This is why, for example, in the US the political right is fighting so hard to ban books and control what is allowed to be taught in schools, specifically in wanting to enforce historical amnesia onto every new generation; as they did in the World War and early Cold War period. This is why so many conservatives, oddly, claim classical liberalism as their inherited mantle. In doing so, they conveniently ignore radical leftist classical liberals like Thomas Paine but, even more importantly, obscure and erase classical conservatism.

    Think about it. What is classical conservatism? Imperialism, colonialism, WASP and white supremacy, antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, targeting of minorities, genocide, land theft, indentured servitude, slavery, eugenics, lynching, Jim Crow, sundown towns, redlining, violent homophobia, male chauvinism, patriarchal oppression, etc. This is not exactly a proud history for the right. But it’s because of the right’s lack of guilt that the left has turned to tactics of shaming. So, we are seeing a return of shame culture, if only partly and temporarily. Conservatives hate this, calling it ‘cancel culture’ and ‘wokeism’, because the conservative has no psychological defense against it.

    Or rather, conservative’s only defense is to socially, economically, and politically control the means of power to shield themselves. Shaming only works if their is power to enforce social norms within a group, community, or society. That is the point of conflict. If the UK is anything like the US, the majority of the public is pretty far to the left of the entire system of elite, in politics and media. But this moral majority is silenced, suppressed, and disenfranchised.

    That is why the left has turned to social media and protests, as the left has learned to wield influence from below by using cultural force and influence; or at least attempt to do so, with uneven success in the short term. If numbers are large enough or an act has enough symbolic potency, shaming can be used by those without formal power and authority. But it has its limits, specifically as the traditional structures of shaming are no longer in place. Someone like Johnson feels untouchable by any form or source of accountability, particularly from below.

    A past example of the powerless using shame against the powerful was, in colonial America of New England, when Quakers would strip naked in Puritan towns and churches while decrying the sins of the population. To be naked or be exposed to someone’s nakedness was shameful. It served the purpose of riling up the Puritans. But what is the equivalent act a powerless UK citizen could to bring public shame to conservatives? Maybe it’s no longer possible.

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