Essays in Political Philosophy

Essays in Political Philosophy

Essays in Political Philosophy

Essays in Political Philosophy


This book brings together for the first time the political and related writings of R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943), the great Oxford philosopher, historian, and archaeologist. Including a great deal of previously unpublished or inaccessible material, the writings place political action in the context of action as a whole and addresses substantive social and political issues, particularly Nazism and Fascism, which Collingwood recognized as a threat to European civilization.


Forgiveness and punishment are generally conceived as two alternative ways of treating a wrongdoer. We may punish any particular criminal, or we may forgive him; and the question always is, which is the right course of action. On the one hand, however, punishment seems to be not a conditional but an absolute duty; and to neglect it is definitely wrong. Justice in man consists at least in punishing the guilty, and the conception of a just God similarily emphasizes his righteous infliction of penalties upon those who break his laws. the very idea of punishment is not that it is sometimes right and sometimes wrong or indifferent, but that its infliction is an inexorable demand of duty.

On the other hand, forgiveness is presented as an equally vital duty for man and equally definite characteristic of God. This, again, is not conditional. the ideal of forgiveness is subject to no restrictions. the divine precept does not require us to forgive, say, seven times and then turn on the offender for reprisals. Forgiveness must be applied unequivocally to every offence alike.

Here, then, we have an absolute contradiction between two opposing ideals of conduct. and the result of applying the antithesis to the doctrine of atonement is equally fatal whichever horn of the dilemma is accepted. Either punishment is right and forgiveness wrong, or forgiveness is right and punishment wrong. If punishment is right, then the doctrine that God forgives our sins is illusory and immoral; it ascribes to God the weakness of a doting father who spares the rod and spoils the child. If punishment is wrong, then the conception of a punishing God is a mere barbarism of primitive theology, and atonement is no mystery, no divine grace, but simply the belated recognition by theology that its God is a moral being. Thus regarded, the Atonement becomes either a fallacy or a truism.

And it is common enough, in the abstract and hasty thought which in every age passes for modern, to find the conception of

Reprinted from Religion and Philosophy (Macmillan, London, 1916), pp. 169-180, with the kind permission of the publisher.

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