In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes on “Human Wickedness.” The bulk of his reflection:
The second cause [of human wickedness] is the effect of Psychoanalysis on the public mind, and, in particular, the doctrine of repressions and inhibitions.
Whatever these doctrines really mean, the impression they have actually left on most people is that the sense of Shame is a dangerous and mischievous thing. We have laboured to overcome that sense of shrinking, that desire to conceal, which either Nature herself or the tradition of almost all mankind has attached to cowardice, unchastity, falsehood, and envy.
We are told to ‘get things out into the open’, not for the sake of self-humiliation, but on the grounds that these ‘things’ are very natural and we need not be ashamed of them.
But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one; and even Pagan society has usually recognized ’shamelessness’ as the nadir of the soul.
In trying to extirpate shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit, madly exulting in the work as the Trojans exulted when they pulled the Horse into Troy.
I do not know that there is anything to be done but to set about the rebuilding as soon as we can. It is mad work to remove hypocrisy by removing temptation to hypocrisy: the ‘frankness’ of people sunk below shame is a very cheap frankness.
Who comes to mind as possessing shamelessness? That hollow frankness? I think of politicians: Anthony Weiner, sure. Rod Blagojevich, remember him? Ashley Dupree, Elliot Spitzer’s paramour. And all the sorry Jon Gosselins of shabby celebrity.
The tragedies of these lives is in their public witness to our cultural obsession with pointless egalitarianism and mindless non-judgmentalism that tolerates or endorses every act of personal weakness as objectivity a good thing on the road to whatever “self-discovery” might mean. Not that—as voyeurs—we really care.
We don’t really have much to definitively say about anything, so we follow the moral fashions of our time. But who is shaping those fashions? We lack a shared sense of the value of judgement, but more to the point we lack a sense of the value of civility or shame.
Shame and guilt in their proper context (not in the Hester Prynne sense, in other words) are of great social value for a healthy culture. Without a sense that certain actions are surely wrong, we become hollow narcissists.
Those feelings of shame, or of the guilt the speaks to legitimate regret are part of what keep us human beings and part of what keep us from becoming monsters.