The Common Good of Communities and the Need for Forgiveness: A View from Classical Greek Philosophy

A community is a single, whole entity, with a common purpose, made up of persons, each of whom is a single, whole entity (Maritain, 1994).  A community is not simply the sum total of the individuals in the community (a nominalist view).  Think of a symphonic community of musicians. There is a harmony of persons performing different activities and with different talents in the orchestra.  The group transcends any given part of the group (Wild, 1948).  A symphony orchestra is more than the violin section only.  Communities differ in their norms, beliefs, and actions (what Aristotle calls accidents).

Aristotelian realist philosophy states that communities have a common good (Aristotle, 1999/340 B.C.).  A common good is defined by Plato (2015/330 B.C.) in The Republic as persons growing in the Cardinal Virtues of justice, courage, wisdom, and temperance with these emphasized within the group. These four virtues, in Plato’s view, are not generated by opinion or feelings, but they naturally apply to all persons and all communities. These are understood by reason and chosen by the free will of each person.  In other words, the Cardinal Virtues are not forced upon us.

Let us, then, define these Cardinal Virtues: 1) Justice is offering one’s best to others and the community.  Kreeft (1992, p. 60) describes Platonic justice through the poetic image of music: one strives to be in harmony with others as all cooperate and play a beautiful societal tune. This is the central virtue according to Plato in The Republic.
2) Courage
is going ahead despite fear so that one can do one’s best even when it is difficult to do so.  3) Wisdom is knowing the right response at the right time without having a rule-book nearby.  4) Temperance is balance, avoiding too much or too little in all we do, including practicing the virtues, in pleasure seeking, and work.  In Book IV of his Republic, Plato (2015/330 B.C.) defends the view that all four of these Cardinal Virtues, together, help to mature individuals and to have a well-functioning community in which the greater good then benefits all. 

 As Wild (1948, p. 185) clarifies, the goal of the common good is human perfection for all in the community.  The common good of the community, which includes the good of each person, is considered higher than the individual good.  In other words, individuals can be in service to one another for the good of the other person and the good of the group. 

Now, and importantly for how forgiveness fits into the common good of the community, when people are treated unjustly by others, anger can ensue, which can develop into irritability (Stringaris, Vidal-Ribas, Brotman, & Leibenluft, 2017) and even to hatred.  Forgiving those who are unjust, then, can first reduce the anger, which in turn can reduce the desire for excessive recompense (in the case of justice), and the desire for reckless bravado (in the case of courage).  Without hatred, temperance can be restored, and the clear, rational thinking of wisdom can once again be present. If the common good is to be just, to work in harmony with others, then forgiveness can keep justice in balance, by first reducing toxic anger, and thus preserving the central Cardinal Virtue (justice) in communities. If this is true, then forgiveness needs to play a central part in the common good of communities.

If this is true, then forgiveness needs to be fostered in individuals, families, schools, workplaces, and places of worship……now.

Robert


  • Aristotle. (1999/340 B.C.). Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kreeft, P. (1992). Back to virtue. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  • Maritan, J. (1994). The person and the common good. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Plato, translated by B. Jowett (2015/approximately 330 BC). The complete works of Plato/ the republic. Hastings, East Sussex, United Kingdom: Delphi Classics.
  • Stringaris, A., Vidal-Ribas, P., Brotman, M.A., & Leibenluft, E. (2017). Practitioner review: Definition, recognition, and treatment challenges of irritability in young people. Journal of Child Psychology, 59, 721-739.
  • Wild, J. (1948). Introduction to realistic philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.

On Bearing the Pain

One of the paradoxes of forgiveness is that as we give mercy to those who showed no mercy to us, we are doing moral good. Another paradox is this: As we bear the pain of the injustice, that pain does not crush us but instead strengthens us and helps us to heal emotionally.

When we bear the pain of what happened to us, we are not absorbing depression or anger or anxiety. Instead we realize that we have been treated unfairly—-it did happen. We do not run from that and we do not try to hurriedly cast off the emotional pain that is now ours. We quietly live with that pain so that we do not toss it back to the one who hurt us (because we are having mercy on that person). We live with that pain so that we do not displace the anger onto others who were not even part of the injustice (our children or co-workers, for example).

When we bear the pain we begin to see that we are strong, stronger actually than the offense and original pain. We can stand with the pain and in so doing become conduits of good for others.

Today, let us acknowledge our pain and practice a paradox: Let us quietly bear that pain and then watch it lift.

Robert

WORTH-LESS OR WORTH-MORE?

