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


1. Fault and resentment Page. 3

2. The height of forgiveness, and the depth of fault Page. 9

3. The forgiven and the forgiver Page. 11

4. Forgiveness and the people Page. 15

5. The contract against debt Page. 17

6. Epilogue Page. 20

1.The fault and resentment

In his last book (Memory, History, Forgetting), Ricoeur concludes with an epilogue about forgiveness that is a true colophon to the idea that is dealt with throughout the book: the presence of an absent thing. We could say that, in this sense, forgiveness updates the past from the moral power. This colophon, however, raises a different matter than the one brought up by the question concerning the present representation of an absent thing. When speaking about the question of forgiveness, Ricoeur says: (the question) is originally different from the one that motivated, since the preamble of this book, our whole endeavor. That is, the representation of the past at the level of memory and history, and at risk of forgetting. 1

Nevertheless, it is worth mentioning that a radical change of tone is perceived in this epilogue if compared to the rest of the book. Thus, in the first part, we can talk about a phenomenology of memory that tirelessly travels the “long path” of the individual’s representation of the absent, past thing in the active present, as well as its determining factors, and the capacities and possibilities it generates in the person. Likewise, in the second part of the book we can talk about an epistemology of history, which continues Ricoeur’s reflection regarding the action of narrating and the effect of narrations. It is the historian’s task to create a collective memory that is just, and in this case, one that adjusts to the historic truth, which is an expression of difficult meaning. It can hereby be established a strictly philosophical reflection about the contradictions between memory and history, between individual and collective. We could reflect upon the significance of documentation, the idea of validity, or the construction of societies and peoples parting from the definition of external offense, unhappy history or the dialectic of victory. Hence, we can talk about a hermeneutic of the historical condition, or the cores of meaning that describe a time and its consequences in the historical discourse. Similarly, the policy of forgetting opposite its reality appears in the third part of the book. This theme is connected to the other two and allows a great philosophical speculation, always with Ricoeur’s small print and his immense intelligence (maybe this will save him from oblivion). In any case, it would demand an in depth study, almost doctoral, of these three themes and Ricoeur’s approximation to them, which is not the subject of this dissertation.

Nonetheless, Ricoeur changes the language in the epilogue about forgiveness (and we know that this is neither casual nor innocent on his part). The theme surely demands it, since it is difficult to discuss this in strictly philosophical terms. And quite frankly, in fact, the whole book up to the epilogue justifies in some ways the shift towards the reflection on forgiveness. This difficult forgiveness seems to have been in the philosopher’s mind throughout the book (he himself mentions this), even if not explicitly or as leit motiv. It’s almost as if Ricoeur had felt the need to make the previous very clear in order to be able to speculate about forgiveness. This speculation does not conclude in a logical manner or as a Wittgensteinian corollary2. And it would surely be part of the things that is better not to talk about according to the Austrian philosopher. Forgiveness undoubtedly has a metaphysical aspect, a theological one, a philosophical one, and etcetera. Nonetheless, it is difficult to define the tone used by Ricoeur: it is not quite religious, not even a phenomenology of Religion (in fact, it is not this at all). However, we can affirm that there is a reflection concerning “liturgies” of forgiveness, and not only the strictly religious ones, but rather the social liturgies, and the channels of behavior followed by forgiveness in the political, juridical and economical sense ( in the sense of granting a pardon). It can also be said that Ricoeur designs a phenomenology of the spirit of forgiveness, which explains the cores of meaning in the action of forgiving, as well as the relations established between the spirits of forgiveness. We can equally affirm that this is an architecture of the gift, that is, of giving and receiving. There is a reconciliation policy, and a judicialization critique. However, what stands out as a main fact is the tension that is established between imputability and impunity. Europe has been reflecting on this tension since the trials of Nuremberg, and I have no doubt that Ricoeur collects this in his reflection. In any case, the philosopher’s confrontation with the question of forgiveness is profound and difficult to disclose.

