Truth and reconciliation

Geoffrey Scarre on an insightful, reasoned look at the human capacity to offer and accept apologies

May 8, 2008

"Forgiveness", writes Charles Griswold near the beginning of this rich and important book, "is a virtue against the background of a narrative about human nature and its aspirations that accepts imperfection as our lot." It is sometimes said that "to err is human, to forgive divine", but in a world in which we constantly err and are erred against, the seeking and granting of forgiveness is indispensable for overcoming hostility and resentment, restoring friendships, and reminding ourselves of our common moral fallibility.

While several philosophers, including Plato and Bishop Butler, have written insightfully about forgiveness, the present is the most outstanding recent discussion, combining the scholarship, clarity and rigour characteristic of the best analytic philosophy with impressive sensitivity, wisdom and grasp of contemporary circumstances. But "sensitivity" in this context is far from implying blandness, and not all of Griswold's contentions are uncontentious. Thus the virtue of forgiveness (or "forgivingness") is portrayed as a mean between servility and hard-heartedness, which should be exercised only where certain conditions are fulfilled, including "the willingness ... of the offender to take minimal steps to qualify for forgiveness".

Yet while it is true that someone who forgives too readily may be deficient in self-respect, Griswold's condition problematically rules out, for instance, the "prospective forgiveness" granted in advance of repentance by Bishop Myriel in Hugo's Les Misérables to Jean Valjean for stealing his silver candlesticks. For Griswold, such an act is not properly forgiveness but something else that "seeks to become forgiveness but has not yet crossed the threshold". Some readers may think this reflects an overly constricted view of a notion that in practice is amenable to a range of creative transformations.

Because the practice of forgiveness is rooted in human imperfection, it is scarcely surprising that many cases of forgiveness themselves fall short of the ideal. Following an illuminating analysis of "forgiveness at its best", Griswold provides an equally enlightening study of such "non-paradigmatic" cases as forgiving the dead or the unrepentant, and forgiving oneself. To the vexed question of whether it is possible to forgive on behalf of others, he returns a qualified affirmative, arguing that since it is "counter-intuitive" to suppose that someone who does wrong that is in principle forgivable must remain unforgiven if her victim should so decide, it may be open for someone who identifies with the victim to render forgiveness instead. I suspect that not everyone's intuitions will accord with Griswold's on the propriety of third-party forgiveness, and that many will think that an offender so placed, albeit deserving of forgiveness, will stay unforgiven.

A major section of the book is devoted to the increasingly fashionable practice of political apology. Griswold persuasively argues that apologies for past wrongdoing by the leaders of institutions such as governments and churches are best framed (in view of their more impersonal nature) not as requests for forgiveness but as candid admissions of fault and assurances that past injuries will not be repeated; their aim, where sincere, is to promote reconciliation and cooperation.

Rightly scornful of contemporary "contrition chic" and the devaluation through over-frequency of political apology, Griswold carefully analyses the differences between successful and unsuccessful apologies in this genre. In a fascinating tailpiece, he offers an interpretation of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, which tries to bring comfort and closure while maintaining an uneasy silence on the justice of the cause for which the soldiers it commemorates fought and died.

This carefully reasoned, highly insightful and beautifully written book is essential reading for anyone interested in forgiveness, apology and reconciliation, in the private or the public sphere. Accessible to the general reader and practical politician as well as to scholars, it will undoubtedly set the parameters of debate on forgiveness and apology for years to come.

Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration

By Charles L. Griswold

Cambridge University Press

268pp, £40.00 and £13.99

ISBN 978 0521878821 and 703512

Published 8 November 2007

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