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Philosophy & Public Affairs 30.1 (2001) 27-52

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The Genesis of Shame

J. David Velleman


"And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." So ends Chapter 2 of Genesis. Chapter 3 narrates the Fall and its aftermath: "The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons." Presumably, they made themselves aprons to cover their nakedness, because they were now ashamed.

Why were Adam and Eve ashamed? And why hadn't they been ashamed before? The text of Genesis 3 suggests that they became ashamed because they realized that they were naked. But what realization was that? They were not created literally blind, and so they weren't seeing their own skin for the first time. The realization that they were naked must have been the realization that they were unclothed, which would have required them to envision the possibility of clothing. Yet the mere idea of clothing would have had no eVect on Adam and Eve unless they also saw why clothing was necessary. And when they saw the necessity of clothing, they were seeing--what, exactly? There was no preexisting culture to disapprove of nakedness or to enforce norms of dress. What Genesis suggests is that the necessity of clothing was not a cultural invention but a natural fact, evident to the first people whose eyes were sufficiently open. [End Page 27]

Or, rather, this fact was brought about by their eyes' being opened. For when we are told at the end of Chapter 2 that Adam and Eve were naked but not ashamed, we are not meant to suppose that they had something to be ashamed of but didn't see it, like people who don't know that their fly is open or their slip is showing. The reason why Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness at first is that they had no reason to be ashamed; and so they must not have needed clothing at that point. But in that case, the opening of their eyes must have produced the very fact that it enabled them to see: their eyes must have been opened in a way that simultaneously made clothing necessary and enabled them to see its necessity. What sort of eye-opening was that?

According to the story, their eyes were opened when they acquired a knowledge of good and evil. But this description doesn't answer our question. Although a knowledge of good and evil prompted them to remedy their nakedness--as evil, we suppose--we are still not meant to suppose that their nakedness had been evil antecedently. So the knowledge of good and evil didn't just reveal some evil in their nakedness; it must also have put that evil there. The question remains, what item of knowledge could have had that effect?

I am going to propose an account of shame that explains why eating from the tree of knowledge would have made Adam and Eve ashamed of their nakedness. Ultimately, this account will yield implications for current debates about the shamelessness of our culture. The way to recover our sense of shame is not, as some moralists propose, to recover our former intolerance for conditions previously thought to be shameful. I will propose an alternative prescription, derived from my diagnosis of how Adam and Eve acquired a sense of shame.


The story of Genesis makes little sense under the standard philosophical analysis of shame as an emotion of reflected self-assessment. According to this analysis, the subject of shame thinks less of himself at the thought of how he is seen by others. 1 The problem is to explain how the shame of [End Page 28] Adam and Eve could have involved a negative assessment of themselves.

In modern society, of course, public nakedness violates social norms and consequently elicits social censure, which can be echoed by self-censure on the part of its object. But assessments of this kind would have been unknown in the pre...


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pp. 27-52
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Archived 2003
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