The Strange Persistence of Guilt

Those of us living in the developed countries of the West find ourselves in the tightening grip of a paradox, one whose shape and character have so far largely eluded our understanding. It is the strange persistence of guilt as a psychological force in modern life. If anything, the word persistence understates the matter. Guilt has not merely lingered. It has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary West, even as the rich language formerly used to define it has withered and faded from discourse, and the means of containing its effects, let alone obtaining relief from it, have become ever more elusive.

This paradox has set up a condition in which the phenomenon of rising guilt becomes both a byproduct of and an obstacle to civilizational advance. The stupendous achievements of the West in improving the material conditions of human life and extending the blessings of liberty and dignity to more and more people are in danger of being countervailed and even negated by a growing burden of guilt that poisons our social relations and hinders our efforts to live happy and harmonious lives.

I use the words strange persistence to suggest that the modern drama of guilt has not followed the script that was written for it. Prophets such as Friedrich Nietzsche were confident that once the modern Western world finally threw off the metaphysical straitjacket that had confined the possibilities of all previous generations, the moral reflexes that had accompanied that framework would disappear along with them. With God dead, all would indeed be permitted. Chief among the outmoded reflexes would be the experience of guilt, an obvious vestige of irrational fear promulgated by oppressive, life-denying institutions erected in the name and image of a punitive deity.

Indeed, Nietzsche had argued in On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), a locus classicus for the modern understanding of guilt, that the very idea of God, or of the gods, originated hand-in-hand with the feeling of indebtedness (the German Schuld—“guilt”—being the same as the word for “debt,” Schulden).1 The belief in God or gods arose in primitive societies, Nietzsche speculated, out of dread of the ancestors and a feeling of indebtedness to them. This feeling of indebtedness expanded its hold, in tandem with the expansion of the concept of God, to the point that when the Christian God offered itself as “the maximal god yet achieved,” it also brought about “the greatest feeling of indebtedness on earth.”

But “we have now started in the reverse direction,” Nietzsche exulted. With the “death” of God, meaning God’s general cultural unavailability, we should expect to see a consequent “decline in the consciousness of human debt.” With the cultural triumph of atheism at hand, such a victory could also “release humanity from this whole feeling of being indebted towards its beginnings, its prima causa.” Atheism would mean “a second innocence,” a regaining of Eden with neither God nor Satan there to interfere with and otherwise corrupt the proceedings.2

This is not quite what has happened; nor does there seem to be much likelihood that it will happen, in the near future. Nietzsche’s younger contemporary Sigmund Freud has proven to be the better prophet, having offered a dramatically different analysis that seems to have been more fully borne out. In his book Civilization and Its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur), Freud declared the tenacious sense of guilt to be “the most important problem in the development of civilization.” Indeed, he observed, “the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt.”3

Such guilt was hard to identify and hard to understand, though, since it so frequently dwelled on an unconscious level, and could easily be mistaken for something else. It often appears to us, Freud argued, “as a sort of malaise [Unbehagen], a dissatisfaction,”4 for which people seek other explanations, whether external or internal. Guilt is crafty, a trickster and chameleon, capable of disguising itself, hiding out, changing its size and appearance, even its location, all the while managing to persist and deepen.

This seems to me a very rich and incisive description, and a useful starting place for considering a subject almost entirely neglected by historians: the steadily intensifying (although not always visible) role played by guilt in determining the structure of our lives in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. By connecting the phenomenon of rising guilt to the phenomenon of civilizational advance, Freud was pointing to an unsuspected but inevitable byproduct of progress itself, a problem that will only become more pronounced in the generations to come.

Demoralizing Guilt

Thanks in part to Freud’s influence, we live in a therapeutic age; nothing illustrates that fact more clearly than the striking ways in which the sources of guilt’s power and the nature of its would-be antidotes have changed for us. Freud sought to relieve in his patients the worst mental burdens and pathologies imposed by their oppressive and hyperactive consciences, which he renamed their superegos, while deliberately refraining from rendering any judgment as to whether the guilty feelings ordained by those punitive superegos had any moral justification. In other words, he sought to release the patient from guilt’s crushing hold by disarming and setting aside guilt’s moral significance, and re-designating it as just another psychological phenomenon, whose proper functioning could be ascertained by its effects on one’s more general well-being. He sought to “demoralize” guilt by treating it as a strictly subjective and emotional matter.

