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Forgiveness Ancient and Modern

Ancient pagan notions of forgiveness are a vast and poorly studied topic.1 That such notions existed is more than merely probable. The vocabulary for them was in place, along with a cluster of related notions – pardon, mercy, pity, compassion, apology, debt relief, excuse, among others – as was a sophisticated understanding of the emotions (in particular, retributive anger) to which forgiveness somehow responds. Similarly, the ends that forgiveness proposes, such as reconciliation, peace, and certainly the forswearing of revenge, were well understood. I very much doubt that there existed a single view on any of these topics (something like “the ancient pagan view”), though establishing that point would require a careful and comprehensive study of ancient literature, law court speeches and jurisprudence, the writings of the historians and physicians, and of course the philosophical texts. As is true in respect of other ideas, it would not surprise if the philosophers rejected or modified common views about forgiveness and related notions. Nonetheless, such notions did circulate in pre-Christian pagan thought and culture (counting here the Roman as well as Greek), contrary to common wisdom.

   Another vast territory stretches between them and Bishop Butler’s influential eighteenth-century account, examined in the second section of this chapter. I doubt that there existed a single view about our topics during that long period – Christian “forgiveness” too has an interesting conceptual history. Because my focus in this chapter is not primarily historical, however, and because the conceptual framework assumed here is secular, I offer only the briefest of observations about “the Christian tradition” of thought about my topics.

   It is surprising and illuminating that forgiveness is not seen as a virtue by the ancient Greek philosophers. Understanding why helps to explain something about the conceptual context in which it becomes a virtue (or the expression of a virtue), as well as what it would mean to think of it in that way, and it is a chief aim of the following section to offer that explanation. I also attempt to delineate differences between forgiveness, excuse, and pardon, and to begin setting out the connection between forgiveness and anger. I argue that the perfectionism of ancient philosophical ethics, along with views about human dignity, provide the backdrop against which the ancient philosophical view of forgiveness is conceived. Limited in focus as it is, my discussion of ancient and modern forgiveness attempts to articulate the complex conceptual landscape in which forgiveness is located, thereby contributing significantly to the project of setting out a theory of forgiveness.


From you let me have
much compassion (sungnômosunên) now for what I do.
You see how little compassion (agnômosunê ) the Gods
have shown in all that’s happened; they
who are called our fathers, who begot us,
can look upon such suffering.
No one can foresee what is to come.
What is here now is pitiful for us
and shameful for the Gods;
but of all men it is hardest for him
who is the victim of this disaster.
   Sophocles, The Women of Trachis, 1264–12742

   The vocabulary of forgiveness, and certainly of political and judicial pardon, was known to Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries as well as successors. The Greek term typically used is sungnômê or a cognate.3 The rarity of the relevant use of the term by ancient philosophers, then, is not due the unavailability of the word. The verbal form of sungnômê is “sungignôskô,” meaning to think with, agree with, consent, acknowledge, recognize, excuse, pardon, have fellow-feeling or compassion with (as in the quotation from Sophocles with which this section begins). The etymology of the term suggests cognitivist connotations. Similarly, we talk of “being understood,” where this means that one’s interlocutor has entered into one’s situation, grasped it sympathetically from one’s own perspective, seen why one has acted or reacted as one has, and made allowances (this could mean anything from forgiving to pardoning to excusing). The range of meanings of sungnômê – from sympathize, to forbear, forgive or pardon, excuse or make allowance for – is fascinating, and anticipates several of my questions about the connections between these notions.

