The Need to Be Punished. A Philosophical Dialogue Around Confession, Forgiveness and Justicialism

In 1946, Ruth Benedict introduced two definitions to describe the main differences between Japanese and North American societies she observed at the end of WWII.
While she linked the former to the culture of shame, where any merit was considered such only after the acknowledgment of others, and any violation to the commonly established norm would result in a public humiliation and an estrangement from society, she described the latter as the culture of guilt, which controls its adherents through the internalization of a system of punishments and rewards deriving from some specific behaviors.
Hence, guilt plays a fundamental role in the shaping of individuals in Western societies.
It forces one to relegate instinctual drives to the sphere of prohibited, degenerate, outrageous.
The ones who detect traits of their identity allegedly considered as “deviances” often feel the need to be punished in order to restore a covenant of peaceful coexistence with the others.

Theodor Reik, 1888-1969, was an Austrian psychoanalyst, disciple of Sigmund Freud
Picture: source

But where does the sake for punishment come from? According to Theodor Reik, men often long for punishment, both consciously and unconsciously, as long as paying this toll can satisfy their compulsion to confess.
To Reik, a healthy unity of the self can only be preserved when one has the chance to claim back each single of their actions, take agency for them and check that they are still part of a group, even when there is a reckoning pending on their belonging to a society.

When both the penitent and the rest of the world agree on the existence of a fault of the former, there comes not only the need for a confession, but also for what Jankélévitch calls “a dialogue”: forgiveness.

According to Jankélévitch, forgiveness can only take place when the two parts acknowledge that not someone’s essence, but their conduct resulted as damaging for one of the participants.
To Jankélévitch, forgiveness is a heroic act of selflessness, purely dictated by will, as forgiveness is not a legally nor juridically regulated matter. If anything, forgiveness shares some features with love, such as the “scandal” and “foolness” of its inexplicability, for which men can only denounce the existence of it, but never justify it.

Vladimir Jankélévitch,1903-1985, philosopher and survivor of the Jewish Holocaust. Picture: source

On the other hand, his book Forgiveness? published in 1967 exacerbates the concept of forgiveness being detached from logic, by introducing the notion of unforgivable.
Jankélévitch was himself a survivor of the Jewish Holocaust, perpetrated by the Germans during WWII; this traumatic experience gave him a motive to distinguish between types of forgiveness that re-establish a peaceful co-living covenant, and surrogates (see also Ricoeur) that instead create a dangerous precedent of pardon for crimes against humanity.
For Jankélévitch, there are cases in which forgiveness does not help for the reintegration of the culprit into society, and even if this was possible, they are not deserving of such indulgence. They are doomed to live with “the insurmountable horror of what happened”.
In the Sixties, Jankélévitch was an advocate for a semantic reflection on the contemporary concept of forgiveness, as distinguished from its latin correspondent oblivium, which is instead at the origin of the word oblivion. It is interesting to note that this etymological nuance is of capital for Primo Levi, another Holocaust survivor:

«May oblivion be cursed! May the absence of memory be unthinkable!»

Primo Levi

The French philosopher argues that forgiving the systemic violence carried out on the Jews would make humankind complicit of the criminals who get away with their misdoings, standing in this sense by Marcuse’s positions.
However, for how deeply charged of historical awareness his relation towards forgiveness is, he does not suggest grudge towards the criminals as a way out of the offense -even if he prefers it to oblivion, since grudge shows at least profundity of feelings. In first place, because the burden that grudge represents would put the offended once again in a victim position, one where the traumatized is devoid of agency over their own self-determination; in second place, because grudge shifts the focus from the victims to the executioners, who shall not be given the satisfaction of being history’s protagonists.
What Jankélévitch appoints as a valid beacon is the compassion towards victims, which is embodied through the efforts of documentation and the capacity of empathizing with others’ personal tragedy.

Klaus-Michael Kodalle, 1943. Philosopher and professor at the University of Jena. Picture: Wolfgang Hirsch

