Old Man with a Beard

“… shame will vanish.” Hesiod, Works and Days

Hesiod gives a remarkable description of a degenerate culture by pointing to several of its hallmark characteristics. This one is particularly chilling.

“Shame” for the Greeks refers to a crucial human passion: one that recoils from what is wicked or indecent. The feeling of shame is rooted in an insight—be it ever so subconscious or pre-conceptual—an insight into the real distinction between good and evil. Indeed true shame springs from an appreciation that moral uprightness is precious, and its opposite repulsive.

While to feel shame for evil is natural, just how deeply and about what we feel it is subject to our social and moral environment. Cultivation of proper shame is a hallmark of civilization.

But shame can vanish.

Our society often treats what is shameful as though it were good. The worst instances are perhaps too obvious to need mentioning. Yet we might fruitfully look closer to home, and consider our own sensitivity to what is shameful, albeit in lesser instances. Immodesty, crude language, unnecessary violence, rude manners, disrespect for authority and age, crassness, a cult of ugliness: these are shameful. Yet it seems we are becoming inured to them. Alas, sometimes we entertain ourselves with them; we watch (even share?) internet videos highlighting them.

If we, our friends, and our children are not ashamed of that which is shameful, rooted in a reverence for the whole spectrum of what is good and beautiful, then we must act to change this.

Hesiod’s words may have described his age, and they do describe our own age in large part. It is in our power whether they describe our own lives and households.

Hesiod (8th century B.C.) was a Greek contemporary of Homer, and likewise an epic poet. His Works and Days sketches the year-round work on a homestead. It also describes various characteristics of both a troubled time period—Hesiod’s own, and those of a golden age. I am going to devote several Wednesday Quotes to the characteristics of the former, followed by several concerning the latter.

Image: Old Man with a Beard, Rembrandt

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