Shame in Aristotle and Epictetus by Harald Kavli

In this post I would like to examine the role the concepts aidôs and aiskhynê play in the moral psychology and in the ethics of Aristotle and Epictetus. Both of these terms can be translated as “shame.” In the West, shame has gained a relatively bad reputation, and it is sometimes considered to be something we should try to get rid of. As David Konstan notes: “We are ashamed of our shame”[1] 

Shame, however, is a complex concept that involves a lot. It is an emotion that prevents us from doing actions that we consider to be morally reprehensible or degrading, but it can also be a kind of pain that we feel when we think about or are confronted with things in the past that we regret. I hope to show that shame can be a good thing, when it is the case that the feeling or response of shame hits the right target. Feeling ashamed of a growling stomach, for example, or refraining from seeking help when you have run into difficulties that you yourself are unable to solve, are obviously irrational. But feeling ashamed of your own moral shortcomings, or feeling ashamed of the idea of ​​committing a morally reprehensible act seems very appropriate for our moral development.

Aristotle And The Stoics On Emotion.

When you are reading Aristotle, I think that it is important to be attentive to which problem he is trying to solve in his discusssions. When he discusses whether actions are performed hekanton or akonton (often translated as “voluntary” and “involuntary,” and when he discusses prohairesis (“decision,” “choice”, “commitment”), he analyzes these concepts within specific contexts. These concepts are necessary to understand which of our actions we can and cannot be blamed for (and how much), and to understand something about the connection between virtue and our actions.

Aristotle writes about the emotions several places, but the longest continuous treatise on emotions is in the Rhetoric. Emotions are important for rhetoric, since one of the key tools for persuade someone is to create an emotional reaction in the person(s) that you want to persuade. 

If you are defending a person accused of murder, who has admitted to having committed the murder, it may be okay to highlight bad events in the killer’s life to try to arouse the sympathy of the judges so that they will punish him more leniently. If, on the other hand, you are the prosecutor, there are several other emotions you can play on. You can play on the judges’ fear that they or someone they love will be exposed to an unwanted incident if a person like this goes free, or you can play on the pain that they have felt when they have lost someone. It is thus not necessarily the case that Aristotle aims to give a complete discussion of all possible aspects of emotions in The Rhetoric, but rather to discuss emotions insofar as they are necessary for (or involved in) persuasion.

Aristotle is a philosopher who takes the human emotions very seriously. Virtue has, among other things, an affective aspect. That is to say, a virtuous person will feel certain things, to the right degree, at the right time, in the right situation, and directed towards the right targets. Accordingly, a person who is angry at a person for several years over something trivial , would not be virtuous, nor would a person who fails to feel anger when he or she is subjected to a great insult.

Emotions also have a cognitive aspect, that is, they have a close connection with beliefs that we have, and emotions, as Aristotle understands them, are the reason why people form different beliefs about the same issue. Furthermore, emotions are linked to pleasure and pain (Rhetoric, II , 1, 1 378a20). For example, if I feel anger towards a person because I think that person has exposed me to a serious offense, this anger will probably disappear if I find out that person has not offended me, but that it is rather I who have misunderstood the situation.

If we want to make someone angry, for example if we want to try to make a judge (or jurymember) angry with a defendant in a trial, there are three things we should know, according to Aristotle: in what way the judge is disposed to be angry, who the judge is angry at, and what things are causing the judge to get angry.

Unfortunately, very little has been preserved from the texts of the ancient Stoa, and the little that has survived is often preserved as quotations and paraphrases in the preserved writings of other thinkers. We do know, however, that Zeno (d. ca. 262 BC), the founder of Stoicism, wrote a work on emotions. [2] The later Stoics also wrote about the emotions, but little of it has been preserved. However, we have enough material to be able to understand the main features of what the Stoics thought about emotions, as we have the mentioned fragments, a couple of doxographies, and a couple of later texts from, among others, Cicero (d. 42 BC ) and Seneca (d 65 AD). In the Discourses, Epictetus (d. Ca. 135 AD) does not have any own treatises devoted solely to emotions [3] but the idea that we must free ourselves from desire and fear of things that are beyond our control is a dominant theme in his texts.[4]

The first point that should be clarified in order to understand the Stoics’ view on emotions, is that the term they use for “emotion”, pathos (pl. pathê), is somewhat narrower than what we mean by the term emotion. A pathos is, to put it briefly, what follows from a misconception about goods and evils, and they can be further divided and classified. This gives us the following form[5] :

GoodPleasure (hêdonê)Desire (epithymia)
EvilPain (lupê)Fear (phobos)

An example of someone feeling the pathos fear is a person who fears to be executed. For the Stoics, neither dying nor the pain associated with dying is an evil.

