The Christian Disposition
Christianity develops as a way to resolve the problems that arise when religion is overtaken with the bourgeois, lachrymose sentimentality that first appears among the Jews in post-Exilic times. The people in Judith, Lamentations and Esther feel sorry for themselves and at the same time crave conventional respectability. How is it possible to entertain both emotions at the same time? Christianity, in it’s over the top fashion, is an answer because it presents sentiments very different from the one present in Habbakuk, a book compose probably within a generation or two of Lamentations. In Habbakuk, the thought is of revenge. God will do to the enemies of Israel what the enemies of Israel did to us. He will despoil them because he is an eternal god while your gods are just idols and so have no reality. Just wait till you get yours.
Lamentations, on the other hand, is a prefiguring of Christian emotions, full of self-pity in its portrayal of a Jerusalem recently defeated. It reports that most of Judah has gone off in exile and the people left have to fend for themselves. They have to sell what they have to provide the necessities and some of the young starve. The community has been humiliated because the inner sanctuary of Zion, the home of the spirit of Judaism, which was to survive anything, has been devastated. Her priests therefore groan. It is Berlin in 1945. And yet, how does the poet of Lamentations choose to imagine this scene? He personifies Jerusalem as a violated widow who is lonely and tearful, deserted by her lovers and so without comforters and deserted by her friends. She was rich; now she is poor.
The story, then, is of a rich woman deprived of her luxuries and the self respect that comes with those, as if the story of the Holocaust were merely of the rich Warsaw Jews who lost their furs along with their lives. There is something disproportionate here that is the equivalent of bathos, as if Mrs. Lincoln were reported upset because the play wasn’t all that good either. Moreover, the portrait of the widow is somewhat prudish. She is dishonored because she has been made a mockery. “…all who honored her despise her,/for that they have seen her nakedness;/she herself groans,/and turns her face away.” The issue is not the physical violence of a rape or the belittling that comes from that; it is the immodesty that comes from others seeing her being violated. This should not have happened to her, considering who she is. The middle class niceties that go unobserved are the worst that happens to her, never mind the starvation.
Judith represents the fullness of this new emotional tack. It is composed in the century or two before the life of Jesus. To put the point briefly, Judith does a brave act by visiting the enemy general in his camp so as to kill him. She had risked her life as well as her honor because she got into his camp so that her beauty might beguile him and because her speech to him that her people were taking expedients of defense that went against Jewish religious usages might persuade him that she had gone over to his side. She is welcomed into his tent in due time without the presence of guards, and takes the occasion to kill him. Not only is she proud of what she has done when she returns to her people, she goes out of her way to point out that she had not been seduced by him, as unlikely as that might have been. Her personal sexual respectability is put on the balance along with the assassination of the conqueror, as if the latter would not have redeemed her for whatever she had had to do to find him or make him vulnerable. Delilah was not such a prude.
Christianity satisfies the double desire to feel sorrow and feel respectable through its doctrine of forgiveness. Your sorrow, which is a kind of weltschmerz, the world too much with us, we such pathetic souls, is answered, as is your quest to be an upstanding member of your community, proud of what you have accomplished, because you have been granted the right to feel other than sinful in spite of the hypocrisy you display in characterizing yourself in public as respectable, a figure who can hold himself erect, despite all you have done to besmirch yourself, facts you keep to yourself, even as the people you pass in the street or live with do the same thing and secret the way their own souls are dark and despoiled. The Christian, therefore, is more occupied with his shortcomings (at least until St. Thomas) than he is with the ways in which he tries to do the right thing by his family and his nation. The Christian focuses on the state of his own soul more than on the well being of others, his sacrifices for others in the service of magnifying himself in the eyes of God. The Christian is preoccupied with sex because that is part of the original sin of Adam and Eve as well as a prime case of how life is beyond the control of the will of even the most sincere believer. The Christian is like the author of Lamentations in casting the net that catches human grief too narrowly and is like Judith in protesting his virtues too much.
