Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


NYT’s The Stone: On Forgiveness

Charles Griswold

We are in a season traditionally devoted to good will among people and to the renewal of hope in the face of hard times.  As we seek to realize these lofty ideals, one of our greatest challenges is overcoming bitterness and divisiveness.  We all struggle with the wrongs others have done to us as well as those we have done to others, and we recoil at the vast extent of injury humankind seems determined to inflict on itself.  How to keep hope alive?  Without a constructive answer to toxic anger, addictive cycles of revenge, and immobilizing guilt, we seem doomed to despair about chances for renewal.  One answer to this despair lies in forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? When is it appropriate? Why is it considered to be commendable?  Some claim that forgiveness is merely about ridding oneself of vengeful anger; do that, and you have forgiven.  But if you were able to banish anger from your soul simply by taking a pill, would the result really be forgiveness?  The timing of forgiveness is also disputed. Some say that it should wait for the offender to take responsibility and suffer due punishment, others hold that the victim must first overcome anger altogether, and still others that forgiveness should be unilaterally bestowed at the earliest possible moment.  But what if you have every good reason to be angry and even to take your sweet revenge as well?  Is forgiveness then really to be commended? Some object that it lets the offender off the hook, confesses to one’s own weakness and vulnerability, and papers over the legitimate demands of vengeful anger.  And yet, legions praise forgiveness and think of it as an indispensable virtue.  Recall the title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book on the subject: “No Future Without Forgiveness.”

If you claim you’ve forgiven someone then take revenge, you’re either dishonest or ignorant of the meaning of the term.

These questions about the what, when, and why of forgiveness have led to a massive outpouring of books, pamphlets, documentaries, television shows, and radio interviews.  The list grows by the hour. It includes hefty representation of religious and self-help perspectives, historical analysis (much of which was sparked by South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission), and increasingly, philosophical reflection as well.  Yet there is little consensus about the answers.  Indeed, the list of disputed questions is still longer. Consider: may forgiveness be demanded, or must it be a sort of freely bestowed gift?  Does the concept of “the unforgivable” make sense?  And what about the cultural context of forgiveness: does it matter? Has the concept of “forgiveness” evolved, even within religious traditions such as Christianity? Is it a fundamentally religious concept? [pullquote]If you claim you’ve forgiven someone then take revenge, you’re either dishonest or ignorant of the meaning of the term.[/pullquote]

On almost all accounts, interpersonal forgiveness is closely tied to vengeful anger and revenge.  This linkage was brought to the fore by Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) in his insightful sermons on resentment (his word for what is often now called vengeful anger) and forgiveness.  These sermons are the touchstone of modern philosophical discussions of the topic. Butler is often interpreted as saying that forgiveness requires forswearing resentment, but what he actually says is that it requires tempering resentment and forswearing revenge. He is surely right that it requires at least that much.  If you claim you’ve forgiven someone and then proceed to take revenge, then you are either dishonest or ignorant of the meaning of the term.  Forgiveness comes with conditions, such as the giving up of revenge.  What are other conditions?

If you see the with vengeful thoughts and anger, or even simmer with them, can you be said to have forgiven fully?  I would answer in the negative.  That establishes another condition that successful forgiveness must meet.  In the contemporary literature on forgiveness, the link between forgiveness and giving up vengefulness is so heavily emphasized that it is very often offered as the reason to forgive: forgive, so that you may live without toxic anger.

Read the rest on The New York Times’ Opinionator blog>>

About The Author

Charles Griswold

Charles L. Griswold is a professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He has been awarded Fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center, the National Endowment for the Humanitie...

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