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Forgiveness and Ressentiment in the Age of Traumas

Summary and Keywords

Various therapeutic discourses on trauma claim that a successful working through of a traumatic experience amounts to forgiveness and the victim’s reconciliation with the past. Recently, several voices have been raised against this claim, arguing that refusal to forgive is a sort of moral dignity, a defense of the victim’s integral subjectivity, and a moral protest against the unjustifiable evils and wrongdoings the victim has suffered. Among the emotions the victim is left with after the traumatic experience and after the reluctance to forgive the perpetrators and get along with life are, of course, anger, hate, indignation, depression, humiliation, and shame. An additional and far more complex emotion that characterizes the posttraumatic experience is ressentiment.

Forgiveness and ressentiment are discussed as moral stances against evils and traumas. The basic tenets are: (1) the link between agency, forgiveness, and memory; (2) the moral nature of ressentiment as a Schelerean concept that parts company not only from resentment (qua moral indignation) but also from grudges and envy; (3) the dismembering of forgiveness and ressentiment premised not on the victim’s resistance to dealing with the past (or moral hypermnesia), as is usually thought, but on the process of transvaluation inherent in ressentiment, which places forgiveness beyond the victim’s hermeneutic horizon.

Keywords: memory, justice, apology, vengeance, retribution, cultural trauma, difficult forgiveness, ressentiment, resentment, morality, moral, posttraumatic experience


On April 21 to 24, 2016, the famous Berlin-based documentary theater group Rimini Protokoll1 delivered a much-debated performance in the sparkling and avant-garde Onassis Cultural Center Athens.2 The performance was about Hitler’s Mein Kampf, on the occasion of its reprinting in 2016 in Germany, where it had been banned for 70 years. The artistic group’s intention was to deconstruct the notorious 90-year-old text in an effort to counteract its appeal among potential publics by showcasing how the Bible of Nazism is replete with paranoiac truisms. The performance of April 22 was preceded by an address by the activist Rainer Höss,3 grandson of Auschwitz Commander Rudolf Höss. The April 22 event was part of a series of similar events initiated by Rainer Höss, who set himself the task of activating European collective memory against Nazism and the negation of the Holocaust.4 Höss stated a case of apology and repentance: “You can’t choose your family, or your nationality,” and “Exempt me from my grandfather’s generation,” he said. Notwithstanding its boldness, the performance gave rise to some critical commentaries on the congruence and timing of the topic. For instance, doubts were cast5 on whether the German theater company could play Mein Kampf not at the dazzling Onassis Cultural Center, but at the Rimini military cemetery, where 146 Greek soldiers are buried. In the Italian city of Rimini, a six-day deadly battle against Nazi troops took place at the end of World War II, with the Greek Third Mountain Brigade involved on the side of the Allies. So the issue at hand was whether the Rimini Protokoll’s artistic gesture could overcome the mnemonic inertia of the Rimini cemetery.

Earlier, a previously scheduled meeting on January 29, 2016, between Adriana Faranda and Agnese Moro was cancelled after fierce protests were raised by the Red Brigade’s victims’ relatives, by political associations, by judges, and by justice servants. The meeting was to take place in a seminar for the service and varieties of justice organized by the Istituto Superiore di Scienze Religiose,6 Syracuse. The topic of the seminar was Justice’s function carried through different versions of juridical systems. Faranda is a repentant Red Brigades member who took part in the 1978 assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, the Christian Democrat who had planned to form a “great coalition” with the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s, and Agnese Moro is the daughter of the murdered politician. After the cancellation, both women, joined by another repentant terrorist, Manglio Milani, and a relative of a victim killed in a bombing incident caused by neo-fascists in 1978, sent an open letter to the Administrative Board of the Istituto, saying, among other things: “Dear Judges, pushing us to silence does injustice to memory.”

These examples bear witness to how societies remember a hurtful past, to who is entitled to apologize for whom, and to how reconciliation between traumatized subjects and wrongdoers is possible. These are open-ended issues full of aporetic traces as long as trauma is extracted from individual pathologies and forms a central feature of the experience of our time. Some of the hidden and overt dimensions of these issues can be explored against the background of the sociology of emotions. After definition of trauma and cognate notions, the discussion considers possible emotional and moral reactions to trauma, with specific focus on forgiveness and ressentiment. Forgiveness is deemed a moral virtue and ressentiment is considered a complex negative emotion. Both have received much attention, not only for their inherent importance but also for their robust relevance to contemporary trauma and therapy culture as well as to the philology of resilience against failures.

Trauma: Individual and Collective Dimensions

Concurrently with memory studies, trauma studies have developed in a steadfast way. Due to the horrific collective experiences of various groups in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is not accidental that scholars speak of our times and culture as “trauma time” (Edkins, 2003, p. xiv), of “the culture of trauma” (Miller & Tougaw, 2002, p. 2), or of “a new century of trauma” (Ward, 2012), upgrading, thereby, “trauma” into a central imaginative signification and a master signifier of contemporary risk society. In this respect, there are heterogeneous resources for dealing with trauma, since its study crosses disciplines and incurs conceptual fluidity (Kansteiner, 2004; Leys, 2000; Luckhurst, 2008), emanating from, among other factors, language and discursive errings and slippages in representing the unrepresentable and the unspeakable pain and horror experienced in own and others’ trauma. Without endorsing pessimistic statements like “current debates over trauma are fated to end in an impasse” (Leys, 2000, p. 305), it is possible to navigate the family resemblance among trauma terminologies in order to lay the groundwork for analysis.

