The Spinozist

writing by Paul Mendrik


June 12, 2020

Mercy, in its literal sense, is the virtue of forgiveness - or rather, and better, it's truth. What is it to forgive? If we understand by this, as a certain tradition invites us to, the fact of erasing fault and to consider it null and void, it is a power that we do not have, or a foolishness that it is better to avoid. The past is irrevocable, and all truth is eternal: even God, remarked Descartes, cannot undo what has been done and that what has not yet been done. Neither can we, and no one should be held accountable for the impossible. 


To forget iniquity, as well as it lacking in loyalty towards the victims, should we forget the crimes of Nazism and Auschwitz ? It would practically always be a nonsense, and therefore lacking in caution. If one of your friends betrayed you would it be smart to keep on trusting him? "Caute", said Spinoza, beware, and that also means not to misuse mercy.

His biographers also say that having been stabbed by a fanatic, he kept the coat he was wearing when he was attacked all his life, so as not to forget the event and, no doubt, the lesson of it. This does not mean that he had not forgiven (we will see that forgiveness, in a certain sense, is part of the requirements of his doctrine), but simply that forgiving is not erasing, that forgiving is not to forget. So what is it? It is to stop hating, and this is the definition of mercy: it is the virtue which triumphs over grudge, justified hatred (which goes further than justice), rancour, desire for revenge or punishment. 

The virtue of forgiveness, therefore, is not suppressing wrongdoing, which we cannot, but by ceasing to blame, as they say, the one who has offended or harmed us. It is not mercy, which only absolves punishment  (one can hate without punishing, like punishing without hating), or compassion, which only sympathises with suffering (one can be guilty without suffering, like suffering without being guilty), nor finally absolution, if this is understood to mean a power - which could only be supernatural - to cancel sins or faults. A singular and limited virtue, therefore, difficult enough, however, and commendable enough, to be one. We make too many mistakes, to each other; we are too miserable, too weak, too vile, for it not to be necessary.

Mercy versus Compassion

Let's go back for a moment to the difference with compassion. Compassion is about suffering and most of it innocent. Mercy is about fault, and mostly painless. Mercy and compassion are therefore two different virtues, which, as for their objectives, hardly overlap. It is true, however, that it will be easier to forgive the one who suffers, even if his suffering would be unrelated to  fault and especially not repentance. Mercy is the opposite of bitterness, and bitterness is hatred. As we have seen with compassion, it is almost impossible to hate the one we see suffering excruciatingly: pity bypasses hatred, and that compassion, without confusion can lead to mercy. The opposite can also be true: sometimes you sympathise more easily when you have stopped hating. But compassion, which is more emotional, more natural, more spontaneous, almost alway comes firsts. Mercy is more difficult and tenuous.

Love and Forgiveness

Something else is needed other than recognition alone, but what? Love? When it exists, and when it survives, after the discovery of fault, it obviously involves mercy. To forgive is to stop hating, it is to renounce revenge. That is why love does not have to forgive, as it has already been done through loving, which it will always do. How can we stop hating when we don't hate? How to forgive, when you have no hard feelings? Love is merciful without being a specific virtue. "We forgive as long as we love," said La Rochefoucauld. But as long as you love, it’s not mercy: it’s love. Parents know this and so do children, sometimes. Is this endless love ? No, but unconditional and superior, it seems, to any possible fault, to any possible offence. "What would you not forgive me for?" The little boy asked his father. And the father can't answer this. Parents do not have to forgive children: love is their mercy. Children should also forgive parents, if they can, or when they can. Forgive what? Too much love and selfishness, too much love and stupidity, too much anguish and unhappiness? Too little love, and forgiveness will no less be necessary. What is it other than becoming an adult? I like Oscar Wilde's formula in The Portrait of Dorian Gray: “Children start by loving their parents; grown up, they judge them and sometimes they forgive them. Happy are the children who can forgive their parents: happy are the merciful!"

Away from the family, we are incapable of love, especially in the face of the wicked, so it is unlikely that mercy could arise from it. How can we love or even tolerate our enemies without first forgiving them? How could love solve a problem that has arisen through love's absence? Ergo, in mercy, we need it so much. Not for love being there, but for it not being there, knowing there is only hatred and anger. How can we like villains? As for the good, they have nothing to do with our mercy, nor do we need them for it. Admiration is enough, and it’s better.

Like prudence, mercy is an intellectual virtue, at least at first. It's all about understanding something.

Epictetus said: "It is imperative that evil in others makes you experience a feeling contrary to nature, which is pity rather than hate”. And Marc Aurèle: “Instruct them, or support them”. Or Christ: "Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.”

Jankélévitch, who quoted this last remark, finds it a little too Socratic for his taste. If they do not know what they are doing, then fault is an error, not a crime, so is there even a reason to forgive? Any error is involuntary: it deserves correction rather than punishment, excuse rather than forgiveness. Consequently what good is mercy? No one is willfully malicious, said Socrates , this is what is called Socratic intellectualism, for which evil is only a mistake. However evil is free will, not ignorance. It is in the heart, not in intelligence or the mind. In hatred and stupidity. Evil is not an error, which is nothing: evil is selfishness, wickedness, cruelty. We excuse the ignorant, but we forgive the wicked. Only the will is guilty, only it can be guilty: it is the only legitimate object of resentment, and therefore of mercy. We do not want rain or striking lightning, and we have nothing to forgive them. No one is unwittingly wicked, and only the wicked can be forgiven. Forgiveness is freedom, as it can only arise from freedom: free grace, free fault.

