“Show clemency” conveys a vastly different message than the exhortation to “be nice”. Its meaning is rather similar to “understand and forgive”. Clemency can be the benevolence shown in diminishing or even suppressing a punishment meted out to an offender, a virtue that strikes a balance between justice and piety. Is clemency a manifestation of mercy? This book is a sort of historical and conceptual refurbishment – using ancient, modern, and contemporary metaphors and images – of an unfashionable concept, which nevertheless continues to be crucial and multifunctional. Clemency involves not only the sphere of law, but also ethics and politics. Clemency seems to be a “hierarchical” virtue, flowing down from the powerful to the humble; it is a deed undertaken by high-placed individuals, by the victorious, who bend to subordinates, the vanquished, the losers. The powerful may well bow down, but even clemency’s beneficiaries stoop and kneel: the former’s tilted pose is matched by the latter’s leaning, in a reciprocal gesture that makes it difficult to understand who has the upper hand.
Francesca Rigotti teaches at the University of Italian Switzerland in Lugano and formerly taught at the University of Göttingen.