The Stoics also believed that there is no middle ground between being virtuous and being vicious, and only the virtuous person has the so-called “good feelings” (eupathêiai) . They can be schematized as follows:[6]

GoodJoy (khara)Wish (boulêsis)
Evil(empty)Caution (eulabeia)

The big question is whether there are also good feelings for us non-sages. For example, if I desire to be virtuous, or feel ashamed of my moral shortcomings, then those can hardly be said to be examples of pathê, since these feelings are not the result of any erroneous belief. Virtue is good, vice is evil. I will come back to this.

Aristotle and the Stoics agree that emotions have a clear cognitive aspect. They will also agree that a change of belief will lead to a change of emotion, and they agree that there is an affective aspect of virtue. However, they will disagree on what the emotional life of a virtuous person looks like. Aristotle believes that feeling anger, at the right time, to the right degree, for the right reasons, and so on, is a feeling associated with having a good temper, which is a virtue (Nicomachean Ethics IV, 5, 1125b-25-35). The Stoics, on the other hand, insist that anger is never a good thing.[7]

Aristotle On Shame

The Greeks had two words that can be translated as “shame”: aidôs and aiskhynê, and whether these terms are synonyms, have been debated. David Konstan refers to the Eudemian Ethics (1128b32-3) where Aristotle seems to consider aidôs as something we feel with regard to the presence or the future, while aiskhynê  is also felt about something in the past. 

Konstan also refers to Diogenes Laertius’ treatment of the emotional theories of the Stoics, in Lives of the Philosophers, book VII, 112 and 116, where aiskhynê is treated as a type of fear (which is a pathos), while aidôs is a subgroup of the eupatheia caution.[8]  Both concepts may, however, be translated with the word “shame” according to the LSJ.

In The Rhetoric, Aristotle defines shame (aiskhynê) as as a “pain or disturbance in regard to bad things, whether present, past, or future, which seem likely to involve us in discredit; and shamelessness as contempt or indifference in regard to these same bad things” (Rhet , II, 6, 1183b12-15)

He then goes on to discuss what makes us feel ashamed, who we feel shame for and in what way we must be disposed in order to feel shame. We feel ashamed to do things that show we are vicious. These sorts of actions include throwing away our shield in a fight (this shows a lack of courage), sexual excesses (this shows a lack of moderation), or not paying our dues, talking too much about oneself, flattery and inability to tolerate discomfort (1383b15-84a7).

Aristotle also claims that we experience shame when we do not take part in the noble things that our peers have, for example if one does not have the same education as one’s peers of the same background (genos), and especially if you yourself are to blame for failing to get these things (1384a8-14). We also feel ashamed if we are exposed to, have been exposed to, or will be exposed to things that lead to disgrace. An example of this is being exposed to violence, since being exposed to indicates lack of manhood and courage (1184a15-20). The latter two are not as obviously associated with virtue as the other examples.

Here we may see a distinction between what we modern humans may be tempted to call proper and improper shame. Feeling ashamed of our own mistakes makes sense. If I’m unfaithful against my wife, or if I am not paying my taxes as I should, then it makes sense to say that I should feel ashamed. 

But failing to climb as high on the career ladder as my peers, will, at least in those cases where I do not get as far as the others due circumstances beyond my control,  not be anything that says anything about me as a person. At least not in the same way as throwing away the shield and running away from the battlefield does. The same applies to being abused. I admittedly have a little trouble understanding what precisely Aristotle believes is shameful in this. Is it not trying to defend oneself that is shameful, or is it not being able to, or both?

If a friend feels ashamed at underachieving, due to no fault of his own, or if he or she feels ashamed at having been subject to some kind of physical assault, it would make sense to tell the friend that these things are nothing to be ashamed of. It seems intuitive that there are some things that it is proper to feel ashamed at, like all kinds of moral short comings, and some things that it is improper to be ashamed at, like all things that are not moral short comings.

It might be that Aristotle first and foremost seems to be interested in saying something about what it is we do feel ashamed of, and not necessarily what we should feel ashamed of. Another objection is that shame is linked to our reputation with our peers, and consequently we may not necessarily think that shame should only be linked to what we actually have control over. If you are regularly trampled on by others, even if it is not deserved, and whether we try to defend ourselves and not, this will probably affect how other people look at us. The same goes for the inability to enjoy external goods. 

