Prudence and Forgiveness

It was supposed to be a quick and minor point during yesterday’s class on Descartes’ first Meditation, but the following quote from Descartes generated quite a bit of controversy in my second class:

“It is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.”

Descartes simply makes the remark in passing as part of his first argument for doubting what we have learned through our senses, so I had not given a great deal of thought to the quote during my class preparation. To me, it just sounded like the proverb my father used to repeat to me: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” As I explained it to my students, the best predictor of human behavior . . . is human behavior. If someone deceives you or in some other way wrongs you, it is generally safe to assume that he will attempt to do so again.

However, as some of my students perceptively pointed out, Descartes’ idea here is not entirely unproblematic from a Catholic perspective, for it would seem to imply thatImage

human forgiveness is in some measure imprudent. Yet such forgiveness is precisely what seems to be demanded of us as Christians.

Some of my students tried to jump to my defense, arguing that we should not confuse religion with philosophy. They make a good point, but such a solution always makes me uneasy, for it would seem to suggest a sort of “double truth.” It would seem to suggest that what would normally be philosophically true–humanly true–is somehow nullified by the Gospels. But were that true, how would we ever be able to recognize the truth of the Gospels? It would be something unfamiliar and alien to our human experience, making it rather difficult to evaluate.

Another good suggestion from a student was to distinguish forgiveness from trust. According to this line of thinking, we could certainly forgive someone else without necessarily ever trusting the person again. But this, too, fails to satisfy. Would you really want to be the recipient of that sort of “forgiveness,” a forgiveness that did not also restore a measure of trust?

No, I think that here the question needs to be tackled head on: is forgiveness imprudent?

Philosophically, the problem with that line of thought is that it would amount to saying that being truthful is imprudent–for in forgiveness, you acknowledge an important truth known to philosophers as widely different as Jean-Paul Sartre and Robert Spaemann: to be a person is to relate freely to what one is. A person is never just what he has done, or what job he has, or what he looks like, or any other quality. He is always more than his history and his personal qualities. He is free. Forgiveness acknowledges this truth and acts on it: in forgiving, you allow the other person to exercise his freedom, to start again, to take a distance from his past and attempt to redeem it through repentance.

Theologically, the charge that forgiveness is imprudent is on even shakier ground, for it is commanded of us in the Lord’s Prayer–if we ourselves wish to obtain forgiveness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) offers an intriguing reading of the reason for this in ##2838-2845, one which would seem to reflect the Catholic understanding of justification. God does not wish us merely to “receive” forgiveness as something external, like receiving a tie for your birthday. Rather, as the CCC notes in #2842, God calls us to something greater–to actually participate in forgiveness, in God’s own life of love and mercy. One can only participate in forgiveness if one forgives.

Prudence is practical wisdom, knowing how to live a life worth living. One could argue then, contra Descartes, that forgiveness, inasmuch as it does justice to the reality of other persons, and enables you to share God’s own life, is prudence par excellence.

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3 Responses to Prudence and Forgiveness

  1. Maryann says:

    Are there some acts that are committed that only God can forgive? Something so awful that a person cannot find it within himself to forgive. Is this question just justification to hold a grudge? What about forgiving yourself for your own actions? Do you need to “feel” forgiveness or is just saying the words,”I forgive you,” enough?

  2. alexanderschimpf says:

    That’s a lot of questions for one comment! In the order you asked them: 1) If an act of someone else ends your life, presumably you aren’t around this world to forgive or refuse forgiveness. 2) Nobody said it was easy. 3) No. 4) You are not ultimately your own judge, so I don’t think self-forgiveness is a worthwhile pursuit. 5) Saying “I forgive you” is a good start. You can influence your feelings, but not control them.


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