Monday, June 7

Whence 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.
For today's post, I return to the origin of the loaded, politico-religious notion of forgiveness. As I explained in a previous post, in the related (though distinct) "pardon," which has a particularly political accent in English that is missing in other languages, the notion paradoxically is inscribed in law and at the same time serves as an exception to law. This paradox haunts contemporary American politics, which regularly erupt in discord whenever the president, whose power to grant pardons is effectively both lawless and legal, is attacked for exercising the power in accordance with the Constitution.

Not only does discord erupt over the application of the power, but also over its consequences, which today remain enveloped in legal obscurity. In October 2003, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case on a presidential pardon granted to William A. Borders, a lawyer pardoned for bribery whose disbarment in 1983 had nonetheless remained in effect. On the basis not only of a rigorous notion of the pardon (insofar as its heritage coincides with that of forgiveness), but of a Supreme Court ruling in 1866--a clear precedent--that reinstated a pardoned Confederate official to the Supreme Court bar by arguing that a pardon "blots out of existence the guilt, so that in the eye of the law the offender is as innocent as if he had never committed the offense," Borders, who was represented by Kenneth Starr and Charles Ogletree Jr., would presumably have been reinstated. However, the chief disciplinary official for the D.C. bar, Joyce E. Peters, urged the Court not to consider the case on grounds of William Border's "character;" and, with that, the Court voted 4-3 to refuse to hear the case. The curious implication of this decision is that a presidential pardon, though nearly unlimited in its scope of application (which covers offenses against the United States that are not impeachable), can be blocked up with respect to disabilities with the mere evocation of "character" (as if "character" applied to only a few select types of misdeeds), and disabilities therefore can remain attached to the pardoned figure, as if he or she had never, in fact, been pardoned. [This story was reported on by Linda Greenhouse of the NY Times on October 21, 2003.]

This is the obscure context of forgiveness in which I propose to look at the origin of the notion. I discussed in a previous post the thesis that the notion has a non-religious, non-theological origin, and today I will consider Alain Gouhier's etymological investigation of forgiveness or, in the author's French, le pardon.

The story begins with Aesop. But before Aesop can be discussed, one must note a "problem" relating to the arrival of "pardon" on the scene (in Latin: perdonare). In the first and second century, "perdonare" was absent in Biblical and patristic Latin (which is to say, in all extent documents from that time), whereas it is found in the very first written documents in Romance languages. Gouhier hypothesizes credibly that "perdonare" existed in spoken Latin, from which the Romance language derived, while being refused by the early Christian theologians.

The Latin translation of a line in a fable by Aesop concerning a lion and a shepherd had always been rendered by "incolumitate donare." But a new translation by Romulus, made around the year 400, replaces donare with perdonare: "incolumitate perdonatur." The tacking-on of the prefix will later know a brilliant career in Christian dogma as the privileged lever of power exercised by God in for-giving (par-donner) humanity, where humanity is deemed powerless to forgive itself. Here is the fable, in modern English:

The Lion And The Shepherd

A LION, roaming through a forest, trod upon a thorn. Soon afterward he came up to a Shepherd and fawned upon him, wagging his tail as if to say, "I am a suppliant, and seek your aid." The Shepherd boldly examined the beast, discovered the thorn, and placing his paw upon his lap, pulled it out; thus relieved of his pain, the Lion returned into the forest. Some time after, the Shepherd, being imprisoned on a false accusation, was condemned "to be cast to the Lions" as the punishment for his imputed crime. But when the Lion was released from his cage, he recognized the Shepherd as the man who healed him, and instead of attacking him, approached and placed his foot upon his lap. The King, as soon as he heard the tale, ordered the Lion to be set free again in the forest, and the Shepherd to be pardoned and restored to his friends.
Although the pardon received was in a sense earned by the presumed good deeds of the shepherd and thus warranted by mitigating circumstances relating to the condemned man's "character," a Latin translation of this fable opens the door to the long career of Christian dogma that recognizes the absolute giving of forgiveness as a divine power alone. The shift in this translation allows for nothing less than the swallowing up of Greek thought by the Christian Godhead. It has been argued by scholars of Ancient Greece, including Danièle Aubriot and Jacqueline de Romilly, that the Greeks lacked a notion of limitless, unconditional forgiveness of the sort found conceptualized in Christianity and other Abrahamic religions (alongside conditional logics which also are found in these religious traditions). The Greek word suggnômé, which has no cognate in modern languages, would best be rendered by "intellection." It implies not the forgiving of a misdeed that is known to have been willed intentionally by the accused, but the eventual comprehension of a fault to which ignorance alone had given rise. In short, the Greeks did not have a conception of "radical, willed evil." This assertion can be substantiated by reference to Socrates, for whom evil was always the consequence of mere ignorance.