The debate around the philosophical and political possibility of forgiveness as a geography-shaping agent acquired extraordinary intensity between the decades Eighties and Nineties of last century, in contemporaneity with the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War.
Germany was about to enter a long and painful process of reunification, that would progressively expose the psychological separation the East and West of the country had undergone between 1961 and 1989.
Germany, whose national identity was stuck at an adolescent stage, due to the humiliating conditions imposed after WWI with the Treaty of Versailles, the awakening from the torpor of WWII and Nazism and the division into NATO and USSR zones of influence, was experiencing estrangement between one citizen and another.
German citizens had, at that point, learned to live together with the fear of tip off for generations and diffidence had become a distinctive trait of many interpersonal relationships.
How was it even imaginable to inaugurate a deal of newly found trust, when the winds of change were not allowing to fully process the recently past hostilities?
Klaus-Michael Kodalle suggests treating forgiveness as an incognito, practicing instead Nachsichtigkeit, that we could translate as “tolerance”.
Reviewing Derrida’s conviction that forgiveness is a choice able to radically speed up the normal timings of reconciliation, Kodalle insists that learning tolerance towards the different over time can potentially lay stronger roots for a future peace among people.
In extenso, Kodalle interrogates himself on the custom of public amnesty, which is also at the center of the dialogue between Paul Ricoeur and Sorin Antohi of March 10, 2003 (Memory, History, Forgiveness at Pasts Inc. Center for Historical Studies, Budapest, Hungary).
Notwithstanding the healing power of long-waited requests of forgiveness, both philosophers condemn the abuse of amnesty as it marks the end of the effort of remembrance. It is -to say it with Jankélévitch- a mere form of self-satisfaction and index of a society that has lost its sense of justice.

Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004, has published several titles on the intersections of law, justice and ethics. Picture: source

Derrida’s forgiveness, on the other hand, is a radical overcoming of one’s own interests and pride, which goes beyond human rationality and sets men in a position between human and divine. And he can still sympathize with situation in which forgiveness is deemed as God’s peculiar prerogative: he brings as a concrete example Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, a close-up narration of a circumstance in which the Nazi hunter denied grace to a dying SS officer, stating that their crimes were so horrifying that only God could grant them forgiveness.

Whereas Derrida’s forgiveness is an unconditional act of love for mankind, Jankélévitch insists that forgiveness is only triggered by a conversation in which the offender admits their fault and asks for the chance of beginning a new deal; this implies, of course, that the offended can also refuse them forgiveness.
The opposition between Jankélévitch and Derrida is remarked by the fact that the latter concedes that forgiveness is only authentic when it does not need an open request for it to be granted.
The mistake Derrida makes is slipping into the trap of what Ricoeur appoints as substitutes of forgiveness.
In this specific case, granting forgiveness before it has been requested prevents both the offender and the offended to emancipate from their condition.
The offender is doomed to live with regret and identify themselves with their mistakes, because they didn’t mature the sense of self-worth necessary to initiate a conversation.
The offended would not exert forgiveness, but mercy, which is a self-celebratory act that doesn’t acknowledge the contrition of the guilty.
In this connection, Seneca distinguished, in his De clementia, venia and misericordia: the first is the complete remission of one’s guilt; the second is a machiavellian fiction that censors the expression of perfectly human sentiments such as anger and disappointment.
At the same time, he allowed the use of misericordia as a pedagogical act to weaken the hostile intentions of the offender.

The possibility of not receiving forgiveness should not hold the offender from apologizing: otherwise, the suffocated guilt turns into shame and grudge towards the victim.
Whenever the dialogue leading to forgiveness is conducted hastily and without openness about the possibility that one’s modus operandi might be the result of a very partial and fallible vision of things, the risk of projecting one’s lack of moral order onto a third party and hunting for a scapegoat that explains the chaos of their cosmos might arise -it’s the specter of justicialism.

Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own?

Luke 6, 41

The strictness with which we judge others’ identity and conduct, often erroneously shaped on our own preconceptions, betrays an underlying, powerless rage for our incapability of modeling the world at our delight.

René Girard, 1923-2015, has researched how literary models can be referred to philosophical systems. Picture: dpa

René Girard individuated indeed in weak societies the perfect cot for scapegoats hunt.
Fundamental to the understanding of this theory is the notion of Girard’s triangular structure of desire. Leading from the study of novels’ character and their parable inside a story, Girard believed that longing for an object is never a direct experience; instead, we as humans are able to recognize happiness in other people and our mimetic nature pushes us to the pursuit of the same objects we believe caused these people’s satisfaction.
But if we findd ourselves in a group of individuals competing for the same propeller of happiness, we end up in a situation of rivalry. And rivalry, exactly like desire, is “contagious”: our intrinsic nature, so prone to imitation, makes competition another apprehended behaviour that spreads without any control.
In such a scenario, it is easy to lose sight of the object that originated the antagonism and replace that wish with a desire of abuse of power.
The only way to cease the rivalries and restore balance among individuals is by identifying an external culprit, a victim that can be sacrificed to the reinstatement of peace.
The figure of the scapegoat is hence charged with a double and opposed symbolism: on one hand, it is the appointed culprit; on the other hand, it is the extraneous savior that brings back a pristine state of equality.