The doctrine of the atonement accomplishes the feat of allowing yourself to hold yourself as both respectable and sorrowful by transferring your sins to another who is not really a scapegoat because the whole transfer is done with bathetic grandiosity, your sins atoned for by the death of a God as if a God could die even if He became a man. If Jesus is the Son of God, if there is any sense in which Jesus can be suitably described as a “son”, whatever the philosophical idea that make him co-terminus with God, as if a father did not have to precede a son, then this is not truly the death of a son. He is, after all, to be restored to his throne beside God when his nasty three days in the tomb are over, and that would not have happened with Isaac if Abraham had sacrificed him. If Jesus is only a symbolic son, and is perhaps as such a realization of the philosophic idea of God made concrete, as apparently seems to be the view of the author of The Gospel According to John, then what is the big deal about it? God would not be feeling pain, nor would Jesus.
But whatever its standing as logic, the story of the atonement allows a person to be a pillar of the community, whether a farmer or a merchant or a tax collector, to hold his head high, putting into a box, to be confessed in public as a sign of having been reborn, your own reprobate nature. The believer turns a corner to where admission of not just guilt but bad feeling becomes a triumph worthy of Judith or Esther. You are saved because you know you are a sinner. It is that easy, in that a formula of words will grant entrance into the saved community, and it is that difficult in that you have to accept the humiliation of knowing yourself ever afterwards as a sinner who is for the moment not sinning while knowing that a relapse is always in the offing and that you can never let up your vigilance about noticing yourself as a deeply flawed person. You take it one day at a time. Sex, greed, and all the other sins are just a temptation away. You save yourself by so luxuriating in your humiliation that sin will not turn its evil eye upon you one more time.
The forgiveness granted through the atonement of Jesus is, in its most general characterization, an emotion evoked so as to allow for putting the past behind so that there can be a new beginning whose liniments are similar to those of the status quo ante that existed before the transgression, though the fact of the transgression is not thereby eliminated nor its impact on the emotional lives of those who went through it unraveled. To forgive does not mean to forget. What is accomplished, rather, is the release of the anger that was pent up because of the transaction or at least allowing that anger to merely smolder rather than arise again whenever the people involved are reminded of what happened and, often enough as not, with no immediate event to serve as a trigger for the reawakening of the bad feeling. In the case of God, that means the pent up anger He has against mankind because Adam transgressed. It may seem odd to think that God suffers from repressed rage, but if that is not the case, then why was the atonement necessary? God could have just decided to be nice to people, never mind that they are now people who have the flaw of original sin. It makes sense to think of God here as a projection of all the ways people feel the need to be asked for forgiveness so that they can let go their anger by being put, for a moment, in the catbird’s seat.
The point of forgiveness is to stop the past from lingering. The past can become a poison hindering current life. So wives forgive husbands their adulteries, bosses forgive their employees their lapses, nations forgive former enemies, God forgives his children for their many deceitful and self-absorbed actions. A friend forgives an unintended insult or even an intended one. An acquaintance is forgiven for being late or not promptly returning phone calls so that one can continue the relationship, though the acquaintance will still have contributed to a reputation for being late and so arrangements will be made to avoid the inconvenience of a relapse. You will meet that acquaintance at a restaurant or at your apartment rather than at a street corner.
In all these cases, to forgive is to accept a person’s personal traits as a given, which means that they are no longer subject to blame even if they are subject to ameliorative actions such as nagging or therapy or penance, and even if the transgressors are separated from the rest of society in prisons or by social exclusion because they are likely to lapse back into the characters that are no longer subject to blame. You no longer have to be angry at the serial killer; just relieved that he is off the streets—but that only happens, in the world of forgiveness, when he acknowledges that he has offended. If he does not, then you are just angry with him or fascinated by him. The advantage of the forgiveness strategy in live in general is that otherwise it would be very hard to continue relations with anyone, whether at work or at play, because everybody commits transgressions once in a while, even if it is only to hurt another person’s feelings, and so some social marker is useful to move on.
