Nicomachean Ethics: Aristotelian Virtue of Shame
Nicomachean Ethics: Aristotelian Virtue of Shame
“The only shame is to have none.” This quote by the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal expresses the importance of the feeling of shame, a vital part to the human psyche. Though the idea of “shame” carries negative connotations, there would be mass chaos and disorder were it not for shame, one of the basest of human emotions, so much so that Pascal considered it disheartening for one not to feel shame at some point in his life.

This begs the question, “What is shame?” To start, the American Heritage Dictionary defines the word as “a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.” The feeling most closely associated with shame is guilt. In general, when one commits a wrongdoing, he is stricken with guilt, depending on the severity of the action, followed later by shame. Guilt is the feeling of responsibility for an action that one regrets. Shame is a much more deep-seated feeling than guilt, stemming from disappointment in one’s fundamental character. Guilt is the result of what one does, as opposed to shame, which is caused by what one is. Another distinction is that guilt is an internal conflict; the feeling arises from the self realizing that a misdeed has been carried out. However, shame can be considered an external conflict, wherein the scorn of others leads one to feel degraded.

Due to the nature of the two emotions, people respond to guilt and shame differently. Guilt is based on what someone did wrong, which often brings about more constructive responses, namely efforts to fix the damage done. Guilt is linked to beliefs of right and wrong, moral and immoral. When one breaks one of the moral standards, he typically tries to make things right again. This is why guilt is an important tool in maintaining standards of right and wrong in society as a whole. On the other hand, shame deals with what is wrong with one’s self. The shameful will look much more inwardly and will feel decidedly poorly about themselves, rather than about the acts performed. As a result, they will behave more secluded, avoiding social situations, hiding their faces, and such. Shame does not help the situation and tends to actually make matters worse.

However, in The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle mentions shame in his list of moral virtues which any good man should strive to achieve. He describes it as a “quasi-virtue”, as something that does not quite fit into the category of redeeming qualities. Aristotle’s definition reads, “Shame should not be described as a virtue, for it is more like a passion than a state of character. It is defined, at any rate, as a kind of fear of dishonor (Aristotle 79)” The reason he considers it a partial virtue lies within the fact that shame restrains people from becoming wild and corrupt, particularly the

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Aristotelian Virtue Of Shame And Strong Sense Of Guilt. (April 3, 2021). Retrieved from