The enigma of forgiveness raises two questions. The first one is the fault’s power to incapacitate the “capable man” described by Ricoeur. And the second question is the power that forgiveness has to reestablish the capacity to act. (In order to be rehabilitated, must one want to? Does incapable mean in fact, in right or in being?).

Ricoeur explains the long path that experience travels until it culminates in forgiveness. The first experience that inhabits memory and leads to forgiveness is the experience of the fault. Ricoeur compares it to the experiences of failure and solitude in Jean Nabert, which are “previous experiences upon which forgiveness is established”. And he also compares it to Karl Jaspers’ limit situations, to culpability, “one of the other names of culpability3”. Thus, the experience of fault, in memory, is the more or less clear remembrance, not recalled or evoked profusely, but appeared as an inevitable experience, which is right in the center of the imputability of our actions. It can be seeked on purpose or not, but it seems to be a source of reflection, that is, a significant memory that moves spirit or intellect outside and inside. It should be made clear, then, that the moral memory upon the subject’s action, which is necessarily previous, is a link between past and present, between the absent thing of the past and the present thing. To assume some events as good or bad, beyond rationality, where they turn into existential and existentiary experience is on the one hand a presumption of a constant subject, and on the other hand, a presumption of changing will. We talk about the continuous self because it recognizes itself as the imputable in the experience of the fault; and the will is a changing one because in fault there is an inconformity with the memory or at least with leaving this memory as it is. It is worth mentioning that the connection between this permanent self and the impermanence of sustaining certain wills has its link in what is involuntary in memory, in the fault’s existentiary experience, and in culpability. But what does Ricoeur mean when he says that fault is an existential and not existentiary assumption of forgiveness? Does he mean that the fault can exist and be without being lived through as an experience of a fault? That is, to do what requires forgiveness without feeling the necessity of receiving it? Or, even more so, without feeling it is a fault? It is obvious that it is so. And this will make us reflect further on about the necessity of confessing so that there can be forgiveness, or to ask for forgiveness so that it can be granted. Hence it should be clear that the assumption of forgiveness is not culpability understood as a feeling, but understood as the faculty to impute someone an event or an action, should the “capable” or “incapable” subject of this action take or not take responsibility of it. Therefore, must forgiveness be wished in order to be able to receive it? Should one be conscious of the fault or only of the offense? We should think of the plural societies in which we live and which often turn the perception of the offense into a scale, since the feeling of having committed a fault is difficult to elucidate for communities that are culturally distant. To deal with this process (this has only been resolved so far by saying that the prevailing paradigm must be the autochthonous one) is one of the most important challenges of 21st century politics, which are currently seeking mechanisms for the possible Global Village, without falling into total relativism, Gorgian communication, a-critical eclecticism, or Imperial Rome’s decadence.

This takes us to another reflection: the past’s link with present – which is elaborated on the base of passive or active memory, individual or collective, conscious or involuntary, recognized or unacknowledged – it doesn’t matter to him – finds a significant core of its strength in resentment. We are not saying that that is all, but it does point out to the memory of an offence as being an evidence of the chaining of absent times with present ones. That is, if we speak about forgiveness we must talk about the one who forgives. Ricoeur talks about forgiveness as a universal moral that is applicable or inapplicable to everyone or for everyone. And he analyzes with detail the possibilities of the fault, of the “unforgivable” in the “most profound” evil, in order to know how this forgiveness should be. But he doesn’t talk about individuals who forgive, nor if the evil to be forgiven affects the one who forgives in any way. Ricoeur thinks of forgiveness from the committed fault, not from the wound of the one who forgives. The universal used by Ricoeur when speaking about forgiveness, and which he compensates with the concrete in the evil he refers to, often makes us think that this universal self is, in reality, his concrete self. 4

