Strictly secular sense of forgiveness

By Dave Henning / March 6, 2023

“The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.  The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it less seriously in a strictly secular sense.”- Hannah Arendt, philosopher (1906-1975)

In Chapter 3 (“The History of Forgiveness”) of Forgive, Timothy Keller notes that ancient cultures failed to value forgiveness.  And that includes the most admirable and sophisticated cultures.  For example, ancient Greek philosophers never viewed forgiveness as a virtue.

Furthermore, the Greek words eleison (pity) and sungnome (lenient in judgment) denote only a less severe punishment or judgment.  An act done out of compassion or fellow feeling.  In addition, sungnome involves excusing, not forgiving.  In other words, the offender couldn’t avoid the wrongdoing.   It’s making allowances.

Therefore, Charles L. Griswold cites two reasons classical antiquity failed to see forgiveness as a great good.

First, as people of moral excellence, virtuous persons never find themselves in need of forgiveness.  Also, a virtuous person remained above resenting the actions of the masses, the riffraff.  Instead, the virtuous looked down upon such people until their actions became inconsequential to the virtuous.

Second, classical thought ignored forgiveness due to the Greek view of the universe.  Because the Greeks viewed the universe as fundamentally impersonal.  Behind the universe stood the logos – a rational, yet still impersonal, transcendent principle that ordered the universe and history.  Therefore, the Greeks lived in an unyielding and unforgiving cosmos.

Hence, Griswold describes ancient philosophy as perfectionistic.  Because it required a moralistic near perfection.  As a result, that viewpoint showed little sympathy for those unable to muster such perfect behavior.

In conclusion, Charles L. Griswold explains that in ancient cultures:

” . . . forgiveness is not a virtue because the perfected [moral] soul is almost immune from doing injury.”

Today’s question: Do you think present culture takes forgiveness seriously in a strictly secular sense?  Please share.

Tomorrow’s blog: “Ethical system – Christian beliefs”

About the author

Dave Henning

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