Shame and War

USGS topographical map. “Japan, Korea, and Northeast China.” 2006.
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What leads men and states to the path of war?

For centuries thinkers and strategists of the Western tradition have turned to Thucydides and his history to find answers to this question. The great historian speaks of Athenian envoys rising up in hostile halls to justify their city’s course:

An empire was offered to us: can you wonder that, acting as human nature always will, we accepted it and refused to give it up again, constrained by three all powerful motives, honour, fear, interest?[1]

Fear. Honor. Interest. 

These three terms are the cornerstone of the Western realist tradition. They are both the bedrock upon which hard-nosed theories of world politics are built and the grounds where actual realpolitick has been decided. To Thucydides’s Athenians and those who have followed them these three words were not just forces “all powerful,” but impulses innate to humanity, a defining feature of man and the driving cause of man’s misery.

The realists of the Sinic political tradition do not have any one phrase they can point to as the foundation of their tradition. They did not leave the question unaddressed, however. One succinct summary can be found in the ancient Warring States era strategic text, the Simafa, or The Grand Marshal’s Methods. The author forgoes Thucydides’s tripartite division of human nature for a description in four-parts:

Glory, profit, shame, and death are referred to as the Four Preservations.[2]

These four, it is implied, will be the force that moves men to preserve the state and assure its victory when arms are raised. Some of these match up quite closely to Thucydides’s expression. “Profit” finds its way onto both lists, while the Marshall’s Methods “death” states clearly what men most “fear.”  It is more difficult to find Thucydides’s “honor” among the Marshal’s Four Preservations. Both “glory” and “shame” seem to fit the bill, and it would be easy to conclude this matching game by concluding that the Marshal’s Methods simply draws attention to two different aspects of honor and leave the matter at that. 

I ask my readers not to do this. Considering each of these elements separately exposes some of the biases in the Western–and especially, American–patterns of thought. Shame, for example, a concept so central to both daily interactions and high politics across Asia, holds little sway in America. When it does register in the public consciousness it is usually in reference to some crusade to deny it any influence: thus a recent series of viral videos featuring overweight women dancing their hearts out is titled the “No Body Shame Campaign,” while the word “shaming” has been largely appropriated to mean any bigoted sort of criticism you think shouldn’t be tolerated (e.g. ‘slut-shaming’). 

The ancient Greek sense of honor was a very public emotion. Those living in the honor culture of Thucydides’s day believed that honor not earned was shame deserved. Not so for those living a Christianized, post-Enlightenment democracy! [3] Americans have a very different conception of honor than our classical forebears, and an even weaker sense sense of shame. In American discourse, shame is something you stand up against, not something expected to move or motivate you. 

Glory is much easier to understand. The desire to win, to compete, to do great deeds and be lauded for them, permeates American culture. It is such a fundamental part of our world view that we sometimes forget that this drive to be undeniably better than the rest is not a universal desire.

Writes Richard Nisbett:

“An experiment by Steven Heine and his colleagues captures the difference between the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self improvement. The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus “creativity” test and then gave the students “feedback” indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how log the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed.” [4]

There are large parts of the world that do not think–and more importantly–do not feel like Americans do. There are places where shame moves men to do heroic things and pressures them to committ heinous acts. As the Grand Marshal suggests, shame lies at the scarred heart of as many battlefields as interest or profit. 

I do not think American statesmen are accustomed to putting the power of shame into their political calculations. This is unfortunate. Increasingly, ours is a world where the burden of shame will mean the difference between war and peace.


[1] Thucydides 1.76. Benjamin Jowett translation (1881). See also 1.74.

[2] Simafa ch. 3. In Ralph Sawyer, trans. Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993). p. 136.

[3] See James Bowman’s discussion in Honor: A History (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), ch. 1-3.

[4] Nisbett, RIchard. The Geography of Thought: How Westerners and Asians Think Differently… and Why. (New York: Free Press, 2003). p. 56.

The actual study referenced is:  Steven J. Heine, Shinobu Kitayama, Darrin R. Lehman; Toshitake Takata,  Eugene Ide, Cecilia Leung, and Hisaya Matsumoto, “Divergent consequences of success and failure in Japan and North America: An investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81, Issue 4. (Oct 2000).

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From what I get here, you are trying to purse out the meaning of shame and honor and put them in the context of Western vs. Eastern relations. I feel that these two words mean the same thing unlike you, but I would agree that different individuals tend to be motivated by honor/shame on different levels, and that our neighbors to the East tend to be motivated by it more.

