I’ve always loved the ancient Greek idea of shame – aidos – as that quality that restrains people from doing wrong
which inspired me to add the following comment:
In a biography I once read of George Washington, the author (whose name, alas, I can’t remember at the moment) pointed out that his virtues, and those of many of his contemporaries, seem almost superhuman by today’s standards. By way of explanation he pointed out that life expectancy was much shorter then, so the pressure to achieve renown that would outlive you was consequently greater (not to mention that in a less populous world, such renown was within easier reach). You were gonna die soon, that was almost certain — but shame could kill your legacy, a more thorough and fearsome kind of death.
I think this has something to do too with the decline of shame (in addition to other obvious causes such as the rise of privacy, isolation, and anonymity). By and large we now live long enough to get over anything shameful that may happen. We see it happen again and again on the evening news, as disgraced public figures make unlikely comebacks. VH-1’s “Behind the Music” has turned the familiar arc of shame and redemption into a cottage industry. Shame is no longer something to be avoided at all costs. More’s the pity.