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…