“As we continually live with love withdrawn from us and a resulting resentment (with the short-term consequences of thinking with a negative pattern, thinking specific condemning thoughts, and acting poorly), we can settle into a kind of long-term distortion of who the love-withdrawing person is, who we ourselves are, and who people are in general. The basic issue here is that once love is withdrawn from us, we can begin to withdraw a sense of worth toward the one who hurt us. The conclusion is that he or she is worth-less. Over time, we can drift into the dangerous conclusion, ‘I, too, am worthless. ’After all, others have withdrawn love from me and have concluded that I lack worth, therefore I do lack worth. Even later, we can drift into the unhealthy conclusion that there is no love in the world and so no one really has any worth, thus everyone is worth-less.”

Excerpt from the book, The Forgiving Life, Chapter 1.

Robert

Take the Long Perspective When It Is Difficult to Forgive

Think about one time in your childhood when you had what seemed to be a serious disagreement with a friend. At the time, did it seem like this breach would last forever? Did it? How long did it take to either reconcile or to find a new friend? Time has a way of changing our circumstances. This is not to advocate a kind of passive approach to life here—such as, “Oh, I’ll just wait it out and not bother to exert any effort.” That is not the point. The point is to take a long perspective so that you can see beyond the next hill to a place that is more settled and the pain is not so great. You already saw in your childhood that conflicts end. And the consequences of those conflicts (feeling sad or angry) also end. Why should that same process of change not also apply now? Try to see your circumstance, as realistically as you can, one month from now. Try to see your circumstance six months from now. Try to see yourself two years from now. Will you be the same person? Will you respond to injustices in the exact same way as you did three months ago? Probably not. You will likely be able to meet challenges with greater strength and wisdom as you continue on the forgiveness journey.

Enright, Robert. 8 Keys to Forgiveness (8 Keys to Mental Health) . W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Humility as the Set-Aside Complement to Forgiving

On our Facebook page for the International Forgiveness Institute, I have posted in the past this idea: “Humility and forgiveness seem to be a team. It takes time to develop both.”

The point is to show that if we are to forgive well, we have to set aside our pride, our sense of self-righteousness, and realize that the one(s) who hurt us share a common humanity with us.  We all have inherent or built-in worth.  When we are humble, following Aristotle’s analysis of all moral virtues, we do not move toward the extremes of seeing ourselves as moral worms or as better than others because we are engaging in the practice of such an exalted virtue as humility.

Recently, I made a new friend, Kari Konkola, who holds a doctoral degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He specializes in the history of religion.  As I discussed my interest in forgiveness, he responded that it would be hard to forgive if excessive pride is getting in the way.  With a dominance of pride, self-righteous anger can push away the motivation to forgive.

Dr. Konkola further instructed me that humility, as a complement to forgiveness, was a central moral virtue in the Medieval period.  The point during these Middle Ages was to realize that each of us is no better than others precisely because we all fall short of moral perfection.  He went on to say that there has been a trend since the Medieval period in which humility as a valued moral virtue is in decline.  He sees humility as the ignored moral virtue in the modern West.

So, with this challenge in mind, that humility is in decline, I decided to do a little psychological experiment. I wrote an essay centered on humility on the Psychology Today website, where I have been blogging since September, 2017.  I posted the essay entitled, “Humility: What Can It Do for You” on April 27, 2020.  That was over three weeks ago and the number of views for this essay as of this writing on May 20 is 477.  In contrast, I posted an essay on the nine purposes of forgiveness less than a week ago and already the number of views is 2,027.  It is typical to see between 5,000 and 10,000 views for some of these essays focused on forgiveness, and yet the one on humility is languishing, as Dr. Konkola may have predicted.

Humility seems to be the set-aside moral virtue.  If so, then how can people forgive deeply if humility does not accompany the forgiving?  How will people even gravitate toward forgiving if pride blocks all consideration of forgiving?

What has happened in the West that has led to either a disinterest in humility or even an aversion to it?  Who had it right, those in the Medieval period or the modern West?  I’m not sure of the precise answers here, but I am convinced that we somehow have managed to de-value an important moral virtue, one that might need to team with forgiveness if forgiving others is to be achieved well.

Robert

Fragile People on a Fragile Planet: A Reflection on the Coronavirus, COVID-19, Challenge

As I write this, the world is shut down.  People are at home. I just talked by email with a student in Iran.  He referred to what is happening as “chaos.”  I have communicated with a professor in Israel and much of that country is now having the people work from home.  I was going to present a series of lectures in Southeast Asia, but the people are prohibited from gathering in an auditorium.  The doors to my own office building at the university in the United States now are locked.

The coronavirus has altered everyday life……all across the globe.

