A Duty to Forgive?

Part 1: Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility
Part 2: Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
Part 3: A Duty to Forgive?
Part 4: Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
Part 5: Charity as a Flight from Politics
Part 6: Publicity without Politics

Arendt’s response raises interesting questions: “Of course I am prejudiced, namely against charity,” she wrote.

In her letter to Auden responding to the Falstaff essay, she retracted the equation of judicial pardon and forgiveness, not in the name of a private redemption to be found through conscience and Christian charity, but through the distinction between law and politics. For her to acknowledge a private possibility of forgiveness, she would have had to recant her account of forgiving as an act requiring a plurality. Yet here she does acknowledge that forgiveness does intervene in intersubjective relations like friendship or family life. Auden’s criticisms, she said, helped her to understand that the judicial pardon is different from the Christian conception of charity, which demands that the charitable forgiver efface distinctions for the sake of the individual: “I may forgive somebody who betrayed me but I am not going to condone betrayal ueberhaupt [‘above all’ or ‘as such’]… 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.”   (Letter from Arendt to Auden, dated 2/14/1960) A wife might forgive a husband’s philandering, for instance, but she cannot forgive philandering in principle, which is what Arendt claims that Christian charity demands: an in principle refusal to judge or to punish.

Most importantly, however, Arendt reiterates the necessity of the other: the philandering husband cannot forgive himself, because the one’s relation to oneself is insufficiently plural for an action to take place. Here, as in her discussion of friendship in the Lessing Prize address, Arendt suggests that family or friendship may sometimes qualify as a plurality, but insists that the philosopher’s two-in-one cannot serve.[i] In solitude or memoir, thought returns only the contradiction between promise and trespass, whereas a legal or theological confession offers itself to another to be judged. In the juridical setting, that other is the victim or the prosecutor; in the theological setting, it is the divine or a priestly intermediary.

Auden retreats to the general Christian obligation to charity here, and it is this general obligation upon which Arendt seizes for her disagreement when she argues that a gift given out of duty is no gift at all, but rather a debt. Offering forgiveness where none is requested is like offering an unconditional gift: Christian charity demands this, but Arendt rejects this obligatory charity. Unconditional forgiveness, like a judicial amnesty, is a refusal to judge the particulars of an act. If we were to forgo judgment in the name of equality, we would be granting that the potential sin is equivalent to its actuation, that it is equally as difficult to share the earth with a potential Eichmann as the actual Eichmann, that a man who could have committed murder is no better than one who did, or indeed, that my own actual wrongs are indistinguishable from those of another: that my trespass is transitive with the other’s crimes. Arendt argues that when we forgive out of this ‘self-reflection,’ we forgive at the expense of judgment. Such charitable forgiveness destroys the capacity to act because it treats the act with contempt, saying “Much as you tried, you could not wrong me; charity has made me invulnerable.” (2/14 letter, 1d) Arendt accused this view of impertinence, but the danger of Christian charity is much greater: to forgive indiscriminately, as a matter of course or expectation is to claim impassivity, to deny that we share the world with others whose actions interest us, bear on us, and must be judged because of it.

Auden could not accept Arendt’s claim that forgiveness is a political gift that cannot be earned or obliged, nor her corollary, that only public acts demand it. In his response, Auden struggled to articulate the justification for an obligatory gift, in much the same way that he struggled with the public and juridical consequences of an obligation to turn the other cheek. On the one hand, the Biblical commandment to forgive seems to correspond to our moral intuition that withholding forgiveness in some instances would be petty and overly self-involved. On the other hand, this injunction against grudge-holding comes into conflict with the moral indignation and disgust we experience at certain acts we mark as evil.

In large part, Auden and Arendt agree on the definition of charity but disagree on its value. They both hold that it cannot appear publicly without becoming somehow uncharitable, subject to calculation. But for Arendt this structural secrecy is charity’s principle offense, while for Auden it throws the ultimate value of the public realm into question. For Auden, the moments of weakness are proofs in favor of charity ueberhaupt: when our incapacity to punish the wrongdoer means that forgiveness is possible while judicial pardons are impossible. For Arendt, the realm of private virtue is and must be secondary to the realm of public power, because private happiness cannot salvage public impotence, but it can be parasitic or destructive of that power if it undermines its conditions of possibility.


[i] Anne Phillips highly ambivalent discussion of Arendt and civic republican accounts of public life in Engendering Democracy, echoed by Seyla Benhabib in The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, are based on Arendt’s apparent indifference to power relations within a family or friendship between men and women, where misogyny creates imbalances in household labor and political life offers no non-totalitarian solution. “[Despite superficial affinities between Arendt and the contemporary women’s movement,] in most ways the principles of republican democracy seem antagonistic to women’s movement concerns. None of its theorists is an enthusiast for dissolving the boundaries between public and private, or for transforming the way decisions are made in every arena of social life.” While Arendt’s few comments on these matters do suggest an indifference to communal discrimination, there is nothing to suggest that the family is not a site of democratic debate, deliberative judgment, and contestation. She simply balks, as does Phillips, at state intervention: “We can perhaps imagine the kind of decision-making structures that would equalize power within the household, but would we welcome the household inspectorate whose job it might be to enforce them?” (Phillips 1991, 103)

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