Stemming largely from Freudian psychoanalysis and Derrida’s social theory, and based on literary studies, a great deal of work on trauma has been done by the so-called Yale School since the mid-1970s (Caruth, Hartman, de Man, Felman, LaCapra, etc.). Focusing mostly on the individual and intra-individual levels, the Yale School scholars have understood trauma as an unthinkable occurrence that resists immediate comprehension, the meaning of which is acquired retroactively and is endowed with negative emotionality. Caruth, a widely cited member of the group, stated that a traumatic event “is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it” (Caruth, 1995, pp. 4–5). Therefore, an event is apprehended as traumatic as long as it “cannot be placed within the schemes of prior knowledge” and, in that sense, “the traumatic event is its future” (Caruth, 1995, p. 8, 153). This is due to the dynamic process described by Freud as Nachträglichkeit (i.e.,“deferred action,” “belatedness,” “afterwardsness”). In the meantime, during the so called latency period, the traumatized person remains silenced and the event cannot be talked out because it is outside the range of normal human experience (Luckhurst, 2008, p. 79). It is manifested, though, in behaviors that originate from the unconscious repetition compulsion, and in this respect the traumatic event is “fully evident only in connection with another place, and in another time” (Caruth, 1995, p. 8). Paradoxically, the presence of the trauma is called on by its absence. Traumas are at first repressed, remain latent, and then are retrieved if and when the right circumstances exist and defense mechanisms begin to be loosened, acquiring a meaning for the subject.

Once social psychologists, historians, psychohistorians, sociologists, and political scientists realized that trauma processes are not confined within an individual psyche or in interatomic dynamics, but ultimately engulf group and societal dimensions, a semantic field emerged consisting of terms like “mass trauma,” “historical trauma,” “national trauma,” “collective trauma,” “cultural trauma,” “European trauma,” and so on. Although there are no dramatic differences among these concepts, taking into account their endurance, evidenced in a number of publications (Alexander, 2004a; Eyerman, 2001, 2008, 2015; Eyerman et al., 2013), the middle-range theory of “cultural trauma” seems to be the most persuasive thematization of trauma at the macro level. Drawing from Alexander’s “strong program” of cultural sociology (Alexander & Smith, 2002), the theory of cultural trauma advances the task of trauma studies; the point is not just to discover the “psychic wounds” in the accounts of traumatic experiences (Hartman, 2003, p. 257), but to weave the experiences into the construction of the social fabric.

For Alexander (2004a, p. 1), cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel that they have suffered a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks on their group consciousness, engraved in their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways. Smelser (2004, p. 44) offers a similar definition of cultural trauma: “A memory accepted and publicly given credence by a relevant membership group and evoking an event or situation, which is (a) laden with negative affect, (b) represented as indelible, and (c) regarded as threatening a society’s existence or violating one or more of its fundamental cultural presuppositions.” Premised on social constructionism, Smelser’s definition assumes that “cultural traumas are for the most part historically made, not born” (Smelser, 2004, p. 37). In order to become “trauma,” a traumatogenic event (whether a natural disaster or a social dislocation, such as a civil war, mass violence, or torture) has to undergo a process of social signification; namely, it has to be publicly signified, to get articulated into the paths of public discourse, and to become socially accepted and defined as “trauma.”7 In the process, various interests and carrier groups fight against each other, from the top (elite) as well as from the bottom (the people), since the traumatic content of an event has to prevail retroactively and hegemonize the alternative conceptions. The “drama trauma” entails three fundamental constituent elements: retroactively selective memory, largely negative emotion, and identity. The essentials of the drama trauma (or the negotiation of the meaning of the trauma) are, equally: victims, perpetrators, and blame attribution.

Therefore, cultural traumas straddle individuals and collectives; what unites clinical and cultural trauma is: (a) both are belated experiences as mnemonic reconstructions of negative encounters; (b) they give birth to, and are accompanied by, negative feelings, emotions, and sentiments; (c) they activate similar defense mechanisms, like negation, projection, objectivation, etc.; (d) they strongly affect individual and collective identities. What differentiates the two concepts is that, for cultural trauma to occur, it is not necessary for it to be felt directly by everyone or for every person to get involved. Some may take it up indirectly, from selective social and historical memory (Levy & Sznaider, 2002), as happens to succeeding generations after a civil war or genocide. From an intergenerational point of view, a cultural trauma is a “chosen trauma” in; as Volkan’s sense a large group’s unconscious ‘choice’ to add to its own identity a past generation’s mental representation of a shared event that has caused a large group to face drastic losses, to feel helpless and victimized by another group, and to share a humiliating injury (Volkan, 2001). Furthermore, while individual trauma may not be related to a particular event, but may be structured around a fantasy, cultural trauma is always formed around an event about which the facts, memory, and significance are negotiable and culturally constructed. In addition, clinical trauma is constituted and administered by the inner psychic mechanisms of repression, denial, adjustment, and working through, whereas cultural trauma results from discursive-authoritative mechanisms administered by competing issue claimants for defining (and therefore instituting) an event as being traumatic (Edkins, 2003, pp. 44–45; Smelser, 2004, pp. 38–39). The claimants argue about: (a) the very existence of the traumatic event itself (e.g., the dispute concerning the truth of the Holocaust), (b) its interpretation (was the 1946–1949 inner clash in Greece a ‘civil war’ or an ‘insurgence of gangs’?), (c) the appropriate feeling rules, i.e., normative regulations as to what, how, how much, and when someone is supposed to feel in a given situation, and (d) the identity of victims and wrongdoers (Demertzis, 2009).

