Peter Jones

Were the Ancient Greeks shameless?


Last week Mary Wakefield discussed the virtues of her ‘Victorian’ education, designed to stiffen the upper lip of the young and to ensure they understood that they were in second place to their elders and betters. She avoided the word ‘guilt’ and its associations with ‘shame’, which were taken to be the aim of such education. Ancient Greeks would have applauded her. Their word for ‘shame’ – aidôs – had very different connotations.

The word plays an important part in Europe’s first works of literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. For example, when Andromache, wife of the Trojan hero Hector, suggests he retreat from battle, he says he would feel aidôs to do so, since he had been trained to fight: it was impossible for him to act otherwise. Here ‘shame’ is the prime meaning. But when Odysseus’s young son Telemachus visits the ancient hero Nestor to enquire about his long-absent father, he also feels aidôs, clearly a sense of reverence or respect for the grand old man. This attitude is applied even to beggars. When Odysseus, so disguised as not to be recognised, is attacked by the dogs of his faithful swineherd Eumaeus, the swineherd calls them off, saying that it is a matter of aidôs that he does so.

These examples can be repeated across ancient Greek literature. A Platonic myth suggested that a man without aidôs or justice should not live. Democritus, who invented atomism, put a fascinating spin on the debate: he argued that fear of punishment and disgrace did not prevent a man doing wrong, but just led to him concealing his wickedness. It was therefore essential that the habit of learning to apply aidôs to oneself, willingly inhibiting one’s own behaviour, should become inculcated in the course of a man’s education.

Feelings of aidôs, then, were a matter both of self-awareness – what was the right way to act – and of respect for other people and their sensitivities, in accordance with the values of society. Ms Wakefield’s Victorian education in that sense has much to be said for it. But who cares about shame or respect or self-restraint or other people’s feelings when we all have ‘rights’?