Health was the only remaining criterion for success or failure in therapy, and health was a functional category, not an ontological one. And the nonjudgmental therapeutic worldview whose seeds Freud planted has come into full flower in the mainstream sensibility of modern America, which in turn has profoundly affected the standing and meaning of the most venerable among our moral transactions, and not merely matters of guilt.

Take, for example, the various ways in which “forgiveness” is now understood. Forgiveness is one of the chief antidotes to the forensic stigma of guilt, and as such has long been one of the golden words of our culture, with particularly deep roots in the Christian tradition, in which the capacity for forgiveness is seen as a central attribute of the Deity itself. In the face of our shared human frailty, forgiveness expresses a kind of transcendent and unconditional regard for the humanity of the other, free of any admixture of interest or punitive anger or puffed-up self-righteousness. Yet forgiveness rightly understood can never deny the reality of justice. To forgive, whether one forgives trespasses or debts, means abandoning the just claims we have against others, in the name of the higher ground of love. Forgiveness affirms justice even in the act of suspending it. It is rare because it is so costly.

In the new therapeutic dispensation, however, forgiveness is all about the forgiver, and his or her power and well-being. We have come a long way from Shakespeare’s Portia, who spoke so memorably in The Merchant of Venice about the unstrained “quality of mercy,” which “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” and blesses both “him that gives and him that takes.”5 And an even longer way from Christ’s anguished cry from the cross, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”6 And perhaps even further yet from the most basic sense of forgiveness, the canceling of a monetary debt or the pardoning of a criminal offense, in either case a very conscious suspension of the entirely rightful demands of justice.

We still claim to think well of forgiveness, but it has in fact very nearly lost its moral weight by having been translated into an act of random kindness whose chief value lies in the sense of personal release it gives us. “Forgiveness,” proclaimed the journalist Gregg Easterbrook writing at Beliefnet, “is good for your health.”7 Like the similar acts of confession or apology, and other transactions in the moral economy of sin and guilt, forgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards entirely, standards without which such transactions have little or no moral significance. Forgiveness only makes sense in the presence of a robust conception of justice. Without that, it is in real danger of being reduced to something passive and automatic and flimsy—a sanctimonious way of saying that nothing really matters very much at all.

The Infinite Extensibility of Guilt

The therapeutic view of guilt seems to offer the guilt-ridden an avenue of escape from its power, by redefining guilt as the result of psychic forces that do not relate to anything morally consequential. But that has not turned out to be an entirely workable solution, since it is not so easy to banish guilt merely by denying its reality. There is another powerful factor at work too, one that might be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This proceeds from a very different set of assumptions, and is a surprising byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: its ceaselessly expanding capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.

In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects yields increasingly to human understanding and manipulation, and in which human agency therefore becomes ever more powerful and effective, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, also steadily expands. We like to speak, romantically, of the interconnectedness of all things, failing to recognize that this same principle means that there is almost nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible. This is one inevitable side effect of the growing movement to change the name of our geological epoch from the Holocene to the Anthropocene—the first era in the life of the planet to be defined by the effects of the human presence and human power: effects such as nuclear fallout, plastic pollution, domesticated animals, and anthropogenic climate change. Power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt.

I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could. Although if I did so, I would be a well-meaning fool like Dickens’s ludicrous Mrs. Jellyby, who grossly neglects her own family and neighborhood in favor of the distant philanthropy of African missions. Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.

Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.

Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. To be found blameless is a pipe dream, for the demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination’s ability to conjure them. And as those of us who teach young people often have occasion to observe, it may be precisely the most morally perceptive and earnest individuals who have the weakest common-sense defenses against such overwhelming assaults on their over-receptive sensibilities. They cannot see a logical place to stop. Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.