However, apart from speculations, it could be said that there is not a true reflection on resentment. There is a reflection on resentment as the memory of an offense or as the persistence of the fault’s memory, but not as a feeling of hatred, of distance or protection with regard to the passed aggressor or the possible future aggressor with power to diminish the “capacity” to forgive. He is right when he says: “The experience of the fault is given, in essence, in the feeling. Thereby lies the first difficulty insofar philosophy, and especially moral philosophy, has reflected little on feelings as specific affective states, different from emotions and passions” 5. But the fault is independent from the feeling of fault, which is why it can be resentment of the incapacity to forgive. The link between action and agent is not always given from inside. And it is neither always given from outside. And neither of both is essentially just or precise in its origin. Ricoeur says: “The specific form taken by the attribution to oneself of the fault is confession, that is, the act of language by which the subject assumes the accusation” 6. But also: There can only be forgiveness when someone can be accused, to assume or declare him guilty” 7. Thus, in the fault there is an internal and an external dimension: it is obvious that the abysm between the action and the one who commits it is jumped in the confession (and all the considerations about remembrance and reflection dealt with in the first part of the book come in here, as well as all the explanation on the stages of reflection from Nabert, and its comparison with Jasper’s limit situations), but to feel guilty is not an absolute proof with regard to the fault. Experience says that many confessions are not confessions of a fault, but only mere expressions of a lack. Likewise, the link between agent and action done from the exteriority, be it juridical or moral, is not a guarantee of anything either. The offense is a manifestation of power that can show both the aggressor’s will and the victim’s weakness (in a wide sense). That is why there is balance when the petition of forgiveness is corresponded – because there is a similar appreciation of the fault. In this sense, specifies Ricoeur: “The fault is as limited as the rule it breaks, even if the consequences might have, due to their repercussion in terms of inflicted suffering, and indefinite aspect” 8.
On the other hand, the experience of the fault brings the agent to suffer the consequences of this incapacity. And this goes much further than breaking a specific rule. Maybe because of this, the field of forgiveness is not the institutional or juridical field, because this is a field that is guided by the rule’s observance or not, without degrees of consciousness 9. Ricoeur says citing Nabert: “The same does not happen with the implication of the agent in the event. This is equivalent to not draw limits to the repercussion on the consciousness of each one of our actions.” 10 So we fully enter in the field of conscience. It seems that this limitation of the “capable man” that is the fault is produced in the infinity of conscience, and this information “to reflect upon” or this “limit situation” demands the assumption of the fault, even if just intimately. According to Ricoeur, a fragment of the being is detached and incapacity appears: “The experience of the fault is once more related to the other negative experiences that could equally be referred to as participations in the non-being”. 11

Let’s remember that we are still on the individual level, both concerning the fault and forgiveness. Once Ricoeur has analyzed in depth the fault’s malice and its profound baseness, he ends up considering the possibility of the unforgivable. That is, the fault that having a committing subject and existing for it an imputable field of action and will, becomes unforgivable due to the depth of its evil. But is it unforgivable in itself or unforgivable for the person who has to forgive? It might be the same thing, but Ricoeur emphasizes the fault itself, the aggressor, that which becomes incapacity due to the fault’s execution, and not the victim’s incapacity to forgive because of the depth of the wound.

Ricoeur says regarding the unforgivable: “Considered from the object, the unjustifiable designates this excess of the non-valid, this going further than the infractions measured according to the rules that conscience recognizes: that cruelty, that baseness, that extreme inequality in the social conditions disturb me without me being able to designate the infringed rules. It is no longer a simple contrary that I would understand in opposition to what is valid; they are evils that are registered in a more radical contradiction to the one of what is valid or non-valid, and which demand a justification that the observance of duty would no longer justify.” 12

And even more precisely: “The irreparable in terms of effects, the imprescriptible in terms of penal justice, the unforgivable in terms of penal trial.” 13

But these tearings of the interior being14 refer to the fault’s agent, and not the fault’s “victim”. And when we talk about the unforgivable, it is essential to differentiate if it is unforgivable due to the fault or due to the victim’s incapacity to forgive. Ricoeur himself talks about the infringed deeds as the indescribable misfortunes for the ones suffering them15. Because, indeed, beyond the will to make one suffer, to eliminate, “there is the will to humiliate, to surrender the other one to abandonment, and to disdain.” 16

