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Each emotion . . . is a very exact message. This exactness is comparable to the exactness of color sense in those who are not color blind. (For instance, each person knows instantly and without question whether they are seeing red or blue.) (Isaacs, 1998: 13). To recognize that there can exist a color blindness to blue is as much as to admit that blue exists, which these days seems to me to be more than doubtful (Tomeo, 1986: 6). SHAME has had a bad press for the past century or so. As Thomas Scheff remarks (1997: 205): “Over the last 200 years in the history of modern societies, shame virtually disappeared. The denial of shame has been institutionalized in Western societies.”1 Shame’s status as a moral emotion has been impugned by critics, among them theologians and anthropologists, who consider it a primitive precursor to guilt: shame, the argument goes, responds to the judgments of others and is indifferent to ethical principles in themselves, whereas guilt is an inner sensibility and corresponds to the morally autonomous self of modern man.2 The shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture, in the formula made popular by Ruth Benedict (1946), is taken as a sign of moral progress. Thus the warrior society represented in the Homeric epics—a shame culture, according to E. R. Dodds (1951)—slowly gave way to a guilt culture, which began to emerge in fifth-century democratic Athens but did not achieve a fully developed expression in the classical world until the advent of Christianity.3 Psychologists either ignored shame or treated it as characteristic of an early stage in the socialization of the child,4 at least until Helen Block SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) Shame in Ancient Greece DAVID KONSTAN Lewis, in a highly influential study (1971), insisted on the importance of shame in adult life. By characterizing shame as the experience of the utter worthlessness of the self, however, in contrast to guilt that is limited to a negative feeling about a particular act (40), Lewis, too, contributed to the general belief that shame is something we would be better off without.5 True, guilt can get out of hand and become transformed into a generalized emotion or guilt complex, a psychic condition that has in part been fostered in Western culture by the Christian emphasis on original sin.6 In addition, permissive attitudes toward children and a naïve belief in the essential goodness of human nature have led to a disparagement of guilt as a pernicious form of conscience. Even so, guilt retains a certain dignity as a sentiment, while shame seems at best infantile and other-directed.7 Thus Stephen Pattison (2000: 129) remarks, “While guilt may have a very constructive role in creating and maintaining social relationships and moral responsibilities , shame has a much more dubious effect.” And Zygmunt Bauman writes: Just half a century ago, Karl Jaspers could still neatly separate “moral guilt” (the remorse we feel when we do harm to other human beings, whether by what we have done or by what we have failed to) from “metaphysical guilt” (the guilt we feel when harm is done to a human being, although this harm is in no way related to our action). This distinction has lost its meaning with globalization. John Donne’s phrase, “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee,” represents as never before the solidarity of our destiny, although it is still far from being balanced by the solidarity of our sentiments and actions (2001: 11).8 Like many other cultures, Greece and Rome did not have distinct terms for what we call shame and guilt, and they seem to have made do with one concept where we recognize two. This view, however, presupposes a natural correspondence among psychological ideas across linguistic and social boundaries. Thus, the 1032 SOCIAL RESEARCH Greek term we customarily translate as “shame” is imagined to match, more or less, the English concept, unless perhaps, in the absence of a word for guilt, Greek shame had a somewhat wider extension so as to include some (or all) of the modern notion of guilt...


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