Accordingly, analysis of reactions to trauma necessarily involves both individual and collective-cultural levels, either separately or in close connection.

Reactions to Trauma

In the main, by replacing “progress”—the post World War II central social imaginative signification—as a master signifier of the post Cold War era, “trauma” has generated an ambivalent attitude: it can activate self-victimization, a fatalistic culture, and a sense of helplessness (Žižek, 1997, p. 136), which usually lead to the breaking of bonds of trust and confidence at interpersonal, political, and community levels. An event is called traumatic not only when it offends the subject’s capabilities to cope with it, but also when it implies the betrayal of trust and violates default notions of what it means morally to remain part of a collective (Edkins, 2003, p. 4; Luckhurst, 2008, p. 10; Zelizer, 2002). It is also argued that traumas have the capacity to widen the field of social understanding and sympathy and to promote a culture of healing and therapy. Here, a crucial (although often ambivalent) role is played by the media, since awareness and evaluation of others’ traumas are largely accomplished through the means of communication and journalism (Demertzis, 2009; Eyerman, 2008, pp. 21, 168–169; Tenenboim-Weinblatt, 2008). In a nutshell, trauma is expressed paradoxically: it breaks and remakes the sense of political and cultural community (Hutchinson, 2016, pp. 6–12).

In late or high modernity, natural disasters become cultural traumas if their consequences could have been diminished or avoided by advance measures and alleviating policies undertaken by decision makers accountable to their constituencies. Wars, mass violence and atrocities, genocides, and terrorism may become cultural traumas all the more easier since they are always directly undertaken by agents and harbored by victimized persons. In either case, a question arises about the moral and emotional stance of the victims toward the inflicted traumas. Ideal typically speaking, one could point to four individual and/or collective moral responses to trauma: revenge, demand for justice, forgiveness, and non-forgiveness.8 Each response involves a number of different as well as interrelated emotions and sentiments.


Revenge is an immediate reaction motivated mainly by anger or wrath, hatred, and resentment. Resentment here is understood as righteous moral indignation, a negative reactive attitude that a person develops upon receiving indifference, insult, or injury from another person, implying strong disapproval of the injurer, who is reasonably considered responsible for his/her actions (Strawson, 1974, p. 7, 14). Stated differently, resentment is a legitimate and valuable form of anger in response to perceived moral wrongs (Brudholm, 2008, p. 9). In terms of sequence, vengeance seems to be first underpinned by anger and hatred and shortly after by resentment; the latter requires extended cognitive assessment of an unjust or harmful situation and develops later, while anger and hatred explode immediately. These three emotions make up for the victim’s damaged dignity and self-respect. Minow (1998, p. 10) endorsed the assumption that whoever is not resentful of injuries done to him/her is a person who lacks self-respect. Retaliation, an eye for an eye, and giving what’s coming to the wrongdoer are the most usual expressions of vengeance. This stance springs from action readiness toward unforeseen offenses like terrorist attacks (e.g., New York, September 11, 2001; London, July 7, 2005; Paris, November 13, 2015; Brussels, March 22, 2016, etc.). Yet, there is always the risk of a disproportionate response, in which the victim violates domestic and/or international law out of malicious spitefulness or hurt arrogance (Badiou, 2016). In this case, a vicious cycle of vendetta and excessive violence is initiated that fails to restore what was damaged in the first place. A possible remedy is retribution, i.e., a public punishment that stands as a fair functional equivalent of vengeance. According to Minow (1998, p. 12), retribution is seen as “vengeance curbed by the intervention of someone other than the victim and by principles of proportionality and individual rights.” According to Schwartz (1978), organized retribution is an impartial infliction of punishment in accordance with prescribed and fixed rules of proportionality that steer clear of the excesses of lex talionis. With retribution, perpetrators get their deserts in decency, i.e., they are punished according to the rule of law and norms of civility. In this way, reversal of the roles of perpetrator and victim is avoided, while the victim retains his/her self-respect. Of course, retribution cannot purge horrible memories, nor does it preclude regression to overt or covert actions of revenge.

Demand for Justice

In contemporary societies, it is hard to imagine retribution’s being accomplished outside formal retributive justice procedures; in a way, retribution is legally contained vengeance through prosecutorial justice. For some individual victims, this may be satisfactory. For other victims, and, moreover, when societal relations are at stake, demand for retributive justice may be deemed not appropriate. With Truth and Reconciliation Committees in South Africa and elsewhere, the point was not retribution but reparation, and in this respect restorative justice was enacted (Elster, 2006a). Because the goal was national rebuilding and reconciliation, it was concluded that full prosecution of crimes would perpetuate social divisions and make it impossible for the body politic and its citizens of all colors to be healed (Hutchinson, 2016, pp. 251, 254–255).

