Some time ago, five men were jailed for their part in a failed attempt to break into the wine cellar of famed collector Michel-Jack Chasseuil. The men threatened Chasseuil with a Kalashnikov rifle, punched him, and broke a few of his fingers. With the ordeal behind him, Chasseuil commented: “Je pardonne mais je n’excuse pas” (I forgive but I do not excuse).
What did Chasseuil mean by this? In other words, what is the difference between forgiving and excusing? To forgive is to overcome justified negative emotions, such as anger, resentment, and vengefulness, stemming from an offensive deed or state of affairs. To excuse, on the other hand, is to mitigate, or seek to mitigate, the moral blame attaching to the offensive deed or situation, with the aim of exonerating the perpetrator(s).
And so Chasseuil must have meant that, while he had overcome his negative feelings towards the men, this did not imply that they were any less culpable or deserving of punishment. It has been argued that to forgive is also to exonerate, but Chasseuil’s stance suggests that this need not be the case.
Other concepts related to forgiveness include condoning, tolerating, and pardoning. If to excuse is to seek to mitigate the moral blame attaching to an offense, to condone is to deny that there is any blame in the first place by disregarding or discounting any negative judgement and attendant negative emotions. To tolerate, at least in the moral sense, is to acknowledge the blame but carry on as if nothing were. To pardon is to write off the offense on the grounds that the person did not intend it. A pardon is also a legal and political concept exercised by a third-party authority, such as the President of the United States, to absolve a person convicted of a crime, who must in turn accept the pardon.
Forgiveness ought also to be distinguished from mercy, which is leniency borne out of compassion for someone whom we were otherwise intending to blame, punish, or harm. In a judicial context, mercy (or clemency) is, as John Locke put it, “the power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the Law, and sometimes even against it.”
Condoning and tolerating tend to apply to patterns of behavior, whereas forgiving is more often for a specific, singular offense; and while it is possible to condone or tolerate blameworthy actions that are directed at others, we can only properly forgive those blameworthy actions that are directed at ourselves. Moreover, it is not the actions themselves that we forgive so much as the person who committed them, saying something like, “I forgive you for ….”
Much more than condoning or tolerating, forgiving belies the moral relation between the self and the other, which it aims at rebalancing. If I say, “I forgive you,” I am implying that you have wronged me (or at least that I think that you have wronged me) and in some sense placing you in my debt. But if you do not accept that you have wronged me, you may yourself feel wronged by my forgiveness—and so sometimes, especially for minor offenses, it may be politic to keep our forgiveness to ourselves, that is, to behave like we have forgiven but without actually mentioning that we have.
Forgiveness is not the overcoming of resentment by any means, or else one could forgive simply by losing one’s memory, or by dying. Instead, genuine forgiveness involves a particular process by the end of which the injured party should have been able to forswear revenge, overcome resentment, and, crucially, rehabilitate the offender by reframing their relationship as one of moral equals.
Of course, this process is greatly eased by the cooperation of the offender. Ideally, the offender readily engages in a reciprocal process of acknowledging the offense, taking responsibility for it, accounting for it, repudiating it, and committing not to repeat it or anything like it—since the fear of further offense is a significant impediment to forgiveness. On an emotional level, the offender ought to empathize with the injured party, and express and experience remorse. But given enough time, or goodwill, forgiveness need not require the cooperation of the offender, who may be unrepentant, unreachable, or dead.
Historically, an offender may also have undertaken, or submitted to, a formal apology ritual, which facilitated forgiveness by protecting the dignity of the victim in forgiving. In January 1077, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV trekked to Canossa Castle in Northern Italy to obtain the revocation of his excommunication from Pope Gregory VII. Henry had angered Gregory by demanding that he abdicate, but now Henry needed Gregory’s revocation to save his crown. Before granting the revocation, Gregory made Henry wait outside the castle for three days and three nights on his knees through a blizzard. Henry’s penance, or apology ritual, enabled Gregory to grant the revocation without losing face or looking like a pushover. Centuries later, the German Chancellor Bismarck coined the expression, “to go to Canossa,” meaning something like “to submit willingly to degradation.” The modern incarnation of the apology ritual, depending on the severity of the offense, is to offer a bunch of flowers or box of chocolates.
