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.