Demand for restorative justice presupposes a higher level of abstraction than retribution; it seeks to repair past injustices while supporting the humanity of both offenders and victims by delivering corrective changes in the record, in relationships, and in future actions (Minow, 1998, pp. 91–92). It does not just deliver punishment to wrongdoers. Like revenge, reparation through restorative justice is underpinned by resentment but not by hatred or wrath; instead, grief, sorrow, and hope play important roles.9 When victims are given the chance to narrate their suffering and pain publicly, they are able to regain their lost dignity; in addition, perpetrators are also heard, and through their remorse and apology they are reconnected with their humanness. Whenever material and symbolic restitution is secured, reparative procedures may confer greater comfort to the victims. Nevertheless, whenever intergenerational claims are involved, restitution processes cannot ever go far enough (Cowen, 2006). Restitution is not to be carried out in center-stage courts or committees, but within informal contexts or community-based commissions, where cleansing rituals and truth telling in front of familiar people and relatives is easier (Kaindaneh & Rigby, 2012, pp. 170–171). Truth telling does not exonerate wrongdoers of their crimes; what it ultimately does is reaffirm the wrongness of the violation of the victims’ humanity (Minow, 1998, p. 146). Witnessing of suffering, memorializing, restitution, remorse, and acknowledgment of the humanity and subjectivity of both victims and perpetrators are essentials of the reparative demand for justice. They do not eliminate sorrow, resentment, and haunting by horrific memories, nor do they clean the slate, but they do contribute to the repair of societal dislocation and to the reconciliation of past animosities. In addition, demand for justice may, under certain circumstances, prepare for another moral stance toward traumatic experiences, i.e., forgiveness.


From the outset, it should be stated that forgiveness is not forgetting, nor is it equated with justice. Demand for justice may or may not be contingent upon forgiveness, nor is forgiveness a prerequisite for the service of justice in relation to traumatic events like mass atrocities or genocides.

In approaching forgiveness through the notion of cultural trauma, it is necessary to keep in mind that the constituents of cultural trauma are memory, emotion, and identity, and that cultural trauma itself is substantiated through the trauma drama process. Schematically speaking, this process may conclude—if ever—with one of two different outcomes: either self-perpetuating victimization and negativity, or healing by moving ahead toward a posttraumatic future. The pessimistic and optimistic versions of the trauma drama correlate with unfinished and successful mourning, respectively. It is through lack of successful mourning that historical trauma continues to excite people and stir up violence (Volkan, 2005). Without procedures of collective reflexivity upon historical memory, vindictiveness is inevitably perpetuated and the blood of the forefathers keeps asking for vengeance, while shame is disguised as anger and hatred against the national, racial, ethnic, and religious other (Scheff, 2000). In contrast, the work of mourning integrates the traumatic experience into both the life-world and the system of social reproduction, eliminating or at least reducing negative affectivity. Overall, the constructionist theory of cultural trauma takes in the psychoanalytic position that trauma is a dynamic process, encompassing both the rupture of the psychic tissue and its healing. At the level of collective trauma, the functional equivalent of clinical-individual healing is mourning (as opposed to melancholia) and forgiveness.

Forgiveness is far from simple and dealing with it involves a fascinating, complex, and contradictory thought landscape that has theological, philosophical, psychological, juridico-political, and sociological underpinnings (Hughes, 2016). Examples indicating the wide range of issues involved are the subfield “Forgiveness Studies” and the existence of institutes like the International Forgiveness Institute (, study centers, and other relevant institutions and establishments (e.g., International Forgiveness Day, Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance, etc.).

The Constituency of Forgiveness

Provided that forgiving is not conflated with excusing, pardoning, or condonation10—and keeping in mind that there is no easy demarcation between forgiveness and cognates like acquittal, absolution, mercy, and forbearance—a typical case of forgiveness involves a victim, a victimizer, memory, will, and responsibility. Forgiveness is a moral act of will—literally a speech act (“I forgive you”)—by which the victim relieves the victimizer of his/her responsibility. Certainly, forgiveness is not an obligation; rather, it is a moral virtue or an imperfect duty. Imperfect duties allow for agential discretion about when and with respect to whom to discharge the duty (Hughes, 2016). In this sense, forgiveness is a purposeful redirection of thought and feeling, as if time could be turned back, and the victim grants the victimizer (and himself/herself) the prospect of a fresh start. The memory of the wrongdoing is essential, since forgiveness is never decoupled from the unbearable burden of time and the ineradicable trace of pain.

The Affectivity of Forgiveness

As a moral virtue for coping with personal and collective wrongdoings and insults, forgiveness entails strong will and emotional reflexivity. As Larocco put it (2011), it metabolizes the shame inflicted by a wound; it is the silent assault of the self against the power of malice and injustice. In addition, forgiveness eliminates, or at least reduces, negative emotions (hostility, hatred, malevolence, envy, anger, resentment, etc); it acquits and liberates the guilty party/victimizer, although his/her actions are never forgotten. Because forgiveness is performed through an exercise of free will, it liberates both victim and perpetrator from the vicious circle of revenge and negativity (Arendt, 1958, pp. 236–241) and in this respect it alters the meaning of the past. Furthermore, forgiveness reverses the balance of power between traumatizer and traumatized: the victimizer’s absolution rests on the will of the victim.

How Is It Delivered?

Forgiveness can be given, asked for or even felt—but given to and asked for by whom, when, and under what circumstances? Can all wrongdoings be forgiven? A common assumption among scholars is that forgiveness must be given in a proper way and under the right circumstances (Griswold, 2007); otherwise, a request for forgiveness may prove to be a further insult to the victim and victimize her/him yet again (Brudholm, 2008, p. 2). In the post-Cold-War period (and in many post-civil-war countries), forgiveness/reconciliation is considered to be of utmost importance for rebuilding community; however, it is often achieved to the detriment of other values, such as justice and dignity. Yet, not every transgression can be forgiven and excused.

