Scholars' Association News
Issue 20
October 2011


Show Images Hide Images

Before Forgiveness
by David Konstan
David Konstan,
Professor of Classics at New York University, and John Rowe Workman Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Classics and the Humanistic Tradition at Brown University, USA

Forgiveness is a virtue very much in vogue. To forgive even the greatest crimes is acknowledged to be difficult, but we are full of praise for those who manage to achieve such generosity of spirit, and even if we do not condemn those who fail to live up to the ideal, we harbor the hope that they may find in themselves the strength and courage to do so. We regard forgiveness as therapeutic: it is good to get over the past and move on, as the expression goes. Some observers have detected a certain coerciveness in the expectation that we must, or at least ideally should, be forgiving. Perhaps there are situations or offenses that one ought to resent; when it comes to great acts of injustice, it may be wrong to give in to our personal wish to feel good and thereby seem to pardon or even exonerate the offenders. These questions concerning forgiveness invite us to consider the concept from a historical perspective, and to examine how the expectation and the very idea of forgiveness arose.

In this essay, I concentrate on ancient Greek thought, and I argue that classical Greece did not have a notion or a practice of forgiveness that corresponds to the modern idea. By this, I do not mean in the least to criticize the ancients or to suggest that their moral attitudes were in some way inferior to our own. The ancient Greeks had many ways of promoting reconciliation between individuals, ways that worked perfectly well for them. What they did not have, I claim, is forgiveness in the modern sense of the word – or at least, one very common sense, which turns up in discussions of law and politics and in philosophical, theological, and psychological investigations of the concept. This modern idea of forgiveness is, in fact, relatively new – as new as the European Enlightenment – at least when it comes to forgiveness among and by human beings. Of course, forgiveness is a prominent them in the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament; but there, it is primarily God who forgives, and what he forgives is sin or a turning away from His worship. But in the present article, I attend mainly to classical Greece.

I have spoken of forgiveness in the modern sense, and first of all we must define the term. Generally speaking, it is assumed that we only forgive someone who has wronged us; in other words, we do not forgive people who are innocent. It sounds strange to say, "You never did me any harm, and I forgive you." Now, there are some uses of the word “forgiveness” in which this stipulation concerning guilt does not apply. One example is executive pardon, that is, the right of a king or president to waive a sentence; even though we may speak of “forgiveness,” the one who pardons may in fact believe that the person is innocent, and liberates him or her for just that reason. Again, we sometimes speak of forgiving a debt, without implying that the debtor has wronged us; thus, Jesus invites us to forgive our debtors, in the sense of remitting or foregoing the debt. Sometimes, in the most elementary case, we say “forgive me” when we have bumped into someone by accident, with no malice intended. These are all perfectly legitimate uses of the word, but I wish to single out the sense that involves doing wrong to someone else. We all recognize this moral sense well enough, and it is one that is most relevant to serious inquiries into the problem of forgiveness. For example, Charles Griswold, in his recent book, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, explains: "To forgive someone ... assumes their responsibility for the wrongdoing," and both the wrongdoer and wronged party must accept "the fact that wrong was indeed done, and done (in some sense) voluntarily." Again, Alice MacLachlan, in her doctoral dissertation entitled The Nature and Limits of Forgiveness, writes: "the very act of forgiving ... makes a number of claims: that something wrongful was done, that the wrong has caused harm, and that you (the forgiven) are responsible, even culpable, for this harm." And yet, the mere idea that guilt is a precondition for the possibility of forgiveness raises doubts about whether the concept of forgiveness was in fact part of the moral repertoire of classical Greece.

Even if we agree that forgiveness is a response to someone who has wronged us, there is still more to be said about it. First of all, wrongdoing is not just a matter of doing harm; the harm must be done intentionally, and not by accident. Of course, it is not always easy to distinguish between intentional and unintentional acts. Take the case of diminished responsibility, as when a person is judged to be not fully capable of moral reasoning: for example, small children or the mentally disabled. Is forgiveness relevant in such cases, or shall we say that they cannot be held responsible for their behavior, and so forgiveness is not relevant? Again, there are situations in which we may act under external compulsion: if you help commit a crime because a very dear person is being held hostage and threatened with death if you do not comply, are you fully responsible for your action? It would seem that, in such cases, the wrong that is done is not wholly voluntary. Ignorance too may be a mitigating factor: we may do something unintentionally simply because we did not know all the information relevant to the case. These difficult cases, where we are uncertain whether forgiveness really applies, will turn out to be central to the question of whether there was a notion of forgiveness in classical Greece.

