Forgiveness and debt. Reflections from Difficult forgiveness by Paul Ricoeur.

22 d'abril de 2008 6


This essay is an analysis of the epilogue of the book “Memory, History, Forgetting” by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. The epilogue is entitled “Difficult forgiveness” and takes a philosophical anthropological approach to the act of forgiveness from a Christian perspective. Paul Ricoeur emphasizes the power of forgiveness in restoring “the capacity to act” of anyone who commits a fault, especially when this fault is very grave (“the unforgivable”), and fully explores the ontotheological view of the act of forgiveness. The essay covers the main points of Ricoeur’s view and criticises his shortcomings when he speaks of the forgiver. Finally, the essay proposes a different “liturgy” to Ricoeur’s view of forgiveness, focusing more on the idea of a “contract” than on that of “grace”, which is closer to Ricoeur’s view.

Key Words: Ricoeur, Fenomenology, Forgiveness, Memory, Christian, Ethics.


1. Fault and resentfulness

2. The height of forgiveness and the depth of fault

3. The forgiven and the forgiver

4. Forgiveness and peoples

5. Contract versus debt

6. Conclusions

7. Epilogue

8. Bibliography

1.Fault and resentfulness

Ricoeur concludes his last book (Memory, History, Forgetting) with an epilogue on forgiveness which is the finishing stroke of the idea that runs through the entire book: the present representation of the absent thing. We could say that, in this sense, forgiveness updates the past from a moral power standpoint. However, this parting idea raises a different question to that posed by the present representation of an absent thing.

Ricoeur says this of forgiveness:

(the question) is originally distinct from the one that, beginning with the preface to this hook, motivated our entire undertaking, namely, the representation of the past on the plane of the memory and history at risk of forgetting1

It is worth pointing out, however, that this epilogue displays a radical change of tone compared to the rest of the book. The first part of the book really concerns a phenomenology of memory. This first part harks back endlessly to the “long way” of the individual representation of the absent thing (belonging to the past) in the active present, the factors that condition it and the capacities and possibilities generated in the person. We could also speak of an epistemology of history in the second part of the book. This part is a continuation of the central consideration of Ricoeur’s work on the action of narrating and the effect of narrations: the historian’s job when faced with the need to create a collective memory that is just. In this case, one that is in line with “historical truth” (a strange expression that is difficult to define). Here we can establish a strictly philosophical reflection on the contradictions between memory and history, between the individual and the collective. We could wonder as to the meaning of documentation, the idea of validity or the construction of societies and peoples based on the definition of external affront, unfortunate history or the dialectics of victory. We could therefore speak of a hermeneutics of the condition of history, of the cores of meaning sketched by a time and its consequences on historical discourse. Likewise, the third section of the book takes a deeper look at the policies of forgetting and the reality of forgetting. This subject links up to the other two and makes for far-reaching philosophical speculation, marked as always by Ricoeur’s typically phenomenological fine detail. In any case, this is not the subject of this dissertation and it would take a deep, almost doctoral, study to delve into these three subjects and the way Ricoeur approaches them.

However, in the epilogue on forgiveness, Ricoeur changes his tone and the language he uses (something we know he does neither casually or innocently). This is surely appropriate to the subject, which is difficult to approach in strictly philosophical terms. In fact, the entire book up to the epilogue justifies to a certain extent this emergence of the reflection on forgiveness. This difficult forgiveness seems to have been on the philosopher’s mind throughout the entire book (he says so himself) though never explicitly or even as a leitmotif. It as if Ricoeur had needed to state clearly all that had gone before in order to speculate on forgiveness. This speculation is not closed in any logical way, or like a Wittgensteinian corollary2, which would surely become part of those things that the first Wittgenstein would rather not talk about. Forgiveness surely has a metaphysical, a theological and a philosophical side. Nonetheless, it is hard to define the tone used by Ricoeur: it is not exactly religious, nor merely a phenomenology of Religion, but rather we could say that he reflects upon the “liturgies” of forgiveness, not only the strictly religious ones, but the social liturgies, the channels of behaviour followed by forgiveness in a political, legal, or economic way (in the sense of administrating a grace).
We could also say that Ricoeur creates a phenomenology of the spirit of forgiveness, which explains the cores of meaning of the action of forgiveness and of the relationship established between minds in forgiveness. This is a kind of architecture of the gift – giving and receiving. There is a policy of reconciliation, and a critique of judicialisation. However, what surely stands out here is the tension established between accountability and impunity. This is a tension that Europe has been pondering explicitly ever since the Nuremberg trials and one that Ricoeur also considers. In any case, the philosopher’s confrontation with the question of forgiveness is deep and difficult to distil.

