No one knows the origin of the Old English word “gylt” (“a crime”), but by the late 17th century it had developed its modern meaning of “a sense of having done wrong”, rather than just the “doing wrong” in the first place.
People talk of ancient cultures’ being either Shame- or Guilt-based, depending on whether the primary motivation for a hero’s heroism is external (Shame – he’ll feel embarrassed in front of his peers) or internal (Guilt – he’ll feel bad about himself). I first heard this distinction in a queue for coffee, from a Japanese PhD student who was comparing the heroic world of medieval Japan to that of the Iliad. Hector, the most fully developed example in Homer, is driven by Shame: although Homer famously doesn’t give us much of what’s going inside the head (you have to take people, as in real life, from what they say and from what they do), sometimes he allows a literary soliloquy to reveal some of the inner psychic gloom. At the key point of Hector’s life (i.e. just before Achilles kills him) he wonders whether he can avoid his fate by parley or by flight. Both are rejected: the former as there is not even the slightest chance that Achilles will stay his sword, the latter for reasons of Shame – “for surely I would not be able to hold my head high among the other Trojan heroes, were I to do this”. So he resolves to stand. But then Achilles gets nearer, Hector’s resolve turns to water, and he runs. But at the very end, when Hector realises that the unexpected appearance of his brother is just another deception of the gods, and that, as their dupe, there really is no hope, he dies nobly, charging his foe heroically and impaling his neck on the spear before him. Homer gives us no insight here, merely the description of Hector’s actions: we are given no indication of what spurs Hektor to this final act of bravery, but today we naturally read it to be an inner force, a sense of what a man has to do, in short Guilt, which drives the soft skin onto the metal. Homer’s characters are not simply motivated by Shame: Achilles himself in Book 9 recognises the social need to accept Agamemnon’s gifts, yet owns up to Ajax that he still cannot bring himself to do this: tragically for Achilles, the inner emotion defeats the outer.
But, as with the false contrast between deontological and consequentialist ethics, here is surely another binary opposition ripe for undermining. For what is the actual force of the feeling of Guilt? Why does it hold us so powerfully? Is it not at bottom a kind of Fear, an anticipation of future pain, a fear of the Shame we know will come over us when we meet those we have hurt or let down? The inner judge who gives us the sense of having done wrong is merely stirring an anticipatory anxiety for our coming public disgrace. Hector’s inner psyche knew that by driving him on to die like a man he was ensuring that he would be outwardly remembered as one.