Trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing in order to go on by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly. Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.
—Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt relates Augustine’s Christian concept of forgiveness to human action and agency. Forgiveness solves an important problem inherent to the activity of action. Since “men never have been and never will be able to undo or even control reliably any of the processes they start through action,” human beings are met with the disabling reality of processes whose outcomes are both unpredictable and irreversible. Knowing that our actions may lead to evil or unhappiness, why would anyone take the risk of action at all? Remarkably, Arendt finds the remedy to this predicament within the faculty of action itself. The antidote for irreversibility is forgiveness, which “serves to undo the deeds of the past” by releasing actors from the consequences of their actions.
The beauty of forgiveness is that it interrupts otherwise automatic processes. For example, forgiveness enables actors to become freed from vengeance, “which encloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.” Within the space created by the interruption, forgiveness creates a new relationship that is radically different from what existed before.
As something startlingly new, forgiveness is not conditioned by the wrong that provokes it and it can therefore never be predicted. Arendt admits as much. She explains, “forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly.” Released from vengeful reactions, I can act in ways that are not predetermined or compelled by another’s trespasses against me. In this sense, forgiveness is an unanticipated, uncaused and undetermined act; is it truly spontaneous. Arendtian forgiveness seems to take on a metaphysical stature; it appears to be able to change the nature of reality, undoing the irreversible. It acts against necessity, undoing what was done by releasing the doer from the deed.
In the last 60 years, notably in tribunals and reconciliation commissions characteristic of transitional justice, forgiveness has become a political and legal ideal in cases where massive moral injury threatens to extinguish human plurality and dignity. Seen as a willingness to continually participate in an imperfect world with civility, those willing to forgive demonstrate the ability to begin again not only despite the social facts of moral injury and misrecognition, but as Arendt teaches, also despite ontological facts of irreversibility, contingency, and unpredictability. Forgiving victims who are able to respond creatively rather than vindictively are said to escape the vicious cycle of violence and exemplify their moral agency.
What does forgiveness really do as a political tool? Arendt’s forgiveness responds creatively to the fact of injury. What I’d like to suggest is that Arendt understands forgiveness as a cure for the irreversibility of action, not of violence. Unlike many contemporary (theological and secular) political views that see forgiveness as an act of compassion in response to atrocity, Arendt insists that forgiveness is an activity of politics.
Understood politically, forgiveness is about surviving these effects of irreversibility. Because linear time shapes human experience, irreversibility is unavoidable. Taking aim at what cannot be undone, forgiveness releases actors from what would otherwise become a mechanistic or routinized cycle of retaliation.
Arendt describes forgiveness as the act of constantly releasing the wrongdoer. Quoting Luke 17:3-4, she says “And if he trespass against thee…and…turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt release him.” If the wrongdoer shows signs of contrition or transformation, he should be released from the trespass.
In his essay about Arendt’s judgment of Eichmann, Roger Berkowitz argues that Arendt adopts the language of release or dismissal (which I find very similar to Nietzsche’s understanding of forgetting) in order to characterize the action of forgiveness, a move that greatly limits the scope or reach of forgiveness. Berkowitz explains,
Arendt critically limits the province of forgiveness to minor trespasses… As she notes, the Greek word in the Gospels traditionally translated as “forgiveness” is aphienai, which Arendt suggests means to “dismiss” and “release” rather than “forgive.” As a release, Arendt’s defense of forgiveness does not reach the forgiving of crimes and sins. Instead, forgiveness is limited to the “constant mutual release” that allows men to continue to act in the world.
People can release each other, but the capacity as denoted by the original Greek amounts to dismissal rather than pardon or exoneration.
Whereas forgiveness releases, its opposite, vengeance, binds people to the past crime and to the process of reaction. Vengeance, unlike forgiveness, is not creative of new possibilities for action. Instead, it “acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process. But note that it is the deterministic character that threatens the sphere of action and which morphs a trespass into an unforgiveable crime. The magnitude of the crime is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for crimes against plurality.
Unlike the common imperialist tactic of legalized discrimination, Arendt explains in Eichmann in Jerusalem that war crimes committed by totalitarianism gave rise to the unprecedented:
It was when the Nazi regime declared that the German people not only were unwilling to have any Jews in Germany but wished to make the entire Jewish people disappear from the face of the earth that the new crime, the crime against humanity—in the sense of a crime “against human status,” or against the very nature of mankind—appeared.
Expulsion and genocide must remain distinct; the former is an offense against fellow-nations, whereas the latter is an attack upon human diversity as such, that is, upon a characteristic of the ‘human status’ without which the very worlds ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ would be devoid of meaning.
Arendt described such actions as those which “transcend the realm of human affairs and the potentialities of human power, both of which they radically destroy wherever they make their appearance.” Eichmann’s actions destroyed human potentiality. Arendt cannot forgive such crimes.
This is our first clue that the offences to which forgiveness responds are within the reach of dismissal, whereas crimes against the human status are not. Moreover, forgiveness releases those who “unknowingly” transgressed. The predicament of action is that people cannot know the consequences of their actions (action is unpredictable). When the act is intended to harm, the law calls for punishment. It would be a mistake therefore to think that Arendtian forgiveness is intended to cure anything outside the realm of action.
It is a striking absence that Arendt did not refer to the concept of forgiveness as it is developed in the Human Condition in her decision in Eichmann in Jerusalem. And yet Arendt wasn’t attempting to create a complete system of concepts across her work. As her views changed, her concepts also shifted. But having the limits of Arendt’s forgiveness in mind can, I think, nonetheless help us understand her judgment against Eichmann. Because Eichmann’s decisions and rule following annihilated spontaneity and plurality, he cannot be released from his deeds.