   We find appeals to “sungnômê” among the law court speeches of various ancient rhetoricians. Consider Isocrates 16.12–13 and Andocides 1.57, 2.6–7, where the defendant appeals for pardon by reminding the jury of shared human shortcomings.4 Something similar goes on in tragic appeals based on an analogous situation, such as in Euripides’ Iphiginia in Tauris 1401–2, where Electra, in praying to Artemis that she sympathize with Electra’s love for her brother Orestes, reminds Artemis of her love for her own brother Apollo; all of which is meant to elicit “forgiveness” (“sungnômê”) for Electra.5

   In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the term mainly in two connections. The first concerns the nature of voluntary action in Book III. When the agent’s deeds are caused by external force or are undertaken in ignorance of the relevant facts, the person is neither simply culpable nor praiseworthy. Sometimes, maybe often, there are mixed actions, as when someone is “forced” to throw the cargo off the ship in order to prevent it from sinking. When the external force is extreme, and people commit one of these “qualified willing” acts and, we proceed from this thought: “there is pardon (sungnômê), whenever someone does a wrong action because of conditions of a sort that overstrain human nature, and that no one would endure” (1110a24–26).6

   At 1111a1–2, Aristotle remarks with respect to the ignorance condition that it is ignorance of particulars (not the universal) that makes an action involuntary. Such cases of involuntariness “allow both pity and pardon.” We read later in Book Ⅴ, 1136a5–9 that

some involuntary actions are to be pardoned, and some are not. For when someone’s error is not only committed in ignorance, but also caused by ignorance, it is to be pardoned. But if, though committed in ignorance, it is caused not by ignorance but by some feeling that is neither natural nor human, and not by ignorance, it is not to be pardoned.

Thus far, sungnômê means something like excusing, and Aristotle is setting out conditions for permissible excusing (cf. 1109b32). Because it is a matter of excusing or pardoning rather than forgiveness, it is perfectly proper for it to be tendered by someone who was not injured by the behavior in question. Indeed that is one of the indications that we are in the presence of pardon rather than forgiveness.

   The second connection in which Aristotle uses the term concerns his treatment of akrasia in Book Ⅶ. Aristotle is arguing that akrasia caused by thumos (emotion), which reflects a partial listening to logos, is less shameful than that caused by epithumia (appetite). He adds: “it is more pardonable (sungnômê ) to follow natural desires, since it is also more pardonable to follow those natural appetites that are common to everyone and to the extent that they are common” (1149b4–6).7 So we can pardon someone who has unfortunately given into a desire that is natural and common, that is, one that we can recognize in ourselves too. Presumably this requires a degree of self-knowledge, the ability to put oneself in another’s place by imagination (admittedly this is debatable), and the recognition of shared humanity. These three elements were also implicit in the passages from the orators and Euripides mentioned above, and their connection with forgiveness is indeed intuitive, a point to which I will return below. At 1150b5–12 we read:

It is similar with continence and incontinence also. For it is not surprising if someone is overcome by strong and excessive pleasures or pains; indeed, this is pardonable, provided he struggles against them – like Theodectes’ Philoctetes bitten by the snake, or Carcinus’ Cercyon in the Alope, and like those who are trying to restrain their laughter and burst out laughing all at once, as happened to Xenophantus.

In this second context (that concerning incontinence and intemperance), sungnômê seems somewhat ambiguously positioned between excuse and forgiveness. The incontinent action is not simply involuntary due to ignorance or external force (indeed, Aristotle rules that he acts willingly, 1152a15); on the other hand, it seems that even a person not injured by the agent’s incontinence may offer sungnômê. Aristotle says nothing about the identity of the wronged party, so it does not seem to be the case that the wronged party alone grants sungnômê. Indeed, nobody but the agent himself may have been harmed by the incontinence. Consequently it seems best to interpret this as a matter of excuse and pardon rather than of forgiveness. Given the ambiguities, however, we may also grant that this passage is evidence that the idea of “forgiveness” was hovering in the air.

   Irwin translates the term throughout as “pardon,” with one exception, viz., 1143a19–24, where “Aristotle plays on the etymological connection with gnômê; ‘consideration’ is needed” (Irwin, p. 341).8 This chapter in Book VI in which Aristotle describes “consideration” occurs in the context of the discussion of the intellectual (rather than moral) virtues, and makes it clear that it is the virtue of taking all things into account: “considerateness is the correct consideration that judges what is decent; and correct consideration judges what is true.” The considerate judge takes into account the particulars of the situation, and does not, as Irwin points out, simply apply the rule inflexibly.

