A few formulations...

...from common ways of speaking about forgiveness immediately suggest themselves:

  1. Forgiveness is the remission of a due punishment. For example, if someone intentionally breaks his neighbor’s window, we might say that the neighbor fogives the window-breaker if he doesn’t seek to punish him.

  2. Forgiveness is the remission of not only due punishment, but also due satisfaction. In the example, the neighbor doesn’t seek to punish the window-breaker, nor does he even require that he pay for a new window.

  3. Forgiveness is not taking into account the offense in all future dealings with the offender. This case includes 1 and 2. For example, the window-breaker suffers no consequences from the neighbor: no punishment, no restitution, no being reminded of the incident when the neighbor needs a favor (like being forgiven himself), etc. In short, all the interactions between neighbors happen as if the incident never happened.

  4. Forgiveness is forgetting of the offense. But if the forgetting is unwilling, we wouldn’t say that the neighbor has forgiven the offender, just that he has a bad memory. And one can’t forget willingly, unless perhaps he willingly acquired 3) as a habit with the intention of forgetting the incident. But, in that case, the forgiving would just be 3) and the forgetting would be accidental. So it is more likely that “to forgive and forget” refers to not considering the offense.
All of the above formulations focus on the forgiver’s disposition toward the forgiven. There are a few other possibilities that focus on the effect of the forgiven:
  1. Forgiveness is the removal of a guilty feeling in the offender.

  2. Forgiveness is the restoration of proper charity in the offender toward the offended, which lack caused the offense.
So, it seems a big question is whether forgiveness is said more of the forgiver or of the forgiven.


It’s been a recurring problem that I don’t have a precise concept of forgiveness. First, I’ll try to lay out a few ground rules about the method for finding a definition.

I will attempt to understand a precise definition using the three sources of philosophy1:

  1. common conceptions, manifested by the way we speak. These will not only be a pre-philosophical source of the precise conception sought, but also the measure of whatever conclusion is reached.

  2. reason, which can first of all abstract the common conceptions, then can proceed from them, which are more known to us, to a precise conception, which is more knowable by nature.

  3. prior thinkers, who have taught us not only by their true insights, but even more so by their mistakes.

To these three, I’ll throw in another element: Revelation, as guarded by the Magisterium, and explained by the Doctors of the Church. Although this will, hopefully, be a philosophical inquiry, not theological, I think knowledge of God’s forgiveness is rather limited to the philosopher. Revelation, therefore, will provide a welcome check against the universality of the definition, especially considering the impact such a definition will have on the interpretation of Scripture.

Following Aristotle's requirements for a definition, I will seek a universal definition of forgiveness, i.e. one that applies per se to every species of forgiveness, because it contains the middle term, or cause of a demonstrative conclusion. In this way, the definition can explain all the effects and consequences of forgiveness (or at least "facilitate even a conjecture about them"2).
1. Taken from Charles De Koninck, Three Sources of Philosophy, 1964 Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association.
2. De Anima, Bk. I, Ch. 1

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