Contrary to Aristotle’s claim that shame is not properly a characteristic of a good person, except perhaps conditionally (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, V.9), Baruch Spinoza argued in his Ethics that shame was good:
… shame, like compassion, though, not a virtue, is yet good, insofar as it shows, that the feeler of shame is really imbued with the desire to live honourably… therefore, though a man who feels shame is sorrowful, he is yet more perfect than he, who is shameless, and has no desire to live honourably(Spinoza, Baruch, Ethics, Part Four, Prop. LVIII.)
The person who feels shame is “more perfect” than the person who is shameless, because the feeling of shame indicates a desire to “live honorably”. To feel shame is to recognize the distance between one’s actions and what is honorable; and consequently, shame is already a kind of ethics, or at the very least, an ethical orientation.
The difference between Aristotle’s view of shame and Spinoza’s is no mere philosophical subtlety. It is the result of dramatic shift in the human subject as it emerged from Antiquity to Modernity. Foucault referred to this shift at the end of his introduction to The History of Sexuality where he wrote, “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for a political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question (Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, 143.)” The life of the modern subject, according Foucault, has become politicized in what Foucault called bio-power, which brings “life and mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of transformation of human life (Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1, 143.)” The modern human being finds their life called into question by the very apparatus that sustains it.
Giorgio Agamben has located the paradigm of the modern subject in the ancient Roman juridical figure of homo sacer, who having been judged for a crime was rendered sacred (removed from the normal order and yet remaining in it). As such, homo sacer was prohibited from being sacrificed but could be killed with impunity (Agamben, Homo Sacer, 71.)” Agamben suggests the extermination of the Jews in Nazi Germany as an example of the life of homo sacer. The Jew in Nazi Germany was judged sacred, removed from the normal order and yet remaining in it. In the concentration camps, these homines sacri were reduced to bare life (zoe) until they became what were referred to as Muselmann, a being in whom all animal instincts and human reason is cancelled and yet lives. However, Agamben rejects that the extermination of the Jews in the concentration camps was a “Holocaust.” This term is an unfortunate misnomer, that indicates a sacrifice was made. The extermination of the Jewish people in the concentration camps was not a sacrifice. It was simply killing with impunity. Agamben writes:
The Jew living under Nazism is the privileged negative referent of the new biopolitical sovereignty and is, as such, a flagrant case of a homo sacer in the sense of a life that may be killed but not sacrificed. His killing therefore constitutes, as we will see, neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualization of a mere “capacity to be killed” inherent in the condition of the Jew as such (Agamben, Homo Sacer, 114.)”
Curiously, those who survived the camps wrestled with deep feelings of shame for having survived. Why? They had not committed any crime for which they should feel guilty. Surely no one would accuse a survivor of such horrific circumstances of having saved their lives at the expense of someone else’s. Agamben suggests that shame is the bedrock sentiment of homo sacer, not because they have committed an offense for which they should feel guilty but simply because of their status as sacred within the biopolitical sphere. Agamben defines shame as “the fundamental sentiment of being a subject.” For Agamben, shame represents the locus of a new ethical material in the human being that lives in a post-Auschwitz world. “The lesson of Auschwitz,” writes Agamben, is that “the human being is the one who can survive the human being (Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 133.)” This human being is “always beyond or before the human, the central threshold through which pass currents of the human and inhuman, subjectification and desubjectification, the living being’s becoming speaking and the logos’ becoming living (Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 135.)”
Drawing on Marx’s claim that shame is the beginning of a revolution, Agamben argues that the modern subject feels a “silent shame of being human” that leads to a severing of the link between themselves and the political power in which they live. This is “the shame of the camps” which recognizes that the unimaginable has occurred; “that what should not have happened did happen (Agamben, Means Without End, 131). This kind of shame cannot be mastered through accepting it, as Nietzsche would have it in the myth of the eternal return, or declaring one’s innocence, as Nazi authorities attempted to do at Nuremberg by arguing that they were compelled to follow orders and therefore could not be held responsible for war crimes. Instead, this kind of shame becomes the fundamental structure of the human subject.
Shame is the “hidden structure of all subjectivity and consciousness” and means simply, “being consigned to something that cannot be assumed (Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 128.)” What Agamben is suggesting in his definition of shame is that shame is the product of an ontological bipolarity intrinsic to the modern human subject that is simultaneously embedded in the bio-political sphere and extricating itself from it. As such, shame involves a paradoxical movement of “subjectification and desubjectification, self-loss and self-possession, servitude and sovereignty (Agamben, Giorgio, Remnants of Auschwitz, 107.)” What remains to be seen is where this shame will take us. For Agamben, it will move us toward a community that resists bio-political sovereignty that reduces life and makes homines sacri of us all. One can only hope that Spinoza was right, and that shame is the beginning of a more honourable life.