We feel ashamed before the people we value, as it is not disgrace in itself that is evil, but rather disgrace in the eyes of people we take to be decent, or whose opinions matter to us. We also feel ashamed before people we admire, and people who are apparently more likely than others to bring us into disgrace, such as people who like to gossip, and comedy poets (1384a21-b9).  The latter, according to Alessandra Fussi, since they can damage our reputation among the people we recognition from.[9] 

Furthermore, we are prone to feel ashamed if we (1) have a relationship with people we care about, and (2) these people are able to see or account for the shameful things that we have done (1384b26-35). What if we do something shameful without anyone we care about noticing? Based on Aristotle’s understanding of shame, I think the answer must be that in that case we would not feel shame. 

However, this does not mean that I cannot feel that I have fallen short in some way, and that I should work on my own character. Fussi writes that the absence of witnesses who may make a difference in my public reputation “prevents the feeling of shame, but it does not necessarily prevent feelings that are related to our sense of responsibility or perception of having failed.”[10] Shame, however, is a social phenomenon in Aristotle, so it requires that other people who have an ability to influence our reputation notice our mistakes. 

What role can we say that shame plays in the ethical development of Aristotle’s thinking? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that shame is not a virtue, since shame is more like a feeling and not a disposition (Nicomachean Ethics, IV, 9, 1128b10-11). This is an emotion, he says, that is more appropriate for a young person than for an old one, since young people are more controlled by their emotions and desires, and consequently need to be corrected for their shortcomings. 

According to Aristotle, shame is not appropriate for adults, as we can expect more from them, and consequently we can expect them to refrain from doing shameful actions. We can thus at least say that shame plays a role in the moral development from children to adults. Therefore, shame seems to have a conditional value, by virtue of being something that can make us susceptible to correcting ourselves in a period of life where we cannot be expected to be able to act out of a virtuous character. 

We should also notice the distinction that Aristotle draws between being ashamed of things that we consider to be shameful due to conventions, and the things that are simply shameful. In the face of our acquaintances, we feel ashamed of what is shameful, while towards strangers from afar we feel ashamed of what is considered shameful by convention. Aristotle claims that children are particularly prone to shame as they have not yet understood what is truly noble, but have been taught by nomos, or convention, alone (Rhetoric , II, 12. 1389a29-30).

Epictetus on Shame

Our sources for Epictetus’ philosophy are mainly limited to the notes from one of his students, Arrianus, and The Discourses are often considered to have originally been longer than the text that has survived to our time. It becomes a bit cumbersome to write “Arrianus claimed that the Epictetus said… ” every time I quote from the Discourses, so I will allow myself to simply say that “Epictetus writes that… “. 

As I noted earlier, there is no complete dissertation or treatise on the Stoic theory of the emotions within the writings of Epictetus, but several of the emotions are discussed in different places, including aidôs and the adjective that is arguablyderived from aidôs, or at least akin to that term, aidêmôn. It is a bit difficult to translate aidêmôn to English, but “self-respecting” or “modest” seems to cover at least some aspects of the term.

It might also help to think of it as the opposite of hubris: While a hubristic person exceeds the limits of what is acceptable, and is often unable to even see the limits, an aidêmôn person will stay within proper bounds. This can again be seen in connection with Epictetus’ role ethics, that is, the idea that what we should and should not do can be derived from who and what we are. Both by virtue of our common human nature, as rational and social beings, but also by virtue of our individual nature, which is connected with our capabilities, status in a society, and the specific situation we are in at a particular time. 

For Epictetus, it seems that being aidêmôn is also something that defines us as human beings. 

Search and you will find what sets us apart [from the animals]. See that we understand what we do, see that the difference lies in our sense of community, our credibility, our moderation, our steadfastness, our intelligence. So where is the great good and evil for humans? Where they stand out. 

Discourses, I, 28.20-21

Furthermore, Epictetus writes:

How were we born? As free, noble, and moderate. For what other animal blushes? What other animal understands the notion of shame? [poion aiskhrou fantasian lambanei;]

Discourses 3.7.27.

Shame also affects the ideas we can support

Still, nature has given me the feeling of shame, [aidôs], and I often blush when I take it upon myself to say something shameful. And it is this movement that does not allow me to consider pleasure as a good and purpose of life.

Epictetus, Fragment 14.

