Monday, August 8, 2011


David Konstan, Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 192. ISBN 9780521199407. $85.00.

Reviewed by Jakub Jirsa, Charles University, Prague (

Version at BMCR home site


David Konstan argues for a simple but radical thesis: the modern concept of forgiveness did not exist in classical antiquity (Greece and Rome) and it is not fully present in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament or the Church fathers (p. ix). Statements like this have, I suspect, two major effects on readers: first, they are puzzled―a life completely without forgiveness seems too strange for us; and second, they rush to check all the relevant passages from ancient texts that come to mind. Konstan's book is one of those studies that increases the reader's puzzlement and thus makes one seriously reflect on the subject-matter in question. As for the search for the passages disproving Konstan's claim, it soon becomes clear that Konstan has already gone about considering almost every instance of "forgiveness" or reconciliation in classical literature.

In the first chapter Konstan explains what he takes to be the meaning of forgiveness. According to him (I will quote at length) forgiveness is "a bilateral process involving a confession of wrongdoing, evidence of sincere repentance, and a change of heart or moral perspective on the part of the offender, together with a comparable alteration in the forgiver, by which she or he consents to forego vengeance on the basis precisely of the change in the offender" (p. 21). It is only this pure (and, I suppose, extremely rare) form of the process that counts as a genuine act of forgiveness. This definition has three main parts which will all play an essential part in Konstan's argument. First, there must be the acknowledgement of wrong: the wrongdoer must not try to excuse himself or to blame anyone (or anything) else―he or she has to accept full responsibility for what has been done. Second, a change of heart or a radical moral and personal change on the part of the wrongdoer must be expressed in repentance. And finally, the reason for forgiveness is precisely this change and nothing else (i.e., if I "forgive" anyone because she is my friend or because I may need her help, my act does not count as a genuine act of forgiveness).

The second chapter deals with Greek and Roman sources. Konstan begins the discussion with passages from Aristotle's Rhetoric on calmness and anger, and from the Nicomachean Ethics on syngnōmē, a term which is sometimes rendered as "forgiveness". The Stoics and Cicero constitute the next part, which is followed by many passages from Greek and Roman drama. Each of the passages he introduces is given a fair treatment and in each case Konstan finds that at least one essential ingredient of genuine forgiveness is missing. Despite the differences and variations in usage, generally speaking the Greek syngnōmē is rather an appropriate response to an involuntary act the wrongdoer has done in ignorance or under (often divine) coercion. The Latin deprecatio seems to be, at least at first sight, a better candidate for forgiveness,1 but its use is rather pragmatic and we find nothing about a possible change of heart or character on the part of the wrongdoer.

After removing forgiveness from the scene, Konstan turns to the ancient methods of dealing with past wrongs and one's anger towards the offender (the paradigm being Achilles' wrath against Agamemnon). The thesis of this, third, chapter is that "remorse and change of heart do not enter into the strategies for anger appeasement in classical literature" (p. 63). Supported by numerous examples, Konstan shows that reconciliation according to ancient sources rests on negation of guilt (p. 77), or on the humility of the offender who is begging the injured party to overlook the past wrong (p. 81). Indeed, while reading through all the examples Konstan gathers, one realizes that forgiveness in the above-mentioned sense is hard to square with a society that values honour and social prestige much more than we do (or at least more than we admit that we do).

The fourth chapter turns to the Hebrew and Christian traditions, opening the discussion with The Life of Adam and Eve, which depicts Adam on his deathbed reflecting on his and Eve's sin. Unlike the heroes of Greek novels and drama, Adam and Eve admit their sin and ask God to cancel it; however, forgiveness on the part of God may function more as an unattainable (divine) model for interpersonal forgiveness rather than as its instance (p. 102 ff.). Perhaps the most controversial claim comes when interpreting Jesus's Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:9-15). Konstan takes verse 6:14: "For if you forgive (aphēte) man their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive (aphēsei) you" as a kind of reciprocal commitment (p. 114). He concludes that in the Jewish and Christian tradition "forgiveness in the deepest sense – that is, the lifting of sin – pertains not to mankind but to God" (p. 115 and 123).2

In his penultimate chapter Konstan discusses the concept of forgiveness among the Church Fathers (Saint Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa and Origen being his main sources). Again, Konstan is not interested in divine forgiveness or dispensation of past wrongs. He looks for cases of genuine interpersonal forgiveness between two human beings. God can "cancel or obliterate sin", but the human being in his or her forgiving is a mere imitator of God and the wrong "must in some sense persist into the present, neither abolished nor forgotten" (p. 134). The Church Fathers, according to Konstan, dealt with various methods of remorse and mourning rather than with the moral transformation of an offender.3

From what was said above it is clear that one of Konstan's main claims is that genuine forgiveness demands a change of heart, or a certain transformation of the self, which is absent in both the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions in antiquity. This change seems to be missing from the instances of forgiveness in Molière and Shakespeare, which are the first authors discussed in the last chapter of Konstan's book. Following Sussman 4, he argues that it was Kant's introduction of moral autonomy and the practical incompleteness of our virtue that allowed the concept of forgiveness to develop into its contemporary form, defined in the first chapter of Konstan's book. The final pages are then devoted to a sketch of the identity problem that arises: if the wrongdoer has changed, with his or her self being transformed into a new one, what can then be forgiven in this new person? The ancients avoided this problem precisely because they did not recognize any abrupt and radical change in the self, but worked instead with a gradual development or shaping of one's character.

There are two points I am not entirely sure about. The first one concerns the reasons for forgiveness. Konstan (see above) claims that the only relevant reason for forgiveness is the transformation of the wrongdoer expressed in repentance. But what about the case when I forgive someone because she has managed to change and because she is my friend as well (given that in the case of my friends the change or repentance does need not to be as strong as in the case of other offenders)? The second worry concerns Konstan's uneven handling of the texts discussed. When interpreting Molière's Les Fourberies de Scapin, Konstan comments on the fact that one character asks for forgiveness without recognizing his mistake as a genuine moral fault, saying: "this is a comedy, after all and the tone remains light" (p. 148). On the other hand, especially in chapters 3 and 4 dealing with Greek and Roman drama, Konstan does not seem to allow for any such "lightness", and the examples—such as those from Roman comedies—are dismissed for lacking any of the characteristics of forgiveness, as delineated in chapter one.

Konstan's book is an indispensable survey for anyone dealing with ancient ethics, not least because of the wide range of texts it introduces and discusses. It can be seen as both an interesting and challenging contribution to contemporary discussion of the ancient inspiration for modern forms of virtue ethics.


1.   Konstan quotes Cicero: "deprecatio is when the defendant admits that he has committed a wrong and done so deliberately, and yet nevertheless asks that he be granted pardon" (p. 38, Cicero, On Invention 1.15)
2.   The occurrence of interpersonal forgiveness in the New Testament is not denied, cf. p. 122, but Konstan claims that compared to the divine cancellation of sins it remains undeveloped.
3.   On pages 141-3 Konstan touches on the fascinating topic of silence and its power over speech, which I believe is worth pointing to; here Konstan refers to a forthcoming study by Alberto Quiroga, "Quid Est Gloria, Si Tacetur? Silence in Ambrose's De Officiis."
4.   David Sussman, "Kantian Forgiveness", Kant-Studien 96/2005, 85-107.

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