Shame as a Teacher: ‘Lowly Wisdom’ at the Millennium

Ladson Hinton, MA, MD


Can lust for knowledge sometimes be a moral transgression? Are there natural limits to experience? These are ancient questions which should never be ignored. In the contemporary world, the media constantly displays an abundance of shadow and evil, with a steady résumé of crime, abuse, ethnic conflicts, and ecological disasters. Technology, with all its benefits, creates an alienating quality of speed and abstraction. The forces of globalization whip the process onward. Under this onslaught, the moral structure of individuals and communities steadily weakens. Is there a basic human wisdom which can provide moral orientation and tell us our limits?

Shame is the emotion of limits, and is the price of self-knowledge. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Archangel Rafael advises Adam to be ‘lowly wise.’ The Angel has been telling Adam a great deal about the meaning and purpose of things, and counsels patience. Knowledge will come in time. However, Adam’s imagination and curiosity are too much. He eats the apple so that he will know what God knows now! As a result, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, and know shame for the first time. Shame came into the world to teach us about our relationship to the Self, and about our finitude.

Shame can be an everyday guide to a humble wisdom. Especially in hazardous times of personal and cultural liminality, such wisdom can be an anchor. When crossing thresholds of new awareness, we always run the risk of becoming inflated and dangerous. Shame can provide a gradient, so that we do not undertake too much for our own good.

Usually, we think of shame as a symptom to be eliminated rather than being useful or wise. During the modern era the attitude toward shame, and toward emotions in general, shifted radically. Certainty and perfection became the ideal. After Descartes, embodied emotion was relegated to — and perhaps became — the unconscious of Western culture. One result of this disownment was the loss of the natural moral bearings of individuals and communities. The Age of Reason has created its dark opposite. Our post-Enlightenment world is pervaded by violence, worship of power, and a shame-haunted narcissism.

In contrast, the Parzival Legend shows that shame functioned well as a guide within an intact, pre- Enlightenment, world-view. From a very different perspective, recent scientific discoveries about the brain’s workings are also helping us reconnect with the innate primacy of shame. These neurobiological findings have begun to show the crucial role of shame in the formation of the emotional self.

Placing these findings in the context of Jung’s view of emotion and feeling, I will develop the view that the fundamental core of self is indeed emotion and feeling. In this connection, shame can be seen as the archetype, or generic modulator of emotion and feeling. It shapes our character, our ongoing sense of self.

These varying perspectives all have the common theme that shame can indeed be a guide to a humble wisdom. As we create a pathway into the future at the millennium, we badly need such a point of orientation.

Shame, Guilt and Culture 

Shame is the emotion which most frequently teaches humility and limits. When boundaries are overstepped, we feel shame. The parameters at issue may range from the person and society, to the individual and the cosmos.

Practically speaking, we tend to see this emotion as a painful symptom, something to be done away with as soon as possible. The fact is, we are an unconsciously shame-ridden culture. Many theories of narcissistic and borderline disorders are based on it. Street talk is full of considerations of being ‘dised’ (i.e., disrespected). In the larger picture, wars and revolutions, ethnic conflicts, and genocide, seem substantially based in shame dynamics (Hinton, A.L., 1998; Scheff, 1997; Wurmser, 1978).

We tend to speak more of guilt than shame. Guilt is usually about some specific wrong which can be righted, a hurtful thought or action, generally involving a certain person or situation (Jacoby, p.1-4; Williams, pp. 219-223). In guilt, we usually fear some retribution. One can be guilty without doubting one’s self-worth. It generally involves only a part of the self. With guilt, there is a specific wrong, perhaps an illegal act, but it can be remedied through some form of penance or penalty.

Shame can be social and somewhat superficial, or it can bring into doubt the very basis and value of one’s own being. In shame, the self may be seen as flawed and inferior (Morrison, p. 48). One may feel “mortified,” and want to disappear. Its word origins refer to “keeping under cover” (Schneider, pp. 29-30). This emotion is not readily resolved.

Due to “reasonable doubt,” an individual might be formally acquitted of a crime or misdemeanor. Often, the finding of “not guilty” would not resolve the issue for a morally sensitive person. Shame would continue, resulting in a period of self-examination. Such a person might ask, “How could I have been involved in such a thing? What does this say about my character?” For some people, spiritual questions would arise. A shame-provoked sense of finitude can have profound dimensions.

Shame is therefore much more than merely social. Indeed, deep shame is often experienced completely alone. With guilt, some restitution for the act of wrongdoing is usually possible. In contrast, shame creates a profound sense of “wrongness” and self-doubt which, when full-blown, is too pervasive to offer the possibility of easy remedy.