In conclusion, it is worth saying that resentment is also a significant and strong link in the role that the experience of the fault plays in the memory of the past. This link appears in the memory in a way that is not necessarily seeked and that, in many senses, is equivalent or symmetric to the experience of culpability. It is also a detail to reflect upon and is a true limit situation when we are speaking of granting forgiveness. If, on top of this, we are talking about the unjustifiable, the imprescriptible, the unforgivable, it is necessary to leave the closed analysis of the fault and understand it as a link between the agent and the victim, as the act of forgiveness must necessarily be. The deeper the fault is, the higher the forgiveness will be, but also the more wounded will be the one who indeed has to forgive. Forgiveness is not an available category, which has strengths and powers depending on the case in which it is applied. Forgiveness is of man and it is his strength, the strength of his love, that which can overcome the abysm of the fault. It is not forgiveness that makes; it is the one who forgives. Therefore, if the capacity to act is so essential in the Ricoeurian scheme, the “capacity to act” in the one who has to forgive will have to be taken into account, understanding that this authority is nontransferable when we are speaking of a forgiveness that goes beyond the juridical fact, and which hopes to reach the interior tearing. It should be determined whether the rehabilitation of the capacity to act that is possible through forgiveness is the same for the victim and for the executioner.

2. The height of forgiveness, the depth of the fault.

When Ricoeur speaks about the height of forgiveness, he is speaking about its symmetry with the depth of the fault. There is a logical correlation. The love of forgiveness must be as high as evil’s depth, but since it is high, it excels it, covers it, and defeats it. Ricoeur does not question the possibilities of the power of forgiveness – of the idea of forgiveness – above the fault; in any case, he revises what this victory means and quickly finds difficulties to make the purity of the concept of forgiveness fit the impurity of the fault’s reality.

We should notice, in the first place, that Ricoeur raises the problem of the ontological unforgivable deed. That is, to commit a fault is inseparable from being the one who commits the fault. If forgiveness eliminates the being’s fault, it means that this being bears the execution of the unforgivable and, therefore, human nature rests denigrated. We are told that one thing is to defeat evil, and another one is to pretend that it is eliminated with the act of forgiveness. That is: “The unforgivable is also applied to the most intimate link uniting the agent and the action, the guilty person and the crime.” 17
The idea of the indignity of forgiveness is taken up by Ricoeur from Nicolai Hartman (from his work Èthique) as a warning of the theologization on forgiveness, understood as a divine intervention that goes beyond human nature: “If forgiveness was possible”, he affirms, “it would constitute a moral level, since it would leave human freedom at God’s disposal and it would offend human dignity. “Being-guilty of a bad deed cannot be taken from anyone, because it is inseparable from the one guilty.” 18

To revise forgiveness’ pre-eminence with regard to the fault, from the ontological inseparability of blame and the guilty one, brings us to the sentimental conclusion that affects the representation of evil, but not evil itself: “There is, undoubtedly, a victory over evil at the moral level […], but not an annihilation of the fault” 19

Having reached this point, however, Ricoeur again emphasizes the existence of this harmonic of the fault that is forgiveness. “Forgiveness does exist” 20, he says. And it seems as if he would extract from it the virtues of the fault’s inversion: “I will speak of this voice as if it was a voice from the above. It comes from the above the same way as the fault’s confession came from the unfathomable depth…” 21

The illogical character of forgiveness or, better yet, a-logical (the same way it is not exactly irrational but a-rational, as an amentia in the act of loving and not a dementia), demands a discourse that goes beyond the geometrical categories on which the notions of height and depth in forgiveness and the fault depend upon. The symmetry seeked with this philosophical discourse is deceptive in that each discovery of the fault’s depth demands an exaltation of forgiveness in order for the equation to continue working. This is why “an appropriate discourse is dedicated to forgiveness, that of the hymn (…), since the hymn does not need to say who forgives or to whom. Forgiveness exists just like joy exists, like wisdom, madness and love.” 22 That is, forgiveness is taken as something more than a conceptual category. There is in forgiveness’ illeitat a distancing from the act of forgiving, a kind of elevation above the usual logical mechanisms in categories, even the metaphysical ones. Hence a hymn and hence from the hymn the virtues will be deduced. The quotation assembled by Ricoeur is from Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “love takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” 23
And from here:
“Love is the Height, greatness itself. But if love forgives everything, then this everything comprises the unforgivable. Otherwise, love itself would be annihilated. Jacques Derrida is right in this sense: forgiveness is addressed to the unforgivable or is not. It is unconditional, without exception or restriction. It does not presuppose a petition of forgiveness. “it cannot be forgiven or it shouldn’t be forgiven: there is only forgiveness – if there is any – where there is something unforgivable.” 24

