Will Smith, Socrates, and the Virtues of Fear and Shame

Commentary The size comparisons between Will Smith and Chris Rock could not have been more obvious than when Smith stormed onto the stage during the 94th Academy Awards and slapped Rock for a comment he made about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Smith’s towering figure represented a man who should be feared. The Hollywood film award ceremonies have become a time where celebrities are roasted by the Master of Ceremonies, none more memorable than Ricky Gervais during the 2020 Golden Globes. Every celebrity is fair game. It is a time for celebrities to be shamed somewhat into a bit of humility. Shame and fear used to be a prominent part of American society, and the extremely public incident between Smith and Rock was a representation of what once was, and arguably should still be. Socrates and the Virtues of Shame and Fear Shame and fear are hardly looked upon as virtues. Most often they are looked upon as vices, or at least modes of self-deprecation. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, argues that shame and fear can guide us toward the virtuous life, and can actually be virtues themselves. In “The Republic,” Socrates tells his friend Glaucon that “there are two guardians, shame and fear.” These are the guardians of the community. They are what helps establish a balance between individuals and families. Socrates uses shame and fear in the context of the relationships between the young and old. “Shame, which makes men refrain from laying hands on those who are to them in the relation of parents; fear, that the injured one will be succored by the others who are his brothers, sons, fathers.” Socrates points out, rightly, that there are some acts so shameful that society’s disdain of them is enough to refrain one from doing them. Secondly, if one was so inclined to conduct such a shameful act, there would be further cause for pause due to fear of reprisal from those “brothers, sons, fathers.” A Society Without Shame and Fear Our society has turned these two guardians into villains. There are the constant endorsements for people to dress, talk, and act however they wish. This disdain for social norms, commonly referred to as traditional norms, has culminated into a society without shame. Socrates experienced this overturning of social norms and condemned it. He identified how society had reconstituted vices into virtues: “insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage.” This lack of shame has resulted in a perverted form of courage in which people stand upon the weak foundation of self-adulation and mock those who defer to traditional values. Those who hold to those traditional values do so because they fear shame. They fear the destruction of their established reputation, one that has been guided by the knowledge of what is shameful and who should be feared. That moment on the Oscars stage was a microcosm of old society clashing with the new. Rock, in his defense, was merely flowing with the traditions of what had been adopted over the decades. It was, as he said, a joke. The boundaries for insulting people had long been abolished, and therefore, as aforementioned, everyone was fair game. But something had changed, if not for many, at least for one man: Will Smith. For Rock, Smith was the wrong man to insult and, in traditional form, was one to be feared. For Smith, he was the wrong man to take offense. A Clash of Two Societal Eras There was a time when insulting a man’s wife was worse than insulting the man himself. People were not only slapped for such insults, they were injured, or even killed. Those were called duels. Spouting such an insult was shameful, but receiving such an insult and doing nothing about it was even more shameful. It was intolerable, and, regardless of the outcome, something had to be done to rectify the insult. As Socrates said, “If a man has a quarrel with another he will satisfy his resentment then and there, and not proceed to more dangerous lengths.” (For obvious reasons, dueling proceeded to the “more dangerous lengths” and was not proportional to an insult.) Smith was prompted to defend his wife’s honor, and therefore his own. Smith, in his size and fury, demonstrated what should be clear to everyone: You do not insult a man’s wife, especially in the most public of settings. If the shame of such an act is not enough to keep you from the act, then the fear of the “brothers, sons, fathers”–and, in this case, husbands–should be enough. Rock’s expression and response said it all. There was the shock of the moment. “Will Smith just slapped the [expletive] out of me,” he blurted out. Aside from being slapped on international television, the shock had to come from somewhere else as well. It had to stem from the perplexity that two eras of American society collided in a single moment. What was once fair game had now become completely off limits―the past had reverted to the present. For certain Rock felt the change. Smith f

Will Smith, Socrates, and the Virtues of Fear and Shame

Commentary

The size comparisons between Will Smith and Chris Rock could not have been more obvious than when Smith stormed onto the stage during the 94th Academy Awards and slapped Rock for a comment he made about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Smith’s towering figure represented a man who should be feared.

The Hollywood film award ceremonies have become a time where celebrities are roasted by the Master of Ceremonies, none more memorable than Ricky Gervais during the 2020 Golden Globes. Every celebrity is fair game. It is a time for celebrities to be shamed somewhat into a bit of humility.

Shame and fear used to be a prominent part of American society, and the extremely public incident between Smith and Rock was a representation of what once was, and arguably should still be.

Socrates and the Virtues of Shame and Fear

Shame and fear are hardly looked upon as virtues. Most often they are looked upon as vices, or at least modes of self-deprecation. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, argues that shame and fear can guide us toward the virtuous life, and can actually be virtues themselves.

In “The Republic,” Socrates tells his friend Glaucon that “there are two guardians, shame and fear.” These are the guardians of the community. They are what helps establish a balance between individuals and families. Socrates uses shame and fear in the context of the relationships between the young and old. “Shame, which makes men refrain from laying hands on those who are to them in the relation of parents; fear, that the injured one will be succored by the others who are his brothers, sons, fathers.”

