I wrong you once, and I have sinned; I wrong you twice, and you have sinned.

Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390), De Vita Sua:

οἱ γὰρ κακοὶ φιλοῦσιν, ὧν δρῶσιν κακῶς,

εἰς τοὺς παθόντας περιτρέπειν τὰς αἰτίας,

ὡς ἂν κακῶσι καὶ πλέον τοῖς ψεύσμασιν,

αὑτοὺς δ’ ὑπεκλύσωσι τῶν ἐγκλημάτων.

For malicious people tend to divert the blame

for their own wicked deeds onto their victims

so as to harm them even more by their lies

while washing themselves clean of accusations.

———

When we sin, the fact of the wrong is objectively real. We can only do one of two things: either admit that we have done wrong, and reject the act as wrong, or attempt to redefine for ourselves what “right” and “wrong” are so as to include or exclude the act which preys upon our conscience, demanding an interior action.

This J. Budziszewski has called “the revenge of conscience”.

When we wrong another person, the revenge of conscience runs its course, except the continued presence of that person in our lives renders us unable to pursue the second option, that of redefining right and wrong, for his injury is manifest to us, a silent accuser—not like Orestes’ Furies (in the Eumenides), but like Clytaemestra’s Agamemnon (in the Agamemnon), when the latter had come home to his adulterous wife.

Aeschylus knew about the revenge of conscience well, as he chronicled the sins and guilt of the house of Atreus.

Thus we fall into cruelty. In our attempt to redefine right and wrong in the face of the person we have wronged, we have to redefine the person himself as something other than ourselves, other than a person, so that he not only is not protected by justice from our wrong, but even deserves it.

And so we wrong him again. And again. And more and more cruelly, like the abusive husband, the deceiving wife, the barbaric parent.

This is why we wrong others so easily in the anonymity of the internet combox (which I will not open here, probably ever), without feeling so much the pangs of the revenge of conscience, and why, conversely, the greatest cruelties committed by human beings are those of family members against family members, and in particular of parents against their children.

For such people, being always present to us, drive us to become ever more cruel, unless we acknowledge our sin and reject it.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being my gadfly.

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About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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