3.The forgiven and the forgiver.

After this approach to the radical difference between the height of forgiveness – of love – and the depth of the fault – of evil – we should try to clarify two essential matters. In the first place, should one ask for forgiveness to attain it? In other terms: Should one earn forgiveness through repentance? And secondly: Does a full capacity to act exist in the restored forgiven one, or does blame remain as responsibility’s driving force?

They are not easy questions, and even though Ricoeur explicitly reflects on the first one – despite not reaching a definite conclusion – he does not mention the second one, although he might do so implicitly each time he speaks about the irreparable.

With regard to the first question, the forgive them for they know not what they do inescapably appears. This sentence has three characteristics. First, it is to God to whom it is asked to forgive. Thus, we are in a sphere of forgiveness that surpasses humanity but, at the same time, it demands its participation in the form of petition. The second characteristic is the granted forgiveness without the executioners asking for it, i.e., it is an unconditional forgiveness. But this forgiveness is connected to a causal phrase: for they know not what they do. There is an incidence on the innocence of unconsciousness. They who know not what they do deserve forgiveness. Does this mean that should they know what they do, they would not deserve forgiveness? And when Jesus says: they know not what they do, is he referring to the fact that he is the son of God, or that they have not understood the true nature of killing? Not taking into account that rarely is the law’s ignorance a valid argument in a trial, indeed a difficult dilemma is posed. If forgiveness demands petition it does not have unilateral value, but it is the answer or ratification to the process of successful repentance. The merit of the restitution of the capacity to act, in the metaphysical sense, is for the one who has repented. From this necessity of soul-searching comes the idea of the Great Inquisitor, which is a caricature of the Catholic forgiveness or pardon.

Nevertheless, to unilaterally forgive also has its problems: what is to forgive if the forgiven does not learn about the forgiveness, if he doesn’t care, if he doesn’t recognize his blame, if he doesn’t consider his action to be inside the fault? What is it? Maybe it is just comfort for the victim, a dissociation of the victim from the executioner. I forgive you already, you are no longer in my life, I set you free now. This unilateral forgiveness might be an escape forward. If an assassin that wishes to be an assassin is forgiven, forgiveness bounces and has no effect. The height of love is undoubtedly immense in those cases, but neither a communication of the gift or a reestablishment of the capacity to act are built. Imputability, just as Ricoeur says, is necessary to be able to forgive. To impute, then, must necessarily mean the assumption of blame, otherwise there is no possible forgiveness. Without the assumption of blame, there is only arrogance or escaping forward. The dialogue between the forgiver and the forgiven must exist. When the brother of Santa Claudina Tévenet (founder of the Jesús Maria Sisters) was detained during the French terror, about to be executed, he sent a note to his sister saying “forgive them as I have also forgiven them”. In the case of the boy on the verge of being executed, there is a forgiveness that has an effect on him, but not on the forgiven ones: his forgiveness walks towards his own morals, it tells something about his heart (if we can speak on these terms) and it even establishes a superiority barrier between him and his executioners (who kill him for being bourgeois, that is, they cannot forgive his condition). The Saint’s young brother renounces to revolt: he does not want to make an evil deed for an obtained evil deed. His forgiveness ends up in tension (his death). But his note to his young sister Glady will be a catalyst for her attitude towards him and the society of the moment. Claudina will resist being violent or to fight against the executioners and will dedicate her life to pedagogy: there is faith in the future then. His unconditional forgiveness, without the others learning about it, is a fruitful forgiveness but towards her, her attitude and her world. It is as we mentioned before: forgiveness without petition affects, or walks, inwardly; whereas forgiveness given in an exchange context affects or walks outwardly, towards the forgiven one.

