[Report] Lecture by Prof. Douglas Cairns "Honour and Shame: Modern Controversies and Ancient Values"

26 June, 2013 TAKADA Yasunari, SHIMIZU Shogo

On May 31st, 2013, UTCP invited Prof. Douglas Cairns, Professor of Classics at the University of Edinburgh. Prof. Cairns delivered a lecture entitled ‘Honour and Shame: Modern Controversies and Ancient Values’.

Prof. Cairns pointed out that we do see the phenomena of honour and shame in our contemporoary society. For that reason, he claimed, the ancient Greek notions of honour and shame should not be studied as notions detached from us; they should be studied as notions that concern us.


According to Prof. Cairns, honour was already complex, dynamic, and inclusive in the earliest Greece. He illustrated this by referring to Homer. For example, in the Iliad, when Agamemnon and Achilles have a quarrel, Nestor urges them to show respect to each other’s quality, with Agamemnon having a higher rank and Achilles being a better fighter. Nestor refuses to adopt a single criterion, thinking that Agamemnon and Achilles should be righteous to each other. There is the link between honour, right, and morality in the Iliad.

Another example from the Iliad is Achilles’ accepting the supplication of Priam, who is told by the gods to retrieve his son’s dead body. Achilles accepts the supplication because he understands mutual respect. By this Achilles is given glory, or honour, by Zeus. Honour here is not a matter of being musculine or being competitive, but is a matter of showing humanity to another human being. Achilles sees the other side as deserving as much respect as his side does.

Achilles and Hektor pursue honour, but come to realise that honour is more complex than they thought it would be. The community judges the heroes, and the heroes have obligation towards the community. Honour in Homer implies negotiations with other members of the community.


The topics of the discussion session included gods’ honour, gods’ plan, Aristotle’s virtue, the contemporary notion of dignity, and so on. An hour of discussion did not seem to exhaust the wide range of questions and comments, or the great interest in the Homeric notion of honour.

(Report: SHIMIZU Shogo)

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