In ancient Greece, there was even a goddess in its name.
Shame. It was an important concept, the flipside of honour, and the goddess's name was Aidos.
Those Greeks were lovely creatures, and not just for their chiselled physiques. They knew that how we feel affects how we act. Motivated by the prospect of shame, a citizen wants to do the right thing. It's a great societal control.
How far we have come.
Which is why last week's announcement by John Browne that he would resign immediately as chief executive officer of London-based energy giant BP PLC was a welcome reminder of that old-fashioned thing called shame. It's almost a quaint notion.
As a result, Lord Browne's handling of a scandal renders him rather noble.
Too ashamed to tell the truth about how he met his lover, the gold-digging 28-year-old Jeffrey Chevalier, Lord Browne lied in court. (Lord Browne was seeking an injunction to block publication of the story Mr. Chevalier had sold to The Mail on Sunday, one of Britain's more raunchy tabloids.)
Rather than admit that he had used a kinky-sounding online escort service, suitedandbooted.com, Lord Browne testified that he had encountered the young man while exercising in Battersea Park in south London. The lie, not the affair itself - which he conducted openly - brought about his downfall.
Kinky behaviour in high social places is almost expected in Britain, but clearly Lord Browne was too much of a gentleman to admit to using an escort service. And he wasn't about to go into a long defence about making what is a harmless lie - not blurted to hide any knowledge of wrongdoing (à la Martha Stewart's denial that she was aware of any insider trading) but rather to preserve his dignity.
Ironically, his decision to act on the shame he felt has guaranteed him the dignity he feared he would lose.
He is a hero controlled by that individual psychological agent known as the conscience. He didn't want to prolong the shame BP would endure with him as its leader, even though the company's internal investigation had found no evidence to supportMr. Chevalier's claims that Lord Browne had abused corporate privileges during their four-year affair.
Still, Lord Browne fell on his sword, resigning at a cost of as much as $35-million in lost pension and other benefits.
Which is positively Homeric of him.
Sophoclean, too. In Sophocles' version of the Oedipus tale, the King of Thebes acts as his own judge, blinding himself and going into voluntary exile because he is ashamed of his crime of marrying his mother, Jocasta, even though he did it unknowingly. She is ashamed, too, and hangs herself.
Such self-sacrifice is unheard of now. We live in a shameless society. Paris Hilton's sex tape, which even a generation ago would have been considered shameful and ruinous, instead made her famous. Hugh Grant's 1995 oral encounter with prostitute Divine Brown increased his celebrity and garnered him a still-discussed interview with Jay Leno during which he appeared even more adorable for having admitted to lewd behaviour.
Shame is rarely, if ever, admitted to. In fact, it's so closeted, we go out of our way to expose shameful acts. Consider the mug shots of celebrities caught for drunk driving that are slapped all over the gossip tabloids. Or the videos that are leaked to television stations and websites. Seinfeld star Michael Richards was revealed to harbour racial thoughts only when a video of him hurling slurs at an audience surfaced on TMZ.com. He later apologized.
Probably, as celebrities usually do to defend their shameful acts, he will blame stress. Blame is how we avoid feeling the primal emotion of shame.
The motivation of shame is certainly what drove Randall Tobias, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to resign suddenly a few weeks ago after accused Washington madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey identified him as being on a client list of 15,000 names she gave to a U.S. television network.
But did he admit to the shame of having paid for sex? Oh, no. He told ABC News he used the service only for massage. Who would feel the need to resign over paying for a massage?
If he had publicly admitted to the shame of it all, he would have come out of the scandal smelling as lovely as Lord Browne. He could have been a classical (and classy) hero of high-mindedness.