dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

Forgiveness

In the December 12th number of the Times Literary Supplement, Roger Scruton has a lengthy review of Charles Griswolds book, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Inquiry. The review begins with these two paragraphs:"What is forgiveness, and what good does it do? How are we helped by offering forgiveness and how are we helped by receiving it? Can forgiveness be offered on behalf of another or must it always come from the victim? And is there always a victim?"The crimes of the twentieth century, now receding from human memory with the rapidity that guilt alone can generate, ought to have put those, and similar questions, firmly on the syllabus of anglophone moral philosophy. And if they havent done so then we might at least hope (if hope is the word) that the daily spectacle of Islamists punching the air and generally making the kind of fools of themselves that people make when they cannot look in a mirror and see the thing they hate would have reminded us that forgiveness was planted in the heart of our civilization and runs like a golden thread through all the rules and maxims by which our ancestors were instructed. Christ taught that those who ask forgiveness must also grant it, and enshrined this maxim in the prayer that his disciples repeat each day. The love-ones-neighbour idea, which Jews and Christians believe to be the core of morality, is unintelligible without the context of mutual forgiveness."Scruton praises the book as a serious effort at philosophical reflection on forgiveness, much influenced by Archbishop Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.Scruton has three regrets, however. First, that Griswolds is"a 'secular' accountwhich depends on no theological premisses. A Christian might suggest that this has led to an unnecessary narrowing of Griswolds paradigm. Those who ask God to forgive them their trespasses are not petitioning an injured party: God cannot be injured. Yet he can forgive us, in the same way that "we forgive those who trespass against us". We ask God to forgive us in order to restore our relationship with him, and the process may be arduous and long. Here again, Griswold might have fruitfully studied what has been said about this process in the Catholic tradition in particular concerning the need for confession, contrition, penitence and atonement, in order to attain that final homecoming into the place of love. Much that Griswold says tracks that process without explicitly acknowledging it. As a result he tends to overlook the enormous part played by penitence in restoring and deepening our affections."Scruton also regrets that Griswold has not explored "the idea of corporate agency," whether of states or of other institutions. But there is a final, also metaphysical, regret:"Griswold tells us much about forgiveness, about the mental processes involved in it, and the way in which interpersonal relations are shaped by it. But he does not ask the question: what kind of a being is it that can forgive? Dogs dont forgive, because dogs dont resent. Forgiveness is unique to rational beings, and is a gift of metaphysical freedom. Only the accountable being, able to take responsibility for his own actions and mental states, can forgive or be forgiven, and this way of overcoming conflict has next to nothing in common with the peace of the "pecking order", or the territorial settlements among badgers and bears. Of course, Griswold is aware of this, and insists on the place of responsibility in the logic of resentment. But at a time when the evolutionary biologists are producing one phoney account after another, designed to show that human societies are constructed from the same ingredients as the tribes of apes, and that "altruism" in people is just a later manifestation of the self-sacrificing instincts of the soldier ant, it is surely a duty of philosophers to point out that interpersonal harmony is achieved through attitudes and virtues that only a free and accountable being could ever exemplify, and that this means that no theory of animal society could ever be generalized to cover us. The study of forgiveness would be a good starting point from which to roll back the tide of debunking, and show the distinctness and the spiritual richness of the human condition. Of course, that would probably lead away from the "secular" approach that Griswold adheres to. But it would lead in a truthful direction."All in all, a fascinating review of what looks to be a fascinating book.

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

Hello All,The start of this thread is particularly exciting for me personally, because Charles Griswold is professor of philosophy at Boston University where I am teaching this year. Unfortunately I have not been able to study Charles' book in any depth yet, partly because of my teaching duties and partly because Charles kindly offered to give me a copy of the new edition in exchange for the copy I bought earlier and the new edition copies have not arrived yet. I'm looking forward to informing Charles his work is being discussed here.For a more substantive comment, I'm not sure I agree with Prof. Scruton that it's a serious problem for Griswold's analysis of forgiveness that it is a secular analysis. Griswold's work falls in a part of the philosophical tradition that tries to defend theses in a manner that should be acceptable to anyone regardless of theological commitments or lack thereof. Indeed, I wonder if Griswold's work is the first book length work in recent memory on forgiveness by a philosopher because philosophers have supposed that forgiveness is necessarily intertwined with robust theological assumptions. The relative lack of interest among philosophers regarding forgiveness is quite surprising given how obviously necessary forgiveness is to the preservation of civil society. Maybe Griswold's book will change that.

I've often thought of how calmly the Desert Fathers handle forgiveness. It looks like it's a much different process at the end of the spiritual life than at the beginning. To me it still seems like a generous act to forgive, and it's somewhat angsty, but that wasn't the Fathers' apparent experience. For the wisest of them, forgiveness flowed very readlily from self-knowledge. I guess that suave humility comes with practice. But I wonder if it comes more with the practice of forgiving or of being forgiven.

Forgiveness is a sine qua non of the disciples of Jesus, for sure. On the other hand it is amazing how many ignore it. Even on these pages, if memory serves, some were amazed at how readily the sect in Pennsylvani forgave the murder of their children. I can understand finding it difficult to do. But when Christians marvel at how others forgive, it is clear that the message is not only not getting across but that the culture is so imbued. Look at the vitriol of the Christian Right talk radio and blogs. There are some liberals in that category, also.

Though I do not know Griswold's book, I agree fully with Peter Vanderschraaf that it is no defect of the book that it does not bring in theological considerations. The Holocaust, among other horrors, has prompted, especially among 20th century European scholars, much discussion about forgiveness and its propriety. For example, Hannah Arendt, in "the Human Condition" argues for the political importance of forgiveness. Victor Jankelevitch, a Sorbonne philosopher devoted a substantial book to the topic. And, let me add, Paul Ricoeur ends his "Memory, History, Forgetting" with a lengthy epilogue called "Le pardon difficile." In it he distinguishes forgiveness from legal pardons on the one hand, and amnesties on the other hand. For him, the deepest reason we have for forgiving a person is that every person is of greater worth than anything he or she could do or has done. Whatever the differences there are among the cases that these three thinkers make, none of them introduces theological considerations to make his or her case.

Share

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.