Inherited guilt

Written on November 6, 2007 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Philosophy

Adaneva_2 Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

Some posts in this wonderful blog have been dwelling lately on the Fall of Man, the inexistence of a pre-determined destiny, the problem of evil, and other related subjects. Let me contribute to such musings by writing some lines on the fascinating topic of inherited guilt (on which I will refer to the works of the world-authority on those themes, Renaud Gagné). It seems an archaic concept, doesn’t it? The thought that one is guilty of the faults of the ancestors, so that one pays due punishment for their crimes, seems terribly ancient and far from modern enlightened ideas as personal responsibility, free will, and presumption of innocence.

Of course, Christian doctrine of original sin, which has mankind condemned to pay for Adam’s initial fault, is the first instance which comes to our minds. Still, though it seems to be reviving in some fundamentalist circles, that doctrine seems to have progressively lost importance in the past decades within the Christian churches, helped by the acceptance that the Book of Genesis does not tell actual history. Original sin could be thought a rest of ealier times which is swiftly becoming a fossile, an improductive concept doomed to oblivion, because it shares the patterns of inherited guilt which our society has rejeted as unfair and inhuman. And yet…

And yet even in our modern rational world the idea comes back time and again: collective resposibility of the State is the clearest instance. Germany and Japan still deal, in their inner and foreign policy, with war crimes commited by their forefathers. Also, Western countries are yet asked reparations for many troubles in their ancient colonies. But there are other, more disquieting fields, where the dark shadow of inherited guilt can be perceived.

The swift progress of genetics causes many concerns regarding the genetic legacy of parents: is the child of violent criminals doomed to become one himself? Post- WW II criminal law will reject these ideas on moral grounds. Yet some genetists will say he may have more probabilites. Even the famous debate of whether genes or education determine one’s character and decisions is implicitly transferring the responsibility of one’s own actions to our ancestors (I could not have done otherwise, they are responsible of my actual state).

And, after all, aren’t the ubiquitous class prejudices not guided at the very end by the thought that there is an inherited virtue, a concept which stands exactly at the other side of the coin? Isn’t it true, also, that punishing the families is thought an efficient way of fighting back suicide terrorists? Inherited guilt is far from being a lost primitive notion of dark past ages. A look is worth to its past history, not the least to be warned (and ready to reject it) when we see it springing in under a different disguise.

In fact, the word “guilt” is misleadingly Christianizing the ancient notion, which goes back far earlier. Christianity gives a moral sense to punishment so that it becomes the response to an inner evil tendency. Yet Gagné has rightly insisted on redefining the pre-Christian notion, which appeared (of course!) in ancient Greece, as “ancestral fault”. In an Orphic anthropogonic myth, the Titans killed Dionysus and were struck by Zeus with a thunderbolt in punishment. From their soot were born human beings, who pay in this lacrimarum vallis the fault for the crime of their mythical ancestors. The fact that they took no part in it is irrelevant, since the pollution caused by the crime is intrinsecal to human nature.

The fault commited by forefathers will be paid by their offspring, no matter how unintentioned it was. Greek tragedies are full of innocent people whose tragic destiny is wholly rooted on the faults of their ancestors. Hence the tragic dinasties where crimes and punishments run inevitably from one generation to another. King Croesus in Herodotus, Orestes, Phedra, they are all doomed to suffering because of the faults of their parents. Cosmic compensation, and not personal fairness, is what matters. Look at the children of Oedipus, the fragile Antigone and the wild brothers Eteocles and Polynices. It is not their own decision as much as the terrible crimes of their father (neither were they Oedipus’ own fault, seen from a modern intentional point of view). A curse laid on Laius, Oedipus’ father, is at the beginning of the whole saga of suffering, which grows as a snowball. Gods pay back, even if they pay late, said the ancients. Yet a modern psychiatrist would not be at pains to explain the neurotic behaviour of Oedipus’ children out of a mixture of genetic tendencies and traumatic experiences in childhood. Are old discourses completely dead? I am not sure…


Medici November 13, 2007 - 5:06 am

Hay una frase de Nietzsche, que refiriéndose a la crueldad del lobo con la gallina afirma que la única justificación de Dios sería que no existiese. Realmente el concepto de culpa original sólo puede crearse en las religiones antiguas, como elemento de dominación político – religioso, porque desafía todo el límite de lo razonable. Siendo benévolo podría intentar, a través de la religión, explicar los límites de lo desconocido, de la diversidad, de los que son diferentes, de los que son resultado de alguna singularidad positiva y negativa. Las mitologías se han encargado de explicar la debilidadk, los bienes y los males que acaecen, y con posterioridad, las religiones en su firme destino de apoderarse del alma de los pueblos, han conseguido mantener la culpa heredada como algo que les justifica. La única justificación es la anterior, referida a las religiones.
Con respecto a las personas, entre los individuos, es lo mismo. Es siempre un intento de dominación, que practicamos todos con mayor o peor fortuna, pero con una frecuencia apabullante. Creo que el gen de la dominación encuentra uno de sus herramientas en la psicología de la culpa.

Miguel November 14, 2007 - 3:43 am

Medici: Tienes razón sobre la dominación, ya digo que el concepto que corresponde al de culpa heredada es el de la virtud hereditaria, y de hecho la primera elaboración en Grecia (la elegía a las Musas de Solón) de la culpa heredada va en correspondencia con la justificación de privilegios heredados. Después la religión elabora el concepto como explicación del mal no merecido, o sea, como teodicea, y ahí suscribo la respuesta de Julián: al menos es un progreso respecto a la pura arbitrariedad irracional. Pero no hay nada que justifique hoy la culpa heredada. Por eso es preocupante ver que la noción reaparece sobre todo del brazo de la genética, que localiza comportamientos (p. e. la violencia) determinados por los genes: habrá que tratar de conciliar esos descubrimientos con el nulla poena sine crimine, y demás principios que tanto ha costado establecer.

Micol November 16, 2007 - 4:40 am

In a beautiful and tormented book called “La Tregua”, written by the italian Primo Levi,it is clear how in a post-Shoah West Culture, guilt is outlined as a specifically environmental contamination: it tells us about the ” natura insanabile dell’offesa che dilaga come un contagio” (the incurable nature of offence that spreads as a contagion).This is how contamination replaces guilt, in a temporal perspective, in a deterministic- hereditary sense, if we consider racial contamination and contamination in the transmission of hereditary characters(as Darwin explains in his “The Origine og Species”), and in a space perspective, with all the chaotic-relativistic implications, since virus transmission, untill entropy theories.

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