Arendt responds to Auden: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity.”

Working in the Arendt archives this week, I came across this draft of a letter of Hannah Arendt’s, responding the poet Auden’s essay on Falstaff and his criticisms of certain aspects of her account of forgiveness in The Human Condition:

Dear Wystan Auden –

I just read the Falstaff piece — had some trouble getting the old issue of Encounter –, think it is quite wonderful, have a number of points I’d like to raise, especially about Greek tragedy; but am writing now because of “forgiving.”

You invoke Christian charity, but don’t you think Christian charity is curiously absent from these passages? You convinced me that a line should be drawn between forgiveness and judicial pardon. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that Christian charity has more in common with judicial pardon than with forgiving. The Law, like charity, looks upon all with an equal eye, makes no distinctions, has no regard for the person, and may pardon even if he does not repent. Judicial pardon shares with forgiving that it pardons a crime for the sake of the person who did it. (It will hardly pardon Bluebeard who is a murderer, but it may pardon a crime passionel because murder is committed by somebody who was not a murderer.) You talk about charity as though it were love, and it is true that love will forgive everything because of its utter commitment to the beloved person. But even love violates the integrity of the wrongdoer if it forgives without have been asked to. Is not forgiving without being asked really impertinent, or at least conceited — as though one said: Much as you tried, you could not wrong me; charity has made me invulnerable? The trouble with charity as with the law is that it levels out distinction. And judicial pardon, from this viewpoint, seems to be the point where the law breaks down; the man who receives it is no longer judged solely according to the law.

Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity. But let me at least make a stand for my prejudices. I was wrong when I said that we forgive for the sake of who did it. I may forgive somebody who betrayed me but I am not going to condone betrayal ueberhaupt. I can forgive somebody without forgiving anything; if I forgive a “thing” then only that I was wronged. But charity indeed forgives ueberhaupt, it forgives betrayal in the person who betrayed — on the ground, to be sure, of human sinfulness and its solidarity with the sinner. I would admit that there is a great temptation to forgive in the spirit of Who am I to judge?, but I’d rather resist it. Humility and conceit are two sides of the same matter, both wrong because the result of self-reflection. Pride, on the other hand, which means here to insist that the power of judgment remains unimpaired, is not undermined by the gnawing doubt of self-reflection about my own potential or actual sins, cannot be destroyed in the act of forgiving because loss of pride and loss of “personality” somehow coincide and forgiving does not aim at the destruction but on the contrary at the restoration of the persons involved and of the relationship between them.

You equate the command of forgiveness with the commands of not resisting evil, of giving, of not thinking of the morrow, etc., that is, of doing good as an activity. I grant you all you say about this — you say it very beautifully –, but does forgiving belong into the same category? I do not know what is more difficult: to demand a coat or to give the cloak also, but I am quite sure that it is more difficult to ask than to give forgiveness. This side of the matter, that is, the mutuality of the whole business, remains outside all considerations in “doing good”, but it is essential for the act of forgiving.

You are entirely right (and I am entirely wrong) in that punishment is a necessary alternative only to judicial pardon. I was thinking of the absurd position of the judges during the Nuremberg trials who were confronted with crimes of such a magnitude that they transcended all possible punishment. But this is surely another matter.

I better stop. I hope you don’t think I am being quarrelsome and, worse, tiresome. But if you do, you will, please, be kind, and forget it.

Thanks ever so much for birthday invitation. I accept with pleasure. I’ll be a bit late (have a dinner engagement before) but long before “carriage” time.

Yours,

[unsigned draft]

4 thoughts on “Arendt responds to Auden: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity.””

  1. 2/14/1960: Valentine's Day!

    That's particularly ironic considering that Auden later asked Arendt to marry him.

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