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Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea, by David Konstan

Reviewed by Jakub Jirsa

David Konstan argues for a simple but radical thesis: the modern concept of forgiveness did not exist in classical antiquity (Greece and Rome) and it is not fully present in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Church fathers (p. ix). Statements like this have, I suspect, two major effects on readers: first, they are puzzled―a life completely without forgiveness seems too strange for us; and second, they rush to check all the relevant passages from ancient texts that come to mind. Konstan’s book is one of those studies that increases the reader’s puzzlement and thus makes one seriously reflect on the subject-matter in question. As for the search for the passages disproving Konstan’s claim, it soon becomes clear that Konstan has already gone about considering almost every instance of “forgiveness” or reconciliation in classical literature.

In the first chapter Konstan explains what he takes to be the meaning of forgiveness. According to him (I will quote at length) forgiveness is “a bilateral process involving a confession of wrongdoing, evidence of sincere repentance, and a change of heart or moral perspective on the part of the offender, together with a comparable alteration in the forgiver, by which she or he consents to forego vengeance on the basis precisely of the change in the offender” (p. 21). It is only this pure (and, I suppose, extremely rare) form of the process that counts as a genuine act of forgiveness. This definition has three main parts which will all play an essential part in Konstan’s argument. First, there must be the acknowledgement of wrong: the wrongdoer must not try to excuse himself or to blame anyone (or anything) else―he or she has to accept full responsibility for what has been done. Second, a change of heart or a radical moral and personal change on the part of the wrongdoer must be expressed in repentance. And finally, the reason for forgiveness is precisely this change and nothing else (i.e., if I “forgive” anyone because she is my friend or because I may need her help, my act does not count as a genuine act of forgiveness).

The second chapter deals with Greek and Roman sources. Konstan begins the discussion with passages from Aristotle’s Rhetoric on calmness and anger, and from the Nicomachean Ethics on syngnōmē, a term which is sometimes rendered as “forgiveness”. The Stoics and Cicero constitute the next part, which is followed by many passages from Greek and Roman drama. Each of the passages he introduces is given a fair treatment and in each case Konstan finds that at least one essential ingredient of genuine forgiveness is missing. Despite the differences and variations in usage, generally speaking the Greek syngnōmē is rather an appropriate response to an involuntary act the wrongdoer has done in ignorance or under (often divine) coercion. The Latin deprecatio seems to be, at least at first sight, a better candidate for forgiveness, but its use is rather pragmatic and we find nothing about a possible change of heart or character on the part of the wrongdoer.

Read the original article at: Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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