Before turning to the ancient Greeks, we must consider a few more points concerning modern forgiveness. We have said that forgiveness pertains not to the innocent but to the guilty. Yet we do not typically forgive people who insist that they have done no wrong. To put it another way, we do not simply forgive on our own: forgiveness takes two people. If I forgive you, it is because you have earned my forgiveness. Thus, Anthony Bash, in his recent book, Forgiveness and Christian Ethics, observes: "Some say that there should be no forgiveness until the wrongdoer acknowledges and regrets the wrong.... Others go so far as to say that forgiveness without repentance is morally irresponsible because it leaves the wrongdoer free not to accept that the action was wrong and so free to repeat the wrongdoing." And Charles Griswold states: "A failure to take responsibility ... not only adds insult to injury so far as the victim is concerned, but undermines the possibility of trusting that the offender will not turn around and repeat the injury. To forgive would then collapse into condonation." We want the offender to recognize that what he or she did was morally wrong, and to reject such behavior in the future. A sense of remorse implies repentance -- not just sorrow for what one has done but a deep moral transformation. The penitent manifests an inner change that is tantamount to having acquired a new identity. Repentance is an idea deeply rooted in the Jewish and Christian traditions, of course, but it is remarkably absent in ancient treatises on ethics. If forgiveness really involves sentiments such as remorse and penitence, it is all the more plausible that there was little interest in the idea in classical antiquity.

Let us return to the more basic issue of guilt and responsibility, and how the ancient Greeks viewed it. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle briefly mentions that sungnômê -- the ancient Greek term most commonly understood to mean "forgiveness" in the modern sense -- is appropriate when people act either under external compulsion, or else in excusable ignorance of the facts or circumstances (1109b18-1111a2). Aristotle begins by observing that, "since virtue concerns emotions and actions, and praise and blame are due in the case of voluntary acts, whereas sungnômê, and sometimes pity, are due in the case of involuntary acts, it is obligatory for those investigating virtue to define what is voluntary and what is involuntary" (1109b30-34), and he adds at once that "it is believed that involuntary acts are those that occur either by force or through ignorance." Actions performed under compulsion and those done in ignorance both admit of various descriptions and evaluations, and Aristotle does not shy away from these complexities. Thus, if a ship is driven astray in a storm, or pirates take over the vessel, no one would accuse the passengers of voluntarily changing course, for they have not contributed anything at all to the result. But in the kind of case I mentioned earlier, in which a person acts out of fear, as when a tyrant who has power over your parents and children orders you to commit a shameful deed, then there is some ambiguity as to whether the act is voluntary or not. Aristotle says that "such actions are mixed, but they rather resemble voluntary ones" (1110a11-12). Aristotle then notes that "in some cases, praise is not given, but sungnômê may be, when someone does things one ought not to do on account of circumstances that are beyond human nature and which no one could endure" (3.1, 1110a23-26).

Aristotle's discussion of involuntary action in the case of ignorance is equally nuanced. For example, if you commit a wrong in ignorance, but later feel no regret, then the act hardly counts as unwilling, since you would have done it even if you had been fully aware; Aristotle calls such an act "not voluntary," as opposed to "involuntary" (1110b18-23). So too, wrongs done when one is drunk or in a rage are in some sense done unawares, but are not genuinely involuntary. As opposed to such ignorance, Aristotle specifies that what renders an act involuntary is a lack of knowledge of particulars, and this is the kind of situation in which there arise pity and sungnômê (1110b33-1111a2). One might, for example, mistake one's son for an enemy, or mistakenly strike someone with a deadly weapon when one had reason to suppose that it was harmless, and such cases will naturally result in regret afterwards.

This is about all that Aristotle has to say about sungnômê in the Nicomachean Ethics, which is significant in itself. But far more to the point is that Aristotle's conception of sungnômê fails to meet the minimal condition for forgiveness, as set out above. For leaving aside any question of confession, remorse, repentance, or change of heart, of which Aristotle takes no account here, the kind of action that induces sungnômê is specified as involuntary in the most strict and narrow sense of the term. But truly involuntary acts do not count as instances of wrongdoing: they are innocent. Oedipus makes the point himself in Sophocles' tragedy, Oedipus at Colonus, in his reply to the reproaches of Creon, insisting that he murdered his father and married his mother unwillingly (akôn, 964). Since he did not know what he had done or to whom, one cannot rightly blame an action that was on these grounds involuntary (976-77; cf. 983, 986-87). If it is true, then, that we do not forgive people who are innocent, since there is indeed nothing to forgive, then the term sungnômê in the above passage of the Nicomachean Ethics cannot signify "forgiveness."