More Pertinent Questions

Several questions pertain to the difference between “personal” and “group” forgiveness: Is it possible for a group to forgive another group? And, in this case, what does an apology mean? Is it possible for a person to forgive a collectivity, a group, a nation, or a state? If so, does this not presuppose—in many instances—the idea of collective responsibility, which is incompatible with the Western conception of justice? Is forgiveness an individual, and not a collective, virtue? At any rate, “The ability of assorted individuals to remember and forgive does not translate easily into the claim that forgiveness is pertinent to the collective realities of political life” (Shriver, 1998, p. 71).

Further considerations pertain to distinction between “private” and “public” forgiveness. Does forgiveness necessarily take place backstage, away from the spotlight of political spectacle, or could it also be a public undertaking, a ritual-performative act? For example, do the granting of amnesty or the public apology of the guilty parties and the equally public absolution of sin qualify? As a rule, public forgiveness is contingent upon public apology, something common in contemporary international politics (Cunningham, 2012). Not infrequently, especially in countries where there is urgent need for reconciliation and national rebuilding or for restoration of a state’s international relations, forgiveness may assume the form of pseudoforgiveness, a rhetorical soothing, a ritualistic instance of the postmodern “politics of regret” (Olick, 2007), while its normative foundations have nothing to do with the height of the spirit of forgiveness (in contradistinction to the depth of fault and wrongdoing), as conceived by Ricoeur (2004b, pp. 457–506), who has raised these questions. In this case, pseudoforgiveness does not lead to a modification of negative feelings, which presupposes a strong will to start anew. Rather, pseudoforgiveness involves a mixture of prudish hypocrisy and forced magnanimity, leading to a ritualistic evaporation of guilt and responsibility in the name of social and national progress. Yet, apologies in politics should not be understated, as they may provide justifications for reforms that are grounded in acknowledgment of historical injustices (Nobles, 2008).

Public and official apologies raise a couple of additional questions: Should the one who forgives be the one who was directly traumatized? Can someone forgive on behalf of another? Can one apologize for deeds for which one is not responsible? Is the initial wrongdoer the only one bound to apologize? (These questions resurrect issues raised by the public gesture of Rainer Höss referred to in the “Preamble.”) Forgiveness in politics is a relatively new and sensitive subject, and there is no unequivocal or easy answer to these questions, since they refer to complex sociopolitical issues, such as, for example:

  • post-apartheid South Africa

  • post-Khmer Cambodia

  • the position of African-American and Japanese-American citizens in the United States

  • Sino-Japanese relations in light of the Nanking Massacre

  • German relations with Israel and Greece

  • United States’ relations with Vietnam

  • Japan and the Philippines’ issues regarding the WWII atrocities committed by the former’s army

  • white Australia’s relation to the Aborigines

  • Italian-Libyan relations after Italy’s invasion during the Great War

  • Israel’s attitude toward Switzerland for its policy toward Jewish refugees during the Nazi period.

Easy versus Difficult Forgiveness, Conditioned versus Absolute Forgiveness

As a rule, emotionally speaking, apology is triggered by shame, guilt, remorse, regret, embarrassment, sadness, or even self-pity. Yet, it is possible for these emotions not to be felt when an apologizer asks for forgiveness, particularly with official intrastate apologies, which may be seen as cheap gestures if not coupled with concrete reparations (Cunningham, 2012, p. 152). There is no ultimate way to check the apologizer’s sincerity and true repentance. As Hughes argued (2016), “. . .we all too often do not know much at all about wrongdoers’ intentions, motives, desires, and thoughts to confidently pass judgment on whether we can reasonably forgive them, and so the connection between understanding wrongdoers and forgiving them in the light of that understanding remains contentious.” Hence, to the extent that “successful forgiveness and political apology depend on truth telling” (Griswold, 2007, p. xxiv), there is always a risk in forgiving upon apology. Differentiating forgiveness from justice, Arendt (1958) and Jankélévitch (2005) endorsed a conception of forgiveness upon receipt of apology or repentance. Through repentance, the transgressor acknowledges responsibility for his/her action, and through forgiveness, both victim and victimizer are released from the past by undoing the consequences of the original trespass. In this respect, forgiveness is a special sort of remembrance and forgetting. For one thing, forgiveness is unilateral, it is not transactional. In Ricoeur’s understanding, it is a gift out of love (Ricoeur, 2004b, pp. 460–461). Thus, it cannot be demanded or ordered; it is offered out of singular free will. In parallel, though, it requires continued condemnation of the past action, in the sense that it redeems the actor while rejecting the action. Emotionally, this means that the abused agent is able to empathize—not sympathize—with the abuser11; it also means that the abused empathizer is a person of insight whose understanding surpasses mere technical knowledge. For Gadamer (1979, p. 288), this person “is prepared to accept the particular situation of the other person, and hence he is also most inclined to be forbearing or to forgive.”

In postconflict societies, uncritical, unthoughtful, or easy forgiveness is offered whenever decision makers urge reconciliation and present forgiveness as a moral imperative and political duty, overlooking the victim’s right of denial. Easy and uncritical forgiveness is inauthentic and at odds with progress in spirituality; it is hasty and adopts a stance of “let bygones be bygones,” equating forgiving and commanded forgetting. As Shriver (1998, p. 220) noted regarding his own country, commercial interests urge the U.S. government toward a policy of “forgiving and forgetting and getting on with the business of making money” in new trade relations with former national enemies. In contrast, “difficult forgiveness” (Ricoeur, 2004b) is directly inscribed on a core of moral, social, aesthetic, and emotional reflexivity. It cannot be predicted or demanded. Difficult forgiveness is the result of recollection, of an effort to recall and reconstruct the traumatic past, to re-inscribe it in a personal history, and to reposition it on the emotional plane, instead of reliving it through repetition compulsion. Psychoanalytically speaking, repetition compulsion (the eternal return of the evil) represents a kind of dramatization and is analogous to reminiscence, while recollection refers to the subject’s recognition of his/her history and realization of its relation to the future (Evans, 1996, p. 162). In historiographic terms, difficult forgiveness leads to a novel rewriting of history (Nobles, 2008).

