George Entwistle accounted himself ‘honourable’ as he resigned his position as head of the BBC, and Lord Patten joined in the applause. It was as if Entwistle thought he deserved it. Ancient Greeks would have been baffled. You cannot honour yourself. Only others can do that. The man had failed. Did he have no shame?
Aristotle analysed shame much as we do: it is a feeling ‘connected with disrepute in the eyes of those whom a person holds in high regard’. Such a person ‘takes account of those who admire him and whom he admires and by whom he wishes to be admired; he feels more shame at things done in the open before such people’s eyes, especially if those people are with him and watch him, or are inclined to tell others, or are themselves not liable to the same accusations…’.
But Aristotle took it still further, arguing that a person would feel shame for failure even if it was not his own fault, because those who were unaware of the circumstances would almost certainly conclude that he had been lacking e.g. grip or energy. As Aristotle pointed out, ‘we are ashamed of all such deeds as are seen to be disgraceful’. For example, he goes on, it was a cause for shame not to be educated to the same level as one peers, ‘even more so if it is one’s own fault’. Herodotus illustrated the point perfectly. When king Croesus, fearful for his son’s life, ordered him to stay at home and not go to the hunt, his son pointed to the shame he would feel: surely people would think him a coward?
In other words, while we regularly give people the benefit of the doubt for failure — especially if we are aware of the circumstances — Greeks less charitably tended to see a person not as a moral agent but as serving a particular function. They felt no reason to value people who were not up to the job, whatever their good intentions. So Entwistle’s sanctimonious appropriation of ‘honour’ and Patten’s smug agreement would not have amused them in the least. But in the BBC one thing can be guaranteed: dismal failure will generate endless self-righteous bleating about its value to the world. A little shame would not come amiss.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012