Auden’s criticisms of Arendt explicily call for a flight into the invisible and eternal world, which comes at the cost of politics and especially political judgment. In The Human Condition, Arendt described this flight from the world as a response to the destruction of the world itself. Early Christians sought “to find a bond between people strong enough to replace the world” because the Roman Empire had violently undermined their pre-existing basis of public appearance and collective action. Arendt ascribes responsibility for the politicization of the “consciously and radically antipolitical character of Christianity” to Augustine, “precisely because an extraordinary tradition of Roman thought still lived on in him.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 138) It was Augustine who helped the Church to “secularize the Christian flight into seclusion,” rendering the private religious lives of the community once again public and ecclesiastical. In so doing, he helped the faithful to “constitute within the world a totally new, religiously defined public space, which, although public, was not political.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 139) In short, it is Augustine who invents the publicity without politics that had remained the ideal for a certain kind of intellectual and spiritual life. Continue reading Charity as a Flight from Politics
In order for us to understand Arendt’s “prejudice against charity” properly, we must evaluate her idiosyncratic understanding of prejudice. Prejudice has few defenders in the 20th Century, when it became synonymous with ignorance and intolerance, but Arendt used a version of Edmund Burke’s defense of tradition as the latent wisdom of the past judgments to do just that.
Both a systematic defense of prejudice and a more detailed account of her attack on Christian charity can be found in an unpublished text where she articulates the theoretic foundation of much of the rest of her work. This text, “Introduction into Politics”, was meant to serve as a “large, systematic political work” divided into two volumes, the first of which eventually became her book On Revolution, while the second “introductory” text would have been “concerned exclusively with action and thought.” (Arendt, The Promise of Politics, xvii)
“Introduction into Politics” begins with the claim that there is a longstanding prejudice against politics, but that prejudice, itself, need not be bad. Rather than decry the superstition and ignorance of a life lived dependent on these prejudices, Arendt celebrates the simplicity they create. In fact, she argues that we need the relative stability of a world that mostly matches our expectations in order to function at all: “Man cannot live without prejudices.” (Arendt “Introduction into Politics,” 99) Continue reading Prejudice as the Crystallization of Judgments
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. Continue reading A Duty to Forgive?
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. Continue reading Forgiveness as a Manifestation of Divine Charity
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.
Continue reading Forgiveness and the Problem of Irreversibility