peter frost has a really, really cool post up about how some societies are “shame cultures” while others are “guilt cultures” (i’ll let you guess which ones are which (~_^) ): The origins of Northwest European guilt culture.
this post is mostly going to be a response to — or a riff off — peter’s post, so, if you haven’t already, you might want to head over to his blog and read his post first. i’ll wait here.
oh! back already? ok! let’s get started…
“Shame is the primary means of behavioral control in most societies. If you are seen breaking a social rule, you will feel shame, and this feeling will be reinforced by what people say and do (gossiping, malicious looks, spitting, ostracism, etc.). Shame is much less effective if you break a rule without being seen or if you merely think about breaking a rule.
“Guilt is more important in European societies, particularly those of Northwest European origin. It operates even when you act alone or merely think about breaking a rule. Behavior can thus be regulated in all possible situations with a minimum of surveillance.”
i haven’t read anything about shame vs. guilt cultures, so i don’t know if this division is correct or not (it certainly feels right), but let’s assume — just for now (i WILL investigate this further, because i think it might be a key point wrt any General Theory of the West) — that this is right and that northwest europeans (my “core” europeans) feel guilt more than most other peoples.
peter suggests that this guilt tripping of nw europeans goes right back to early anglo-saxon england and maybe even to pre-christian, pre-invasion continental germanic societies. he offers a couple of examples from anglo-saxon literature/christian writings: a passage from Beowulf and religious writings from the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries.
peter thinks that the passage from Beowulf might indicate that feelings of guilt versus shame go right back to pre-christian anglo-saxon (germanic) days. i’m a big fan of Beowulf, but its date is disputed — could be from anywhere from the eighth to the eleventh centuries — and parts of it could be earlier or much later than other parts. so it’s difficult to use Beowulf as an indicator of what was going on in the minds of anglo-saxons of any given period. i’m going to call it unreliable and stick to the christian writings which can be much more securely dated.
from peter’s post:
“In Anglo-Saxon England, guilt already existed as a major means of behavioral control. The English abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (955-1010) described it as a special kind of shame where the witnesses to the wrongful act are divine entities or spirits of the dead:
“‘He who cannot because of shame confess his faults to one man, then it must shame him before the heaven-dwellers and the earth-dwellers and the hell-dwellers, and the shame for him will be endless. (Bedingfield, 2002, p. 80)’
“This argument comes up repeatedly in Anglo-Saxon literature, where it forms a ‘penitential motif’:
“‘The motif runs: it is better to be shamed for one’s sins before one man (the confessor) in this life than to be shamed before God and before all angels and before all men and before all devils at the Last Judgement. (Godden, 1973)’
“Guilt thus played a major role in English culture at least as far back as Anglo-Saxon times. Furthermore, it seems to have been indigenous:
“‘One particularly interesting fact that emerges is the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon character of the motif. Not only did it circulate widely in Old English writings but the only two Latin works in which I have been able to find it were written by Anglo-Saxons — Alcuin and Boniface. Moreover an important element of the motif, the notion of three hosts present at the Last Judgement, is itself characteristic of Anglo-Saxon writers: the usual representation of the Last Judgement in continental works (as in Alcuin’s letter) has the angels and all mankind present, and sometimes the devil as prosecutor, but not the whole host of devils, whereas the concept of the three hosts, as in Boniface’s homily, is very common in Old English writings generally. (Godden, 1973)’”
to me it sounds as though these early christian anglo-saxon writers — boniface (d.754), alcuin (d.804), and aelfric of eynsham (d.1010) — were NOT writing about guilt, but rather about shame — albeit a rather special form of shame where, as peter said, the witnesses who would shame you were not living members of your society but “divine entities or spirits of the dead”. kind-of like how santa keeps a list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice even though he spends most of the year up at the north pole. (how does he do it?!) somebody’s watching, so you’d better behave!
afaics, that’s still not guilt — i.e. when individuals check their own behavior simply because they’d feel bad if they did something wrong. this early anglo-saxon shame-guilt thing sounds like the beginnings of a transitional phase moving from a shame culture to a guilt culture. and this transitional phase seems to have been underway already in boniface’s day or the eighth century.
early anglo-saxon england was full of transitions. one big one that i’ve written about previously (see here and here) was the disappearance of the kindred which likely began in the early 900s (or possibly the late 800s). the overall trajectory of anglo-saxon society during the early medieval period seems to have been that of a move away from a more local-group-oriented sort-of society based upon kindreds towards a more individualistic society based upon the nuclear family. something similar seems to have been happening across the channel in the low countries (and, probably, northeastern france and northwestern germany — and kinda-sorta in parts of northern italy).
the amazing thing about these societies that became more individualistic is that they — seemingly paradoxically — became the very same societies in which collective behaviors work the best! BROADLY collective — like on a society-wide basis. strong majorities in “core” europe are oriented towards the commonweal in ways that many, if not most, other societies are not (there are exceptions — and there are no doubt more).
so northwest (my “core”) europeans can have these (so can the japanese!)…
…because most people in society would feel guilty — internally, all on their own — if they stole from somebody else.
i suspect that guilt does not go back to pre-christian germanic societies. if they had’ve had guilt proper, then the early christian anglo-saxon clerics wouldn’t have written these weird quasi-shame/quasi-guilt lessons for the people. they would’ve just talked about guilt and everyone would’ve understood it in an “of course” sort-of way.
feelings of guilt were probably selected for over the course of the middle ages in northwestern europe starting in the early part of the period. i would wager good money on it! (^_^) and it was thanks to The Outbreeding Project (imho) — to quote myself:
“think of it like a two-stage rocket:
“- THEN sets the stage for creating different selection pressures in that different social environments are created (egs. nuclear families, extended families, clans, larger tribes). it’s HERE in this second stage where the behaviors — either clannish or not (or any range in between those!) — are selected for (or can be selected for).“
including guilt. i betcha!
look forward to part ii of peter’s post on this question. stay tuned!
(note: comments do not require an email. santa and friends! (~_^) )