The enigma of forgiveness raises two questions: Firstly, the power of fault to incapacitate Ricoeur’s “capable being”, and secondly the power of forgiveness to restore this capacity to act. (Does one have to want to be redeemed in order for that to happen? Incapacitated in fact, in law or in essence?)

Ricoeur explains the long road that must be travelled from experience to forgiveness. The first experience in the memory, which leads to forgiveness, is the experience of fault. Ricoeur puts this on a parallel with Jean Nabert’s experiences of failure and solitude, which are “prior experiences as the foundations of reflection”; and also Karl Jaspers’ boundary situations, “another name for fault3” So, the experience of fault, in the memory, is the more or less vivid recollection, not remembered or evoked profusely, but appearing as an inevitable experience, situated at the centre of the accountability of our deeds. It may or may not be sought intentionally, but it seems to be a source of consideration, in other words, a significant memory moving the spirit or intellect both inwards and outwards. It should therefore be made clear that the moral recollection of an action by the subject is a link between the past and the present, between the absent thing of the pastness and the present thing. Assuming deeds to be good or bad, beyond rationality, where existential and “existentiary” experience revolve around each other, is on the one hand a presumption of a constant subject and, on the other, a changing wish. We could talk about a continuous self because it recognises itself in the experience of fault as the accountable. At the same time, the wish changes, because guilt flows from a failure to accept what is remembered or at least to leave it as it stands. It goes without saying that the link between this permanent self and the impermanence of sustaining certain wishes finds a link in the involuntary nature of the memory, of the “existentiary” experience of fault, which is culpability.

But what does Ricoeur mean when he says that fault is the existential rather than the existentiary presupposition of forgiveness? Does he mean that fault can exist without being lived as an experience of fault? In other words, doing something that requires forgiveness but not feeling the need to receive forgiveness? Or perhaps even without feeling that a fault has been committed? Ricoeur takes it for granted that it is so. This causes him to reflect later on the need for confession to bring about forgiveness, or the need to ask for forgiveness for it to be granted. Clearly, then, for Ricoeur the presupposition of forgiveness is not guilt understood as a feeling, but rather understood as the faculty to make someone accountable for a deed or action, whether or not the subject claims to be “capable” or “incapable” of this action. Therefore, do we need to desire forgiveness to be forgiven? Do we need to be aware of the fault or only the offense? The plural societies in which we live often use the perception of the offense as a yardstick, because the sensation of having committed a fault is difficult to perceive for culturally distant communities. Managing this process, something which in Europe has only been resolved for the time being by saying that the prevailing paradigm should come from within, is one of the most important challenges for 21st century politics, finding possible mechanisms for the Global Village without falling into total relativism, Gorgian lack of communication, acritical eclecticism or Roman imperial decadence.

That leads us to a critical reflection on Ricoeur’s approach: the link between the past and the present, based on a memory that is either passive or active, individual or collective, conscious or involuntary, recognised or hidden – no matter – is strongly rooted in resentfulness. We do not claim that this is all there is to it, but it does point to the recollection of an affront as evidence of a chain linking absent and present times. Ricoeur fails to consider this resentfulness, which renders his picture partially incomplete. In other words, if we talk of forgiveness, we have to talk of the forgiver. Ricoeur speaks of forgiveness as a moral universal, applicable – or not – to everyone or by everyone, and analyses in depth the possibilities of fault, of “the unforgivable” of “deepest” evil to know what this forgiveness should involve. Yet he does not mention forgiving individuals. Nor does he consider whether the evil to be forgiven affects the forgiver in some way. Ricoeur thinks of forgiveness in terms of the fault committed, not in terms of the wound suffered by the one who should forgive. The universal that Ricoeur uses to speak of forgiveness, which he weighs against the specific evil to which it refers, often leads us to think that this universal self is, in actual fact, his specific self.4 If not, it is hard to imagine how he can make a presupposition of the wish to forgive.

