The Greek Way

Shame and Necessity

by Bernard Williams
University of California Press, 254 pp., $25.00

Bernard Williams’s brilliant, demanding, and disturbing book is the fifty-seventh volume of the Sather Classical Lectures, which are delivered annually at Berkeley on a classical subject. Its title calls to mind the work of a predecessor in the series, E. R. Dodds, who called the second chapter in his book The Greeks and the Irrational, “From Shame-culture to Guilt-culture.” The echo is deliberate; Williams’s preface makes admiring reference to Dodds, under whom he studied Greek at Oxford, as the author of “one of the most helpful and enduring books in the series, and…one of the closest in subject matter to the concerns of this study.”

It is true that in his first two chapters Dodds is concerned, as Williams is, with “ideas of responsible action, justice, and the motivations that lead people to do things that are admired and respected.” But Dodds, working with anthropological constructs such as “shame and guilt cultures,” saw the ideas of the archaic Greeks on these matters as very different from ours. A shame culture, such as Dodds believed existed in Homeric times, puts high emphasis on preserving honor and on not being publicly disgraced; it relies on “external sanctions for good behaviour.” The allegedly more evolved guilt culture emphasizes personal responsibility and relies on “an internalized conviction of sin.” Others have seen the ideas of the archaic Greeks as not just different, but inferior, or rather, as Williams puts it, “primitive ideas” which “have been replaced by a more complex and refined set of conceptions that define a more mature form of ethical experience.”

There are, of course, real differences between our outlook and that of the archaic Greeks, but Williams rejects firmly the now fashionable picture of Greek ethical ideas and their relation to our own, which is “developmental, evolutionary, and—in an ugly word that I have found no way of avoiding—progressivist.” He proposes to “stress some unacknowledged similarities between Greek conceptions and our own,” unacknowledged because “it is an effect of our ethical situation, and of our relations to the ancient Greeks that we should be blind to some of the ways in which we resemble them.” For in studying them we are not like cultural anthropologists who observe other societies to learn about “human diversity, other social or cultural achievements, or, again, what has been spoiled or set aside by the history of European domination.” The Greeks “are among our cultural ancestors” and to learn about them is “part of self-understanding” and “will continue to be so,” for the “Greek past is specially the past of modernity…the modern world was a European creation presided over by the Greek past.”

Yet this is not, in itself, reason enough to study the ethical ideas of the ancient Greeks; “it is too late to assume that the Greek past must be interesting just because it is ‘ours’.” Such study would have importance (and here Williams is quoting Nietzsche) only if it is “untimely,” so that what …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.