Forgiveness is a fresh start

Jankélevitch, Vladimir. Forgiveness. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

One of the most evocative works written during the twentieth century on the virtue of forgiveness is that of the French philosopher and musicologist Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903-1985), published in 1967 under the title Le pardón (Forgiveness, Seix Barral, 1999).

It is not easy to place the thought of this man within the philosophical systems of the last century, because in some ways it does not strictly fit any compartment. He is not a Marxist, nor an existentialist, nor a personalist, nor a structuralist in the orthodox sense of the term. His work is original and suggestive, yet it is not well known and translated in Spain. It has a profound moral mark and contains very appropriate reflections on life practice. It is a remarkable treatise on the virtues and his disquisitions on the vitalism of Bergson and idealism of Schelling, to whom he dedicated his doctoral thesis defended at the Sorbonne.

Forgiveness is a successful work in many senses. It explores the difficulties in the exercise of forgiveness and defines forgiveness as a free gift, an act of will. It proposes a cleansing; a fresh start free from the wounds of history. Forgiveness is, in this sense, therapeutic, hygienic, a cathartic operation that frees the weight of the past and treats the other as a new being. Forgiveness, as understood by Jankélévitch is not an impossibility but neither is it easy to achieve. It is humbling and at the same time, time plays a key role because to forgive an offence in the moment is difficult but given the distance of years, is a more viable path to reconciliation.

The Letter of Peace addressed to the UN has no direct reference to forgiveness but it does describe a series of key steps to restore peace and to make peace with history. Regretting unjust actions committed in the past is a first step. This entails recognising and having the bravery to do this publicly. Forgiveness is included in this process. I can only apologise if all of my heart regrets that which has happened, the wrong that I (or those in the government of an institution who represented me) have caused. Public regret does not guarantee reconciliation, but it is the first step. It also requires compensation as far as possible for the harm caused. Forgiveness is a virtue, it requires the repair work to occur not only on the symbolic level, but also in the ethical, social, economic and psychological realms. To compensate as much as possible for harm caused does not guarantee reconciliation either but is a second crucial step in the purification of the misdeeds of memory.

Vladimir Jankélévitch suffered persecution and exile, as did many other committed intellectuals in the twentieth century. When writing about forgiveness and its possibilities, he does not offer an ahistorical, frivolous or trivial discourse but he acknowledges the weight of resentments and grudges in the creation of peace. It is well worth reading and listening.

Francesc Torralba

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