About debt, sin and moral responsibility

About debt, sin and moral responsibility

FOR anybody trying to figure out why different cultures (Greece and Germany, say) seem to have different attitudes to matters like debt, sin and moral responsibility, it is worth looking at how words, including religious words, are used. But one should always be suspicious of simple answers and be prepared for surprises.

As a philologically-minded colleague points out in this week’s print edition, the history of the words “austere” and “austerity” and their German equivalent is paradoxical. Far from being a fiendish German invention, the word Austerität is a recent and relatively uncommon addition to the German language, borrowed from English, which took it from French, which took it from Latin, which took it from, of all languages, Greek.

Another piece of vocabulary around which big theories have been constructed is the German word Schuld, which means both debt and guilt, including guilt of the very serious kind determined by judges or religious preachers. Can the tough German line over the euro zone crisis be ascribed to this conflation of meanings, or to the idea that debtors are sinners who deserve to be punished? Explorers of this theory have included Yanis Varoufakis, who was Greek finance minister until a few days ago, and Stuart Holland, a British Labour politician. An article by Mr Holland, quoted with approval in a blog by his Hellenic friend, makes the following assertion about Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, and about German culture.

Herr Schäuble sees the Eurozone crisis as one of public debt. This is not unrelated to the German for debt, Schuld, meaning guilt……[The German philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche also observed that there was a tendency in Germany among strong creditors to demand penitence from weak debtors for their debt-guilt and to punish them if they did not seek redemption.

If you find this theory at all compelling, you may also find it significant that a key line in the most famous Christian prayer (most familiar in English as “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”) can come out in German as “und vergib uns unsere Schuld, wie auch wir vergeben unsern Schuldigern” of which the most literal meaning is “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive those in debt to us…” 

But hold on: that is exactly what the original Greek of the New Testament (recited by Greek school-children every day) says. The prayer clearly asks forgiveness of our debts (ofeilemata) and offers the same to those who are in debt (tois ofeiletais) to us. The German version is simply an accurate rendering of the Greek text; so too is the Italian version, which speaks of debiti and debitori; and many English translations refer to debts and debtors. It is the English word “trespasses” (which in modern language suggests a rather minor infringement of somebody else’s space) that is aberrant.

And the equation of sin and debt crops up in many other places in the New Testament. To explain the meaning of that familiar line in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells the story of a man who ruthlessly demands money from his own debtors, but in turn is treated harshly by an even richer man to whom he owes money. By the same token, he adds, God will not forgive us for the wrongs that we commit unless we forgive others who have wronged us.

So is there, in that case, no ultimate difference between German and Greek attitudes to sin or debt? Or would there be no real difference if both cultures were equally religiously literate and close to their Christian roots?

I believe that a significant difference in basic attitudes does play a role in the euro crisis, and indeed that it can usefully be discussed in theological and linguistic terms. But it is more helpful to look at overtones or shades of meaning rather than the direct literal sense of the terms involved.

There is no doubt that Schuld as guilt can be a big, heavy word for a big, heavy state of affairs, and it is commonly used in that weighty sense. By contrast, the Greek root (ofeil– ) used in the Lord’s Prayer just about exists in ordinary language but it’s rare and a bit clunky. (Ofeileis na to kaneis, you ought to do it…) The word which is both common and resonant ischreos (debt or obligation) and its derivative ypochreosi(s) which also means obligation.

The striking thing about ypochreosis is that it describes a fluid, sometimes emotionally charged and above all personal relationship between two parties, the obligation that A feels to B because of some favour that B has done in the past or perhaps because of a family tie. A financial transaction can also create an ypochreosis but it is always part of the total relationship between the individuals. Renée Hirschon, a social anthropologist, has observedthat if Greeks react a little warily to gifts from acquaintances, it is because they are nervous of the ypochreosis that accepting the present would incur.

To make a vast generalisation, Schuld in the sense of guilt can often imply a broad, objective situation, which holds good, and has serious moral implications, regardless of the conscious feelings of the individuals involved. One person or many can be guilty, schuldig, before God or in the light of some ultimate moral law, regardless of whether they feel that guilt; and if they don’t feel it, they probably should.  Ypochreosis describes a more subjective sense of obligation between two individuals; it may be induced by social or cultural factors, but the individuals concerned do not see it as applying to anybody but themselves.

If you attach importance to Schuld in the sense of guilt you probably also feel strongly that there are rules, norms and laws in whose observance everybody has a stake, and whose infringement cannot be left unpunished without harming society as a whole. On the other hand, if you are more of an ypochreosis type of person, you probably tend to think that the enforcement of norms (and the calling in of debts) is, like just about everything else, a matter of personal discretion between the parties involved. If debts are rigorously called in, it must be because the creditor has “something against” the debtor, rather than because the creditor sees a general, societal interest in rules and contracts being observed.

With due allowance for the danger of all cultural stereotypes, I reckon that this distinction might be of some help in deciphering the euro crisis, or at least the contrasting ways in which people react to it.


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