So many are wondering: How did this happen?  When will this end?  Will there be a mutated resurgence of this virus, as happened with the flu pandemic of 1918-1919?  Will people continue to die?  Will the economy die?

Prior to this pandemic, people were gathering, going about their lives, thinking that all they have to do to get the next cheeseburger is drive or walk to the nearest fast-food chain and there it will be.  Now I hear that gun sales are skyrocketing and it is difficult to buy ammunition because people are awaiting food shortages and so others may break into their homes looking for sustenance.

The world is fragile, more fragile than we had thought.  In reflecting on this, I think the collective ideas in so many areas of the world were centered on a logical fallacy that I will call modern-protection-through-science.  Here is what I mean:  As we look back on some of the pandemics throughout history, we see them occurring in the pre-scientific, pre-technological age.  For example, consider:

  • The Plague of Justinian which occurred between 541 and 542 AD. The claim is that about 100 million people died in China, parts of Africa, and Europe.
  • The Leprosy pandemic of the 11th century spread throughout Europe.
  • The Black Plague emerged between 1346 and 1351. An estimated 50 – 200 million people perished, wiping out about 60% of the European population.

    The Black Plague, also known as The Black Death, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. An outbreak of Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe, Africa, and             Asia causing the deaths of an estimated               50 -200 million people.
  • The First Cholera Pandemic of 1817 started in Russia, killing 100 million people, and spread to Great Britain, Spain, India, Africa, Asia, and the United States.

We now know through science that leprosy is a bacterial infection treated with antibiotics.  Cholera, we know through science, is treated with rehydration and electrolytes.  We are protected for the most part because of scientific knowledge.  Yet, I wonder……have people become so reliant on science that they overdo it, thinking that pandemics are tragedies of the past and could never, ever visit us now?

It is this kind of thinking that I am calling the modern-protection-through-science logical fallacy.  We go about our business as if the world is a rock-steady, protected place and we are the ones in control. If anything, this new pandemic, which continues to intensify as I write this, may be sufficient to teach us that, indeed, this planet is fragile, perhaps more fragile than we had thought.  “Chaos” as the student from Iran put it in the email to me, is now present and throughout the world.

I further wonder if this modern-protection-through-science fallacy has led to yet another fallacy which is this: the-all-people-are-fine fallacy. If we break an arm, science and technology have a way of mending it.  Yet, what about the broken heart?  Does science have a cure-all for that?  Have we been walking around not seeing the inner wounds in others?  Have we ignored these wounds, thinking that all is fine and even if someone is not doing so well emotionally, well then, at least we have the science of medicines to assist.  Perhaps, as is the case with Mother Earth, we might begin to see that people are fragile.  People can break; people might be walking around with big wounds in them and they need more than science to aid them.  Maybe they need real human contact, love, forgiving and being forgiven to be healed and to then aid others in their healing.

The COVID-19 pandemic, if anything, might be our teacher: The world is more fragile than we thought. People are more fragile than we thought.  Our scientific age does not offer protection, at least in the short-term, from mutated viruses.  Our scientific age does not offer protection from betrayals, insensitivities and insults, and bullying from others..…that can break our heart. Yet, our knowing this just might motivate many of us to see with new eyes, as the late Lewis Smedes used to put it, and to see how precious each person is.

Science itself will not lead the way to this conclusion of how delicate and worthwhile each person is, but perhaps the pain caused by the most recent pandemic might lead the way to such a conclusion.

Robert

A Reflection on Forgiveness and the Forgotten People

As I look out the window of the hotel in downtown London, awaiting a flight soon to the Middle East, I see a bustling populace moving quickly……except for one man who is shuffling along slowly, quite in contrast to the others. As I watch, he stops, faces a passerby, and obviously is asking for funds. He is ignored. He shuffles a few more steps, approaches another, and is met with the same non-response.

His pattern is repeated over and over. I counted at least 15 approaches and 15 rejections. He then disappeared from view. I think he was invisible to many that day, even to those who were within view of him.

How we bristle when rejected by a co-worker who is not showing respect today or by others who do not share our goals. The man, refused by others over and over, probably felt wounded by the rejections.

The dear man in London was continuously rebuffed, and he kept trying……until after awhile he simply stopped asking. This sequence of approach-and-avoidance reminds me of Ralph McTell’s now classic song, Streets of London (originally released in 1969 and re-released in 2017):

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Have you seen the old man
In the closed-down market
Kicking up the paper,
With his worn out shoes?
In his eyes you see no pride
Hand held loosely at his side
Yesterday’s paper telling
      yesterday’s news…..

