Sunday, May 23

Godless Forgiveness

This is one of a series of occasional posts dealing with the notion of forgiveness. Its prevalence in contemporary French philosophy is what drew my attention to it.
This is a non-religious post. I don't say that out of self-defense, nor as an implicit call for the reader's forgiveness. It's just that the topic—-forgiveness—-is not as religious as you might think. I say this not only because the word is often dropped in political discourse and flashed about for all manner of devious and hypocritical motives, but also because, in looking into the history of the word, I discovered in an out-of-print French doctoral dissertation published in 1969 that, before Christianity got its grips on it, the word was already in currency in spoken Latin and—-this is the rub—-had nothing to do with God.

Christian doctrine claims that only God can forgive profoundly, that is, absolutely; while humans, who are by nature sinful, can at best forgive each other for expedient and selfish reasons—-which is to say, they can't truly forgive one another—-and must therefore appeal to God for uncorrupt forgiveness. Uncorrupt: this doesn't mean "effective" or even perceptible but, rather, that which is in keeping with the purity of the concept. This is how Christianity explains the "for-" in forgiveness, or the "par-" in pardon, which synonymous prefixes are commonly understood as intensifying a type of giving or "don" [which means "gift," as in donation], thus making it an absolute gift, one that is all-powerful and pure, one that is given in the absence of repentance, outside any economy of exchange, and without therapeutic, self-serving, or pragmatic aims of any sort. Indeed, a gift that is given without any aim at all, or at least not any aim that one could submit to the dictates of reason, or identify in language. In the prefix of forgiveness lurks the purity and power of the Christian God. By means of this assumption, Christian doctrine is grafted onto the widely-accepted etymology of the prefix which is thereby given theological import.

As Alain Gouhier explains in his untranslated work Towards a Metaphysics of Forgiveness [Pour une métaphysique du pardon, Editions de l’Epi, Paris: 1969], the sense of "giving absolutely" that is apparent in "forgiving" predates the Christian evocation of the word. Thus, not only was a non-theological sense of forgiveness in currency before Biblical translators employed the word, but this non-theological sense already contains within it the hyperbolic or superlative sense of giving that forgiving is granted in Christianity and other Abrahamic traditions. This is easily seen in the evolution from certain Latin words that build progressively on the verb to give [dare] to the present-day French words for forgiveness: le pardon [noun] or pardonner [verb].

Gouhier's analysis suggests that perdonare emerges first in juridical, political, ecclesiastical, and in what today would be called literary language. In short, in its earliest uses, perdonare never has God as its subject. How, then, did it first emerge? Gouhier argues that the prefix "par-" of pardon is linked to donare in Medieval Latin texts only after a series of historical, etymological moments that can be retraced, beginning in Classical Latin, where "donare" and "condonare" are adjoined to the simple verb "dare," whose formula "veniam dare" already involves remission or indulgence.

According to Gouhier, donare first means according a favor: privileges, land, etc. In time, in can be used in instances where what one gives is an indulgence or remission of some sort. If, in this second sort of "favor" I give what another owes me—a debt—I give that which the other should have "given" me. I end up giving the other that which I would have in some sense taken by means of privation or punishment. The deserved punishment is given back, given over, or given up. It then follows that the absence of punishment, as a gift, will be applied to the misdeed itself or to the offender, and no longer merely to the deserved punishment. Thus, I not only give to the other an absence of punishment, I also no longer require that the other respond in any way to their misdeed, that they confess or expiate or atone for it. In this way, with the loss of a precise reference to that which is due, a limitless number of possible designations appear (with, as I've explained, Christianity siezing upon this opportunity to glorify God's forgiveness). Gouhier concludes by stating that this "explains the linguistic victory of the prefix 'per-,' an 'augmenting' or 'intensifying' prefix that means 'completely' or 'absolutely.' An infinite offense, an infinite debt, and an infinite gift [don], and, thus, forgiveness [pardon]"(34-35).

This will sound like I am closing a lecture or, worse, a sermon; but, barring another Bush bicycle accident or like misadventure, I'll next discuss the precise moment at which "le pardon" enters written language, according to Gouhier (which claim is supported by historical dictionaries).