The distinction between reminiscence and recollection could be said to correspond to Todorov’s distinction between “literal” and “exemplary” memory. In his analysis, both sorts of memory are selective, with the difference being that the first type subordinates the present to the past, while the second allows the past to be renegotiated in the present (Todorov, 1995, pp. 31–32). Both represent ways of using and recalling the traumatic past. In the first case, a painful event is kept in memory intransitively and its recall becomes a central reference point for the individual’s or the group’s total existence. Personal and social identity are causally connected to the traumatic primal event, which represents a privileged—if not the main—source of meaning (for example, the “Holocaust” defines Jewish memory and identity, etc). In the second case, the painful-traumatic event is retrieved into memory and experienced in its correct proportions, becoming a transitory event that allows us to feel the pain of the generalized other. Our own or a former generation’s experience can then become universalized and function as an example. Alexander (2004b) moved much in the same spirit when he treated the Holocaust as a universal and universalizing metaphor for evil. Literal memory is melancholic, sad, and resentful. Exemplary memory, on the other hand, leads to successful mourning and allows an opportunity to utilize the lessons of suffered injustice to fight current injustices, to abandon the self and reach toward the other. The United Nations’ cosmopolitan programs like “Remembrance and Education”12 are structured accordingly, and are aimed at motivating people not to forget the potential for mass violence, atrocity, and genocide. They also aim at forging “imagined communities of cosmopolitan belonging” grounded on “practical enlightenment” and a “notion of humanity as a singular, trans-historical collectivity plagued by an unfortunate appetite for barbarity” (Skillington, 2015, p. 179, 182, 194).

Effectively, “difficult forgiveness” follows the path of exemplary memory, reconstructing the past in an emancipating way, with emancipation in this instance denoting the loosening of the grip of myth, the abandonment of the self-perpetuating narcissism of victimization, and the promotion of critical self-awareness on a personal and collective level. Ricoeur’s “difficult forgiveness” echoes Hegel’s (admittedly obscure) conceptualization of forgiveness as the reunification of a self who hitherto has been acting according to its own inner self-referential law and conscience without any mediation with the other. In this respect, evil is understood as the consciousness’ lack of correspondence with the universal, wherein someone refuses to “throw himself away for someone else.” Forgiveness is posited as “the reconciling affirmation, the ‘yes’, with which both egos desist from their existence in opposition,” and thus “the existence of the ego [is] expanded into a duality” (Hegel, 1967, pp. 668, 670, 674–679).

Yet, Ricoeur’s approach is more akin to Derrida’s “unconditional forgiveness” than to Hegel’s account. Much philosophical and theological literature on forgiveness focuses on its conditionality or absoluteness. While recognizing the importance of apology, reparation, and reconciliation in postconflict societies, Derrida (2003) favored an “absolute” and “exceptional” conception: forgiveness should move beyond economic transaction and not be conditional on expectations, declarations of repentance, restitutions, or demands. He advocated for an “unconditional, gracious, infinite, aneconomic forgiveness granted to the guilty as guilty, without counterpart, even to those who do not repent or ask forgiveness” (Derrida, 2003, p. 34). In his words, “the most problematic . . . is that forgiveness must have a meaning. And this meaning must determine itself on the ground of salvation, of reconciliation, redemption, atonement, I would say even sacrifice” (2003, p. 36). Therefore, forgiveness has nothing to do with the imperative of social and political health, nor does forgiveness amount to a therapy of reconciliation (Derrida, 2003, p. 41). True forgiveness, according to Derrida, forgives the unforgivable. Only then can it be deemed as springing from authentic free will. On the one hand, Derida’s concept, stemming partly from the Abrahamic tradition on forgiveness, remains at the personal level—absolute and unconditional forgiveness can only be an interpersonal moral gesture: I forgive someone, not something, and I do it in a radical way, because I grant forgiveness while wanting nothing in return. On the other hand, Derrida had to have realized the importance of cognate stances like mercy, amnesty, forbearance, pardon, and condonation for the regulation of collective life and institutions. He was torn between his radical idea of pure forgiveness and the pragmatic processes of reconciliation (Derrida, 2003, p. 51).


Derrida’s unconditional forgiveness follows a hyberbolic meta-ethical vision, similar to Ricoeur’s vision of the heights of the spirit of forgiving as a flower of love. Yet, Ricoeur admitted that it is in the discretion of a traumatized person not to forgive (Ricoeur, 2004b, p. 483). Forgiveness must be given in a proper way and under the right circumstances, because there are unforgivable crimes. In Jankélévitch’s eloquent phrasing, “Forgiveness died in the death camps.” The ethical right not to forgive is a commonplace in the relevant literature, but it makes a difference whether non-forgiveness stems from a reflective recollection and interpretation of the traumatic past or from the victims’ inability to overcome the alluring position of victimization. The former stance defends dignity and self-respect, while the latter perpetuates powerlessness and self-pity.