Socrates points out, rightly, that there are some acts so shameful that society’s disdain of them is enough to refrain one from doing them. Secondly, if one was so inclined to conduct such a shameful act, there would be further cause for pause due to fear of reprisal from those “brothers, sons, fathers.”

A Society Without Shame and Fear

Our society has turned these two guardians into villains. There are the constant endorsements for people to dress, talk, and act however they wish. This disdain for social norms, commonly referred to as traditional norms, has culminated into a society without shame. Socrates experienced this overturning of social norms and condemned it. He identified how society had reconstituted vices into virtues: “insolence they term breeding, and anarchy liberty, and waste magnificence, and impudence courage.”

This lack of shame has resulted in a perverted form of courage in which people stand upon the weak foundation of self-adulation and mock those who defer to traditional values. Those who hold to those traditional values do so because they fear shame. They fear the destruction of their established reputation, one that has been guided by the knowledge of what is shameful and who should be feared.

That moment on the Oscars stage was a microcosm of old society clashing with the new. Rock, in his defense, was merely flowing with the traditions of what had been adopted over the decades. It was, as he said, a joke. The boundaries for insulting people had long been abolished, and therefore, as aforementioned, everyone was fair game. But something had changed, if not for many, at least for one man: Will Smith.

For Rock, Smith was the wrong man to insult and, in traditional form, was one to be feared. For Smith, he was the wrong man to take offense.

A Clash of Two Societal Eras

There was a time when insulting a man’s wife was worse than insulting the man himself. People were not only slapped for such insults, they were injured, or even killed. Those were called duels.

Spouting such an insult was shameful, but receiving such an insult and doing nothing about it was even more shameful. It was intolerable, and, regardless of the outcome, something had to be done to rectify the insult. As Socrates said, “If a man has a quarrel with another he will satisfy his resentment then and there, and not proceed to more dangerous lengths.” (For obvious reasons, dueling proceeded to the “more dangerous lengths” and was not proportional to an insult.)

Smith was prompted to defend his wife’s honor, and therefore his own. Smith, in his size and fury, demonstrated what should be clear to everyone: You do not insult a man’s wife, especially in the most public of settings. If the shame of such an act is not enough to keep you from the act, then the fear of the “brothers, sons, fathers”–and, in this case, husbands–should be enough.

Rock’s expression and response said it all. There was the shock of the moment. “Will Smith just slapped the [expletive] out of me,” he blurted out. Aside from being slapped on international television, the shock had to come from somewhere else as well. It had to stem from the perplexity that two eras of American society collided in a single moment. What was once fair game had now become completely off limits―the past had reverted to the present. For certain Rock felt the change. Smith felt the change the moment the insult was issued; or perhaps it was long before the awards ceremony ever began.

The world (the celebrity world in particular) has responded with differing views on Smith’s slap, and it shows that there are those who wish the old society gone, while there are those who still embrace the old. I blame neither Rock nor Smith for the incident. Both were playing by the rules of American society, although two different societies.

The hope, at least for me, is that our modern society will revert back to the guardians of shame and fear. There will be the return to some boundaries that guide our discourse and interaction. And as Rock and Smith rather unintentionally taught, there must be, or at least can be, some recourse to overstepping the boundaries established by shame and fear.

In praise of Rock, he further unintentionally taught this Socrates principle by choosing not to press charges against Smith. Socrates noted that when there is recourse “neither will trials for assault or insult ever be likely to occur among them. For that equals should defend themselves against equals we shall maintain to be honorable and right; we shall make the protection of the person a matter of necessity.”

Smith Has Brought the Joke Upon Himself

For a brief moment, Smith adopted the traditional societal norms. He defended his and his wife’s honor. But this is where the perplexity, if not downright absurdity, begins. Will and Jada Pinkett Smith engage in an open marriage, meaning that the sanctity of their marriage, at least in sexual terms, is open for others to intrude. Intrude is the proper term. For how can anyone see allowing someone else to have sex with your spouse as anything other than an intrusion into the most sacred aspect of your marriage?

This is the reason I stated that Smith was the wrong man to take offense. He has not only made a mockery of himself and his wife, but has made a mockery of the most traditional of institutions and societal norms: marriage. This is also why Rock had to be even more confused. Smith had drawn the line at jokes directed toward his wife in a forum that is understood to condone such interaction, but had not drawn a line on adultery.

Smith, for all his reckless abandon in pursuit of doing what is honorable and right, is nothing more than a man who has embraced the ideals of both the old and new societal norms and become a walking contradiction.

Perhaps the shame he sustained and corrected will open his eyes to the greater shame he has brought upon himself and will lead to self-correction. If that happens, perhaps more will follow suit and embrace the virtues and community guardians: shame and fear.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Dustin Bass is the host of Epoch TV's About the Book: A Show about New Books With the Authors Who Wrote Them. He is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast.