Hannah Arendt on What Forgiveness Really Means – Brain Pickings

by Jeremy

To forgive is to assume a more significant identity than the person who was first hurt,” poet and philosopher David Whyte observed as he dove for the deeper meanings of our most everyday concepts. But, as James Baldwin and Margaret Mead demonstrated in their historical conversation about forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, Western culture has a confused understanding of what forgiveness requires of us and what it 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.

Hannah Arendt on What Forgiveness Really Means – Brain Pickings

To disentangle this cultural confusion into a lucid and luminous understanding of forgiveness demands an uncommon largeness of spirit and depth of intellect, a unique breadth of erudition and historical knowledge, and an unusual 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 on What Forgiveness Really Means – Brain Pickings

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 work 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:

Related Posts