In Ricoeur’s epilogue there is no true reflection on resentfulness. He reflects upon the memory of an affront or the persistent recollection of fault, but not a feeling of hatred, of distance or protection towards the past aggressor or the possible future aggressors with the power to narrow the “capability” for forgiveness. He says:

“The experience of fault is given essentially in a feeling. This is the first difficulty, inasmuch as philosophy, and more specifically moral philosophy, has given little consideration to feelings as specific affections, distinct from emotions and passions.” 5

However fault is independent of the feeling of fault, which is why resentfulness, or the incapability to forgive, can be also. The link between action and agent does not always occur from within, nor always from without. Nor is either of the two essentially just or precise by dint of its origin.

However, Ricoeur insists:

“The specific form taken by such attribution of fault to the self is avowal, admission, that speech act by which a subject takes up, assumes the accusation.”6

But also:

“There can in fact be forgiveness only where we can accuse someone of something, presume him to be or declare him guilty”7

Fault therefore involves both an internal and an external dimension: with confession there is an obvious bridge over the abyss between the action and person committing it (and it is here that all the considerations on recollection and consideration, treated in the first part of the work, and the entire explanation of Nabert’s givens for reflection, as well as Jaspers’ comparison with boundary situations come into play), but feeling guilty is not absolute proof of fault. Experience dictates that many confessions are not confessions of a fault, but rather simple expressions of a shortcoming. Likewise, the link between agent and action, either legal or moral, seen from the outside, is no guarantee of anything. The offense is a manifestation of power which can say as much about the will of the aggressor and the weakness (in the broad sense) of the victim. That is why there is a balance when the request for forgiveness is returned, because there is a similar appreciation of fault.

In this connection, Ricoeur says:

“Fault is as limited as the rule it infringes, even if the consequences, through their repercussions, are themselves indefinite in nature in terms of the suffering inflicted”8

In addition, the experience of fault leads the agent to suffer the consequences of this incapability. This goes far beyond the infringement of a specific rule. Perhaps this is why forgiveness is not an institutional or a legal matter, as this area is governed by whether or not the rule is respected, regardless of degrees of awareness.9.

Ricoeur quotes Nabert:

It is a different matter in the case of the implication of the agent in his or her act. This amounts to not setting limits on the impact on awareness of each of our actions10

This leads us directly into the field of awareness. Fault, this limitation of “the capable being”, occurs in the infinitude of awareness, this “given for reflection” or this “boundary situation” demands that blame be assumed, if only in a private, intimate way. Ricoeur says that a fragment of being slips and becomes incapability:

“The experience of fault is placed in relation to other negative experiences that can also be said to participate in nonbeing.” 11

In this part of the epilogue, Ricoeur outlines the strictly metaphysical connotations of his scheme. The link between this metaphysical formality and Ricoeur’s own religious matter marks a borderline with a fuzzy theology of politics and law, something which can be felt throughout the book.

The epilogue is still on the individual level, both in terms of fault and forgiveness. Once he has gone into detail on the malice of fault and its deepest baseness, Ricoeur finishes by considering the possibility of the unforgivable. A fault committed by a subject, a recognisable author, and also an imputable field of action and will, becomes unforgivable by the depth of its evil. Unforgivable in itself or unforgivable for those who must forgive? Again, Ricoeur puts the emphasis on the fault in and of itself, on the aggressor, on the person incapacitated because of the fault committed, and not on the victim’s incapacity to forgive because of the depth of the wound.

Here Ricoeur says of the unforgivable:

“Considered from the side of the object, the unjustifiable designates this excess of the non-valid, what goes beyond infractions measured by the yardstick of the rules recognized by conscience: a type of cruelty, of baseness, of extreme inequality in social conditions distresses me without my being able to name the norms violated. It is no longer a matter of a simple contrary that I would understand in opposition to what is valid; These are evils that belong to a more radical contradiction than that of the valid and the non-valid, and that give rise to a demand for justification for which performing one’s duty is not enough to satisfy”12

And more precisely still:

“The irreparable on the side of effects, the imprescriptible on the side of criminal justice”13

However these wounds of inner being14 refer to the agent, not to the “victim” of fault. When we say unforgivable, it is essential to differentiate between something unforgivable because of the fault or because of the victim’s incapacity to forgive. Ricoeur himself speaks of evils perpetrated as indescribable misfortunes for those who suffer them15. Because, over and beyond the will to make others suffer and to eliminate them indeed “stands the will to humiliate, to deliver the other over to the neglect of abandonment, of self-loathing.”16

