Having been especially moved by Arendt’s depiction of forgiveness, W. H. Auden wrote a glowing review of The Human Condition just after its publication. Auden then incorporated a critique of certain elements of Arendt’s theory into an essay entitled “The Fallen City,” (later renamed “The Prince’s Dog”) on the figure of Falstaff.[i]
Auden used Shakespeare’s character of Falstaff as a parable for Christian agape, a “comic symbol for the supernatural order of Charity…” (Auden The Dyer’s Hand, 198) Shakespeare had to confront the realm of appearances by using the dramatic medium to display something that by definition cannot appear: “on the stage… this distinction [between pardon and forgiveness ] is invisible, [because] direct manifestation of charity in secular terms is… impossible.” (Auden The Dyer’s Hand, 201-2) He could only accomplish this because an indirect manifestation is possible: not just the disclosure of the actor behind the act, but of the divine principle at stake in secular justice. Drawing at once on Kierkegaard’s theory of indirect communication and the tradition of charitable secrecy, Auden suggests Shakespeare’s Falstaff as an attempt at achieving “parabolic significance,” whereby “actions which are ethically immoral are made to stand as a sign for that which transcends ethics.” (Auden 1962, 202) Falstaff, alone of all of Shakespeare’s characters, manages to achieve this transcendence, by treating “each person, not as a cipher, but as a unique person.” (Auden The Dyer’s Hand, 204) By wholly disregarding public matters, Falstaff becomes a comic Christ, “a God who creates a world which he continues to love although it refuses to love him in return.” (Auden The Dyer’s Hand, 207) Forgiveness, for Auden, must be understood through the absolute asymmetry of this love, which Augustine would call caritas, charity. This charity is inequitable because it focuses on the singular and unique person, and it cannot appear publically without being rendered powerless or transformed into judicial fiat. Our primary access to this charity comes through forgiveness, which lets us enact a mundane version of divine love. However, in this, our spiritual duties come into conflict with out duty to justice.
As Auden put it, conflict between private charity and public justice is inevitable:
“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 in this way: I am required to forgive my enemy whatever the effect on him may be. […] 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.” (Auden The Dyer’s Hand, 201)
Though Auden far preferred to side with charity against calculation, he did so as a Christian who counts with his soul in the balance, bargaining on the eternal, .
In a letter written Valentine’s Day, 1960, Arendt responded to the piece, criticizing Auden’s equation of forgiveness with charity in the Christian sense. Their dispute centered on this question: do we have a duty to forgive? For both writers, this could only be resolved by determining whether forgiveness is principally a public, political, and thus unpredictably free act, or ought to be reserved for matters of conscience and private relation.
During the exchange, three different formulations of forgiveness emerged. Arendt and Auden tested formulations of forgiveness as either (1) a public act akin to judicial pardon, (2) a private act of charity demanded by conscience, or (3) the universal amnesty granted out of divine love. Despite having brought these theological issues on herself by attributing her theory of forgiveness to ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ forgiveness’s first value was as a political act for Arendt. The private duty to forgive even the worst sins, taken on by some Christians, could therefore be denigrated as a kind of impairment of judgment. In contrast, Auden struggled to depict forgiveness as a spiritual exercise in modeling divine love, and thus as an ecumenical theological obligation, with all the tension that entails. Forgiveness for Auden becomes an unconditional gift which is nonetheless demanded of all Christians, just as charity, understood as ‘love of the neighbor,’ is a fundamental commandment. Auden thus embraces the contradiction of a supererogatory duty. In the face of this contradiction, Arendt worked to preserve a space for forgiveness as an existential necessity of the human condition, not a general amnesty but a specific and novel possibility that placed it squarely within the province of action. In so doing, she articulated a crucial relationship with judgment through the necessity of distinction, rooted not in theology but in the phenomenon of action itself.
This asymmetric, inequitable, and privately charitable notion of forgiveness is at odds with Arendt’s, for whom forgiveness is above all a political act, publicly accomplished and aimed at public wrongs. For Arendt, unforgiveability and unpunishability could best be understood as conjoined through the scandal of radical evil’s capacity to “radically destroy… the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power.” (Arendt The Human Condition, 241) Where forgiveness returns the actors to their places for another scene, the unforgiveable threatens to destroy the stage upon which they act, to annihilate the public world. The theory of freedom as unpredictable novelty and singular irreversibility was at stake: a duty to forgive would logically suppress the connection between forgiveness and freedom, since it would transform forgiveness from an undetermined and therefore disclosive act into a result, a reaction to the intrinsic goodness of the wrongdoer, or some further reparations on the wrongdoer’s part. Chastising Arendt for equating forgiveness with the power to punish, and thus leaving no room for personal and religious redemption, Auden suggests this is due to her overemphasis on appearances and politics as publicity.
[i] This essay appears, with minor revisions, as “The Prince’s Dog,” in (Auden The Dyer’s Hand) All quotations are from the revised edition.