To be a Christian is to press this ubiquitous and necessary aspect of social life to its limits. Christianity accepts all sinners into its fold while yet urging the elimination of sinful behavior. That is a paradox in that there is no end to forgiveness and so no end to chances to be a better person, and yet people are to be punished, as if that had nothing to do with the state of the soul. It is no wonder, then, that forgiveness becomes a formula of words which priests are called upon to recite when nuns are raped but which laity are not required to recite even if they are encouraged to do so. It is also no wonder that Pope Benedict XVII asks in public for the Church to be forgiven for its sins against children in front of a meeting of priests. Forgiveness is the currency of the church, and who knows that so well as priests, whether they are sinners or not?
It is a mistake, therefore, to treat Christian forgiveness as different in kind from the forgiveness that is part of all social life. The emotion is the same even if it is most exalted, made the centerpiece of the religious emotions, in Christianity, which is in keeping with Paul’s idea that the greatest virtue is charity, which can be considered to include among its features forgiveness for charity means an attentiveness to the essential soul of the person as worthy of regard, whatever their shortcomings. One loves a person for what the best that is in them can be rather than for what that person is, and so reduces in significance all those failures at being all that the person can be.
The central mystery of Christianity is that people owe a debt for something from which they have never profited, which is the sin of Adam. That unending debt is paid off by taking on a new obligation or debt of gratitude, which also can never be paid off, no matter how sincere are your repeated expressions of gratitude. Christianity is a magnificent obsession: you pay back hundred fold, thousand fold, for your transgression but you have the satisfaction of feeling gratitude rather than feeling sinful. One emotion is substituted for the other and that is sufficient reward for the exchange. Christianity is the gift that keeps on taking, as if God were someone who took over the care of your life because he had saved your life in a car crash.
It is a good question whether the idea that there is, in the first place, a debt that has to be paid off is not just a strong misreading of the Adam and Eve story. Adam and Eve were in their prelapsarian state. That meant, to be consistent, that they were not yet capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. If, however, they were not aware of the distinction between right and wrong, what was God saying when he said they should not eat from the tree of knowledge? To say “Thou shalt not” has enormous moral force; to say merely “Don’t” has a very different force. It is prudential advice, akin to don’t walk over cliffs, and so understandable to the First Family as well as to any parent of any child who has to be chided not to walk off the curb unescorted because the parent might spank the child for doing so. The child is more likely to respond to that than to a warning about oncoming traffic. God’s injunction can be read in this practical way. Things will go awry for reasons I can’t explain if you don’t do what I say; never mind that I command you to do it and so it would also be an act of disobedience, though that is not to the core of the matter. Moreover, we will put aside the question of whether I said you would die if you ate the apple. The serpent was correct when he told you that you would not die, but that doesn’t mean I could not make you die even if the apple itself were not poisonous and, anyway, you did die in a metaphorical way in that you are expelled from God’s good graces and will be a thorn in his side for as long as you are around and so require perpetual forgiveness. To put those words in God’s mouth, however, is to make of Him a casuist and most people would want to think of God as straightforwardly truthful, not a quibbler.
There is no need to assume, of course, that the authors of Genesis were not here, as in other places, being anachronistic. They allowed Cain to be exiled to cities that could not have existed yet because there were no other people beside the First Family around. So it is possible that the authors did not solve the problem of how Adam and Eve could make moral judgments about whether to eat the apple given that they were not yet aware of moral judgment but instead presumed that moral judgment was everywhere and universal and so predated what the tree of knowledge imparted, which was self-consciousness. I can understand why an author would want to lay aside the problems inherent in such a presumptive difference so as to get on with the story.
Whatever forgiveness retains as a philosophical and theological idea, an attribute of the Christianity that has survived into the modern world, forgiveness is also available, just as revenge and justice are, as a formal characteristic of interaction. We seek revenge in everyday life in that we bear grudges; we seek justice in everyday life in that we seek ways to end grievances. We similarly recognize that in ordinary life there is such a thing as forgiveness. We find ways to let into ourselves a fresh appreciation of the person who has insulted us because we do not wish to lose that person. So we say that the feeling of forgiveness is allowed to flood out the feeling of being aggrieved. An explanation of how that works is provided by an application of Georg Simmel’s theory of the secret. This explanation arises from a consideration of the extreme difference between the personal and private, on the one hand, and the communal and public, on the other. (Simmel, like other theorists of individualism at the turn into the twentieth century, such as Dewey and James and Croce and Freud, was preoccupied with this issue of the difference between the public and the private spheres.)