What then does sungnômê mean here? The sense must be that a harmful or inappropriate act that was performed involuntarily is excusable or understandable, and does not count as a case of wrongdoing for which the agent is responsible. What is more, Aristotle is by no means alone in holding this view. Later rhetorical writers had much the same conception. One of the basic techniques for denying responsibility for an action, and so winning sungnômê, went under the name of metastasis: this is the trick of passing responsibility onto another party, whether the accuser or someone -- or even something – else; in this way, one proclaimed one’s own innocence. Where the rhetorical theorists differed was that some recognized only external pressures, such as storms and tortures, as reasons for granting sungnômê, whereas others allowed internal factors such as drunkenness, passion, or insanity. The point is that such excuses have nothing to do with forgiveness for a confessed wrong, but rather are a way of denying or evading responsibility for the action, which is ascribed to circumstances beyond one's control. After examining all uses of sungnômê and related terms in classical Greek literature, I have come to the conclusion that Aristotle and the rhetoricians got it right: what is commonly translated as "forgiveness" is better rendered as "exoneration," the recognition that the other party was in fact not responsible for the offense in question.

Let us pause for a moment to consider one famous case that some scholars have used to show that there was not a fully developed sense of moral responsibility in the Homeric epics. It is the scene in the Iliad in which Agamemnon excuses himself for having antagonized Achilles at the beginning of their quarrel: "I am not responsible [aitios], but rather Zeus and Fate and the Fury that strolls through the air, who cast this violent madness upon my wits in the assembly, on that day when I myself took away Achilles' prize" (19.86-90). Agamemnon launches on a lengthy narrative about Ate, and concludes: "Since I was mad and Zeus stole my wits away, I wish to please [Achilles] once more and give him numberless gifts" (137-38). But this speech is scarcely evidence that Homer lacked the notion of personal responsibility. After all, when Poseidon was seeking to encourage the Achaeans to fight more resolutely, he reminded them of the shame of defeat and added: "But if the heroic son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon, was in truth wholly responsible [aitios], in that he dishonored the swift-footed son of Peleus, there is nevertheless no way that we can relax from battle" (13.111-14). Here then is a clear statement of Agamemnon's responsibility for the offense to Achilles and the reversals suffered by the Achaeans. So why does Agamemnon shift the blame to Zeus and Ate?

If we consider this episode from the perspective of the ancient philosophers and rhetoricians, we can see why. In attributing his error to a god-sent fit of fury, Agamemnon is insisting that his offense against Achilles was involuntary, and so worthy of pardon. If no one can resist the will of Zeus, then what Agamemnon did was understandable and to this extent excusable -- a fault common to all, as Aristotle puts it (Nicomachean Ethics 7.6, 1149b4-6). This does not absolve him, in his own mind, of the obligation to make compensation to Achilles: in this respect, he recognizes his role in causing the conflict. Though the term does not appear here, what Agamemnon is seeking is sungnômê, not forgiveness in the modern sense; and for this, one wants precisely to disclaim full liability. The advantage of this interpretation of Agamemnon's self-justification is that it is consistent with ancient Greek conceptions of reconciliation, and does not introduce ideas of remorse and repentance that are extraneous to the epic -- and to Greek moral thought generally.

There is a tragic instance of reconciliation between parent and child in Euripides' Hippolytus. Theseus, under the impression that Hippolytus has attempted to rape Phaedra, his wife and Hippolytus' stepmother, calls down a fatal curse upon the boy. In the end, Artemis, the goddess dearest to Hippolytus, reveals the truth -- that Phaedra's deathbed accusation of Hippolytus was a lie -- and she blames Theseus for having rushed to judgment rather than investigate the slander more closely. Theseus exclaims: "O Mistress, I am destroyed," to which the goddess replies: "You have done a terrible thing, but nevertheless you can obtain sungnômê for it. For Aphrodite wished it to turn out this way, being filled with rage [thumon]" (1325-28; cf. 1406: "he was deceived by the schemes of a goddess"; also 1414). Pardon is once again predicated on a transfer of blame, in this case onto a goddess, who herself has acted under the impetus of anger, so that even her action may be at some level excusable. In a deeply touching finale, Hippolytus exclaims that he suffers more for his father than for himself, and Theseus wishes that he could die in place of his son (1409-10). Artemis promises to slay one of Aphrodite's favorites in return (1420-22), and bids Theseus take his dying son in his arms: "you slew him involuntarily [akôn]: it is understandable [eikos] for human beings to err when the gods allot it" (1433-34). She tells Hippolytus in turn to cease hating his father, for his death was fated. Hippolytus replies: "I revoke the strife with my father, since you ask it of me" (1442). Once more, the basis of reconciliation is the negation of guilt, not forgiveness of blameworthy misconduct.