The feeling of shame is also something that can be built up or broken down by our own actions. In the same way that Aristotle believes that we become righteous by doing righteous deeds, Epictetus says that we break down our sense of shame by doing shameful acts, and build it up by acting in accordance with it. We see this, among other things, in Discourse 2.4, where Epictetus speaks to a person who has stepped over a limit of sexual decency (apparently by attempting to seduce another man’s wife). Here Epictetus’ claims that by doing such things we will destroy our sense of shame, which in turn destroys the sense of community (Discourses, II, 4.2-3). He further writes that just as a carpenter and a grammarian preserve his technê by performing it skillfully, and breaks it down by the opposite, a person will break down his sense of shame by doing shameful acts, and build it up by acting in accordance with it (Discourses, II, 9.10-11)

Epictetus’ discussion of shame does not seem to have much to do with a fear of a bad reputation, although it is definitely a social aspect of shame, as the ability to feel shame seems to be related to the sense of community and our ability to live out our rational and social nature. 

Aidôs also seems to be related to the concept of appropriate actions (or kathêkonta). In his paper “ΑΙΔΩΣ in Epictetus”, Rachanan Kamtekar claims that aidôs gives us an ability to reflect on our actions, not only on whether they are right or wrong, but also on how the actions we perform say something about us as moral agents.[11] To understand this point, we need to take a closer look at Epictetus’ role ethics. 

In Discourses II, 10 we see a kind of hierarchical approach to roles. We begin by assessing what is appropriate for us by virtue of being human, and since humans are rational and social creatures, the appropriate actions for us will be rational and social actions. Secondly, there are other roles, which we have by virtue of being a father, a citizen of a particular city, etc. We can thus derive appropriate actions based in part on our role by virtue of being human, and more specifically by virtue of having certain relationships with other people and positions in a society. In all cases, an appropriate action will be something that involves playing their role in a good way. Aidôs comes into the picture when we see the tension between how we should live, by virtue of our roles, and how we actually live, especially by virtue of being human, which is a rational being, and consequently, potentially divine according to the Stoics. 

You carry around a god, jackass [talas], and you are unaware of this. Do you think I’m talking about an outer god of gold or silver? You carry it in yourself, and you do not sense that you are dirtying it with unclean thoughts and actions. And if an idol had been here now, you would not have dared to do the things you do now. But when God is present in yourself, and it observes and hears everything, do you not feel ashamed to think and do these things as you do, without sensing your own nature and under the wrath of God?

Discourses, II, 8.12-15.

Concluding Remarks

I have now tried to give a brief account of how Aristotle and Epictetus think about emotions in general, and shame in particular. I have tried to place particular emphasis on the role of shame in social interaction and our moral development. I now want to try to say something about whether shame is a good thing or not, and how the thinkers I have discussed would have answered this question, and how these thoughts fit into our modern notion of shame. 

Intuitively, I think both Epictetus and Aristotle will say that shame can be a good thing in some respects. For Aristotle, we have seen that he attributes shame to a certain importance for the moral development of young people. Although Aristotle writes that “we do not want to praise an older person for being ashamed, as we believe he should not do anything that gives cause for shame (Nicomachean Ethics, IV, 9. 1128b20-21). Later in the same chapter, Aristotle argues that a decent person will refrain from committing shameful acts, and that it would be absurd for a person to claim that he is decent for feeling ashamed of the shameful thing he has done. 

This is probably true, but I still wonder if Aristotle will attribute shame to a certain role as a motivation for a careless person who has realized his carelessness and wants to do something about it. Will the shame of past moral mistakes be able to motivate him to not do them again in the future? We also saw that Aristotle claims that we feel ashamed of certain things that are beyond our control. I think this is descriptively very true, but I’m a little more unsure whether we should feel ashamed of such things, and whether we should try to not to feel ashamed about those things.  

In Epictetus we saw that shame is a central feature of being human. Shame is related to our understanding of who we are and what role we should play. We saw that shame is a key motivator for developing virtue and a sense of community, and consequently shame is not something that we should try to rid ourselves of in every possible case.

I am less certain about what Epictetus would have said in regards to the shame we may feel over not enjoying the benefits that our peers enjoy, or from being exposed to injustice. On the one hand, he would probably have denied that things like a career, education and reputation are goods. But on the other hand, I think he would have been far more inclined to say that failing to play the role one can in society, given the abilities and dispositions one has, is an evil, and consequently a person who has access to, for instance, political office, but still rejects it in favor of a more leisurely and less socially useful life will do something shameful. In any case, I think there are good reasons to stop being ashamed of our shame, and rather try to get it to hit the right targets. Shame seems to play an important role in our moral development and our self-understanding, and consequently it is not something that we should try to get rid of completely.


