17. Forgiveness?

What does it mean to ask someone for forgiveness?  Jesus said: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This request, by yoking together forgiveness and ignorance, seems to contradict a necessary condition for forgiveness, namely, that the person to be forgiven is responsible for their action.  Take, for example, Hamlet’s request that Laertes forgive him the murder of his mother: “Give me your pardon, sir.  I have done you a wrong, but pardon ‘t as you are a gentlemen” (5.2.224-5).  Hamlet seems to know he has committed a wrong and this knowledge commits him to three propositions: (1) Hamlet murdered Laertes’ father; (2) murder is wrong; and (3) Hamlet is responsible. We would think that these three propositions must be represented as true by both Hamlet and Laertes if an act of forgiveness is to take place.  But can one be responsible if one knows not what one does?  Friedrich Nietzsche doesn’t think so:

“Whether or not we are able to forgive: How can one forgive them at all, if they know not what they do!  One has nothing whatever to forgive.  But does a man ever know completely what he does?  And if this must at least remain questionable, then men never do having anything to forgive one another and pardoning is to the most rational man a thing impossible. Finally: if the ill-doers really did know what they did – we would have the right to forgive them only if we had the right to accuse and punish them.  But this we do not have.” [1]

This aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche makes a tremendous claim: complete knowledge, rather than ignorance, is a necessary condition for asking and granting forgiveness. It is indeed hard to see how we can ever have such knowledge.  So should we drop forgiveness?  Or is there a way to make sense of Jesus’ request and have forgiveness even without knowledge?  Perhaps there is a way between these extremes in which forgiveness would be a matter of some knowledge and some ignorance?  What would this approach entail?

[1] Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human. Translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 326.

8 replies on “17. Forgiveness?”

  1. Karina Dominguez-Martinez on

    Dear Philosophical Eggs,
    I find it very hard to believe that one can forgive with the lack of knowledge. If the person that is being forgiven does not know what he has done then what is he being forgiven for? Because he/she has not taken responsibility for his actions he/she does not have knowledge. Therefore, he/she cannot be truly forgiven. I would like to know how can one forgive when there is ignorance, as I cannot make sense of what Jesus once said. Thank you for the yolk of wisdom!
    Karina D.

  2. Dwight Goodyear on

    Thanks for the comment Karina. It is certainly plausible to argue that one should only forgive when the wrongdoer repents a wrong. However, forgiveness can also be about absolving someone of their actions. Jesus seems to speak this way at times: our sins can be absolved as debt can be absolved. So we can draw a distinction between forgiving an AGENT, which would require a recognition of wrong doing on the part of the agent, and forgiving an ACTION, which would remove the agent from, for example, some debt or form of punishment. Obviously, forgiveness proper is about the former; but in Christianity the latter may have some sense since humans are fallen, cannot save themselves, and are in a state of ignorance. Jesus, in dying, pays our debts so to speak and thus forgives our actions.

  3. Joe Nieves on

    Does one ever fully understand what he or she does… I don’t think you need full knowledge to forgive or ask for forgiveness… Jesus in that instance is not asking there action to be forgiven but their ignorance… Do you think they really would of crucified him if they knew he was the son of God??? I don’t think so. I feel forgiving someone is always an acceptance of ones ignorance to a situation . My girlfriend broke up with me and 2 weeks later asked to go back out she said she didn’t realize what she had and how much she cared etc etc etc did I forgive her action ? No…. I was/am still pissed about it but I forgave her ignorance. When we have full complete knowledge of a situation (which is rare) we know how to act and what the right thing to do in accordance with our conscience ( unless you don’t have one) it’s in situations we don’t have full knowledge of and are ignorant due we act selfishly and closed minded. In the Meno meno is ignorant about virtue and that is why he is in the wrong .. He only knows what the sophists taught him… Even though meno never fully apologizes to Socrates if you read between the lines one can assume his sorrow… Socrates holds no grudges because he wants to save Meno’s soul because he is ignorant once memento has knowledge he no longer commits those mistakes.

  4. Sharon on

    The focus should be on the forgiver, not the forgiven. Whether the forgiven need know of their wrongdoing is irrelevant. It is the act of forgiving that frees the forgiver from pain. When you forgive you are blessed I think that fits with the Christian belief that you are in god’s image (we are all gods) and god forgives. By the same token only you can forgive yourself ( that requires at least a recognizition / knowledge of your wrongdoing/guilt. So each of us traverse through this life forgiving others in order that we emulate our godlike quality and forgive ourselves with knowledge of our wrongdoing.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Thanks for the helpful comment Sharon. Of course, in Christianity God’s forgiveness does free us from guilt due to sin. Indeed, God’s forgiveness cannot free God from any pain due to sin since, as all good, God doesn’t sin. And, as omnipotent, it can be argued that God can’t experience pain at all. So if we are made in God’s image and, as you suggest, we forgive as God forgives, then it seems our forgiveness should only be about removing a burden of guilt from others. However, we are not, as you say, “all Gods” in Christianity: we are created, contingent, and imperfect creatures that sin and suffer. So acts of forgiveness can certainly include the removal of pain from humans that forgive. I just think that if our forgiveness imitates God at all it should include the removal of guilt from those that ask (or don’t ask) to be forgiven.

  5. Fr. John OCD, Kerala-India on

    I was in search of some comments on Luke 6, 27-38 and I reached here! Reading you all I thought of sharing something. Jesus is the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. With the help of biblical scholars we understand that ‘to take away the sins’ means to take away the possibilities of increasing sins. For this practical end, we can accept the proposals of Jesus.

  6. Thinking Jesus simply couldn’t forgive what was happening. He gave up the assignment to change the narcissistic people. We all know it’s like attempting to change a stainless steel pan into clay. SO he requested that his father do the forgiving.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Very interesting insight Louise and you may well be right. But I also wonder something a bit different: Jesus himself knows that they know not what they do and is asking his father to think likewise and do what, perhaps, he has already done: forgive them. So perhaps he hasn’t reached a limit beyond which he cannot cross but already exemplified divinity. This would make sense if one thinks that Jesus IS God. But it also gets into the strange territory of the trinity: we have one person of the trinity requesting something of another person of the trinity…when they are really, along with the Holy Spirit, ONE God.

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