That people keep secrets from one another, Simmel reminds his readers, is an inevitable and important feature of social life because people, after all, inhabit different consciousnesses and so are capable of not letting on to other people what they are thinking and feeling. But there are occasions when people do reveal secrets to one another, whether trivial matters such as an excuse to go along with the declaration that I forgot to call you yesterday or serious matters such as a declaration that I have always loved you but felt unable to tell you so. Such moments arise in every age. In Ancient Israel both Uriah and David allow the secret of David’s affair with Bathsheba to remain a secret even though it is known by everyone, or in today’s world, when Bill Clinton’s secret dalliance with Monica Lewinski becomes known and announced to everybody in the world. These occasions are when the dynamics of forgiveness as a response to a revealed secret come into play, even if what happens is that the secret is formally kept.
Forgiveness is an asymmetric social relationship because the two parties to the disclosure of the secret offer different things to one another. The person asking forgiveness reveals a secret that will put the person in a bad light. The person does so because the secret in question has become too much of a burden to bear; it has too much separated the person from his friend or lover or comrades because the person harps on his secret and whether to tell it or not, on what to do with it. Secrecy, after all, is one of the most significant of the human existential conditions. People cannot read one another’s minds, can only make inferences of what others think from what they say and what they do, even if such inferences are in most cases very reliable. And so people are always negotiating in their own minds and with others what should remain secret and what should be disclosed. Am I confiding too much information about my sex life? Does discretion require that I not tell you what I heard another person say about you? Can I argue with you about the way you did the balance sheet without disclosing that I think you are a moron?
The person who discloses a secret awaits a response. The moment is inevitably suspenseful because there are a number of things the person whose forgiveness has been asked can do. The forgiver can decide not to do that but lambast the person asking forgiveness for being just as bad as the disclosure reveals the person to be, that the person is nothing but this lapse or is best summarized by this lapse. You cheated on me? I should have expected it. It just shows you were no damn good to begin with and that is the last straw and I will have nothing else to do with you. Or I will be very angry for a while and I will see if I can come to forgive you. Meanwhile, sleep on the couch. Or I love you so much I can even accept this deep wound you have inflicted on me. Or, as the wife of Governor Switzer is reported to have said, “It is a wife’s job to look after sex,” and so she was responsible, the guilty party who required forgiveness for having ruined her husband’s career.
The person who forgives does so by cultivating an aspect of the person asking forgiveness that seems worthwhile and which the forgiver wishes to continue to cultivate. You don’t have to forgive someone you never want to see again except as it relieves you of the burden of having bad feelings or being otherwise preoccupied with that person. You remember the nice things he had done as a person or a friend, or something charming about him, and decide to let bygones be bygones, even if you don’t forget the insult. You just regard it as a fact rather than an emotional residue, even if it has consequences for your subsequent relationship that you do not want to own up to at the moment. People who say I hope we are now back on the old footing know that the announcement of that thought shows it not to be the case because there has been a rupture between what went before the disclosure and what came afterwards in that this very ultimate sentiment had to be invoked to help make the distraction from or cleavage in the relationship go away. This applies to all disruptions in relationships, whether an argument about who did the wrong thing, or because of a collateral issue, such as whether you married a person of the wrong race or religion or took the wrong side in a political controversy. The damage has to be repaired or at least seem to be repaired and that is accomplished by forgiving or by going through the motions as if one had forgiven when one had not. All of these also involve secrets: the secret come out that you are a Republican, that you are an apostate, that you are a criminal. And there is also the secret of how far a declaration of forgiveness is really that or only the appearance of forgiveness. Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men—and women?
What has been from Simmel is the modern way of putting the problem because the explanation of forgiveness refers to individuality as making people distinctive rather than alike. People each have secrets that seem to them unique because the secrets are in their own heads rather than think of secrets as a burden of existence which everyone carries.
But whatever the explanation for forgiveness, it is always an interaction between the person asking forgiveness and the person or institution in a position to grant it. There are a set of procedures whereby those interactions are managed so that the persons asking forgiveness can change and show they changed and the persons granting forgiveness can assess that the person has indeed changed.