By rebalancing the moral relation between victim and offender, forgiveness enables us to move on with our lives, repairing our relationships and removing the resentment or guilt that would otherwise have weighed upon us. What’s more, forgiveness reinforces important principles and values such as mutual respect, personal accountability, and social harmony. Forgiveness is a major theme in Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Princess Marya forgives her father, Natasha forgives Anatole Kuragin, Prince Andrei forgives Natasha, Pierre forgives Dolokhov. None of it is easy, but by rising to forgiveness these characters are able to grow, both in themselves and in our hearts. In contrast, characters like Countess Rostova and Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky are brought down by their inability to forgive or ask for forgiveness. Their rancor eats at them and blinds them to the bigger picture of their lives.
For all that, should we always seek to forgive? There may be certain offenses, such as the senseless murder of a loved one, that truly are unforgivable. But even if everything can be forgiven, forgiveness might not serve the best interests, particularly when the offender has not made amends or enough amends. In such cases, to forgive the offense is to condone, and therefore invite, the bad behavior of which it is an instance; while to withhold forgiveness is to signal that the offense is inadmissible and pressure the offender into reconsidering his or her attitude. Even if raw resentment has been overcome, it might be judicious to withhold forgiveness as a kind of moral protest, as a learning exercise for the offender, or for prudential reasons (for example, if the offender has a potential for violence). And so, even if it is the central plank, there is more to forgiveness than the mere overcoming of resentment.
Classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle did not count forgiveness as one of the virtues. Neither did they share in the later concept of forgiveness as a means of overcoming justified anger or resentment. For them, and in ancient morality more broadly, a virtuous person is immune from moral harm by lesser persons, and therefore has no need of forgiveness. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates tells the jurors that his accusers, Meletus and Anytus, will not injure him: “They cannot; for it is not in the nature of things that a bad man should injure a better than himself.”
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that actions are either voluntary, in which case they attract praise or blame, or involuntary, in which case they ought to be (to use the most accurate term) pardoned. Significantly, actions that are voluntary—prima facie, most actions—cannot be pardoned because they are not involuntary and therefore not pardonable. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that anger can be quelled by the feeling that the offense is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge … and the list goes on. But, tellingly, the Master of Those Who Know, as Dante called him, makes absolutely no mention of forgiveness as a means of redress.
Like Greco-Roman concepts of forgiveness, the biblical concept of forgiveness has much more to do with pardon than with the overcoming of resentment. The Greek word aphiemi, which in the Bible is sometimes translated as “forgiveness,” actually means “to let go or release, as of a debt or bond.” In Leviticus 16:10, aphiemi is used in the context of the scapegoat, as it is sent forth into the wilderness with its burden of sin. The ultimate scapegoat is, of course, Christ himself. Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”
In Christian ethics, to forgive is to abandon our claims against others, just as God abandoned His claims against us, casting out our sins “as far as the east is from the west.” To forgive is not merely to imitate God, but to have Him imitate us: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you ….” Forgiveness is a manifestation of love: our love for others is an echo of God’s love for us, and forgiveness is the greatest expression of that love.
These notions come together in the parable of the prodigal son. The younger of a man’s two sons asks for his inheritance and sets off to a faraway land where, in a fabulous turn of phrase, he “wastes his substance with riotous living.” Having outspent his inheritance, he becomes a swineherd, and is so destitute that he envies the swine the husks that they eat. With hunger in the belly, he resolves to return to his father and beg to be taken as a servant. Instead of spurning him, the old man falls upon his neck and kisses him. The elder son walks into the homecoming feast and begrudges the old man for slaughtering a fatted calf in honor of his debauched brother. But the old man replies that it is right that they should make merry: “For this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Ancient and biblical notions of forgiveness may seem inadequate or incomplete, but manage to sidestep an important problem with the modern concept of forgiveness as the overcoming of resentment: namely, that resentment, or the kind of resentment that ought to be overcome, is necessarily inappropriate, leaving forgiveness with no intrinsic moral worth.
Let me explain. If people have no free will and no meaningful control over their actions, resenting them serves no moral purpose. But if they do have free will and their actions fall short, they deserve our measured resentment. If they then make amends, our resentment is no longer appropriate, and “forgiveness” requires no special effort. But if they do not make amends, resentment remains the right or moral response: to forgive them in those circumstances would be to imply that our resentment was inappropriate or excessive, and therefore vicious.
The modern concept of forgiveness is fundamentally flawed. Instead of learning to forgive, we should learn to resent rightly, and, in some cases, to pardon.
Neel Burton is a psychiatrist and philosopher. He is a fellow of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. This article is adapted from his most recent book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.
© 2019 Neel Burton