The Antidote to the Irreversibility of Life: Hannah Arendt on What Forgiveness Really Means

Illustration by Jacqueline Ayer from The Paper-Flower Tree

“Forgiving… is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.”

BY MARIA POPOVA

“To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” poet and philosopher David Whyte observed as he dove for the deeper meanings of our commonest concepts. But, as James Baldwin and Margaret Mead demonstrated in their historic conversation about forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, Western culture has a confused understanding of what forgiveness really requires of us and what it really gives us — a confusion tangled in the conflicting legacies of Ancient Greek culture, that primordial womb of drama and democracy, with its politically immature notions of justice, and Christian dogma, with its incomplete and psychologically puerile conceptions of love.

To disentangle this cultural confusion into a lucid and luminous understanding of forgiveness demands an uncommon largeness of spirit and depth of intellect, an uncommon breadth of erudition and historical knowledge, and an uncommon sensitivity to what it means to be human. That is what the uncommon Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) accomplishes throughout The Human Condition (public library) — the superb 1958 book that gave us her insight into how we invent ourselves and reinvent the world.

Hannah Arendt by Fred Stein, 1944 (Photograph courtesy of the Fred Stein Archive)

The very need for forgiveness, Arendt observes in a chapter titled “Irreversibility and the Power to Forgive,” springs from “the irreversibility and unpredictability of the process started by acting” — a process fundamental to what it means to be alive. We act because we are, but we don’t always act along the axis of who we aspire to be. Aspiration is a sort of promise — a promise we make to ourselves and, sometimes, to the world. Forgiveness is only ever needed, and possible, because of the inherent tension between action and aspiration. Arendt writes:

The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility — of being unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing — is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past… and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which the future is by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability of any kind, would be possible in the relationships between [us].

To live in a world without forgiveness, she intimates, is to make of life an instant fossil record, each imperfect action instantly ossifying us into a failed promise of personhood:

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities — a darkness which only the light shed over the public realm through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfills, can dispel. Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self.

As a secular philosopher and one of the greatest champions of reason amid one of the most unreasonable epochs in the history of our civilization, Arendt observes:

The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense… Certain aspects of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth which are not primarily related to the Christian religious message but sprang from experiences in the small and closely knit community of his followers, bent on challenging the public authorities in Israel, certainly belong among them, even though they have been neglected because of their allegedly exclusively religious nature…

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