   Interestingly, for present purposes, in running through the moral virtues Aristotle discusses the mean with respect to anger: to be angry “at the right things and toward the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time, is praised” (1125b31–32). Hitherto this “mean” condition has been nameless, so Aristotle calls it “mildness” (praotês, which might also be translated “calmness”; cf. Rhetoric, bk. Ⅱ.3). But mildness immediately comes in for mild chiding, as it errs more “in the direction of deficiency, since the mild person is ready to pardon (sungnômê), not eager to exact a penalty” (1126a1–3). Being too mild and pardoning is “slavish,” for such a person fails to defend himself and his own. The excess of anger is irascibility. Once again, the mild person’s fault is his tendency to excuse or to let the offender off the hook too quickly, and this is linked to the former’s tendency to give up his anger too quickly. At the same time, the anger in question is, for Aristotle, directed toward an individual (it is “personal”), and thus resembles what we would call “resentment.” The connection between pardoning and giving up (personal) anger captures an intuition to be explored below.

   Aristotle’s analysis of the conditions under which one would excuse (in that sense, pardon) someone is perceptive. But how is excusing, so understood, to be differentiated from forgiving? The question is surprisingly complex, but at a minimum we may say that to excuse is not to hold the agent responsible, even while his or her action is recognized as wrong. In one sense or another, the agent is judged to have acted involuntarily (for Aristotle, then, excusing would seem to mean not taking a wrong act as a sign of the agent’s inherent viciousness). This being accepted, and abstracting from such considerations as negligence on the part of the wrong-doer, it would be inappropriate for the wronged party to hold onto her resentment against the wrong-doer. This is a case of what one author calls “exculpatory” excuses, as distinguished from “mitigating” excuses.9 To forgive someone, by contrast, assumes their responsibility for the wrong-doing indeed, what distinguishes forgiveness is in part that it represents a change in the moral relation between wrong-doer and wronged that accepts the fact that wrong was indeed done, and done (in some sense) voluntarily. The difficulties arise in part because of the sheer complexity of the concept of voluntary action. One could argue that there are always mitigating excuses, that wrong-doing is never just voluntary; there is always a story about how one ended up doing the evil deed. This is perhaps why people hold that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. Granting the complexity of the just-mentioned issues however, the common saying is mistaken, if “pardoner” means “forgive.”

   Why is it that Aristotle nowhere praises forgiveness (as distinguished from pardoning and excusing) as a virtue? The core answer lies in the character of his perfectionist ethical scheme, for it is one that seeks to articulate and recommend the character of the man – and in Aristotle, it is a man – of complete virtue.10 The gentleman possessing the perfection of moral virtue – the megalopsuchos – certainly has no need (by his own lights, anyhow) for being forgiven, because by definition he is morally perfect (and in any case, his pride would not allow him to recognize himself as in need of forgiveness). He also would seem unforgiving of others, for three reasons. First, he has no interest in sympathetically grasping the situation and faults of non-virtuous persons – they are of little account to him. Second, he would judge himself immune to being injured by them morally (with a problematic qualification to be mentioned in a moment), though of course he could be harmed (say, by being murdered). He would seem to be above resenting the actions of hoi polloi (and by definition, another megalopsuchos would not injure someone of the same stature). Hence Aristotle’s comment that the megalopsuchos or magnanimous man

cannot let anyone else, except a friend, determine his life. For that would be slavish; and this is why all flatterers are servile and inferior people (tapeinoi) are flatterers. He is not prone to marvel (thaumastikos), since he finds nothing great; or to remember evils, since it is proper to a magnanimous person not to nurse memories, especially not of evils, but to overlook them.…He does not speak evil even of his enemies, except [when he responds to their] wanton aggression. He especially avoids laments or entreaties about necessities or small matters, since these attitudes are proper to someone who takes these things seriously. (1124b31–1125a5, 8–10)

The magnanimous person is “self-sufficient” (autarkos; 1125a12). The problematic qualification to all of this is that the polis could deny him something he does very much wish for, viz. warranted honor. But the denial of that honor would not, one assumes, elicit from the megalopsuchos resentment or forgiveness so much as contempt, even if it also elicits anger.11 It is worth recalling Aristotle’s comment that “it is difficult to be truly magnanimous, since it is not possible without being fine and good” (1124a3–4); the paradigm of moral virtue sets a very high standard. In painting the magnanimous man, Aristotle is not simply reproducing the pathology of the run of the mill aristocratic gentleman.