The questions involved are genuine and profound; they deserve to be asked. Those who struggle most deeply with issues of environmental justice and stewardship are often led to wonder whether there can be any way of life that might allow one to escape being implicated in the cycles of exploitation and cruelty and privilege that mark, ineluctably, our relationship with our environment. They suffer from a hypertrophied sense of guilt, and desperately seek some path to an existence free of it.

In this, they embody a tendency of the West as a whole, expressed in an only slightly exaggerated form. So excessive is this propensity toward guilt, particularly in the most highly developed nations of the Western world, that the French writer Pascal Bruckner, in a courageous and brilliant recent study called The Tyranny of Guilt (in French, the title is the slightly different La tyrannie de la pénitence), has identified the problem as “Western masochism.” The lingering presence of “the old notion of original sin, the ancient poison of damnation,” Bruckner argues, holds even secular philosophers and sociologists captive to its logic.8

For all its brilliance, though, Bruckner’s analysis is not fully adequate. The problem goes deeper than a mere question of alleged cultural masochism arising out of vestigial moral reflexes. It is, after all, not merely our pathologies that dispose us in this direction. The pathologies themselves have an anterior source in the very things that make us proudest: our knowledge of the world, of its causes and effects, and our consequent power to shape and alter those causes and effects. The problem is perfectly expressed in T.S. Eliot’s famous question “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”9 In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.

Stolen Suffering

Notwithstanding all claims about our living in a post-Christian world devoid of censorious public morality, we in fact live in a world that carries around an enormous and growing burden of guilt, and yearns—sometimes even demands—to be free of it. About this, Bruckner could not have been more right. And that burden is always looking for an opportunity to discharge itself. Indeed, it is impossible to exaggerate how many of the deeds of individual men and women can be traced back to the powerful and inextinguishable need of human beings to feel morally justified, to feel themselves to be “right with the world.” One would be right to expect that such a powerful need, nearly as powerful as the merely physical ones, would continue to find ways to manifest itself, even if it had to do so in odd and perverse ways.

Which brings me to a very curious story, full of significance for these matters. It comes from a New York Times op-ed column by Daniel Mendelsohn, published on March 9, 2008, and aptly titled “Stolen Suffering.”10 Mendelsohn, a Bard College professor who had written a book about his family’s experience of the Holocaust, told of hearing the story of an orphaned Jewish girl who trekked 2,000 miles from Belgium to Ukraine, surviving the Warsaw ghetto, murdering a German officer, and taking refuge in forests where she was protected by kindly wolves. The story had been given wide circulation in a 1997 book, Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, and its veracity was generally accepted. But it was eventually discovered to be a complete fabrication, created by a Belgian Roman Catholic named Monique De Wael.11

Such a deception, Mendelsohn argued, is not an isolated event. It needs to be understood in the context of a growing number of “phony memoirs,” such as the notorious child-survivor Holocaust memoir Fragments, or Love and Consequences, the putative autobiography of a young mixed-race woman raised by a black foster mother in gang-infested Los Angeles.12 These books were, as Mendelsohn said, “a plagiarism of other people’s trauma,” written not, as their authors claimed, “by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes.” Interestingly, too, he noted that the authors seemed to have an unusual degree of identification with their subjects—indeed, a degree of identification approaching the pathological. Defending Misha, De Wael declared, astonishingly, that “the story is mine…not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”13

What these authors have appropriated is suffering, and the identification they pursue is an identification not with certifiable heroes but with certifiable victims. It is a particular and peculiar kind of identity theft. How do we account for it? What motivates it? Why would comfortable and privileged people want to identify with victims? And why would their efforts appeal to a substantial reading public?

Or, to pose the question even more generally, in a way that I think goes straight to the heart of our dilemma: How can one account for the rise of the extraordinary prestige of victims, as a category, in the contemporary world?

I believe that the explanation can be traced back to the extraordinary weight of guilt in our time, the pervasive need to find innocence through moral absolution and somehow discharge one’s moral burden, and the fact that the conventional means of finding that absolution—or even of keeping the range of one’s responsibility for one’s sins within some kind of reasonable boundaries—are no longer generally available. Making a claim to the status of certified victim, or identifying with victims, however, offers itself as a substitute means by which the moral burden of sin can be shifted, and one’s innocence affirmed. Recognition of this substitution may operate with particular strength in certain individuals, such as De Wael and her fellow hoaxing memoirists. But the strangeness of the phenomenon suggests a larger shift of sensibility, which represents a change in the moral economy of sin. And almost none of it has occurred consciously. It is not something as simple as hypocrisy that we are seeing. Instead, it is a story of people working out their salvation in fear and trembling.

