From the great poet’s essay “The Prince’s Dog,” which can be found his invaluable collection, The Dyer’s Hand. Wystan is reflecting on Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” specifically in reference to Angelo (who is forgiven by Isabella but pardoned by the Duke). Of course, the insights transcend their context:

The one who forgives must be in a position to do something for the other which, if he were not forgiving, he would not do. This means that my enemy must be at my mercy; but, to the spirit of charity, it is irrelevant whether I am at my enemy’s mercy or he is at mine. So long as he is at my mercy, forgiveness is indistinguishable from judicial pardon.

The Law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged, only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish. If the lawbreaker is stronger than the legal authorities, they are powerless to do either. The decision to grant or refuse pardon must be governed by prudent calculation–if the wrongdoer is pardoned, he will behave better in the future than if he were punished, etc. But charity is forbidden to calculate this way: I am required to forgive my enemy whatever the effect on him may be.

Justice is able to pardon what love is commanded to forgive. But to love, it is an accident that the power of temporal justice should be on its side; indeed, the Gospels assure us that, sooner or later, they will find themselves in opposition and that love must suffer at the hands of justice.