In the all-night cafe
A
t a quarter past eleven,
Same old man sitting there on               his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his teacup,
Each tea lasts an hour
Then he wanders home alone……

In our winter city,
The rain cries a little pity
For one more forgotten hero
And a world that doesn’t care.

The word “forgotten” catches my attention. That was the exact word used by imprisoned people serving life sentences with whom we spoke over a month ago. “Once you are here [in a maximum-security prison],” one gentleman explained to me, “you are forgotten.”

The forgotten people……

Yet, our forgiveness studies have taught me this: All people, regardless of circumstance, have inherent or built-in worth. The man, so continually rejected today on the street in London, has as much worth as the royalty in the palace. The one in maximum security prison for life has as much worth as the warden.

And in all likelihood, many of “the forgotten people” have stories to tell us of how they, themselves, were mistreated prior to their current plight. They have stories that include their own particular kind of pain, heartache, feelings that are part of the human condition. We need to hear those stories, to acknowledge their unique pain, their responses to that pain, and offer those suffering injustices from the past a chance to forgive. The forgiveness, for some, might be life changing as our science over the past three decades has shown for others.

We must not let forgiveness be the forgotten virtue.

We must not let the homeless and the imprisoned be the forgotten people.

Robert

Your Unfolding Love Story for 2020

In March of 2014, we posted a reflection here in which we encouraged you to grow in love as your legacy of 2014.

The challenge was this: Give love away as your legacy of 2014.

We challenged you again in 2015…..and 2016……and we kept going.

Our challenge to you now is this: Give love away as your legacy of 2020.

One way to start is by looking backward at one incident of 2019. Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague.

Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for whom you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?

Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because 2020 is just beginning. When it is January 1, 2021, and you look back on the year 2020, what will you see?  Now is your chance to put more love in the world.

Tempus fugit. Your good will, free will, and strong will can point to a year of more love…..and the clock is ticking.

Robert

Finding Meaning in Suffering: I Am Someone Who Can Love Despite Hardship

Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and a world renown psychiatrist, made the point that the only ones who survived concentration camp were those who somehow could find Holocaust survivors found meaning in their sufferingmeaning in what they suffered. Those who saw their suffering as meaningless died.

In other words, finding meaning in this case meant to find life. What fascinates me about Dr. Frankl’s observations is that finding any meaning seems to count in staying alive. Whether a person saw the suffering as a way to toughen the self, or as a way to reach out to other suffering people was not the main point.

I wonder now, in reflecting on Dr. Frankl’s broad view of meaning in suffering, whether he had it entirely correct. Yes, it may be the case that any meaning can keep a person alive. Yet, what kind of meaning in suffering actually helps a person to thrive, not just to live? Perhaps people thrive only when they derive particular meaning from suffering. Of course, we do not know for sure, and any comment here is not definitive because it is open to scientific investigation and philosophical analysis. With that said, I think that when people realize that suffering helps them to love others more deeply, this is the avenue toward thriving.

How does suffering help people to love more deeply? I think there are at least three ways this happens: 1) Suffering makes people more aware of the wounds that others carry; 2) Suffering makes people more determined to help those others bind To live is to suffer, to survive, is to fin meaning in the suffering. Viktor E. Franklup their wounds, and 3) Suffering gives the sufferer the courage to put into action these insights and motivations to make a difference in the lives of others.

As people love in this way, there are characteristically two consequences which help them to thrive: 1) Those who deliberately love in the face of suffering grow in character, each becomes a better person; and 2) The recipients of this love-in-action have their well-being enhanced. As those who suffer see the fruit of their loving actions, this increases satisfaction with life, increasing thriving.

When we have been treated unjustly by others, this is an occasion of suffering. Let us cultivate the habit under this circumstance of finding this meaning: I have an opportunity now to love those who have hurt me. The one avenue to loving the unjust is to forgive them. Let us remember this meaning to forgiveness: “In my forgiving, I am someone who can love despite hardship.” As we say this routinely and come to know it is true, we may find that we have been given an opportunity to thrive as persons.

Robert

What Is a Good Heart?

A close friend asked one of us yesterday, “What is a good heart?” We never had been asked this before. Our response is below. What is your response?

A good heart first has suffered. In the suffering, the person knows that all on this planet are subjected to suffering and so his heart is compassionate, patient, supportive, and loving as best he can in this fallen world. The good heart is forgiving, ever forgiving, vigilant in forgiving. The good heart tries to be in service to others. The good heart is no longer afraid of suffering and has joy because of the suffering, not in spite of it. Having suffered and having passed through suffering, the good heart dances. Others do not understand the good, joyous heart. Yet, the one with the good heart does not compromise the goodness and the joy. It is like a valuable gift received and she knows it.

Robert