Along time ago i suddenly realized that the country one belongs to is not, as the usual rhetoric goes, the one you love but the one you are ashamed of. Shame can be a stronger bond than love. I repeatedly tested my discovery with friends from different countries: they all reacted the same way—with surprise immediately followed by full agreement, as if my suggestion was a self-evident truth. I am not claiming that the burden of shame is always the same; in fact, it varies immensely among countries. But the bond of shame—shame as a bond—invariably works, for a larger or smaller number of individuals. Aristotle listed ‘shame’ (aidos) among the passions, pointing out that ‘it is not a virtue’ (Nicomachaean Ethics 1108 a 30–1). This definition still makes sense. Shame is definitely not a matter of choice: it falls upon us, invading us—our bodies, our feelings, our thoughts—as a sudden illness. It is a passion placed at the intersection between biology and history: the domain which Sigrid Weigel made so distinctively her own.footnote

But can a passion like shame be submitted to historical analysis? In his famous book The Greeks and the Irrational (1951) Eric R. Dodds argued, on the basis of literary sources—from the Iliad to tragedies—that in ancient Greece a guilt culture developed from an older shame culture.footnote1 Dodds had taken this dichotomy from Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946): an influential, and much debated, anthropological analysis of Japan as a shame culture.footnote2 The dichotomy has been described in the following terms: in shame cultures the individual is confronted with an external sanction, embodied by the community to which he or she belongs; in guilt cultures the sanction is introjected.footnote3

Both Dodds and, to some extent, Benedict refused to consider the two cultures as mutually incompatible, allowing for the existence of intermediate stages. Other studies, however, have reshaped the dichotomy in an evolutionist perspective, with potentially racist overtones. In an article which appeared in 1972 in The American Journal of Psychiatry, Harold W. Glidden posited an ‘Arab behaviour’ based on a shame culture focused on revenge.footnote4 The implications were evident: the alternative to shame cultures, which are archaic and backward, was guilt cultures, whose distinctive features are interiority and a mature moral code—in a word, modernity.

The possible misuse of the dichotomy is obvious, but its cognitive potential deserves a closer look. For my test I will start from two books, both published in 1993, whose contents overlap: Bernard Williams’s Sather lectures, entitled Shame and Necessity, and Douglas L. Cairns’s Aidos: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature. Their approaches are quite different from each other. Williams, the philosopher, offered a ‘philosophical description of an historical reality’, arguing that Greek ideas about action and responsibility were both close to and different from ours—but insisting that ‘the Greek past is the past of modernity’.footnote5 Cairns, the classicist, carefully assembled and analysed a massive dossier in a quasi-ethnographic perspective, emphasizing the distance between Greek culture and ours.footnote6

‘The basic experience connected to shame’, Williams wrote, ‘is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition.’footnote7 This initial hypothesis, born from the introspective efforts of a late-twentieth-century British philosopher, is consistent with a method which explains cultural phenomena by focusing on the individual. But to assume the very notion of individualism one sets out to demonstrate seems to imply a petitio principii: the danger of anachronism is evident. Williams claims to avoid it by relying on ‘bootstrapping’: a self-sustaining cognitive process that proceeds without external help (the metaphor is inspired by a famous story about Baron Münchhausen).footnote8 The initial hypothesis is meant to serve as a starting point, which new data enrich and eventually reshape. To what extent did this research strategy work?