Estranging the responsibility for societal disequilibrium onto a foreign party, however, brings as a consequence growing apart from justice.
A society that accepts scapegoats as the full stop to its unsatisfied desires cannot nurture any respect for fairness; instead, it worships the cult of machism, prevarication and fury.
In the most recent present, Italy has become a land of sleepwalkers, that, unlike during the Renaissance, cannot boast of primacy in science, nor technology, nor economy.
Precarious economical conditions come on top of a diminished democracy “know-how”, an atomically fragmented parliamentary system and a pathological inability to craft a vision for the younger generations.
If one had to retrace a line that increasingly parted Italy from the engagement with democratic institutions, it would be a line that unites those figures that Italians loathed, but at the same time aspired to be: Benito Mussolini, Bettino Craxi, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini.
The cult of personality privileges cis white heterosexual men, mainly adhering to the right wing (except for Bettino Craxi), raised in a Catholic upbringing and fitting the part of the “self-made man”.
With charming speaking skills and a non strictly political curriculum vitae, these four men share a rise to the power happening in non orthodox conditions (a direct claim to the King for Mussolini; an unlikely mixed supportive alliance, the Pentapartito, for Craxi; a debated entrance in politics happening in parallel with the owning of some national TV and press channels, for Berlusconi; a weak alliance with Movimento 5 Stelle following a government crisis for Salvini), an outspoken contempt for the free press, involvement in legal controversies, self victimization before the magistrates and, at the same time, hesitation in condemning both organized criminality and police violence.
The success such figures attain regardless of their political inadequacy is due to the halo of impunity, that is responsible for deluding many about the possibility of living a lavish lifestyle at the expense of the weaker.

Italy’s guilty conscience for not having stood firmly against its weaknesses, preserved its heritage and facilitated progress, is finding now its outlet in blaming fluid society schemes (immigration, the homogeneity pursued by Europe, non-heteronormative family models and liberal intellectuals) for the decay of its founding pillars.
What are the real challenges Italy and other populist arenas have to face in order to become equal and stable societies? Which deviances should they confess, in order to acquire an authentic civil conscience and start a route of atonement, which necessarily goes through a conversation and mutual recognition among citizens?
Moreover, once stability, peace and equality will have been reached, what will be of the hideous words that have been spent against minorities? Will their actors take distance from them -hence from their recently past selves-, or pretend they were never said?
Will there still be the premises for forgiveness or, in a marcusian point of view, would forgiveness be an easy loophole to perpetuate the same crimes in the future?

Here is to hope that, first and foremost, Italy will be crossed by the no longer avoidable challenges of the global world, which will impose a confrontation with countries that have healed from the virus of Fascism.
Confiding in the girardian theory of mimesis, here is to hope that Italy will long for the wealth reached by nations that have benefited from a plural, open society, where the voices of collectivity matter more than that of one virile man.

A guilty conscience stops suffering when it acknowledges the imputability of its crimes; dialogue begins between two people that embrace their differences and do not delegate the fatigue of thought to one shared dictator; forgiveness is given when it is asked for.

You could attach prices to thoughts. Some cost a lot, some a little. And how does one pay for thoughts? The answer, I think, is: with courage.

Ludwig Wittgenstein


-Olivier Abel, The Political Ethics of Paul Ricoeur: Happiness and Justice
-Paolo Cozzi, La possibilità del perdono
-Jacques Derrida, Pardonner: l’impardonnable et l’imprescriptible, Editions Galilée, Paris, France, 2012
-René Girard, Il capro espiatorio, Adelphi, Milano, Italy, 1999
-Vladimir Jankélévitch, Perdonare?, Giuntina, Firenze, Italy, 1995
-Klaus-Michael Kodalle, Verzeihung denken – Die verkannte Grundlage humaner Verhältnisse, November 25th, 2013
-La Repubblica, Un gesto così difficile tra la colpa e la punizione, Rome, Italy, 2003
-Theodor Reik, The Compulsion to Confess: On the Psychoanalysis of Crime and Punishment, Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, New York, USA, 1959
-Giuseppe Stinca, Jankélévitch: la difficile domanda del perdono, September 12th, 2016
-Francesco Viola, Il perdono nella giustizia di transizione, in Rossana Ragonese, Fraternità ferita e riconciliazione, Ancora, Milano, Italy, 2017, pages 106-118

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