Having reached this point, it should be examined what happens with the forgiven one as a product of his relation with the forgiver: is a true liberation of blame given? In the first place, there is the possibility of farce, which makes of petition a form of survival: “But mockery, the automatic ritual, hypocrisy, calculation or clumsy imitation, often participate and invite themselves as parasites in this ceremony of culpability” 25. This supposition is for the sake of it and therefore cannot be contemplated in the hypothesis that we are examining.
This hypothesis of forgiveness that is given in an exchange relation (without economic appearances, or with the will to affirm that the petition of forgiveness is a merit) is hindered by the incapacity of forgetting: “a universal urgency of memory exists” 26. This urgency of memory makes it impossible to be sure that the forgiver forgets he has forgiven, and that the forgiven forgets the gift that he has been given (always assuming the authenticity of the gesture). It should be noted that if the relation between forgiveness and the fault is a vertical one, the deeper the fault, the higher the gift of forgiveness, and the link is strengthened the worse the case. How does a forgiven person bear to know that the height of the gift he has received is so because of the depth of the fault? The worse the fault is, the better the forgiveness. Forgiveness establishes a relation in which whatever takes you to the best of gifts is the capacity to be worse (if we can talk here of capacities).

Furthermore, we have seen that forgiveness has a dimension that goes inwardly, towards the individual self, which influences the process of mourning and frees oneself from the traumatic moment as well. Let’s remember here: “Whenever forgiveness is at a purpose’s service, even if it is a noble or spiritual one (rescue or redemption, reconciliation, salvation), whenever it has a tendency to reestablish normality (social, national, political or psychological), through work or mourning, through some therapy or ecology of memory, then forgiveness is not pure – and neither is its concept –. Forgiveness is not, nor it should be, neither normal nor normative nor an agent for normalization. It should continue to be exceptional and extraordinary, proof against the impossible: as if it interrupted the ordinary current of historical temporality” 27. And we should also remember Nietzsche’s reflection in On the Genealogy of Morals, in which he talks about the etymology of Entschuldigung: to liberate from blame/ to free from debt, which allows the lender to stop worrying about the debtor. 28

Anyway, we are in that moment that we call “The irreparable with regard to the effects, the imprescriptible with regard to penal justice, and the unforgivable with regard to the moral judgment. 29. The question one must make is: is a new debt established between the forgiven and the forgiver due to the obtaining of such a high gift? One could say, with justice, that if this is so, then there is no possible forgiveness, there is no liberation from blame or the reestablishment of the capacity to act. The trace of evil would be indelible and there would be no separation of the two (maybe because of this, the separation could only happen in the case where there is no bilateralism). Let’s remember that Ricoeur himself cites very tough sentences from Hartmann: “there is, with no doubt, at the moral level (a restitution) […], but not an annihilation of the fault (…) Understanding towards the criminal can be shown, but not to absolve him. The fault is for its own nature not only in fact, but also in right”.
Or even more from Vladimir JanKélévitch in The imprescriptible: “It exists between the absolute of the law of love and the absolute of the evil freedom a tearing that cannot be completely splintered. We have not tried to reconcile evil’s irrationality with love’s omnipotence. Forgiveness is strong as is evil, but evil is strong as is forgiveness.”

Evil’s trace does not seem to be erasing itself with forgiveness only. Even Ricoeur asks himself: “But, what would expiation be but an absolution obtained through punishment itself, this punishment that, in some way, emptied evil’s glass? 30

It might be that only an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth reestablish normality and free the responsible one from the fault; it might be that the gift of forgiveness is too much for the soul of the one that has touched true evil. What seems to be clearer is that forgiveness’ efficiency depends to a great deal on the later attitude of the forgiver. To know if the debt has been forgiven means to know if one really believes that he has been compensated with the gift he has given, with the action carried out; with the sentence I forgive you. This is a responsibility that seems to become itself active.