An Example of Shame Experience

I found an excellent example of a shame experience in the Atlantic Monthly (Kane, 1992):

“A mathematics professor in his fifties, who likes to think of himself as dynamic and rakish but who is at the moment ‘between lovers,’ stands on the subway platform eyeing an undergraduate. He sees that his gaze is making her uncomfortable. He feels a twinge of shame over this intrusion, but not enough to stop. He files his behavior under ‘manly aggression’ and keeps staring. Then a searing thought enters and exits his mind so fast that later he won’t remember having had it. The idea seems almost to have been waiting there like a hot coal, and after stumbling upon it and getting singed, he flees in panic. Feeling inexplicably crestfallen, he looks away from the young woman, buries his head in his paper, and seeks out a separate car when the train comes in. For the rest of the morning he feels listless and down. He doesn’t want people near him, and growls if they press. He works methodically, waiting for the unnamable discomfort to pass. The idea that scorched him was an image of himself, all too believable, as a hungry, unhappy loner, a man who had wasted his youth and was incapable of lasting attachments, staring forlornly at a woman who could not possibly be interested in him. The shame that that image evoked was too hot to handle.”

Shame as an ‘Inferior’ Emotion

In modern intellectual history, shame has generally been regarded as a “lesser” emotion (Schneiderman, p.50). Shame-based cultures — generally non-Western — were seen as manifestations of a “primitive,” or a “collective” ethos. Such cultures and communities were portrayed as dominated by a group-consciousness, an “irrational” preoccupation with “face” which constrained individual development. Guilt was propounded as a manifestation of a more advanced type of moral reasoning. The “rational” individual of Western, supposedly guilt-oriented societies, was praised as being at the forefront of cultural evolution (Shore, p. 8).

This view of the superiority of guilt was based on the European Enlightenment model of rational perfection as the ideal. From the guilt perspective, right and wrong behavior could be analyzed into neat models, which were followed by “civilized” Western people.

However, logical propositions about right and wrong look sensible only when seen in isolation in the textbooks of moral philosophers. In real human interactions, people do not behave like logical propositions. On the contrary, De Tocqueville commented on the prevalence of shame in the nineteenth century America he admired. In ancient Greece, the idealized land of our ancestral spirits, guilt was only a subdivision of shame (Williams, B., pp. 92-95). Anthropologists have shown the great complexity of so- called “primitive” cultures. And the most refined Western cultures have shown themselves to be as capable of “barbarous” behavior as any other.

At this point in Western history, it is the lack of shame that we tend to bemoan as a sign of the decline in communal values. The O. J. Simpson trial was a dramatic, public instance of the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is formal and legalistic. Shame is personal and cannot be readily excised by formal verdicts, or even specific penalties or their lack. When shame is missing, we feel the wrong has not been set right, whatever the formal verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty.”

Clinically, focus on guilt often leads to superficial discussions with a rational bent. We often say “guilt” when we really mean “shame.” In actual experience, the two are frequently mixed.

Descartes and Historical Perspectives on Emotion

How did shame lose its conscious value in Western culture, and then reappear as a tormenting force in the contemporary psyche? We find important historical clues by examining the origins of the Enlightenment. Steven Toulmin has researched those times, and brought new perspective to the subject (Toulmin, 1990).

The “Age of Reason” did not start with a group of brilliant intellects sitting in their armchairs and seeking a new model of truth. Like all thought, it originated amidst specific social and historical currents. The early seventeenth century was, in general, full of catastrophes. Cromwell wreaked havoc in England. There was a little ice age in Europe. Famine resulted in the countryside, and starving people thronged the cities. Apocalyptic pronouncements of the coming end of the world filled the air. Such was the atmosphere surrounding the birth of the “Enlightenment.”

Toulmin’s researches have brought out new facts about the life of Descartes himself, who best symbolizes the birth of this world-view. He discovered that Descartes was heavily influenced by the turmoil of his times. He had close, emotional knowledge of the violent assassination of King Henry IV of France, and was directly present as an observer during the cruel progress of the Thirty Years’ War. Descartes was heavily immersed in the most destructive events of his time, and these experiences surely influenced his reactive embracing of a geometric model of truth. “Cogito ergo sum” was a retreat from the bloody contingencies of body and emotion.

Descartes was similar in this to the older Plato, who had been disillusioned with the defeat of Athens and the death of Socrates. Such reactive idealism gave hope in difficult times.

Descartes’ life experience is conveyed by the epitaph he chose for his tombstone: “He who hid well, lived well” (Damasio, p. 249).

Some Effects of the Enlightenment Model of Truth

Because of a general humility about the limitations of human knowledge, it was unusual to have severe penalties for theolo