What can Seneca teach you about Old Lang Syne?

Old Lang Syne, or Auld Lang Syne for some, is a song traditionally sung at funerals (if the deceased is Scottish and the surviving family is so inclined), when boats leave port and on New Year’s Eve as the clock strikes midnight. It’s a mournful melody, that reminisces on the trials and tribulations of the old year, and looks for hope into the new year.

It’s a song of forgiveness.

Forgiveness, Seneca tells us, can only be given to those who are unworthy of it. Seneca argues that if someone has done something that we do not agree with, but was – or at the very least appeared to be – the correct course of action at that time, then we cannot truly forgive them, as they did nothing that was out of line. Seneca tells us that instead, the whole point of forgiveness is to forgive people who aren’t worthy of our forgiveness in the first place.

An extreme example admittedly, but let’s assume that you are unarmed and a man comes at you with a knife with a plan to murder you, and you kill him instead. What you will be seeking from the courts is not forgiveness, but an acquittal.

However, if you were the man with the knife, and you killed without provocation someone who was unarmed, what you will be seeking from the courts is mercy, or forgiveness for your actions.

Seneca acknowledges that forgiveness can only be awarded to those who are unworthy of it, but he’s also quick to point out that everyone values the quality of forgiveness, because we’ve all had need to rely upon it at some point or another in our lives. He states:

‘I know, however, that there are some who think that mercy upholds the worst class of men, since it is superfluous unless there has been some crime, and since it alone of all the virtues finds no exercise among the guiltless. But, first of all, just as medicine is used by the sick, yet is held in honour by the healthy, so with mercy – though it is those who deserve punishment that invoke it, even the guiltless cherish it.’ (Esse autem aliquos scio, qui elementia pessimum quemque putent sustineri, quoniam nisi post crimen supervacua est et sola haec virtus inter innocentes cessat. Sed primum omnium, sicut medicinae apud aegros usus, etiam apud sanos honor est, ita elementiam, quamvis poena digni invocent, etiam innocentes colunt. Deinde habet haec in persona quoque innocentium locum, quia interim fortuna pro clpa est ; nec innocentiae tantum cleementia succurrit, sed saepe virtuti, quoniam quidem condicione temporum incidunt quaedam, quae possint laudata puniri.)

So this year, when the clock strikes midnight, and you and your friends belt out Old Lang Syne, remember that no action is truly unforgivable; because the whole point of forgiveness is to pardon someone who isn’t worthy of it. If someone has wronged you this past year, a friend or a family member who spoke out of line, or a co-worker who was rude, try to let bygones be bygones moving forward into the new year.

Simon A. Mattes & Thomas Green

*Translated by John W. Basore

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