In conclusion, in the role that the experience of fault plays in the memory of the past, suffice it to say that resentfulness is also a significant and very strong link which happens to memory, and not necessarily voluntarily, and which is equivalent or symmetrical in many ways to the experience of guiltiness. However, Ricoeur attaches no importance to this. This essay defends the opinion that resentfulness is also a given for reflection and supposes a true boundary situation when we speak of granting forgiveness. If, furthermore, we are talking about the unjustifiable, the imprescriptible, the unforgivable, we must move outside the closed analysis of fault and understand it as a connection between the agent and the victim, as the act of forgiveness should necessarily be. The deeper the fault, the higher the forgiveness, as Ricoeur says, but also the more wounded the person who must forgive. Forgiveness is not a category that can be used, with force and potential depending on the case to which it applies. Forgiveness pertains to man and is his strength, whether it is that of his love, his hatred or his instinct to bridge the abyss of fault. Forgiveness is not what does, but who forgives. It is more a matter of “whom” than “what”.

That is why, if the capacity to act is so essential in Ricoeur’s scheme of things, we have to bear in mind the forgiver’s “capacity to act”. We must also understand that this power is not transferable when dealing with a forgiveness that goes beyond the legal fact and aims to reach the inner wound. We would need to discover whether the redemption of the capacity to act that makes forgiveness possible is the same for the victim and the aggressor.

2. The height of forgiveness and the depth of fault

When Ricoeur speaks of the height of forgiveness, he is referring to the symmetry with the depth of fault. There is a logical correlation here. The love of forgiveness must be as high as the evil is deep, but, as it is high, it overcomes it, covers it, and conquers it. Ricoeur does not question the possibilities of the power of forgiveness – of the idea of forgiveness – over fault. He qualifies what this victory means, but then immediately runs up against difficulties in fitting the purity of the concept of forgiveness with the impurity of the reality of fault.

First of all, let us note that Ricoeur raises the problem of the unforgivable in ontological terms. In other words, the act of committing a fault is indistinguishable from the being that commits it. If forgiveness erases the fault from the being, then this being endures the fact of committing the unforgivable, and therefore human nature is denigrated. It is one thing to conquer evil, but it is another to claim that evil is erased with the act of forgiveness. In other words: “The unforgivable also applies to the most intimate tie that unites the agent to the action, the guilty to the crime”.17
Ricoeur takes the idea of the unworthiness of forgiveness from Nicolai Hartmann (his Ethique) as a warning against the theologisation of forgiveness understood as the divine overcoming of the human nature:

“If forgiveness were possible, it would constitute a moral evil, for it would place human freedom at God’s disposal and would offend human self-respect: “The being-guilty associated with bad action cannot be suppressed for anyone, because it is inseparable from the guilty party”. 18

Qualifying the pre-eminence of forgiveness in relation to fault, from the ontological inseparability of blame and the guilty party, leads Ricoeur to a sentimental conclusion. Forgiveness affects the representation of evil, but not evil itself:

“There is indeed a victory over evil on the moral plane […] but not an abolishment of fault”19

Having reached this point, however, Ricoeur again stresses the existence of this harmonics of fault, which is forgiveness. In spite of everything, he says, forgiveness exists 20. And he extracts the virtues from it by inverting fault:

This is why I will speak of this voice as a voice from above. It is from above, in the way that the admission of fault proceeds from the unfathomable depths …21

The illogical, or perhaps we should say alogical, character of forgiveness (in the same way that it is not exactly irrational but rather arational, like an amentia in the act of loving, which is not dementia at all), demands a discourse that stretches beyond the geometrical categories on which the notions of height and depth of forgiveness and fault are dependent. This dependence on geometry and the fallacious way of stating the virtues of forgiveness by inverting the characteristics of fault is the great weakness of this epilogue. The symmetry sought in this philosophical discourse is deceitful, as each discovery of the depth of fault demands a height of forgiveness to keep the equation in balance. That is why Ricoeur has to say this of forgiveness:

“For the hymn has no need to say who forgives and to whom forgiveness is directed. There is forgiveness as there is joy, as there is wisdom, extravagance, love.” 22

In other words, forgiveness is taken as something more than a conceptual category. There is an illeíté (extreme distance of forgiveness, a distancing of the act of forgiving, a kind of elevation above habitual logical mechanisms in the categories, even the metaphysical. That is why he calls upon the liturgy of the hymn and why the virtues of forgiveness will be deduced from the hymn. Ricoeur of course ends with an extremely religious forgiveness. And this causes doubt in the reader: is forgiveness – as Ricoeur proposes it – only possible if a personal and generous God exists? Or at least, as Dostoyevsky said, its idea?