This is precisely the point to differentiate resentment from ressentiment. In the face of trauma, resentment, as moral outrage, triggers vengeance and the demand for justice. The notion of resentment is so powerful that scholars and translators frequently lose sight of its next of kin, ressentiment, an equally commanding notion (Demertzis, 2006). For example, the translator of Ferro’s Le ressentiment dans l’histoire translated ressentiment as “resentment” (Ferro, 2010). The same holds true in the translation of Todorov’s La peur des barbares au-delà du choc des civilisations, where his ‘countries of ressentiment’ (contrasted with what he calls “countries of fear”) were rendered as “countries of resentment” (Todorov, 2008). To be sure, however, resentment and ressentiment are not identical.13

According to Nietzsche, ressentiment characterizes the morality of weak creatures “who have been forbidden of the real reaction, of the act” (Nietzsche, 1970, p. 35). The “ressentiment-fulman” is governed by a frightened baseness that manifests as humility, his submission to those he hates becomes docility, and his weakness is supposedly transformed into patience or even virtue. His fundamental characteristic is vindictiveness in disguise that leads to inaction (1970, p. 133). For Nietzsche, the genealogy of ressentiment lies in Christian morality; for Max Scheler, it rests upon the bourgeois morality that reached its peak in the French Revolution (Scheler, 1961, pp. 81–82). The difference between the two concepts has been analyzed elsewhere (Demertzis, 2006, 2015); suffice it to say here that ressentiment is defined as an unpleasant moral sentiment that includes a chronic reliving of repressed and endless vindictiveness, hostility, envy, and indignation due to the powerlessness of the subject in expressing them, and resulting, at the level of values, in the negation of what is unconsciously desired. Two points deserve attention in this context: first, psychoanalytically, ressentiment is a reaction formation, a defene mechanism that expedites transvaluation so that the person can stand and handle her/his frustrations. Second, in ressentiment, the link between emotion, motivation, and action (Fridja, 2004) is blocked or ruptured.

I do argue that the ressentiment-ful person cannot forgive, forgiveness is beyond his/her moral horizon; what actually counts is the sacralization of victimhood. Certainly, confronted with societal and political amnesia, the ressentiment-ful person exhibits a strong will to remember (Brudholm, 2008, p. 110). Yet, the crucial point is that the kind of memory sustained by ressentiment is detrimental to societal reflexivity and working through of mourning. Of course, not every case of non-forgiveness is contingent upon ressentiment. Although Jean Améry, an intellectual who survived Auschwitz but committed suicide 40 years later, described his negative feelings for Nazi and post-war arrogant Germans who were conquering the world markets as ressentiment, he was careful to affirm that his special version of ressentiment was different from that of Nietzsche and Scheler (Améry, 1999, p. 66, 71). His internal struggle to deny forgiveness and redemption to the Nazis was not premised on a petty, resentful, and, in the last instance, narcissistic attitude of endless victimization, but on the moral duty of stating that the unforgivable ought not to be forgiven, that shameful amnesia and moral amnesty are never to be allowed. This did not lead him to a vicious rumination on evil or to small disguised acts of revenge and hostility. Brudholm (2008, p. 173) claimed that Améry’s ressentiment lays between the nietzschean notion of ressentiment and the conventional concept of resentment. I say that, struggling to preserve his own dignity and humanness, Améry was expressing a radical and deconstructive bitterness against the traumatic Nazi past and the postwar restitution.


Trauma, and cultural trauma for that matter, is a metaphor that we live within our contemporary era. Its metaphorical meaning is constantly under negotiation, giving rise to different identity formation processes and concomitant moral-emotional reactions. The negotiation is part of the trauma drama wherein a number of different issue carriers and political power agents are involved. Because the trauma drama consists in memory claims and public representations of the wounds inflicted and of who the victims and the transgressors were, in many cases it amounts to an identity politics. In this context, some stories are told and retold, while others stay untold and undisclosed. Whenever forgiveness and apology exceed the dyadic relationships within the trauma drama, they acquire sound political connotations because they become part of the public sphere.

Apart from being a locus of debates, the trauma drama is a public generator of political emotions. Political emotions are deemed to be lasting affective predispositions supported reciprocally by the political and social norms of a given society, playing a key role in the constitution of its political culture and the authoritative allocation of resources (Demertzis, 2015). In addition to political emotions, the trauma drama and the politics of identity generate vices and virtues at both the personal and the collective level. Hate speech and vengeance coexist with the demand for justice and reconciliation strategies. A crucial point regarding identity politics is whether its urge for recognition, apology, and forgiveness is rooted in positive and self-grounded praxis or in a hasty reflex reaction and servility caused by a generalized ressentiment, cropped by the uncertainties of late capitalism, and the individuals’ powerlessness (Brown, 1995, pp. 21–76; Connolly, 1991, pp. 22–23, 207).

Arguably, as a secular virtue, forgiveness is a candidate for curing the “spirit of revenge” (Griswold, 2007, p. xx) and overcoming ressentiment, self-pity, anger, and hate. Yet, forgiveness must be enacted in a principled manner related to whether, when, and how one is expected to forgive. For one thing, one should not forgive when punishment or even revenge is impossible; forgiveness out of powerlessness is the result of an effaced will. Furthermore, one should not hasten to forgive too soon or delay until too late. Being a virtue and in tandem with equity, forgiveness is allowed at its correct proportions, as delineated by Aristotle14: in harmony with reason and in search for the mean state (mesotes), the liberal man, and the man of forgiveness for that matter, desires what he ought in the right manner and at right times. As a virtuous act, the appropriate giving of forgiveness means that the victim is entitled and expected to give the right thing to the right persons at the right times. Aristotle paid a lot of attention to forgiveness and pity in these terms (Sadler, 2008; Sokolon, 2006). To the extent, then, that imposed silence and commanded forgetting are not viable options, it is similarly unjustifiable to claim that living in an era of trauma and apology equals an easy and unwarranted forgiving. This is expressed in many different languages by the oft-repeated plea, “I want to forgive, but I must know whom to forgive and for what” (Boraine, 2006, p. 309).

