Greatest hits: Shame

The publisher Tim O’Reilly wrote in a Buzz post recently,

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.

2 thoughts on “Greatest hits: Shame”

  1. I think you’re overlooking the fact that GW’s legacy has been substantially augmented in the interim: the cherry-tree story, for example, is flat-out fabrication. He became a superman because we needed one.

    You can think of the soon-to-be-unperson Thomas Jefferson as a counter-example: it’s now been proved that he took a slave girl as concubine, but he’s still on Mount Rushmore and the nickel, at least for now. And yet that’s not his unforgivable sin! The political winds blow the way they’re looking to, the Texas schoolbooks might just be the beginning.

    I think Malcolm Reynolds put it best when he said, “every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another.”

  2. I’m not even talking about Washington’s legacy, I’m talking about his factual biography and his contemporaneous reputation. Sumbitch he may have been in some ways — maybe — but it’s a fact that no one in modern political life can touch the likes of Washington and Jefferson in courage and civic virtue. The best men of that era were acting for the ages.

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