Ricoeur quotes Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other men’s sins, but delights in the truth. There is no limit to its faith, its hope and its endurance” 23.

And thus:

“Love is Height itself. Now if love excuses everything, this everything includes the unforgivable. If not it would itself be annihilated. In this regard, Jacques Derrida is right: forgiveness is directed to the unforgivable or it does not exist. It is unconditional, without exception or restriction. It does not presuppose a request for forgiveness: “One cannot or should not forgive, there is no forgiveness, if there is any, except where there is the unforgivable.” 24

3.The forgiven and the forgiver.

After this approximation to the radical difference between the height of forgiveness – love – and the depth of fault – evil – we must elucidate two key issues. Firstly, must forgiveness be asked in order to be granted? In other words: should forgiveness be earned with repentance? Secondly: Is there a full capacity to act in the person who has been forgiven, or is blame still the driving force? If it does still remain, is it the driving force of responsibility?

These questions are not easy, and although Ricoeur reflects explicitly on the first (although he does not say so in his final conclusion) he does not mention the second, or the third. The habitual discourse used to answer the third question is psychological, or biological. There is no response in this book from a contemporary Christian metaphysical-theological point of view. And this is not a minor issue in the history of Christian philosophy.

As to the first question, from Ricoeur’s Christian perspective; but also as a foundation of conventions established in Western countries, the inevitable Golden Rule appears as the biblical forgive them for they know not what they do. This phrase has three characteristics: Firstly, it is God who must be asked for forgiveness, and therefore we are moving in a sphere of forgiveness that is above humanity, but still requires man’s participation in the form of a request. Secondly, forgiveness is given without the aggressor asking for it, in other words, it is unconditional. This forgiveness is nonetheless linked to a causal proposition: they know not what they do. This has a bearing on the innocence of unawareness. They, who know not what they do, deserve forgiveness. Does this mean that if they knew what they did they would not deserve forgiveness? And when the Jesus of the Christian gospels says: they know not what they do, is he referring to the fact that they do not know he is the “son of God” or that they have not understood the true nature of killing? Putting aside the fact that ignorance of the law is rarely a valid argument in a trial, needless to say this raises a difficult dilemma. If forgiveness needs to be asked for, it does not have a unilateral value, but is the answer, or ratification, of the process of successful repentance. The merit of the restitution of the capacity to act, in the metaphysical sense, is for the person who has repented. It is this need for an examination of conscience that is behind Dostoyevsky’s caricature of Catholic forgiveness in the Grand Inquisitor.

However, unilateral forgiveness also has its problems: what is forgiving if the person forgiven is unaware that he or she is being forgiven, or does not care, or fails to acknowledge blame, or does not consider his or her acts as fault? What is it? Perhaps it is a merely a comfort for the victim, a way of separating the victim from the aggressor – I forgive you, you are no longer in my life; I set you free. This unilateral forgiveness could be simply a way of rushing headlong to avoid the issue: if you forgive a murderer who wants to be a murderer, your forgiveness simply bounces off and has no effect. The height of love is doubtless enormous in these cases, but it does not establish what Ricoeur calls a “communication of the gift” nor does it restore the “capacity to act”. Ricoeur often says forgiveness depends upon accountability. Being accountable must necessarily mean accepting blame. If not, there can be no forgiveness. Without the acceptance of blame, there is only arrogance or rushing headlong to avoid the issue. There must be a dialogue between the forgiver and the forgiven. The effects of unasked-for forgiveness move inwards; whilst the effects of forgiveness granted as part of an exchange move outwards, to the person forgiven.

At this point, we must examine what happens to the forgiven as a result of the relationship with the forgiver: is there a true release from blame? First of all there is a risk of farce, which makes the request a form of survival: this case would be a vice and so we cannot contemplate it in the present hypothesis.