Another pressing factor pointing to the necessary differentiation between easy and difficult forgiveness is the widespread cynicism and moral relativism in most hypermodern Western societies. Many people do not believe in apology and the value of forgiveness (Shriver, 1998, p. 219). In a society where “anything goes,” the existence of rational or even pragmatic criteria regulating public life is denied beforehand and, consequently, the very idea of the public good and good life is at stake (Demertzis, 2013). Swamped in bad faith and disdain, many cynics find every political argument pointless, and they lack reflexivity and exhibit an almost paranoid distrust of political personnel and decision-making processes. Ultimately, they are indifferent to either good or evil (Lipowatz, 2014, p. 309). At their best, they are Nietzscheans and Karlschmiteans: the will to power and the aesthetization of the Political is all they think of public life (Harvey, 1989, pp. 117, 209–210). At their worst, they are the bearers of ressentiment: withdrawn, inactive, and alienated individuals, no discussants, know-nothings, whose political mentality is replete with negativism. In either case, there is no place in their hermeneutic horizon for the virtue of forgiveness, and they do not believe in sin anyway.

Arguably, as arenas of the trauma drama, emotional public spheres (Richards, 2010) are, among others, intersected by push-and-pull factors for the undertaking of Aufarbeitung (Adorno) and Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Habermas), i.e., to come to terms with and to master the traumatic past in sublimating ways through “dialogic remembering” (Assmann, 2009). In equal measure, however, they nurture narratives that keep the wounds open through endless melancholic repetition compulsions (Bellamy, 1997, pp. 8–9). These top-down, as well as bottom-up, discursive-narrative strategies perpetuate victimization and vindictiveness at personal, collective, political, and international levels and are symptomatic of some societies’ inability to mourn. Trauma dramas everywhere evolve in different, unpredicted, and unpredictable ways: In all public negotiation of the meaning of the traumatic past, there are still silences unspoken, the “violence of voicelessness” still haunts many victims (Anthonissen, 2009), and ressentiment is handed down through intergenerational passing of “chosen traumas” of benign victims. Restitution, reconciliation, and difficult forgiveness are alternative options for societal (re)organization, especially in postconflict countries. Last but not least, one should take into account that the modern Greek designation for “forgiveness” is sunchorese (συγχώρεση‎), which comes directly from the ancient Greek word sunchorein (συγχωρείν‎), which means “to be together with others at the same place.” This cannot be accomplished without some sort of societal reflexivity.


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                                                                                                                                                              (7.) According to Sztompka’s definition (2004, pp. 165–166), “The cultural traumas generated by major social changes and triggered by traumatizing conditions and situations interpreted as threatening, unjust and improper, are expressed by complex social moods, characterized by a number of collective emotions, orientations and attitudes” (emphasis added).

                                                                                                                                                              (8.) These responses may be articulated in a secular, religious, or semi-religious spirit; arguably, they are not the only ones. There are other moral reactions, too, that are worthy of in-depth commentary as they assume some form of theodicity. Among these are: (a) faith in a God who created and gave away the world out of love while at the same time letting man be really free to choose between good and evil; in this case, the subject does not resign or withdraw but drastically makes decisions guided by memory, reason, and will; (b) active hope in the sense of the religious eschatology of the Final Judgment and the concomitant endurance of suffering and evil in the world, irrespective of evil harbored or evil caused by the subject (Lipowatz, 2014, pp. 426–433; Ricoeur, 2004a).

                                                                                                                                                              (9.) Conflating revenge and retribution somewhat, Elster (2006b) spoke of five “retributive emotions”: anger, hatred, indignation, and contempt directed at the perpetrators, as well as pity for the victims.

                                                                                                                                                              (10.) Wrongs fully excused are not blameworthy, since there is nothing to forgive. Pardon is exercised by third parties as opposed to the victims. Legal or political pardons reduce or even eliminate punishment, whereas forgiveness need not affect punishment whatsoever. In condonation one overlooks a wrong as if it did not exist or did not actually occur. Thus, condonation is a form of tolerating wrongdoing (Hughes, 2016).

                                                                                                                                                              (11.) Empathy is an emotional response arising from the apprehension of another’s emotional state, and it is very similar, if not identical, to what the other person is feeling (Eisenberg, 2004, p. 677); therefore, it is someone’s ability to imagine how the other feels in a certain situation (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000, pp. 108, 110). In contrast, in sympathy, the subject does not feel the same or almost the same feeling as the other person, but sorrow or concern for the other’s misfortune (Eisenberg, 2004, p. 678). Thus, sympathy is the counterpart in one person of another’s sense of loss, sorrow, discomfort, abuse, and the like (Schmitt & Clark, 2006, p. 469).

                                                                                                                                                              (13.) See, among others, Meltzer and Musolf (2002) and Brighi (2016).

                                                                                                                                                              (14.) Peters, F. H. (Trans.). (1893). The Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, trans. F. H. Peters (5th ed.). London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner & Co. Retrieved from &