4.Forgiveness and the people

Let’s think these suppositions in pardons and collective offenses. We would be deceiving ourselves if we didn’t believe that Ricoeur talks in this book of collective disasters like Nazi Germany, and that he has present evil’s trivialization and the impunity that runs through our time. However, Ricoeur reminds us that: “The idea of a “criminal nation” 31 should deliberately be rejected” and responsibility should be able to be established: “Whoever benefited from the favors of public order has to answer, in one way or another, for the evil deeds created by the nation he is part of” 32
On the other hand, however, he has in mind affirmations like the one from Karl Jaspers: “Political ethics is founded on the principle of the nation’s life in which all participate, for their conscience, their knowledge, their opinions, and their wills” 33. And we would like to add: and their omissions.

This differentiation seems to establish itself between the ontological and the deontological level. That is: the idea of a criminal nation (ontological) must be refused, but a nation founds its political ethics (a nice redundancy) in everyone’s participation, even if it is by inhibition (deontological).

If we think this in parallel to the explanation regarding the debt that the forgiven one has towards the forgiver and, at the same time, with the forgiver’s responsibility or his liberation, we can see for example that in the construction of the EU during the past 50 years there has been a process of paying the debt that Germany has with regard to Europe that has been much more effective than the abusive Versailles Treatise with which the First Great War ended. Let’s think of the unity funds or in Germany’s constant gestures of self-denial or literary and philosophical flagellation34. The Germans’ transmission of blame from generation to generation, seems to have felt the need for a forgiveness that came after Nuremberg and for which millions of Germans became liberated of a criminal and moral debt. But, at the same time, in the act of forgiving, Europe, the anti-Semitic, bellicose and confronted Europe, was able to find its own liberation in its ignorance of evil’s depth. It’s true that there has been a reflection on evil, but always in external key, in German key, and very rarely in internal key, of self conscience, of the responsibility of a real culture or common history.
It is necessary here to remember Max Weber’s sentence after WWI, which Ricoeur himself cites: “It would be better if they adopted a virile and dignified attitude by saying to the enemy: “we lost the war and you won it. Let’s forget the past and talk now about the consequences that should be extracted from this new situation (…) without forgetting the responsibility towards the future, which falls in the first place on the winner”. 35

It can be said that the winner has very rarely exercised its role of responsible for the future, not in the sense of leadership that is obvious and unavoidable, but as the truly responsible one for its forgiveness and its victory. And this also influences, as it has been seen in other parts of the book and the works of Ricoeur, the narrating of history.

5. The contract against debt.

It might be, as the French philosopher says, that: “Political thought here comes up against an important phenomenon: the irreducibility of the friend-enemy relation, on which Carl Schmitt constructed his political philosophy, in the relations of hostility between individuals. This verification is made with sorrow, and is shameful for a conception of memory like the one proposed in this work, for which a continuity and mutual relation exists between individual memory and collective memory, erected at the same time in historical memory in the sense that Halbwachs gives it. For what it seems, love and hate function in a different manner at the collective level of memory”. 36

Thus, forgiveness between nations or peoples must necessarily found a new nation. This new nation is product of the new constant relation demanded by the bilateral relation of forgiveness, in which the forgiver has a responsibility, just like the forgiven one has as well, to overcome the abysm between forgiveness and fault. A reflection can be done from here about the current failure in the construction of the EU, which was impetuous at first, was erected on blame, and is now weak in the times of impunity. It seems, in any case, that the common project of a future is taking shape as an active exit from forgiveness.

