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Philosophy and Literature

A behavioral lesson from the Iliad and the Odyssey

In 1951 Eric Dodds, an Irish philologist and anthropologist, published “The Greeks and the Irrational”, a famous book in which he presented two antithetical concepts applied to the study of the Ancient Greece: the “shame culture” and the “guilt culture”.  Dodds focused his inquiry on the earliest stages of the Greek culture, analyzing the Homeric world, in which he distinguished two behavioral models: he associated the Iliad’s society to what he defined the “shame culture” and the most evolved Odyssey’s society to the “guilt culture”.

Indeed, in many episodes of the Iliad, the heroes express a sense of concern for the fear to fail in the eyes of those who measure their behavior, on the basis of indisputable and commonly accepted models, on which they have to imprint their conduct in order not to lose their honor and  privileges of command. As such, the consideration of the self is intrinsically related to the fellow citizens’ judgement and the hero cannot fail to meet certain expectations. Everybody must see, everybody can judge. Courage, force, honor and glory are the main ethical foundations and criteria of judgement. The Iliad’s world is therefore a society of action in which the “shame culture” prevails.

On the contrary, in the Odyssey, the characters are afraid to perform certain actions because of the negative feedback they could receive from others. The fear is no more related to failure but to the possibility of being misjudged. In this case, criticism does not come from the outside anymore: it originates within the characters’ mind. The Odyssey’s world is a society of guilt and avoidance. 

The social mechanism of the two behavioral models is analogous, but there is an antithetical attitude towards praxis, the “action”. Under the “shame culture” the hero must perform actions which make its courage evident and therefore attention is oriented to significant and extraordinary gestures. In the “guilt culture” the subject must instead avoid questionable actions and demonstrate self-control and decorum. 

Many scholars describe the Odyssey’s society as more evolved, as the law of the strongest is not adopted anymore: heroes do not earn people’s respect with power and violence, but with their own merits and wit. The Odyssey reflects a more individual dimension and presents a set of characters with increased complexity. As the psychological complexity of the characters increases, social interactions become more subtle. Social norms are no more made explicit, but they belong to an intricate system of  expectation and prejudice which every person has internalized. 

Obviously, the Iliad and the Odyssey’s societies are simplified versions of reality, but as many disciplines such as anthropology and economics show, good models do not need to reflect real settings with complete accuracy, they just need to give us a method to analyze and understand actual situations. The more complex the society, the more difficult to observe certain phenomena. This is the reason why exemplifications of reality can help us capture relations and details that we would miss in the real world. 

Shame and guilt have always been among the main tools adopted to regulate people’s behavior. Either directly or indirectly, single individuals and societies as a whole, have leveraged these feelings to either promote or discourage specific conducts. 

From an anthropological point of view, the categories of “shame culture” and “guilt culture” have also been used by many scholars to exemplify respectively the social mechanisms of the Western and the Eastern world. Historically, the West has always been associated to an individualistic reality where the attention is drawn on the single subject rather than the collectivity. This is true for both merits and faults: responsibility is fully attributed to the individual. Some explain this phenomenon through the massive influence of Christianity which gradually transformed morality from an external imposition by society to an individual feature belonging to people’s inner life. This is what made Western societies shift from a “shame culture” to a “guilt culture”. On the other hand, in the Eastern world the concept of collectivity continued to prevail through historical transitions, and the individual judgement has always been subordinated to the society’s approval. 

Today, however, distinctions between the West and the East, the “guilt culture” and the “shame culture”, are not so clear. The combined effect of economic growth, globalization and technological progress caused sudden societal changes which made clear-cut differences related to many cultural aspects fade. Indeed, modern societies cannot be associated to just one model anymore. Recently we have been experiencing a change of paradigm. New generations are succeeding in progressively rejecting all those obsolete preconceptions on which the “shame culture” and “guilt culture” are based upon and substituting them with new, more tolerant and more inclusive ideas. Nevertheless, there are emerging patterns that can still be explained through the lens of the “shame” and “guilt” categories. 

Let us focus on some social mechanisms typical of the digital era. Social media platforms, where people are easily interconnected and can participate in the public discussion, are similar, in some ways, to the Iliad’s collective society. Also here, everybody must see, everybody can judge and, consequently, social interactions are affected by a new form of “shame culture”, whose (negative) effects are extremely amplified by the power of the Internet. Consider the current phenomenon of “online shaming” taking place on every social media. We can immediately notice one huge difference between this type of shaming and the one in the Iliad. In this case, shame is no more used as a tool to direct people’s behavior towards a socially accepted, desirable conduct, but just to verbally harass and humiliate people who do not supposedly meet certain standards. The problem is that usually these standards do not reflect the reality of things, they are just artificial unattainable models  which undermine people’s self-esteem. This is exactly the case of “body shaming” where potentially every physical characteristic considered as “imperfect” can be the target of derision or criticism. This form of interaction is toxic and detrimental and cannot lead to social improvement. People do not feel ashamed for what they do, they feel ashamed for who they are. Being the object of shaming causes a strong feeling of inadequacy. In the long run, people start to be afraid of the possible reaction of others and avoid sharing certain contents, which are typically replaced with less realistic ones, feeding the vicious circle of online fiction. This second phenomenon, which can appear as a consequence of experiencing shaming both directly and indirectly (as a “spectator”), is very similar to the other behavioral model. The tendency to refrain from certain behaviors for the fear of social disapproval is exactly the base mechanism of the Odyssey’s “guilt culture”, and it is widely spread on our social media as well, probably with much worse consequences for people’s mental health and well-being. Also in this case, avoidance is no more a way to maintain decorum, it is just the result of the terrible fear of being derided and excluded from the online community.

Looking back to archaic societies can help us analyze some complex modern phenomena. Shame and guilt are human emotions, but as a study by the American psychologist Paul Ekman showed, they are not universal ones such as joy, sadness, surprise, fear, anger and disgust, for they are not experienced, displayed and interpreted in the same way by everyone. Shame and guilt profoundly depend on cultural factors: this is the reason why we can spot differences in how shame and guilt affect behavior moving from one era or geographic area to another. Indeed, every society develops its own idea of what is socially acceptable and admirable. Shifting from archaich societies where heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus were considered the role models, to modern, consumerist societies where wealth and individual realization are the main terms of comparison between people, we observe changes in how the “shame culture” and “guilt culture” materialize. However, the fact that shame and guilt depend on the cultural environment means that these emotions can be shaped and educated. This is exactly why new generations are promoting tolerance and inclusion: toxic interactions can disappear only if the mentality changes, and to reach this goal it is important to understand how detrimental social mechanisms work and trigger our emotions. 


“The face of man: expressions of universal emotions in a New Guinea village”, Paul Ekman

“The Greeks and the Irrational”, Eric Dodds

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