The trial, that ubiquitous social phenomenon that plays a role in revenge and guilt, also plays a role in dealing with forgiveness. Trials are often extended far beyond the period when the crime took place. This may be done to be sure that the deliberations are complete and according to proper form, every avenue of appeal available to test the facts and the judgments of the participants in the trial, but the further consequence of such measures is that people may get over their animosities or move on to other things in their lives. There are numerous stories of people who change in prison. They become social researchers and teachers of English, as did Nathan Leopold; they become birdmen; they become jail house lawyers for their fellow inmates; they experience increasing degrees of remorse for the crime or crimes committed. They are not the same people who did the crime and the people against whom they committed the crime are no longer there even if their children are still there to protest any prospect of releasing the transgressor. Sirhan Sirhan remains in prison because no one believes he has changed and because the wound of the Robert Kennedy assassination remains fresh to those who were alive when it occurred. Even Liberals can indulge the feeling for revenge.
There are other procedures for assuring the twin ends that a person is changing and that the aggrieved parties are put in a mood to forgive. There is the matter of the form of the apology or plea for forgiveness. This can be the formulas of the confessional or of interviews with parole boards where admission of guilt is a prerequisite for granting parole. There are also procedures available in everyday interaction. You say you are sorry you stepped on someone’s toe. You ask forgiveness for having “forgotten” to keep the elevator door open even though you can see the person through the little glass window by shrugging your shoulders sheepishly as the elevator departs. You say you are sorry for being late for an appointment. All these are ways to repair the damage done by your having violated rules of etiquette. It is an act easily done, and yet such acts still require you to meet the requirements for asking forgiveness. Your words or tone must be sincere rather than pro forma, and you may indicate you are not the same person who performed the transgression just a moment before, as when you feign not having seen the person through the window when you meet the person next (so long as that is not contradicted by having shrugged helplessly through the window to indicate you couldn’t reach the “open” button in time). Forgiveness for trivial matters is not as prolonged but it is of the same nature as forgiveness for serious matters.
The procedures for gaining forgiveness for more serious transgressions are much more elaborate and are institutionally administered. The Chinese Communists, in their hey-day, ran re-education centers in which people would lose any vestiges they had of the bourgeois personality. The Vietnamese ran re-education camps for people who had collaborated with the Americans. Elementary school teachers in progressive schools help their students “mature” by “discussing” with them why they are not doing their best or are dissatisfied with school so that the children finally come to understand their having been in the wrong and so will supposedly mend their ways. Progressive minded parents may try the same expedients.
While for some religiously minded people forgiveness may allow for the empowerment of the chastised and the expression of love and support, it is often the case, and especially in the case of those not steeped in religious discipline, that forgiveness requires the supplicant for forgiveness to be humiliated as a sign that forgiveness is warranted. Those who are to be forgiven have to accept how badly they have erred and how much damage they have done and efface themselves before those who forgive, whether that is a parent or a church or a state. Young people are reminded by their parents of their immaturity, and that hurts and puts them in their place; people in therapy are reminded of how far they have to go, and that hurts because people are being told that their personalities, which people identify as the most unalienable things about them, are badly formed and so have to be significantly changed; soldiers are told by their drill sergeants that they are dirt even as the soldiers offer “no excuse” for their shortcomings and so take the humiliation “like a man”.
Not all Christians are flagellants who impose punishment on themselves to show how much they regard themselves as inferior and not worthy of forgiveness even as the flagellations are intended to invite forgiveness. Yet all Christians and members of most religious groups are constantly pointing out their own shortcomings so as to earn God’s grace or at least get it right with God. Secular people, for their part, defer to authority by acknowledging that authority tends to be in the right while they are in the wrong. That is what authority does: remind you to be humble and therefore to humble yourself in your opinions.