Freedom and Mercy

What freedom? Freedom to act, of course: it is the will that is guilty, and action is only guilty if it is voluntary. A dancer unintentionally treads on you: it is not wickedness, it is clumsiness. He apologises, which you willingly accept: it’s not forgiveness, it’s politeness. There is reason to forgive only the one who harmed on purpose, only the one, who did what he wanted, the one, in other words, who acted freely. Freedom of action: to be free, in this sense, is to do what you want. The Ancients, with the exception of Plato, sometimes paid little attention to this freedom. They were not looking for an absolute culprit, for eternal punishment. Should we, on the pretext that we care more about our guilt, become incapable of forgiving?

No more than showing generosity. Whether a villain freely chose to be as he is or fundamentally became so (because of childhood, education, his past ), he is no less mean and responsible for his actions having acted voluntarily. So you can punish him, if need be, even hate him, if you want. However, these are two different things. The punishment can be justified by its benefit, social or individual, or even by the idea that we bring about justice ("He killed, so it is right to kill him"). Though hate ? That's more sadness and it is not the culprit who feels it. So, what's the point ?

Above all, if a wicked person is what he is, and whether he is free or not, his very wickedness is a way of an excuse: either by the causes which make it happen, if it is determined wickedness, or by his love for evil, by his intrinsically bad will. Is it his fault if he's mean? Yes, it is, since he chose to be so. Mercy does not cancel this nefarious volition, nor does it give up fighting it: it refuses to share it, to add hatred to hatred, selfishness to selfishness, anger to the violence. Mercy leaves hatred for the haters, wickedness for the wicked, resentment for the resentful. Not because they're not really hateful, wicked or bad, but because they are. This is what Jankélévitch saw: "They are mean, but precisely for this reason you have to forgive them - because they are even more unhappy than mean. Or better it is their wickedness itself that is a misfortune; the infinite misfortune of being mean! “

The fact remains that we will forgive more easily when we are aware of the causes that weigh on an act or, above all, on a personality. What could be more atrocious, what could be more unforgivable, than to mistreat a child ? However, when we learn the tormenter is often the parent who is a former child abuse victim, something changes in our judgment: this does not remove the horror but helps to understand and, therefore, forgive. "To judge," said Malraux, "is obviously not to understand, since, if we understood, we could no longer judge. Let’s say we couldn’t hate anymore, and that’s all that mercy demands - or rather all that offers mercy.

Understanding and forgiveness

Spinoza's said: "Do not mock, do not cry, do not hate, but understand". It is mercy itself, with no other grace than that of the truth. Is it still forgiveness ? Not at all, since where one understands, there is no longer much to forgive (knowledge, like love, makes forgiveness both necessary and superfluous). Regret ? I will not fight over words. Everything is excused since everything has its causes. But knowing this is not enough: forgiveness comprehends this, it would be an abstraction without it. We do not want the rain or striking lightning, and we have nothing therefore to forgive. Is forgiveness abolished as soon as it is given ? Does hatred dissolve into truth ? Man is not an empire in an empire: everything is real, everything is true, evil as well as good, and that is why there is neither good nor bad, except love or hate. This is how the mercy of God, as Spinoza would say, is truly infinite: because He is the truth, which does not judge. This is the notion of God in the heart of man: the great peace of truth, the great sweetness of love and forgiveness. But love prevails over forgiveness, or forgiveness prevails itself in this gift of love. To forgive is to stop hating, so it is also to stop being able to forgive: when forgiveness is complete, when it is complete, when there is only truth and love, there is no hatred, and forgiveness is abolished in mercy. This is why I said at the beginning that mercy was less a virtue of forgiveness than it is truth: it achieves this by abolishing it. The wise Spinozist, in a sense, has nothing to forgive: not because he cannot be subjected to injustice or aggression, but because he is never led by the thought of evil or deceived by the illusion of free will. His wisdom is no less merciful, however, and even more so: since hatred does indeed disappear, which carries with it any idea of ​​absolute guilt, since love itself becomes possible again. This is why, in another sense, he forgives everything. The deeds of good people and those of the bad are all part of Nature and flow from its laws, explains Spinoza, they are nonetheless different from each other, not only in degree, but in their essence: good is indeed a rat as well as an angel, sadness as well as joy, depends on God or Nature, a rat cannot however be a species of angel, neither sadness a kind of joy. Mercy does not bring about the abolition of fault, which remains, nor the differences in value, which it supposes and manifests, nor, it should be remembered, the necessities of combat. But it suppresses hatred, it dispenses with seeking justification. It soothes anger and the desire for revenge, it allows justice and, if necessary, serene punishment. Finally, it makes it possible that the wicked, being part of reality, are offered our knowledge, our understanding and - this is the horizon on which mercy brings light - our love. Not everything is the same, of course, but everything is true, the villain as much as the honest man. Mercy to all: peace to all, and in the fight itself!


Mercy is the virtue of forgiveness, and its secret, and its truth. It does not abolish fault but resentment, not memory but anger, not combat but hate. It is not yet love but what takes its place, when it is impossible, or what prepares it, when it would be premature.  A virtue of the second order! Where you cannot love, at least stop hating.

It will be noted that mercy can relate to faults as much as to offences.  Because hatred is sadness, mercy (like mourning, to which it resembles and on which it perhaps depends: to forgive is to mourn its hatred), because hatred is a sadness, therefore, mercy is on the side of joy: without being joyful, it is forgiveness, and it is love. 

In the end, for those who can reach it, there is nothing more to forgive: mercy triumphs in this great peace (goodbye hate! Goodbye anger!)  Can we forgive ourselves? Of course: since you can hate yourself, and stop hating yourself. What is wisdom otherwise ? What is happiness otherwise ? What is peace ? You have to forgive yourself for being yourself . Blessed are the merciful, who fight without hatred - or hate without remorse !