The Moral Economy of Sin

In the modern West, the moral economy of sin remains strongly tied to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the fundamental truth about sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition is that sin must be paid for or its burden otherwise discharged. It can neither be dissolved by divine fiat nor repressed nor borne forever. In the Jewish moral world in which Christianity originated, and without which it would have been unthinkable, sin had always had to be paid for, generally by the sacrificial shedding of blood; its effects could never be ignored or willed away. Which is precisely why, in the Christian context, forgiveness of sin was specifically related to Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, his vicarious payment for all human sins, procured through his death on the cross and made available freely to all who embraced him in faith. Forgiveness has a stratospherically high standing in the Christian faith. But it is grounded in fundamental theological and metaphysical beliefs about the person and work of Christ, which in turn can be traced back to Jewish notions of sin and how one pays for it. It makes little sense without them. Forgiveness, or expiation, or atonement—all of these concepts promising freedom from the weight of guilt are grounded in a moral transaction, enacted within the universe of a moral economy of sin.

But in a society that retains its Judeo-Christian moral reflexes but has abandoned the corresponding metaphysics, how can the moral economy of sin continue to operate properly, and its transactions be effectual? Can a credible substitute means of discharging the weight of sin be found? One workable way to be at peace with oneself and feel innocent and “right with the world” is to identify oneself as a certifiable victim—or better yet, to identify oneself with victims. This is why the Mendelsohn story is so important and so profoundly indicative, even if it deals with an extreme case. It points to the way in which identification with victims, and the appropriation of victim status, has become an irresistible moral attraction. It suggests the real possibility that claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence. It explains the extraordinary moral prestige of victimhood in modern America and Western society in general.

Why should that be so? The answer is simple. With moral responsibility comes inevitable moral guilt, for reasons already explained. So if one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes. When one is a certifiable victim, one is released from moral responsibility, since a victim is someone who is, by definition, not responsible for his condition, but can point to another who is responsible.

But victimhood at its most potent promises not only release from responsibility, but an ability to displace that responsibility onto others. As a victim, one can project onto another person, the victimizer or oppressor, any feelings of guilt he might harbor, and in projecting that guilt lift it from his own shoulders. The result is an astonishing reversal, in which the designated victimizer plays the role of the scapegoat, upon whose head the sin comes to rest, and who pays the price for it. By contrast, in appropriating the status of victim, or identifying oneself with victims, the victimized can experience a profound sense of moral release, of recovered innocence. It is no wonder that this has become so common a gambit in our time, so effectively does it deal with the problem of guilt—at least individually, and in the short run, though at the price of social pathologies in the larger society that will likely prove unsustainable.

Grievance—and Penitence—on a Global Scale

All of this confusion and disruption to our most time-honored ways of handling the dispensing of guilt and absolution creates enormous problems, especially in our public life, as we assess questions of social justice and group inequities, which are almost impossible to address without such morally charged categories coming into play. Just look at the incredible spectacle of today’s college campuses, saturated as they are with ever-more-fractured identity politics, featuring an ever-expanding array of ever-more-minute grievances, with accompanying rounds of moral accusation and declarations of victimhood. These phenomena are not merely a fad, and they did not come out of nowhere.

Similar categories also come into play powerfully when the issues in question are ones relating to matters such as the historical guilt of nations and their culpability or innocence in the international sphere. Such questions are ubiquitous, as never before.

In the words of political scientist Thomas U. Berger, “We live in an age of apology and recrimination,” and he could not be more right.14 Guilt is everywhere around us, and its potential sources have only just begun to be plumbed, as our understanding of the buried past widens and deepens.

