Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Phaedra of Shame to Guilt, the Phaedras of Guilt to Responsibility

There are many historical examples one can give of cultures dominated by any given social regulator. Tribes are regulated by familial/tribal disappointment. Ancient Greece was of course a shame culture. The Roman Empire was a guilt culture (as is Jewish culture and Islamic culture). The Modernist West was a responsibility culture. The Postmodern West is a collective guilt culture.

We get the emergence of a shame culture when there are too many people around to be regulated by family alone. When your social networks become too big because you are living in city-states, friends, colleagues, and important strangers' opinions of you begin to matter. Perhaps not coincidentally, these cultures also tend to be polytheistic (this may involve literal, identifiable religions, but it may also involve various "idols" such as we see in teen culture). The problem with historical polytheism is that there are conflicting values in the different gods. This means one cannot always know what the gods want, meaning you cannot rely on them as a guide to action. Social life is thus the most important social regulator. In literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey portray shame cultures at their strongest. 

In Athens during the tragic age, it seems the Greeks were starting to move into a guilt culture. Euripides' Hippolytus investigates this transition. Phaedra is feeling guilty about her feelings for her stepson, Hippolytus. However, she is feeling shame in equal measure. The problem is that you only feel shame if people know what you have done or how you feel. All you have to do is behave yourself or make sure nobody knows, and you won't feel shame. However, guilt compels you to confess your sins. Thus, after Phaedra is compelled by guilt to confess her feelings to her nurse, she immediately feels shame because the nurse knows. The nurse, being firmly embedded in the shame culture, thinks that if Phaedra has told her about her feelings, that she must not be ashamed of those feelings (perhaps thinking Phaedra's insistence on her shame is a show), so she promptly tells Hippolytus. Phaedra commits suicide precisely in order to avoid the shame she fears will arise from her nurse's actions. Had Phaedra felt only shame, she would have never told the nurse; had she only felt guilt, she would have told the nurse, but she would not have been compelled to kill herself. It is the combination of shame and guilt present in Phaedra that creates the situation where she thinks the only bearable way out is suicide and her damning letter.

There were many things happening in Athens that may have been pushing it toward becoming a guilt culture. The tragedies were being performed at the Great Dionysia; Dionysus may have begun to emerge as a monotheistic god (given the fact that Dionysus had pretty much all of the traits of all of the other gods, such a transition to Dionysus would make sense). Plato was also active in the proliferation of philosophy at the time, which in many ways sought to provide an external set of principles by which all people could live (a necessary condition for feeling guilt). The Athenian democracy itself may have provided those external principles, in much the same way as Roman Law provided the external principles of the Roman Republic/Empire. Virgil's Aeneid portrays the Romans as a guilt culture from their founding.

In Rome during the age of Seneca, Rome was going through a transition from a guilt culture to a responsibility culture through the influence of Stoicism. Stoicism may not have quite reached the average Roman citizen, but it was spreading through the upper classes, even reaching an emperor -- Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism in many ways challenged the authority of Roman Law, since man's reason and nature's laws are believed to be supreme -- meaning each could be used to challenge the law and, thus, the foundation of the Roman guilt culture itself. It is likely this challenge to the authority of the law that kept Seneca in trouble with the ruling authorities, even if Nero's decision to have Seneca commit suicide was likely idiosyncratic.

It is probably no coincidence that Seneca seemed to have written his tragedies while in exile. That was a clear indication his world view was in conflict with the majority culture. Investigating this conflict in the ways social regulations come into conflict is the theme of the Phaedra/Hippolytus myth, so it is also no surprise Seneca wrote a Phaedra play. But because Seneca was writing about the transition from guilt to responsibility rather than from shame to guilt, the story could not maintain its complete structure. Phaedra kills herself much later in Seneca's version than in Euripides' precisely because the conjunction of guilt and responsibility cannot take place until after Hippolytus' death. Phaedra has to feel guilty about Hippolytus' death, and she has to take responsibility for her false accusation before she can have the impetus to commit suicide.

Of course, the Stoic-driven responsibility culture did not manage to fully emerge and take over because of the spread of Christianity. Christianity, with its external principles rooted in God's law, was of course a guilt culture. The Catholic Church developed several institutions that feed into and fostered that guilt culture -- the most obvious being confession. The need to confess was given an institution within the church itself. The exemplary literary work of the Christian guilt culture is of course Dante's Divine Comedy. It is no coincidence that Dante has himself led through Hell and Purgatory by Virgil, the author of another epic poem rooted in guilt culture.

It is also no coincidence that when Europe exited guilt culture and entered responsibility culture, reason and natural law, that Seneca and the other Stoics were rediscovered and influenced the emergent culture and literature. Seneca's tragedies influenced both Shakespeare and Racine, even if it was only the latter who wrote a Phaedra for the times.
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