Moreover, there is a very general phenomenon of social life that leads to the cultivation of forgiveness through self humiliation. The slave or the working man or the underling, all those caught in subordinate positions, are required to abase themselves, take blame to themselves, so as to gain the favor of their superiors. Hegel got it wrong. The slave is not superior in his understanding of the slave master relationship even if the slave knows the details of what the master requires while the master can disregard how abusive he is or can be to the slave because the slave does not understand the conditions of his slavery, why or how to negotiate in the slave economy. The slave is also inferior to the master because the slave must constantly apologize to the master and so comes to believe in his inferiority. Black people humiliated by Jim Crow came less to respect their own dignity as human beings. They always had to say they were sorry for not giving up the sidewalk or not doing a job as quickly or as perfectly as the master required.
Working class people bear the brunt of the dirty jobs that those who designed the factory could not think of how to eliminate. That is still the case. You need hospital workers who will empty bed pans. Shaw is wrong in Major Barbara to think that the Undershafts of the world will run humane factories and will respect the men who work there because the men may have expertise that the boss can command but not himself exercise. An articulate captain of industry like Undershaft might do that, but for the most part, the Undershafts of the world will apply a brute force rather than an elegant strategy to achieve their profits. They will use up people and those people will act as if they are grateful for the opportunity to serve because their incomes depend on it. The boss is always right, and the worker has to acknowledge that.
It is a considerable accomplishment of the union movement, therefore, to have been able to require safety and other measures as matters of right regardless of the circumstances. Workers cleaning up in the Gulf work short hours and are constantly rehydrated because the death of workmen would be just another affront by BP rather than a necessary sacrifice of workers to plug the dike, or rather wash down the leak. Military people, on the other hand, pay with their lives for the failures of their officers, as did the uniformed services at the World Trade Tower and the firemen who died of radiation poisoning when they closed down the leak at Chernobyl. Uniformed people accept that their superiors will screw up and continue with their work anyway because it is so important.
Affirmative Action, which has been understood above as a governmental policy to accomplish justice, can also be understood and get transformed, as a matter of fact, into a form of atonement. It becomes the equivalent of the attempt to restore social order that occurred in South Africa under the Peace and Reconciliation Commission. Affirmative Action becomes a collective request for forgiveness that does not have to be announced in those words but is apparent from the idea that compensation is taking place. That is certainly the way Sandra Day O’Connor saw it when she write the decision of the U. S. Supreme Court upholding the racial quota for entrance into the University of Michigan. There had been a wrong which was to be righted. Black students would have to meet less stringent requirements for admission because their people had been wronged. O’Connor said that perhaps in another quarter century, such an expedient would not be necessary. But it is clear that this decision constituted a significant form of reparations because O’Connor was saying that a constitutional principle, a central one having to do with the equal protection of the laws, had to be set aside to right the wrong. And so we can say that neither formulas of forgiveness nor even a clear scrutiny of “the heart” of the person asking forgiveness are necessary features of forgiveness. It is enough to administer pain to yourself, the pain, in this case, of setting aside a constitutional principle, to show you care. The dramatic setting of the Supreme Court, which bestows upon the upholding of Affirmative Action a ceremonial character, makes the offer of a formula for beseeching and granting forgiveness unnecessary.
The reason that revenge, guilt and forgiveness are such significant, historically important and perennial time bending emotions is because they are so dramatic. They pay attention to the fact that dramatic interest arises when a story plays back upon itself, the end made somehow consonant with the beginning in that the end, as that is worked out through the middle from the givens provided at the beginning, can bear out the beginning, or deepen its insights, as in a Chekov play; or be in stark contrast to the beginning, as in most Shakespearean tragedies, where people at the top of their game huff and puff and try to put off their bad ends; or bear some other relation to the beginning, as when Ruth demonstrates that sometimes, every once in a while, things can work out as you hoped and the poor girl can get married to a rich guy and so take care of her family, all without dishonoring herself. Good informal essays, for example, as those are practiced by any number of newspaper columnists, allude to the beginning point in their conclusion.
The same is true of time bending emotions. In recapturing the moment of transgression, revenge is like a loop that always returns to its origin, no matter in what direction or with what amplitude it starts out. The journey always ends the same, with a not too safe landing back at the origin, however far one has moved from the origin from the nonce. Macbeth is a revenge tragedy because however many times its protagonist fights his destiny on the way up, there are no end of ways in which the past will come back to haunt him until finally and perhaps to his relief, it puts an end to him.