The hypothesis of a forgiveness granted in a relationship of exchange (untainted by economic concerns, nor the will to affirm that the request for forgiveness is a merit) is weighed down by an inability to forget: “there is a universal urgency for memory” 25 The urgency for memory makes it impossible to be sure that the forgiver can forget what he or she has forgiven and for the person forgiven to forget the gift he or she has been given (always supposing that the gesture was authentic). It remains to be seen whether the relationship between forgiveness and fault is vertical. In Ricoeur’s terms, the deeper the fault, the higher the gift of forgiveness: the worse the case, the stronger the link. How can the person forgiven know that the height of the gift he or she has received is such because of the depth of the fault? The worse the fault, the better the forgiveness. Forgiveness establishes a relationship in which the greater the capacity to be worse, the better the gifts (if we can speak here of capacities).

We have furthermore seen that forgiveness has a dimension that moves inwards, to the individual him or herself, which influences the process of mourning and also frees the sufferer from the traumatic moment. Here we are told:

“Each time that forgiveness is in the service of a finality, be it noble and spiritual (rescue or redemption, reconciliation, salvation), each time that it tends to re-establish a normalcy (social, national, political, psychological) through a work of mourning, through some therapy or ecology of memory, then ‘forgiveness’ is not pure — nor is its concept. Forgiveness is not, and it should not be, either normal, or normative, or normalizing. It should remain exceptional and extraordinary, standing the test of the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary course of historical temporality” 26

Let us also remember Nietzsche’s consideration in On the Genealogy of Morality in which he speaks of the etymology of Entschuldigung: releasing from blame / freeing from debt. This allows the creditor to stop worrying about the debtor27.

Finally, we are at that point that we call “The irreparable on the side of effects, the imprescriptible on the side of criminal justice and the unpardonable on the side of moral judgment”.28 The question we must ask is this: is a new debt established between the forgiven and the forgiver in return for such a high gift? It could be said quite rightly that if this is so, then forgiveness is not possible. There is no separation from blame, nor any restoring of the capacity to act. The trace of evil would be indelible and it would be impossible to separate the two. Ricoeur himself quotes some strong words from Hartmann “There is indeed (a restitution) on the moral plane […], but not an abolishment of fault (…) One can manage to understand the criminal, but one cannot absolve him. Fault in its essence is unforgivable not only in fact but by right”.

Or Vladimir Jankélévitch on the imprescriptible:

“Between the absolute of the law of love and the absolute of wicked freedom there exists a tear that cannot be entirely ripped apart. We have unceasingly attempted to reconcile the irrationality of evil with the all-powerfulness of love. Forgiveness is as strong as evil but evil is as strong as forgiveness”

The trace of evil seems not to be erased only by the act of forgiveness. Ricoeur himself wonders: “But what would expiation be, if not an absolution obtained from the punishment itself, which would have emptied, so to speak, the cup of wickedness?”29

Perhaps only an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth restore normality and free the guilty from fault, perhaps the gift of forgiveness is too much for the soul of someone who has touched true evil. What seems increasingly clear is that the effectiveness of forgiveness depends to a large extent on the subsequent attitude of the forgiver. This is where my previous words about resentfulness come to the fore. Knowing whether the debt was forgiven involves knowing whether really to believe that the wrong done has been righted with the gift, with the action carried out, with the words I forgive you. This responsibility seems to become active.

4.Forgiveness and peoples

Let us consider these suppositions in terms of collective forgiveness and grievances. In this book, Ricoeur speaks of collective catastrophes such as Nazi Germany and considers the widespread evil and impunity present in our time. However Ricoeur reminds us that: “The notion of a criminal people must be explicitly rejected.” 30 and that it must be possible to establish responsibility: “Whoever has taken advantage of the benefits of the public order must in some way answer to the evils created by the state to which he or she belongs.” 31

Nonetheless, he does take into consideration statements like this one from Karl Jaspers:

“The ethos of politics is the principle of a state in which all participate with their consciousness, their knowledge, their opinions and their wills” 32

And we add: and their omissions.

This differentiation seems to occur between the ontological and deontological levels. In other words: one should refuse the idea of a criminal people (ontological), but a people bases its ethos and policies on the participation of all, albeit through inhibition (deontological). 33

Here Max Weber’s words after the World War :

“Everyone with a manly and dignified attitude would tell the enemy: “We lost the war. You won it. Let us forget the past and discuss what conclusions must be drawn from the new situation (…) in view of the responsibility towards the future which above all burdens the victor”. 34

It could be said that the victor has rarely exercised his role as the party responsible for the future – not in the sense of leadership which is obvious and inevitable, but of true responsibility for his forgiveness and his victory. We therefore need once more to delimit the role of the forgiver, which Ricoeur fails to mention. As we can see in other parts of the book and in Ricoeur’s work, this also influences the narration of history.