If the ancient Greeks did not appeal to forgiveness, they had other ways of making up with someone whom they offended. Aristotle indicates some of the ways in his treatment of the emotions in the Rhetoric, immediately following his discussion of anger. Aristotle defines anger as a response to a slight, and explains that, "since slighting is a voluntary act," our anger will abate if we are convinced that no slight actually occurred, or that it was done involuntarily. He adds that our anger is also appeased if we perceive that the apparent offender acts toward himself as he has done to us, "since no one can be supposed to slight himself." These are ways simply of demonstrating that there was no insult or belittlement to begin with, and so no reason for the other party to take offense: they are a basis for sungnômê. Aristotle goes on to point out ways of appeasing another's ire when offense was legitimately taken. As he puts it, we grow calm "also towards those who admit their fault and are sorry, since we accept their grief at what they have done as satisfaction, and cease to be angry." Now, this looks like a petition for forgiveness, in which you accept responsibility for your action, confess it to the person you have wronged, and manifest genuine contrition and a change of heart which guarantees that the offense will not be repeated. But let us take a closer look. Immediately afterwards, Aristotle adds: "The punishment of slaves shows this: those who contradict us and deny their offence we punish all the more, but we cease to be incensed against those who agree that they deserved their punishment." Confession on the part of the slave is simply a sign of deference to the master; there is no question of genuine remorse or moral transformation here.

Aristotle goes on to affirm that "we feel calm towards those who humble themselves [tois tapeinomenois] before us and do not contradict us; we feel that they thus admit themselves our inferiors, and inferiors feel fear, and nobody can slight any one so long as he feels afraid of him." The purpose of humbling yourself is to demonstrate your fear, and by doing so to persuade the other person that you cannot have insulted him deliberately. The point is not to confess that you have done wrong, but to cancel the impression of a slight by a display of obsequiousness. Aristotle adds that we feel calm as well "towards those who pray to us and beg us [paraitoumenois], since they are the more humble in doing so." We are very far from the Christian imperative to feel remorse for one's sins, or sinfulness, and adopt a humble posture toward God.

Where then did the idea of forgiveness, with the related practices of confession and remorse or repentance, arise? This is not the occasion to enter upon a discussion of the entire history of forgiveness; suffice it to say here that an important step in this direction was taken in the Jewish and Christian traditions. But, as I indicated at the beginning of this essay, there was one major limitation: in the Bible, the penitent addresses not another human being but God, and so these are not examples of human forgiveness, which is our subject here, but rather of divine forgiveness. Without entering into detail, I may illustrate the distinction with reference to two passages in the New Testament. In Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus miraculously heals a paralytic man, the scribes protest at Jesus' affirmation: "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven," regarding it as a form of blasphemy (9:2-3). Jesus first offers the evasive, or at all events ironic, reply: "For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'?" (9:5), but he immediately addresses the substance of the scribes' objection: "'But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins' -- he then said to the paralytic -- 'Rise, take up your bed and go home'" (9:6) Jesus is not arguing that forgiveness of sin lies within the competence of ordinary human beings; rather, he is demonstrating the legitimacy of his claim to be God's son, and hence his regent on earth, with authority to act in behalf of his father.

Perhaps the best known passage on forgiveness in the Gospels is the Lord’s Prayer, which is recorded in two versions, by Matthew (6:9-15) and by Luke (11:4). In Luke, we read: "forgive [aphes] us our sins [or faults: hamartias] for we ourselves forgive [aphiomen] everyone who is indebted to us [opheilonti]." God forgives sins; human beings remit debts. At the beginning of this essay, we noted the special use of "forgive" in the sense of "remit," in relation to debts. Human beings can forgive a debt in this sense: we simply cancel it, without reference to the attitude of the debtor, not to speak of remorse and repentance. What we cannot do is forgive another person's sin: that is the prerogative of God, or of God's son or his representatives on earth.

I believe that it was precisely the idea that forgiveness was the special province of God that inhibited the development of a doctrine of interpersonal forgiveness within the Christian tradition: it would be the height of arrogance to demand that another human being repent before us. The modern conception of interpersonal forgiveness, with its insistence that the offender express remorse and a commitment to change her or his ways, may be understood as a secularization of the Jewish and Christian idea of divine forgiveness. It is, to be sure, an important practice and expectation in the modern world. But if the ancient Greeks could do without it, as I hope to have indicated they did, perhaps we ought to rethink our attitude toward forgiveness, and ask ourselves whether it is, always and in all cases, a virtue and a moral imperative.

‹ Previous