In the service of ending the moment of transgression, guilt is a steady march or procession from the end of the transgression to the final judgment of the court. When you switch from the crime to the pursuit and trial of the criminal, the victim of the crime moves aside as the protagonist of the drama, replaced by the criminal as the new victim, to be disposed of as the laws and the courts see fit. The ceremony of finding guilt is experienced by those who observe all the events from beginning to end as out of sync with the complexities of the transgression itself. Tobias Picker’s opera based on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy does better than Dreiser at showing how Clyde is, after having killed his pregnant sweetheart, then entrapped in the emotionally very different world of a trial where little concern is paid to doing justice to how he feels and a lot of attention is paid to legal procedure. Billy Budd, both the novella and the opera, also highlight the disjunction between what is substantively just and what trials that are designed to bring about justice demand in their own right.
Forgiveness, as opposed to justice, is always the story of a return, whether of a prodigal son or of a lost or suppressed feeling revived so as to feel the bittersweet pleasure of a sentiment once shared and perhaps shared once again though differently because of what has happened in between the time the feeling was first felt and over the time it was not. Russian authors love forgiveness, perhaps because that is all they have going for them as a way to alleviate misery. In the movie version of the novel, his wife forgives Dr. Zhivago for having loved Lara; it is painful to watch her being so good when he reveals how bad he was; it just makes his betrayal worse. Pierre forgives Natasha for having flirted with a man before he became her suitor and Levin forgives Kitty for her having been engaged to another man, Tolstoy never one to allow a woman not need to be forgiven.
It is a good question whether there is anything that can substitute for these three rough but exquisitely satisfying emotions. What other ways are there to close the loop and so do without what are the quintessential pagan, Israelite and Christian emotions? Evolutionary thinking, which filled the late nineteenth century imagination, and still does, can, for some, provide an alternative drama. The story of evolution is a saga of species at war with one another through the ages. There is no revenge because new species are born from natural selection not to get back at old species that dominated themselves or their ancestors. There is no justice, because there is no morality in nature, just the possibility of a new adaptation that might be more successful than that of another species in competing for the same ecological niche. And there is no forgiveness. Nature is remorseless; some species dying, others being born for reasons having nothing to do with intention in that all species seek to survive and yet some are lucky enough to have an adaptation that works. Nature plays no favorites, does not have a soft spot for any species, including humankind, which can work its way into dominating the world and also work its way out of doing so by making the planet unlivable.
There is no moral lesson in any of that and yet there is a kind of satisfaction in contemplating a biological world as being so ruthless. Every species, even the dinosaurs, get their comeuppance. There is no use crying over antiquated species, only a hope that your species, like your nation, will find a way to survive. So there is loyalty; there is conflict; there are mini-dramas of destruction and success. All that makes for drama. And in addition to all that, there are the dramatic twists whereby somehow, an adaptation meant for one thing, over the generations, becomes used for something else, as if nature were ingenious and looping back onto itself, finding a way to make characteristics adaptive. Some species grow, like horses; some species do outrageous things, like zebra fish, where the males carry their unborn offspring; some species seem to conform to human morality, like geese marrying for life, while others, such as the bononos, seem immoral in their display of polymorphic sexual perversity. Draw lessons as you like, even if always knowing these can be only metaphors because evolution is the belief in the hard truth that there is no morality, only some species better fit for an environment than other species.
Why this take on nature, this hard nosed a-morality, should have so captured the imagination of both Conservatives with their taste for conflict and the truths of the market place, and with Liberals, what with their taste for ingenious solutions to problems and the amorality of social cause and effect, will not be explored here. It is enough to say that evolutionary thinking is but one way to break out of the box of the emotions that prevailed before the modern age. An Enlightenment conception of the possibilities of reason and the constructiveness of political constructions is another way. A grasp of science as a transcendental other much more accomplished than any merely human conception of god is another. Whatever is the case, there is no reason to burden ourselves with the atavisms of revenge, guilt and forgiveness except as those are structured so as, respectively, to serve the needs of everyday life to accomplish the release of bad feelings, the termination of bad events, and the need of people to communicate even bad things about themselves to one another.