5. Contract versus debt

Perhaps, as Ricoeur says:

“Political thinking runs up against a major phenomenon here, namely the irreducibility of the friend-foe relationship, upon which Carl Schmitt constructed his political philosophy, to relations of enmity between individuals. This reluctant observation is particularly troublesome for a conception of memory like the one proposed in this work, which is based upon continuity and the reciprocal relation between individual memory and collective memory, itself established as historical memory in Halbwach’s sense. Love and hate operate differently, it seems, on the collective scale of memory” 35

So, forgiveness between peoples must necessarily produce a new people as the result of the constant relationship required by the bilateral relationship of forgiveness in which the forgiver and the forgiven have a responsibility to bridge the abyss between forgiveness and fault. 36

This is how we understand the pessimistic phrase in Ricoeur’s epilogue:

“One must conclude that discourses on “the reconciliation of peoples remains a pious vow.” The collectivity has no moral conscience; Confronted in this way with “outside” guilt, peoples slip back into rehashing old hatreds, ancient humiliations”. 37

We can amend this statement by saying that this is true whenever similar ideas of justice are not established from reconciliation, when received from the same instance. We can think of the success of the EU after all the European wars or the failure of the International Criminal Court. A common judicial system establishes the responsibilities of each party – the giver and the receiver. Union must come after explicit forgiveness: that is the constant relationship. If forgiveness is just, it must be able to be legal. If it is unjust, because it is a gift, it must be able to be the foundation of a new relationship of political justice. What is not acceptable, looking now to Ricoeur’s scheme of things, is a narrative aberration: forgiveness, as already outlined, cannot be a point at a moment in history that releases the two members from their relationship to each other: quite the contrary, it puts them in a relationship of perpetual mutual dependence. Only then can it make sense for someone to give the highest for the lowest.

Forgiving, awarding this gift, to the lowest thus implies a close relational contract that excludes forgetting as a way out and demands complicity with the future. If not, it is not forgiveness, but escapism or voluntary amnesia. It is not reconciliation, but coexistence. This is the way out that Ricoeur finds for the unforgivable: the bond. In a way, the epilogue contains a very unphilosophical, rather catechetical tautology: if we presuppose the foundations of (any) religion, it is normal for the conclusion to be “come back together”. Not in vain then at the start of the epilogue Ricoeur warns of the change of tone vis-à-vis the book which precedes it. This forgiveness made of future cooperation, this joining – rather than unjoining – forgiveness, is one that aims to go beyond the friend-foe rhetoric and the dialectic of repudiation. The strength required for this Ricoeurian forgiveness can only emerge in the deification of the act of forgiveness. This is God’s forgiveness. The only one strong enough for this joining act, and therefore implies that forgiveness is not available to the will, only to grace. It flows from this that only ideas like sons of God, citizen, or human rights do or can break the friend-foe rhetoric (at least conceptually), and only communion, or assembly can shatter this repudiation. This is the translation of the religious universal to the political and legal universal. However, it must be said in defence of Ricoeur’s scheme, that this Christian anthropology, which is not explicitly based on natural law (although it does presuppose it) is not a divine, but a human attribute. It therefore requires a “positive” construction of the liturgies and areas of forgiveness. Forgiveness is “difficult” because it is neither a therapy nor a way of turning over a new leaf. It means taking on a bond until death, or indeed eternally, if that is what you believe, and implies a level of demand by the forgiver which is unfair because it is unbalanced. This logic is a far cry from the reality of love, which is really what Ricoeur set out to speak about.

6. Conclusions

a) The epilogue entitled Difficult forgiveness of Paul Ricoeur’s book Memory, History, Forgetting has a different tone to the strictly philosophical one used in the rest of the work. This change of tone is due to the ontotheological nature that Ricoeur attaches to the act of forgiving.

b) Fault, as Ricoeur describes it, is similar to Karl Jaspers’ boundary situations and Jean Nabert’s givens of reflection. It is a link between the past and the present, which answers the question of the current representation of the absent thing from a moral perspective. Fault damages this “capacity to act” that is described so profusely in Ricoeur’s work, and is recovered through forgiveness.

