Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility

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

In The Human Condition Arendt staked out a position that action’s novel self-disclosure comes at a price: irreversibility and unpredictability “being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing….” (Arendt The Human Condition, 237) In her efforts to demonstrate that willing occurs without the determination of thinking, she presents us with an account of freedom indistinguishable from randomness. Arendt’s actors ‘know not what they do’ until they have done it, and afterwards they observe and evaluate the consequences as if they were spectators and not agents themselves: an action worthy of the name is unforeseeable even to oneself.

Arendt wrote that “the remedy against the irreversibility and unpredictability of the process started by action does not arise out of another and possibly higher faculty, but it is one of the potentialities of action itself.” (Arendt The Human Condition, 236-7) In contrast with labor, the experience of which can only be salvaged because the laborer exists within a world created by work, or with work, which creates a world of static perpetuity unless natality and action interrupt its sterility, action cannot withdraw itself or find in the contemplative faculties a predictive measure that could reign in its excesses. Thus, Arendt suggests, only a second action, an act of forgiveness, can make the inevitability of trespass sufferable.

Where we attempt to master the unpredictability of the act through promising, which offers “islands of security” within the “ocean of uncertainty” made inhospitable by freedom and futurity, forgiveness offers to redeem our past acts, to reopen a space that prior trespasses would otherwise foreclose. To forgive is to grant permission to those with whom we share the space of appearance, our audience and fellow actors, to act again, to disclose themselves anew, despite their earlier, irreversible trespass on that space. Irreversibility can be rectified by other irreversible acts, moving forward rather than undoing the past.

Arendt asserts that the political function of forgiveness was discovered by ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’[i] and mobilized by his followers in their opposition to the dominant Jewish and Roman political authorities. Thus in the midst of her account of action, Arendt launches a discussion of the innovations of heretical Christians amongst the Jewish majority: forgiveness, like the privacy of religious expression, “sprang from experiences in the small and closely knit community of [Jesus’s] followers, bent on challenging the public authorities in Israel….” (Arendt The Human Condition, 239) In reserving a public and human context for forgiveness, Arendt distinguishes her portrait of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ from his successors, especially Paul and Augustine, for whom forgiveness is not a human power like the capacity to act, but a divine power that humans can only approximate. (In this sense it is like eternal judgment.) Instead, Arendt places forgiveness squarely within the miraculous human capacity to act at all: it is just as unforeseeable as the act it must forgive, and in part preserves human freedom from being relegated to an unending reaction to some initial surprising event. “[T]he act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action.” (Arendt The Human Condition, 241)

Arendt celebrates forgiveness as a mundane miracle, the source of sustained plurality: “only through this constant mutual release can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something anew.” (Arendt 1958, 240) Arendt always spoke of forgiveness in this reverential style, as if revealing a mystery or patterning her words after a sermon. Quoting Matthew, she argues that Jesus thus attributes the power to forgive to men, and conditions divine forgiveness on this secular act: “if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you….”[ii] Here, she reveals a commitment to a metaphysics rooted in the visible world: divine charity is nothing but a metaphor for quotidian human activities.

Arendt also illustrates the mundane miracle of forgiveness with reference to Goethe’s poem, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The apprentice, like the political actor, necessarily sets forces in motion that are beyond his power to control, and the sorcerer resolves the trouble with a “magic formula,” without which the apprentice is unable to remedy his mistake and break the spell he let lose. Like the sorcerer’s ‘magic formula,’ forgiveness must come from someone else, from ‘the Other,’ and like magic it saves us from the natural progression of cause and effect, act and consequence. Forgiveness is especially an exception to those consequences which, in the natural course of events, would haunt us forever, such that we are “confined to a single deed from which we could never recover.”(Arendt 1958, 237) Forgiveness, then, is an intrinsic feature of political life: without it, the capacity to act unpredictably is too quickly expended. Yet what is most important for Arendt is that forgiveness cannot be obliged or required without losing its ‘magic,’ that is, its freedom.

In The Human Condition, Arendt argues that we can only forgive what we can punish, and vice versa.  Forgiveness, though underdetermined, has this precondition or limit: when you injure me, if my only alternatives are to stew resentfully or forgive, I cannot properly be said to be in the position to forgive. Forgiveness is available only as an alternative to vengeance, and is impossible where vengeance is impossible. Arendt suggests that this is because an act we cannot punish is an act outside the scope of our moral judgments or legal jurisdiction. In this sense, the unforgiveable points to the limits of judgment, which suggests that forgiveness is coextensive with judgment. And yet, Arendt eventually called this equation into question when she was interrogated by none other than W. H. Auden.


[i] Here Arendt chooses Nazareth over the Hellenic Khristos, Jesus ‘the annointed,’ i.e. Jesus the messiah.

[ii] Matthew 6:14-15, quoted in (Arendt The Human Condition, 239, n. 77)

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