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  • Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea
  • Leo Zaibert
David Konstan . Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii + 192. Cloth, $85.00.

The first sentence of David Konstan's book asserts that its central thesis is "easily stated": "[T]he modern concept of forgiveness, in the full or rich sense of the term, did not exist in classical antiquity" (ix). Furthermore, "it was not fully present" either "in the Hebrew Bible," or "in the New Testament," or "in the early Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Holy Scriptures" (ix). This is truly an extraordinary thesis, with extraordinary consequences. If Konstan is correct, then the whole history of the concept of forgiveness stands in dire need of revision. And it is not only the history of forgiveness as such that would need to be revised: What is Christianity without forgiveness? Or what are we to make of Judaism without its Yom Kippur? How are we to understand the Greek concept of sungnômê, or the Roman concept of clementia?

Konstan is of course aware that "much depends on definitions," so his first task is to tell us what he takes forgiveness "in the full modern sense of the word" (x) to mean. As it turns out, ancient Greek and Romans as well as the Judeo-Christian traditions did have a notion of forgiveness—albeit different from our "modern," "rich" notion. The main difference between the modern concept of forgiveness and its ancient counterpart is that only the former is interpersonal. According to Konstan, unlike ancient practices of forgiveness, modern forgiveness is a "dyadic relationship" (13), involving a certain interaction between two humans. So, while the Judeo-Christian tradition does have a notion of forgiveness, it invariably involves God. And insofar as "God is not an ordinary person" (124), this sort of forgiveness is obviously different from human, interpersonal forgiveness. Ancient Greco-Roman notions of forgiveness, while not always linked to deities, also differ from what Konstan calls our modern interpersonal forgiveness, in that they did not require "a confession of guilt on the part of the offender, along with clear signs of sincere remorse and repentance" (57). What we find in ancient Greco-Roman putative instances of forgiveness, Konstan insists, are simply agents in positions of power being "appeased" in their anger (59 ff.), or who stand to gain something by "forgiving" enemies.

What all these ancient examples lack is the sense of a true change of heart, accompanied by real remorse that a wrongdoer would communicate to her would-be forgiver in order to earn such forgiveness. And these are, for Konstan, staples of the modern notion of forgiveness. The closest that we come in ancient times to Konstan's notion of modern forgiveness is the ancient practice of "supplication," for Konstan admits that supplication involved not only two humans, but also "a moral exchange and reconciliation" (13 ff.). Yet supplication, for Konstan, exhibited the wrong sort of moral exchange: the clemency that someone would show as a result of a supplication was "not so much forgiveness as gentleness or mildness: the person in a position of power lets the offender or offenders off as a special grant of generosity" (14).

Such a confident, sharp contrast between a "special grant of generosity" and the "full modern sense" of forgiveness (15) is but one instance of a central assumption of Konstan's book: that there is one modern sense of forgiveness worth discussing. Admittedly, Konstan's modern forgiveness is in fact a very popular account of forgiveness. But it is not the only [End Page 447] one. Some contemporary accounts of forgiveness differ from that on which Konstan focuses; importantly, some such accounts affirm that forgiveness is possible in the absence of that "moral exchange" that Konstan sees as quintessential to modern forgiveness (see my "The Paradox of Forgiveness," The Journal of Moral Philosophy 6 [2009]: 365-393, and the volume "Forgiveness," which I edited for The Monist in 2009). It would have been valuable to see Konstan engage with the complex contemporary literature on forgiveness in all, or more, of its diversity

Still, even if concerned with...


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