Gone is the amoral Hobbesian notion that war between nations is merely an expression of the state of nature. The assignment of responsibility for causing a war, the designation of war guilt, the assessment of punishments and reparations, the identification and prosecution of war crimes, the compensation of victims, and so on—all of these are thought to be an essential part of settling a war’s effects justly, and are part and parcel of the moral economy of guilt as it now operates on the national and international levels.

The heightened moral awareness we now bring to international affairs is something new in human history, stemming from the growing social and political pluralism of Western democracies and the unprecedented influence of universalized norms of human rights and justice, supported and buttressed by a robust array of international institutions and nongovernmental organizations ranging from the International Criminal Court to Amnesty International.

In addition, the larger narratives through which a nation organizes and relates its history, and through which it constitutes its collective memory, are increasingly subject to monitoring and careful scrutiny by its constituent ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and other subgroups, and are responsive to demands that those histories reflect the nation’s past misdeeds and express contrition for them. Never has there been a keener and more widespread sense of particularized grievances at work throughout in the world, and never have such grievances been able to count on receiving such a thorough and generally sympathetic hearing from scholars and the general public.

Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that one could not begin to understand the workings of world politics today without taking into account a whole range of morally charged questions of guilt and innocence. How can one fully understand the decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel to admit a million foreign migrants a year into Germany without first understanding how the powerfully the burden of historical guilt weighs upon her and many other Germans? Such factors are now as much a part of historical causation and explanation as such standbys as climate, geography, access to natural resources, demographics, and socioeconomic organization.

There is no disputing the fact, then, that history itself, particularly in the form of “coming to terms with” the wrongs of the past and the search for historical justice, is becoming an ever more salient element in national and international politics. We see it in the concern over past abuses of indigenous peoples, colonized peoples, subordinated races and classes, and the like, and we see it in the ways that nations relate their stories of war. Far from being buried, the past has become ever more alive with moral contestation.

Perhaps the most impressive example of sustained collective penitence in human history has come from the government and people of Germany, who have done so much to atone for the sins of Nazism. But how much penitence is enough? And how long must penance be done? When can we say that the German people—who are, after all, an almost entirely different cast of characters from those who lived under the Nazis—are free and clear, and have “paid their debt” to the world and to the past, and are no longer under a cloud of suspicion? Who could possibly make that judgment? And will there come a day—indeed, has it already arrived, with the nation’s backlash against Chancellor Merkel’s immigration blunders?—when the Germans have had enough of the Sisyphean guilt which, as it may seem to them, they have been forced by other sinful nations to bear, and begin to seek their redemption by other means?

Who, after all, has ever been pure and wise enough to administer such postwar justice with impartiality and detachment, and impeccable moral credibility? What nation or entity at the close of World War II was sufficiently without sin to cast the decisive stone? The Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials were landmarks in the establishment of institutional entities administering and enforcing international law. But they also were of questionable legality, reflecting the imposition of ad hoc, ex post facto laws, administered by victors whose own hands were far from entirely clean (consider the irony of Soviet judges sitting in judgment of the same kinds of crimes their own regime committed with impunity)—indeed, victors who might well have been made to stand trial themselves, had the tables been turned, and the subject at hand been the bombing of civilian targets in Hiroshima and Dresden.

Or consider whether the infamous Article 231 in the Treaty of Versailles, assigning “guilt” to Germany for the First World War, was not, in the very attempt to impose the victor’s just punishment on a defeated foe, itself an act of grave injustice, the indignity of which surely helped to precipitate the catastrophes that followed it. The assignment of guilt, especially exclusive guilt, to one party or another may satisfy the most urgent claims of justice, or the desire for retribution, but may fail utterly the needs of reconciliation and reconstruction. As Elazar Barkan bluntly argued in his book The Guilt of Nations, “In forcing an admission of war guilt at Versailles, rather than healing, the victors instigated resentment that contributed to the rise of Fascism.”15 The work of healing, like the work of the Red Cross, has a claim all its own, one that is not always compatible with the utmost pursuit of justice (although it probably cannot succeed in the complete absence of such a pursuit). Nor does such an effort to isolate and assign exclusive guilt meet the needs of a more capacious historical understanding, one that understands, as Herbert Butterfield once wrote, that history is “a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that no man ever willed.”16 And, he might have added, in which no party is entirely innocent.