   The third reason why forgiveness is not part of the magnanimous person’s outlook is implicit in the hierarchical value scheme that is part and parcel of this perfectionist outlook, and comes across in the dismissiveness that characterizes the attitude of the megalopsuchos toward “inferior people.” Non-magnanimous victims of wrong-doing do not seem to have any standing to be treated otherwise, or at the very least, their being wronged just does not command the magnanimous person’s moral concern. Differently put, the idea of the inherent dignity of persons seems missing from this perfectionist – or as we might also say, keeping in mind the etymology – aristocratic scheme. The non-perfectionist scheme within which forgiveness has its place recognizes the reciprocal moral claims and demands that people have standing to make of one another.12

   There is even less place for sungnômê in the supremely worthwhile theoretical life as Aristotle describes it, because that life abstracts as far as possible from involvement with other human beings (except, perhaps, those friends engaged in the same study of the divine; NE 1177a33-b1). The perfect theorizer is god, and Aristotle’s god manifests no concern whatever for anything or anybody but himself qua thinking about himself. Strictly speaking he (or, it) can neither be said to act nor to have emotions; god neither forgives nor requires forgiveness. For Aristotle, god leads the life of the mind, and is therefore the paradigm of perfection. Consequently, we would live god’s life fully, were we able.

   The situation is even starker in the case of Plato, who barely mentions forgiveness (or even pardon) as a virtue at all. The word “sungnômê” in something like the sense of forgiveness certainly presents itself in Plato, but as in Aristotle, it is not put to any serious ethical work.13 His perfectionist ethics is more extreme than Aristotle’s in its thesis that no harm can come to a good person. Consider Socrates’ defiant statement to the jury of his peers:

Be sure that if you kill the sort of man I say I am, you will not harm me more than yourselves. Neither Meletus nor Anytus can harm me in any way; he could not harm me, for I do not think it is permitted that a better man be harmed by a worse; certainly he might kill me, or perhaps banish or disfranchise me, which he and maybe others think to be great harm, but I do not think so. I think he is doing himself much greater harm doing what he is doing now, attempting to have a man executed unjustly. (Apol. 30c7-d6)

Presumably a person who cannot be harmed, thanks to the armature that virtue furnishes, has nothing for which to forgive the wrong-doer; and such a person would not, by definition, injure others (as Socrates explicitly says of himself at Apol. 37b2–3; and at 37a6–7, he claims that he never willingly does harm). As Socrates resolutely argues in the Gorgias, “doing what’s unjust is more to be guarded against than suffering it” (527b4–5); properly speaking, though, he does not suffer it either (he is treated unjustly, and yet in the sense that counts for him, he is not injured by injustice). Insofar as one is successful as a philosopher, as a virtuous person, one is not vulnerable to others; the transcending of mutual vulnerability seems to go hand in hand with the dismissal of the idea of inherent equal dignity, an idea nowhere defended or even proclaimed in the Platonic dialogues. In the Apology Socrates exhibits a certain contempt for his accuser Meletus, but no resentment or even anger; and he explicitly declares that he is not angry either with the jury for convicting him or with his accusers (Apol. 35e1–36a1, 41d6–7). In the Gorgias he seems irritated with Callicles (Gorg. 511b1–5 and context), and passionately intent on working out the argument, but not resentful, injured, or wounded. And nowhere else in the Platonic corpus is he portrayed as coming even that close to anger. Socrates apparently has no need to forswear resentment or to struggle with the impulse to take revenge.14

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