“The Old Wrong”: Victimhood as the Refusal of Self-Knowledge

In Er (He), a collection of notes from 1920, Franz Kafka makes the following remark:

Die Erbsünde, das alte Unrecht, das der Mensch begangen hat, besteht in dem Vorwurf, den der Mensch macht und von dem er nicht abläßt, daß ihm ein Unrecht geschehen ist, daß an ihm die Erbsünde begangen wurde.

The original sin, the old wrong that man committed, consists of the accusation that man makes and does not cease making: that a wrong has happened to him, that the original sin was committed against him.

(The translation is my own.)

This is, it seems to me, a very perceptive analysis.

In biblical terms, of course, it is not quite true that passing the buck was the original sin, which consisted of unbelief as manifested in eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Still, what happens almost instantly upon that transgression? Well, passing the buck: “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate'” (Genesis 3:12).[1]

Why does Adam say this? The text does not specify, but one can speculate: he felt guilt; he felt shame; he wanted to save face; he wanted not to be at fault.

We might suggest, in other words, that this remark came from a refusal of self-knowledge, of disobedience to the primordial injunction to know oneself. In particular, Adam did not want to know himself as responsible–as someone who had something to answer for, and who must give an answer. “Me, a sinner? Are you crazy? Look, I’m the victim here!”

Adam’s response in the Garden (for, interestingly, his refusal to answer was disguised in a purported answer) set in motion the long train of man’s distorted perspective on himself, introducing the subsequently ubiquitous temptation to passivity–to the denial of agency–to casting oneself as the victim–to assenting to the lie that we, the helpless, are those to whom things just happen. That is to say, his response introduced the mentality of the victim, which substitutes “This was done to me” (what Adam said) for “This I did” (what Adam should have said).

As Kafka indicates, this mentality makes man an accuser. It makes him a Satan. Or, rather, it makes us Satans (no passing the buck here!). For we are ever complaining and grumbling, refusing responsibility for our wrongs. Rather than owning up to original sin, we wish to see ourselves as its unfortunate victims and those who are most offended by it.

And here is the paradox: in making himself a Satan, always accusing God and his brother, man attempts to make himself God, viz. the one whose righteousness and goodness has been offended by original sin.

And was this not the form of Satan’s temptation in the Garden? “You will be like God.”

Kafka’s aphorism warns us to refuse the lie. It warns us to purge our cherished image of ourselves as victims. It warns us to accept responsibility.


1 I quote the ESV here and in what follows.


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