Guilt, which the modern West regards as “the most terrible sickness”, and civilisation go hand in hand: the higher the civilisation, the more it is driven by guilt. The success of the modern West is based on the sublimation of guilt, which is simultaneously a curse and blessing.
So argues John Carroll in this fascinating but provocative recasting of studies he did in the 1980s. “The culture of the West has been shaped by guilt. From the crushing humiliation of Oedipus to the original sin of Christianity, and on to the depressive neuroses postulated by modern psychotherapy, there is a continuous, indelible thread,” he writes.
Carroll, long one of the most original and interesting commentators on contemporary society, draws on history, literature, psychology, philosophy and cultural studies but – perhaps prematurely, in my view – dismisses theological understandings of guilt as “metaphysical naivety”, even while acknowledging what a prominent role the notion of original sin has played.
Guilt has built the modern West, about as pleasant a society as humanity has so far managed, yet guilt and despair are an inevitable concomitant in a cycle of failure – a bleak view. As Carroll asks, what hope is there for a people who feel ever more guilty but have lost faith in earlier methods of easing anxiety, such as religion?
He divides guilt into moral and dispositional. Moral guilt is guilt at bad acts or failure to act; dispositional guilt is “deeply embedded in character. It is as if individuals were born with it. As inseparable from their nature as the colour of eyes, it infuses who they are, and everything they do.” In its mysterious but universal transmission, this account strikes me as a psychological version of original sin.
A helpful analogy illuminates: the wife who is cold to her husband in the morning and warm in the evening to compensate suffers moral guilt leading to reparation. The wife who thinks her husband is growing cold and is extra warm to win favour suffers dispositional guilt, for she is guilty of nothing.
“Naive” cultures, such as Indigenous Australians, disprove original sin, Carroll argues, for they have no existential or inherited guilt. Medieval European Catholicism provides a dismal picture of a delinquent society, brutal and cruel without a lot of conscience. Elizabethan England was little better – village life was poisoned by inquisitorial neighbours, a place filled with malice and hatred, while the towns were more anonymous but more brutal.
Yet a radical shift was beginning: an emerging middle class brought interest in knowledge and literature, and valued thrift, work and discipline, especially thanks to the Puritans. Above all, conscience began to determine behaviour, creating new anxieties and a much stronger sense of guilt.
If there is no expatiation for sin, there is no point in God. “Guilt has not only killed God, it has replaced him.”
This stage, which Carroll calls persecutory guilt, requires a distant and austere God. The next stage, after the Stuart restoration, is gentler and more secular, but guilt has become dispositional. The old remissions of sacrifice, good works, prayers, pilgrimages and relics no longer work. And, moving on through the 19th and 20th centuries, as faith in God collapses, so does any possibility of remission. If there is no expatiation for sin, there is no point in God. “Guilt has not only killed God, it has replaced him.”
While guilt may not be the whole story, Carroll concedes, “it remains the force that drives character, history and culture. It provides the fame and the energy for the way individuals think and behave in the modern West … Wherever there is Law there is guilt, as both creator and consequence.” And guilt is everywhere: from failing the decree to be good parents, to vocation (bringing guilt when a job is slipshod), to being a good citizen and to the universal moral code. Advertising works by raising guilt anxiety, then soothing it, he says.
A particular strength of On Guilt is Carroll’s imaginative and insightful use of great literature. Look at this list of authors, just a sampling: Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Bunyan, Hobbes, Austen, Bronte, Carlyle, Eliot (George and T.S.), Feuerbach, Dickens, Darwin, Hawthorne, Melville, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, James, Freud, Camus and Kafka.
A weakness, from my lay perspective, is Carroll’s reliance on Freudian psychology, which is hardly uncontested. In particular, he tends to sweeping generalisations, whose certainty masks how speculative they are. In fact the book depends on such generalisations – otherwise it would be dauntingly long – for which I generally see the point, yet I constantly find myself saying “but … but …”
On Guilt is an intellectual tour de force that, ultimately, leaves me unpersuaded.
This article first appeared in The Age.