We can introduce here the pessimistic sentence that appears in the epilogue:
“It must be concluded from this that the discourses regarding “the reconciliation of nations continues to be a piteous wish”. Collectivity does not have a moral conscience; thus, confronted with culpability “outside”, the nations relapse into the repetition of old hatreds, of old humiliations”. 37

Let’s amend this sentence by saying that this is true as long as similar ideas of justice, coming from the same request, are not established from reconciliation. We should think of the ICC’s failure, which the United States does not want to subscribe by claiming that it does not want to accept that American citizens can be trialed there. A common judiciary system establishes the responsibility of ones and others, of the giver and the receiver. Forgiveness as we have outlined it can no longer be a point in a moment of history that frees two members from the relation that one has with the other one. On the contrary, it makes them hang on each other forever. Only this way it can make sense that one person gives the highest for the lowest.

Hence, to forgive, to bestow this gift on the lower one, implies a contract of a close relation that excludes forgetting as an exit and demands complicity with the future. Otherwise it is not forgiveness but escape or voluntary oblivion. It is not reconciliation but co-existence.

As a conclusion to this final intuition, I believe that a text that appears in History of the Empire from the Death of Marcus Aurelius by the Roman historian Herodian, is illustrative of what I mean to say. This text speaks about true gratitude in front of an immense and invaluable gift (as forgiveness can be), and the demand of commitment it has with the future. It is the speech of investiture of Pertinax (2nd Century B.C) as Emperor. He came out of the Senate but was of humble origin and modest habits, and lasted only two months in power. He died assassinated. His gratitude speech (it must be noted that he was deified, which is a gift comparable to forgiveness) is a speech of uneasiness due to the commitment that the gift demands. And with this I conclude this paper, which in short means that to forgive is not to exonerate, free, get rid of or forget; it is not to ignore or forgive a debt: it is to bind, join, unite, to oblige the fault to love, nothingness to something. That is why unilateral forgiveness is not forgiveness but forgetting – an impossible forgetting, on the other hand. Forgiveness must go beyond the rhetoric of debt to reach the rhetoric of contract, collaboration, pact, or union.

“The kind welcome you have honoured me with and the excessive enthusiasm that you show me with your election, when preferring me to men of such high lineage as there is among you, do not contain any shadow of adulation but are proof and demonstration of benevolence. In another one, they would have inspired courage and confidence to accept with determination the entrusted endeavour, and would have revealed to him encouraging signs of an easy mission such as bearing the burden of the Empire with the favour of subjects of such good will. But in my case, on the contrary, these distinctions, even when having such an extraordinary importance, unsettle me whenever I think of the honor they entail, and they command an anguish and uneasiness not to neglect. When great benefits are owed, it is difficult to reach a fair correspondence. In giving back, even in the cases when little has been received, to pay with interest is not easy, but it is a proof of gratitude. However, when the one that bestows the favor is worthy of an unsurpassable gratitude, the incapacity to correspond adequately is not due to difficulties but to insensibility or ingratitude. Consequently, I am perfectly aware that the test that has been proposed to be worthy of your honor is not an ordinary test; for the dignity of the Empire does not lie in the throne but in the facts, otherwise they are a reason of dishonor. (…)
It is necessary now that you, who are conscious of all of this, give me all your support, and consider the administration of the Empire a common task. And it is equally necessary that, in your acceptance of aristocracy and rejection of tyranny, you are hopeful and transmit your same hopes to all the subjects of the Empire.” 38


It might be worth adding that this forgiveness made of future collaboration, this forgiveness that ties instead of untying, is a forgiveness that goes beyond the friend-enemy rhetoric and the dialectic of ignorance. Someone might consider the strength necessary for this forgiveness to be divine. Some might say that it is God’s forgiveness the only one that has the strength for this bond, but this implies that forgiveness is impossible. Only ideas like the one of God’s children break or can break (at least conceptually) the rhetoric friend-enemy and only communion can end ignorance. This Christian anthropology, however, is not a divine attribute but a human one. And it has been consolidating itself from the tribe to the state. Maybe it hasn’t done so always, or not always satisfactorily, but it is not unheard of. Forgiveness is difficult because it is neither a therapy nor a way to turn the page. It is to assume an eternal bond, if wished, until death; and it means a level of demand from the part of the one who forgives, that is unfair in a logic of retributions. But this logic is far from the reality of love, which is in short what we have come here to talk about.

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