So once again we find ourselves confronting the paradox of sin that cannot be adequately expiated. The deeply inscribed algorithm of sin demands some kind of atonement, but for some aspects of the past there is no imaginable way of making that transaction without creating new sins of equivalent or greater dimension. What possible atonement can there be for, say, the institution of slavery? It is no wonder that the issue of reparations for slavery surfaces periodically, and probably always will, yet it is simply beyond the power of the present or the future to atone for the sins of the past in any effective way. Those of us who teach history, and take seriously the moral formation of our students, have to consider what the takeaway from this is likely to be. Do we really want to rest easy with the idea that a proper moral education needs to involve a knowledge of our extensive individual and collective guilt—a guilt for which there is no imaginable atonement? That this is not a satisfactory state of affairs would seem obvious; what to do about it, particularly in a strictly secular context, is another matter.

Again, the question arises whether and to what extent all of this has something to do with our living in a world that has increasingly, for the past century or so, been run according to secular premises, using a secular vocabulary operating within an “immanent frame”—a mode of operation that requires us to be silent about, and forcibly repress, the very religious frameworks and vocabularies within which the dynamics of sin and guilt and atonement have hitherto been rendered intelligible. I use the term “repress” here with some irony, given its Freudian provenance. But even the irreligious Freud did not envision the “liberation” of the human race from its religious illusions as an automatic and sufficient solution to its problems. He saw nothing resembling a solution. Indeed, it could well be the case, and paradoxically so, that just at the moment when we have become more keenly aware than ever of the wages of sin in the world, and more keenly anxious to address those sins, we find ourselves least able to describe them in those now-forbidden terms, let alone find moral release from their weight. Andrew Delbanco puts it quite well in his perceptive and insightful 1995 book The Death of Satan:

We live in the most brutal century in human history, but instead of stepping forward to take the credit, the devil has rendered himself invisible. The very notion of evil seems to be incompatible with modern life, from which the ideas of transgression and the accountable self are fast receding. Yet despite the loss of old words and moral concepts—Satan, sin, evil—we cannot do without some conceptual means for thinking about the universal human experience of cruelty and pain…. If evil, with all its insidious complexity, escape the reach of our imagination, it will have established dominion over us all.17

So there are always going to be consequences attendant upon the disappearance of such words, and they may be hard to foresee, and hard to address. “Whatever became of sin?” asked the psychiatrist Karl Menninger, in his 1973 book of that title. What, in the new arrangements, can accomplish the moral and transactional work that was formerly done by the now-discarded concepts? If, thanks to Nietzsche, the absence of belief in God is “the notional condition of modern Western culture,” as Paula Fredriksen argues in her study of the history of the concept of sin, doesn’t that mean that the idea of sin is finished too?18

Yes, it would seem to mean just that. After all, “sin” cannot be understood apart from a larger context of ideas. So what happens when all the ideas that upheld “sin” in its earlier sense have ceased to be normatively embraced? Could not the answer to Menninger’s question be something like Zarathustra’s famous cry: “Sin is dead and we have killed it!”?

Sin is a transgression against God, and without a God, how can there be such a thing as sin? So the theory would seem to dictate. But as Fredriksen argues, that theory fails miserably to explain the world we actually inhabit. Sin lives on, it seems, even if we decline to name it as such. We live, she says, in the web of culture, and “the biblical god…seems to have taken up permanent residence in Western imagination…[so much so that] even nonbelievers seem to know exactly who or what it is that they do not believe in.”19 In fact, given the anger that so many nonbelievers evince toward this nonexistent god, one might be tempted to speculate whether their unconscious cry is “Lord, I do not believe; please strengthen my belief in your nonexistence!” Such was Nietzsche’s genius in communicating how difficult an achievement a clean and unconditional atheism is, a conundrum that he captured not by asserting that God does not exist, but that God is dead. For the existence of the dead constitutes, for us, a presence as well as an absence. It is not so easy to wish that enduring presence away, particularly when there is the lingering sense that the presence was once something living and breathing.