c)The act of confession is needed in order to restore the capacity to act, and links up to Ricoeur’s theory of life as a narration.
ci)Ricoeur does not mention resentfulness and the victim of fault as an equivalent to fault. His scheme is therefore incomplete.
cii)Fault has an external dimension (objective, legal, related to confession) and an internal dimension (which, in the act of forgiveness, involves a release from blame, but not a destruction of evil).

d)Accountability finds its specific scope in awareness and the loss and recovery of the dignity of being. Faced with the metaphysical implications, Ricoeur’s discourse opts for an implicit religiousness.
di)That is why Ricoeur calls upon the hymn to define forgiveness.
dii)Ricoeur turns forgiveness into a metaphysical gift, which requires him to call upon the Christian God.

e) In collective terms, there is clearly a need for the forgiver to complete the act of forgiveness. A dialectics of victory becomes necessary.

f) Forgiveness cannot involve a release, as Ricoeur seems to suggest. Resentfulness, the role of the forgiver and the dialectics of victory imply that forgiveness is a link between the victim and the executioner and not a release from blame. The only way to end the pain that has been inflicted and to restore the capacity to act is by creating a common notion of justice.

g) The appropriate legal type for forgiveness is not prescription, but contract. In a collective sense, it implies common justice institutions. The creation of the EU after the Second World War is a paradigm of this.

7. Epilogue.

To conclude this final intuition, I think it would be illustrative to mention a text that appears in A History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius38 by the Roman historian Herodian. This text speaks of true gratitude when receiving an enormous, unpayable gift (such as forgiveness described by Ricoeur) and the requirement of future commitment that it involves. It is the speech given by the emperor Pertinax (2nd Century A.D) as he took up office. Pertinax came from the Senate, but was from a humble and undistinguished family and only held the reins of power for two months. He was later murdered. His speech of thanks (we must understand that he was being deified: a gift comparable enough to Ricoeur’s forgiveness), is marked by a sense of unease at the commitment involved in such a gift. And I finish my work on this note. It means, in sum, that if Ricoeur’s idea is taken to its conclusion, forgiving is not exonerating, freeing, pushing away or forgetting; it is not repudiation or forgiving a debt; it is binding, joining, uniting, committing fault with love, nothingness with being. That is why unilateral forgiveness is not forgiving, but forgetting. And it is impossible. Forgiveness must overcome the rhetoric of debt to become the rhetoric of the contract, cooperation, pact, or union.

“I am persuaded that your great readiness to do me honour, the extraordinary enthusiasm with which you acclaim me, and your selection of me as emperor in preference to those among you of such noble birth, has in it not the slightest intent to flatter, but is proof and pledge of your good will toward me. And this might make another ready and eager to accept without hesitation what has been entrusted to him, and he might reasonably entertain a hope of managing the empire with no difficulty among subjects so kindly disposed toward him. But these favours which I am receiving at your hands, so great and so flattering, although I am aware of the honour they do me, cause me no little apprehension and inner conflict. For, when the initial favours are so great, it is always difficult to do equal favours in return. Now when anyone who receives small favours does greater favours in return, the fact that this is an easy matter is never taken into consideration; it is thought to be merely evidence of his gratitude. But when the initial favour is virtually unsurpassable, if the recipient does not return one equally large, the fact that this is a difficult matter is never taken into consideration; it is thought to be merely evidence of his ingratitude and lack of appreciation. I see, therefore, that no ordinary task awaits me in proving myself worthy of such an honour as you have bestowed upon me. But the honour of the throne lies not in the throne itself, but in the acts which he who holds it must perform if he is not to disgrace his high office. (…)
And so you, who are skilled in these matters, must cooperate with me and consider the management of the empire as a joint enterprise, and you must entertain high hopes of living under an aristocracy, not under a tyranny, and you must confirm this for all our subjects.”39


-Ricoeur, P. Memory, History, Forgetting. University of Chicago Press, 2004
-Ricoeur, P. La metáfora viva. Trotta, Barcelona 2001
-Ricoeur, P. Finitud y Culpabilidad. Trotta. Barcelona 2002.
-Nietzsche, F., La Genealogía de la Moral, Madrid, Alianza, 1997.
-Reale, Giovanni; Antiseri, Dario. Historia del pensamiento fiolosófico y científico. Herder. Barcelona (2003)
-El sabio y la política, Eudecor, Córdoba (Argentina), 1966.
-Herodian, A History of the Roman Empire since the Death of Marcus Aurelius, Ed. Gredos, Madrid 1985.

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