The question of forgiveness is one that comes up in both personal and political contexts. What this means is that forgiveness is not simply about harms done to ourselves or those close to us, but about the harms done to others in the larger community. Forgiveness, therefore, may be seen as a kind of ethical response to harms perpetrated either consciously or unconsciously. The problem of forgiveness, however, rests upon whether or not any act can be forgiven and whether forgiving is something that should always be granted. Further, we must understand if forgiveness is for the self or for the other, or both.
We might first consider forgiveness within a private context, that is, as a harm perpetrated by someone upon our person, creating some form of hurt or pain. Common responses to pain can range from anger, rage, sadness, despair, depression or even suppression of the pain depending on the how deep the wounding or grievance the harm done. It is a common belief that forgiveness is a way to mitigate this pain for the sake of healing, as an individual. This view holds that the forgiveness of injury is really more about the self for the sake of healing and moving forward. In my experience, this view is the one that one is most likely to encounter when looking for information and understanding regarding forgiveness.
I recommend when looking at the issue of forgiveness it is important to consider the nature of actions, so that we gain a deeper understanding as to why forgiveness is an important concept both personally and politically. To foster such a discussion, I recommend perusing Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, where she qualifies action as a significant feature of human existence, one exercising the power of spontaneity, but with the added difficulty of the open-ended possibilities that such spontaneity can create. In other words, in action we birth new events into being, but with the complication of not controlling all the outcomes of what we put into motion. Arendt calls this complication “irreversibility” (237).
As Arendt explains:
“The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done through 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, whose “sins” hang like Damocles’ sword over every new generation . . .” (237)
“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.” (237)
Arendt notes two important things about forgiveness here:
First, she understands that forgiveness is a necessary feature of life for any of us. We all take actions that we do not completely control and because of that, we must rely on forgiveness in order to continue to act in the world. In this sense, it is not so much about my forgiving you for what you did to me as it is about my reliance on the community to forgive what I may do to them. As part of the community, of course, this goes the same for all others, so that they would need my forgiveness as well. Forgiveness, in this sense, is not merely a private form of grace, but part of the cycle of actions in the world that perpetuate the human condition itself. Without forgiveness we simply cannot continue to be in a fundamental way.
Secondly, forgiveness features our lack of control over ends of our actions. Because actions are innately open-ended, the outcomes of actions cannot be cleanly predicted. We can always, even with good intentions, even with good actions, cause harm. Because acting itself contains this possibility, forgiveness is necessary, both on a personal and communal level. It is part of existing in a world with others who may be impacted by what we do. In this sense, forgiveness is an act we carry with us knowing that harm may occur. We feel secure to act because we know that forgiveness may happen. Forgiveness, therefore is not only a moral response that we may choose to take, but one that we must necessarily rely upon to exist in a world with others. As Arendt explains forgiveness depends “on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself” (237).
Arendt’s view is unique in that it posits that self-forgiveness is not a possibility, but rather a binding term of action in a world with others, so that what I do carries with it a reliance on forgiveness and likewise for what you do in relation to me, etc. It is essentially relational, not about myself. This begs the question of what self-forgiveness could even be? When I am forgiving myself, what is it I am forgiving? It is here that I would like to posit that self-forgiveness from this relational perspective entails forgiving the breach in the relationship I created through the harm. This may be even more important in terms of not being able to glean forgiveness from another, so that I must do the forgiving for them. In forgiving myself I can, on the one hand, forgive the breach of the relationship if I have created the harm or I can forgive the breach of the relationship the other person created in their stead. Either way, what is being pardoned and potentially restored is myself in acting relationship with the world, not merely myself or, on the other hand, their relationship with the world, through me, as a representative of the community of which their acts are bound.
Forgiveness then is the restoration of the connection with others. Acts creating harms are a breach of this connection, transforming connection through the breach – that is - it is a harmed connection through which I now relate to you. Forgiveness is the attempt to restore the connection so that I no longer relate to you through the harm, but through forgiving connection, one that recognizes your powerlessness to control all the terms of your acts.
A couple of things arise in this view. First, is the question: “What about those who consciously perpetrate harm?” Arendt does not so much deal with intentional harm as she does with the fact of harm as a consequence of acting in the world. Intentional harm makes us re-evaluate the possibility of forgiveness, as the act was done against the faith of the community to forgive in the first place. An intentional harm presents us with someone who sees themselves outside the relational terms of the community altogether, so exempt from the terms and conditions of their actions in the world with others – what we might call a narcissist. A narcissist can only appear in the world through domination because they are not able to work within the terms of action that imply the binding grounds of promise-keeping and forgiveness.