On a completely different note, I began thinking about the implications of this difference, and my mind strayed toward Germany and German economic policy. Let me state my case simply with a few opinions of mine to save time on Germany vs. USA/UK:

1. In the postwar period, Germany adopted the social market economy as its fundamental tenet, with influences from Ordoliberal economists.
2. The United States and the United Kingdom in the postwar era, meanwhile, first went heavily toward Keynesianism, and then in the 80’s made a shift which eventually found its way to neoliberalism. We are still in this period of neoliberalism.
3. While the USA/UK found itself shifting constantly, Germany maintained a relatively stable course.
4. Long term policy is only possible with consistent policy, and constant shifts are economically wasteful. Gradual shifts over time are the most efficient system of governance from a utility perspective.

Of course the 4th point is the most debatable, and I do not see it as iron-clad. However, I feel that the East Asian countries fall into Germany’s camp, and especially China has seen a smooth and gradual transition from Communism because of this mindset.
Perhaps this could be contrasted with Russia, which moved quickly, perhaps too quickly, away from its previous system.
One additional note I would like to make is that I would like to see the intracultural differences between East Asian countries on this point, as we often conflate the region to all share the same views and opinions.


I feel like Thucydides "honor" and the Simafa's "glory" and "shame" are very similar. I appreciate the distinction the Chinese text makes between the 'glory' and the 'shame' side of honor, however, because it forces Americans to consider carefully a set of emotions they usually dismiss or deride. Shame is universally seen as a negative thing to be avoided. Not so in the Chinese tradition:

"Confucianism conceptualizes shame as an emotion as well as a human capacity that directs the person inward for self-examination and motivates the person toward socially and morally desirable change. When one has done something wrong or socially inappropriate, admitting one’s misconduct and desiring to change oneself is also believed to be an act of expiation requiring personal courage (Fung, in press; Wu & Lai, 1992). It is this very function and power of shame that Confucianism values and fosters. The common Western association of shame as being harmful to a person’s health (Schneider, 1977; Wurmser, 1981) does not appear to be part of the Confucian aspiration. In Chinese culture, if a person is perceived as having no sense of shame, that person may be thought of as beyond moral reach, and therefore is even “feared by the devil.” Thus, shame to the Chinese is not a mere emotion, but also a moral and virtuous sensibility to be pursued (Fung, in press; Hu, 1944; Hwang, 1987; Schoenhals, 1993; Zhai, 1995).

That may be why a sense of shame is one of the four Confucian moral principles carved on monuments such as the Chinatown Gate in Boston. Its meaning overlaps with that of one’s conscience (Wu & Lai, 1992).

Indeed, this particular acknowledgement of shame echoes in writing throughout Chinese history. For examine, Chu (1972) found that more than ten percent of the chapters in the Confucian Analects, one of the classics Chinese scholars master, are concerned with the value of shame. Tu (1979) also discussed how other influential Confucian scholars (e.g., Wang Yang-ming, 1472-1529, A.D.) viewed shame as an essential human emotion/capacity that underlies one’s moral development and conscience"

-Li Jin, Wang Lianqin, and Kurt Fischer, "The Organization of Chinese Shame Concepts", Cognition and Emotion (2003), p. 7-8

So this conception of 'shame' is at the center of Chinese (and Japanese) political philosophy and is a prime motivator in every day actions. And they think this is a very good thing.

On top of this, the texts of the Seven Military Classics mention shame over and over again, both as a cause of war and as emotion that must be instilled within the troops if the general is to be successful.

I do not think Americans understand the power of the emotion, nor do they instinctively associate it with war. When they speak of honor this is usually not what they mean — and few wars in American history were fought with past shame as a primary (or even secondary!) motive.

My friends over at Zenpundit have written several posts about how "fear, honor, and interest are ever present in “calculation” both by men and by the political communities they compose and the factions that threaten to tear them apart", with which I generally agree. I think, however, that using the Marshal's "glory, profit, shame, and [fear of] death" is just as useful a rubric, especially when nations of like China and Japan are involved.

Great piece. It is essential for American strategists to escape from their narrow, "Westernized, secularized" vision of things. Shame matters and is a key driver of behavior that undermines much of the rational actor theory.

This is why miscalculation by our standards is a very real prospect and we should be prepped for it. WHile drawing too many analogies between East Asia and 1914 Europe is mistaken, the one thing that should not be forgotten is that the unexpected is always a very real possibility. Assumptions to the contrary are the height of folly and naivete.

I thought I remember Kagan writing a book with the explicit argument that 'honor' (And to a degree, 'fear') was not part of the realist mental toolset.

Donald Kagan.

I remember the argument specifically in 'On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace.'

I'm not saturated in foreign policy writing, so I can't be sure that he's right, but what experience I do have supports his view as I recall it.