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Lecture on Guilt and Remorse

Why do we feel guilt? What makes it possible?

We can only feel guilt when we think we did something “wrong” or “evil” or “sinful.” Guilt means knowing and feeling that you did not obey a law, that you transgressed a moral norm or what is accepted by all, or that you failed to fulfill your responsibilities.

We may feel guilty when we fail an exam because we did not study, or when we were not able to greet a friend on his birthday, as we can also feel guilty for hurting the feelings of a friend, and this can also be seen in the extreme case when a man becomes guilty for killing another man. The judge gives the verdict “guilty”—and what this means is that the one who was accused or a suspect at first now becomes undeniably responsible for a crime: he formally becomes a murderer, robber, lawbreaker. But does this necessarily mean that the guilty man feels guilt?

To be sure, we feel guilt when we acknowledge doing something that should not be done, and more than that, we feel sorry for what we did. Guilt is the source of remorse or regret: What I did was wrong, and I wish I did not do it. But since I cannot undo what I have already done, the only option left for me to relieve me of my guilt is to feel remorse, to repent, and then to ask for forgiveness. By asking for forgiveness, I imagine myself being liberated from my guilt and remorse. We usually believe that when we are pardoned, then all will be well again, that the damage has been undone, that we are delivered from our remorse and absolved from out guilt, as if we no longer did anything, as if nothing happened. 

Remorse and forgiveness have a way of taking the responsibility we have from ourselves: It is no longer I that holds my salvation, but the other—the one who has the power to for-give me and give me back my innocence. This is why asking for forgiveness is sometimes just a matter either of irresponsibility or laziness.

But what Sartre shows us in the play we read, The Flies,  is that guilt is not necessary. Guilt is something you assume, something you choose, something that you decide to own—or not. And the choice to be guilty or innocent begins with the prior and more important choice of following a law, may it be divine or human, to begin with. When I choose to follow a law—say, the “law of the land” or the doctrines of the faith—I also choose to be accountable for the times when I break the law. More precisely: By choosing to follow a law, I both choose the privileges and punishments that go with it. Laws tell us what we should do and not do, ethics teaches us what is right and wrong action, a religion tells us of good and evil, and guides us on how to reach the gates of heaven or how to avoid falling into the fiery abysses of hell. Law, morals, doctrines will always be there, they are already prepared or always formulated anew; we are born into them, we are surrounded by laws, we are taught how and what what we should believe.

But what Sartre says is that while laws, ethics, and doctrines are already there, you do not need to comply with them. One is absolutely free, according to Sartre, and while one is not free to not be surrounded by these human or divine laws, one can always negate them or choose not to participate. One can, as Camus would say, become a stranger. You can always say No to these laws, not in the sense of wanting to become a lawbreaker or sinner, but in the sense that you just say No to accepting what is right or wrong, moral or unethical, good or evil. By saying No—and the man who says No is what Camus calls the rebel—by becoming a rebel you relinquish the privileges of the law, as you also save yourself from its punishments.

Of course, you will still be caught, apprehended, or condemned if you choose to break a law even if you do not believe in it. A murderer who kills another man will still be sought after by the law, imprisoned when caught, or even killed. That is our situation, and no matter how absolutely free we are, situations are limited and our freedom will be confronted and even resisted against by places and people and gods. Sartre knew this as well. Orestes was abandoned by Elektra, he was driven out by the people of the city, condemned by Zeus, called a murderer, to be pursued by flies and the Furies for the rest of his days. 

William-Adolphe Bouguereau,The Remorse
 of Orestes
 or Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1862)

But while Orestes had to suffer these consequences, he never felt guilt. He assumed the responsibility for his double murder, and gave no excuse: he did not even explain himself, even vengeance was not a motive for him. The blood was in his hands, and he knew it, but he did not have remorse. What he did was “wrong” but he accepted the consequences. And the man who accepts the consequences of his actions has no need for remorse or forgiveness. Why repent for an act you chose and committed your whole being to and staked your freedom for? We create ourselves by our actions, and when Orestes decided to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra he painted his fate with his own indelible blood. In the first place, from whom does he ask forgiveness? Zeus? Orestes precisely said: “What do I care for Zeus? Justice is a matter between men, and I need no god to teach me it.” 


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