“Without the fulfilment of promises” (237), Arendt explains, “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 fulfils, can dispel” (237).
In other words, our identities are bound to the conditions of both faith and trust established innately in promise-making. When we promise something, within the act of promising, we bind ourselves to the fulfillment of the promise, reflecting our tie to the one whom we promised. Without our word holding weight, we could not rely on each other and the world would not work. What Arendt reveals here is that one who operates outside of the binding conditions of keeping their word and the potential to forgive, fails to be one who is capable of appearing in the activities of the community. Because they cannot recognize the binding terms of their own identity – an identity only conceivable in relation with others – they exist in the periphery, a place where they cannot be seen or recognized by the community. They locate themselves outside of the world and its terms, conditions, and relational values. In so doing, they may only form an identity through anti-communal activities, such as manipulation, egoic display, and domination: the creation of harm to be recognized as an identity. They make their appearance in the world through harming others, but in a way that makes them exempt from the need for forgiveness or the requirements of trusting what they say and its tie to what they do. In not needing to be forgiven, neither do they feel the need to forgive others. In not being trustworthy, establishing themselves as an identity in the community through the through-line of what they say to what they do, they have no faith in the connection of the words and acts of others. This kind of person is one who might be said to be unforgivable. They are a dark island unto themselves. In perpetuating harms outside the communal terms, they impose their identity onto others, a kind of imprint of themselves through the harm, an unraveling of the binding grounds of the other’s being in the world. They harm the grounds of the plurality – the arising of others through relationship. They steal away the other’s identity by precluding the possibility of connection. Only they can appear.
Arendt also discusses the problem of harms done, even unconsciously, that may be so horrific that they may be unforgivable. In her controversial “Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil” she discusses Eichmann’s contribution to the Nazi horrors perpetrated on the Jewish community. She shows that Eichmann, though seeing himself as a moral man, as a man just going to his job, sitting behind a desk, shuffling paper, was truly a mindless actor in the world, a banal evil, a kind of evil more insidious in some ways than the overt violator. Eichmann was a man who did not have judgment, the ability to know right from wrong because he could not see the disconnect between his moral (Kantian deontological) values and his everyday actions as a bureaucrat for the Nazi’s. Furthermore, he couldn’t see how his morality justified his action, thus undermining his ability to properly make moral judgements. In this sense, Eichmann was mindless, an unthinking cog in a machine of evil, and as unthinking, evil himself. In this pushing of papers, he signed off on the death of a huge number of people. Arendt discusses several complications of Eichmann’s complicity with the Nazi’s and the failures of how the court addressed an unprecedented case, namely genocide from totalitarian rule. Ultimately, the case represents the ontological condition of plurality, the condition of life on earth as multitudinous – there are many who share this earth and each has a given right to live on the earth, so that no one can determine whether or not another has the right to appear on the earth or not. The problem that the Eichmann trial brings out, among others, is that in deciding that the Jewish community was not fit to “share the earth” (279) then “we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang” (279). In violating the plural conditions of earthly existence, one may forego the forgiveness of the community. This suggests that some acts may be irreversible in a way that it breaks the communal terms grounding action permanently. Then, the community may expel one from its shared conditions.
While not all of us have harms done to us on the level of the extermination of an entire people, we may have experienced harms that bring up our ability to forgive another and our desire to expel someone from our association(s). The question this brings up is whether or not we will be able to move ahead in our community in a forgiving relation or if we will remain in one of harmed relation? The problem of even a single event, an incident between just two people, is that it carries the weight of the world, so to speak. Bound up in the event, are the conditions of shared existence itself. Harm by another can affect all our relationships. It isn’t just that we don’t trust the person that has done the harm to us, but that we may no longer trust at all. We may simply lose our faith. This possibility points to the fact that our faith in any other is connected to all the ties that bind us. Forgiveness is moral-political precisely because it already implies the community. When we have faced harm, forgiveness becomes not only a single act, but a way of approaching how we relate with others – we must continually take up forgiveness in order to restore our trust and faith. But, if there are harms that foreclose our ability to take up forgiveness then are we forever unable to establish the terms of this restoration? Are we even obligated in some cases to not forgive? Here we see the struggle of forgiveness, the weight of its responsibility. Are there cases where reconciling with the world would actually be the wrong thing to do? Honestly, I do not have an answer to this and such a struggle is one that we must carry along with our pain. It is part of the story of that pain and it may be that the only answer can come from the community at large, where my pain is taken into the story of the community, so that some of the weight of forgiveness may be a cross that I no longer bear alone, but is recognized as a struggle within the larger world, one that re-humanizes this struggle for me.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin: New York, 1992.
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago UP: Chicago, 1958.