What makes the situation dangerous for us, as Fredriksen observes, is not only the fact that we have lost the ability to make conscious use of the concept of sin but that we have also lost any semblance of a “coherent idea of redemption,”20the idea that has always been required to accompany the concept of sin in the past and tame its harsh and punitive potential. The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

The Persistence of Guilt

Where then does this analysis of our broken moral economy leave us? The progress of our scientific and technological knowledge in the West, and of the culture of mastery that has come along with it, has worked to displace the cultural centrality of Christianity and Judaism, the great historical religions of the West. But it has not been able to replace them. For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for, let alone what we should be willing to sacrifice for, or die for.

And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight to which it has added appreciably, precisely by rendering us able to be in control of, and therefore accountable for, more and more elements in our lives—responsibility being the fertile seedbed of guilt. That growing weight seeks opportunities for release, seeks transactional outlets, but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation. Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution or expiation without which no moral system can be bearable.

What is to be done? One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the obliteration of religion, and particularly of Judeo-Christian metaphysics, as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claims of religion. Perhaps human progress cannot be sustained without religion, or something like it, and specifically without something very like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West.

Such an argument would have little to do with conventional theological apologetics. Instead, it would draw from empirical realities regarding the social and psychological makeup of advanced Western societies. And it would fully face the fact that, without the support of religious beliefs and institutions, one may have no choice but to accept the dismal prospect envisioned by Freud, in which the advance of human civilization brings not happiness but a mounting tide of unassuaged guilt, ever in search of novel and ineffective, and ultimately bizarre, ways to discharge itself. Such an advance would steadily diminish the human prospect, and render it less and less sustainable. It would smother the energies of innovation that have made the West what it is, and fatally undermine the spirited confidence needed to uphold the very possibility of progress itself. It must therefore be countered. But to be countered, it must first be understood.


  1. The discussion that follows is drawn from the second essay in Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 35–67. First published 1887. I here take note of the fact that any discussion of guilt per se runs the risk of conflating different meanings of the word: guilt as a forensic or objective term, guilt as culpability, is not the same thing as guilt as a subjective or emotional term. It is the difference between being guilty and feeling guilty, a difference that is analytically clear, but often difficult to sustain in discussions of particular instances.
  2. Ibid., 61–62.
  3. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York, NY: Norton, 2005), 137, 140. First published 1930.
  4. Ibid., 140.
  5. William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1, lines 184–205; see e.g., Stanley Wells, and Gary Taylor, eds., The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, second edition (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005), 473.
  6. Luke 23:34 (Revised Standard Version).
  7. Gregg Easterbrook, “Forgiveness is Good for Your Health,” Beliefnet, n.d., Accessed 5 January 2017.
  8. Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, trans. Steven Rendall (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 1–4.
  9. T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion,” line 34, in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909–1950 (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 22. The poem was first published in 1920.
  10. Daniel Mendelsohn, “Stolen Suffering,” New York Times, March 9, 2008, WK12,
  11. The book was Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years (Boston, MA: Mount Ivy Press, 1997), and the author published it under the name Misha Defonseca. According to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, De Wael was the daughter of parents who had collaborated with the Nazis: see David Mehegan, “Misha and the Wolves,” Off the Shelf (blog), Boston Globe, March 3, 2008,
  12. Binjamin Wilkomirski, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood (New York, NY: Schocken, 1997); Margaret B. Jones, Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival (New York, NY: Riverhead, 2008).
  13. In a final twist of the case, in May 2014 the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled that De Wael had to forfeit the $22.5 million in royalties she had received for Misha. Quotation from Lizzie Dearden, “Misha Defonseca: Author Who Made Up Holocaust Memoir Ordered to Repay £13.3m,” The Independent, May 12, 2014,; additional details from Jeff D. Gorman, “Bizarre Holocaust Lies Support Publisher’s Win,” Courthouse News Service, May 8, 2014,
  14. Thomas U. Berger, War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 8.
  15. Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), xxxiii.
  16. Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (New York, NY: Norton, 1965), 45–47.
  17. Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995), 9.
  18. Paula Fredriksen, Sin: The Early History of an Idea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 149.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 150.

Wilfred M. McClay is G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty and director of the Center for the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.