  • Aristotle. 2018. Rhetoric , translated by CDC Reeve. Hackett Publishing
  • Aristotle. 2013. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Anfinn Stigen and Øyvind Rabbås . Vidarforlaget , Oslo. 
  • Arrianus. Epictetus ‘ Discourses, Enchiridion and fragments. 
  • Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 2002. Tusculan Dissertations, Books 3 and 4.” In Cicero on the Emotions, translated and commented on by Margaret Graver. Chicago University Press, Chicago/London.
  • Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Available from
  • Fussi , Alessandra. 2015. “Aristotle on Shame.” Ancient Philosophy 35: 1. 113-135. 
  • Kamtekar , Rachana. 1998. “A ΙΔΩΣ in Epictetus.” Classical Philology, 93: 2. 136-160. 
  • Konstan, David. 2006. The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks. University of Toronto Press, Toronto / Buffalo / London.

[1] Konstan, 2006, 110.

[2] Diogenes Laertes, Lives of the Philosophers, VII, 4 .

[3] Epictetus never wrote anything himself, but one of his students, Arrian, wrote down some of his discourses, which he collected in a work called Diatribai , or Discourses in English, as well as a shorter collection of quotes such as was called Enchiridion, or the Handbook. See also Arrianus’ preface to The Discourses .

[4] See, among others, Enchiridion 1 and 5, and Discourses 1.1.

[5] See Diogenes Laertes, VII 110 – 115 ; Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, IV, 11-12.

[6] See Diogenes Laertes, VII 116, and Cicero, Tusculan Disputations IV, 12-14.

[7] Seneca has a separate work on this, On Anger.

[8] Konstan, 2006, 95-96.

[9] Fussi, 2015, 120.

[10] Fussi , 2015, 118.

[11] Kamtekar, 1998, 147.

Harald Kavli studies philosophy and classical languages at the University of Oslo, is the facilitator for Oslo Stoics and is currently working on a translation of Epictetus’ Discourses. He is the former editor of Filosofisk Supplement, a student-run philosophy journal affiliated with the University of Oslo.

5 thoughts on Shame in Aristotle and Epictetus by Harald Kavli

  1. That was an excellent discussion of “shame”, Harald. As a psychiatrist and medical ethicist, I’m understandably occupied with the issue of “shame”–and its cousin, “guilt”–and the value or non-value of being “ashamed.” Fundamentally, I agree with you–and, I believe, with both Aristotle and Epictetus–that shame has a positive value, in certain circumstances. I especially like the point that shame has a certain “communal” or communitarian value, as Epictetus suggests. But, as you note, there are actions or situations for which shame is an unhelpful and even irrational response; e.g., “I am ashamed of being two pounds overweight.”
    Dr. Paul Wong has put the matter well:
    “Shamelessness in doing things that are universally considered shameful may not be a good thing; the absence of shame can be harmful to one’s psychological and spiritual well-being just as the inability to feel pain can be harmful to our physical well-being. Despite the inherent value of shame, it can be harmful to the development of resilience and flourishing, if one depends too much on avoiding, escaping, and succumbing as coping responses to shame. Furthermore, suppressed memories of shameful events come back to haunt us. In sum, negative emotions are constructive when they motivate us toward what is good and adaptive but destructive when we choose to withdraw from or suppress them.”
    Best regards,
    Ronald W. Pies, MD

  2. Pat Kennedy says:

    Very interesting, regarding the two alleged words being synonymous, after reading Aristotle’s works, it would appear to me one means public or social shame the other, a more personal shame or personal failure.
    Points made regarding rhetoric, the hot air of men that drives the waves of social discontent, the basis of Aristotle’s views often are intertwined with the then current moral compass or views. Like his tortured reasoning on noses and white and black.

  3. Daniel says:

    This is a good article, and you brought up the Stoic theory of emotions which i think is excellent but i am confused you didn’t make the Stoic distinction between the fear of disgrace, which is a subset of fear and is the traditional shame and Moral shame which is under the good emotion caution. Is this a translation problem, when Epictetus is talking about shame i assume he is talking about moral shame and not the fear of disgrace. Its hard to believe Epictetus is talking about a passion as a good thing.
    The translation i am using is here.
    I would appreciate an answer as this is something i have thought a great deal about.



    • Pat Kennedy says:

      Modern folk reinterpreting times of long ago, the views and perspectives of these past events and or terms and what they mean will be unsuccessful. Our opinion and slant will always be of the current time and not of then. consider this, man was the center, earth the center, optical glass changed all this and we can’t go back. City states and the arise of man and wisdom outstripped man and his observation of phenomena.

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