Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Some thoughts on Jesus and Forgiveness: With Special Guests: William Blake, Walter Benjamin, and Vladimir Jankelevitch

John Moriarty, in Serious Sounds, a story of his childhood growing up in Catholic Ireland, writes: "Was it Blake I wondered who had said that the difference between Jesus and Socrates was that Jesus could say, Your sins are forgiven you." He's close. Blake does write something like this, in pencil, in one of his notebooks (that is now recognized to be an unfinished, or at least unedited, poem). Blake writes:
There is not one Moral Virtue that Jesus Inculcated but Plato & Cicero did Inculcate before him what then did Christ Inculcate. Forgiveness of Sins. This alone is the Gospel & this is the Life & Immortality brought to light by Jesus. Even the Covenant of Jehovah, which is This If you forgive one another your Trespasses so shall Jehovah forgive you That he himself may dwell among you but if you Avenge you Murder the Divine Image & he cannot dwell among you [by his] because you Murder him he arises Again & you deny that he is Arisen & are blind to Spirit.

Blake then gets out his pen and jots down some rhymed couplets. The first stanza reads:
What can this Gospel of Jesus be
What Life & Immortality
What was [
It] that he brought to Light
That Plato & Cicero did not write
We find out that, according to Blake, what Jesus "brought to light" was the "forgiveness of sins":
Then Jesus rose & said to [men]
Thy Sins are all forgiven thee

While it may be true that, contrary to Charles Griswold's claim, Plato's (and Aristotle's) use of
sungnome doesn't amount to the forgiveness of the Abrahamic heritage, "forgiveness of sins" simpliciter is not unique to Jesus. We should avoid, here, making the same mistake as Hegel in "The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate" when he claimed that Judaism only knew the Law, not love or forgiveness. Such a mistake is similar to those who want to claim that Jesus "died for the truth of the gospels" and then go on to do some fancy intellectual footwork that includes reducing Christianity to some set of religious abstractions (which usually includes forgiveness) and then denying those abstractions (forgiveness) to Judaism. Jesus is doing something else when it comes to forgiveness. He did not discover it, he did not invent it, as if the Jews knew nothing of forgiveness. Rather, the Jews knew quite a bit about forgiveness and what Jesus says about forgiveness in the Gospel accounts would have been met with, at worst, a yawn, and, at best, support. What Jesus says about forgiveness in the Gospel accounts would have been, to borrow a felicitous phrase from E.P. Sanders, " about as controversial as motherhood" to the Jews (E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 333).
Unless, of course, we look at Jesus' claims about forgiving "sinners" - the
hamartoloi (behind which we see the Hebrew resha'im), the "wicked." This should hold our attention for awhile: the forgiveness of sinners, the forgiveness of the sins of sinners, the forgiveness of the sins of sinners who remain sinners (because if they were repentant and reformed sinners, they wouldn't be sinners anymore). This would be a forgiveness "without Money & without Price" that we saw in the previous post in which we find a quote from Blake's "Jerusalem." For Blake, this is the Jehovah's forgiveness, this is Jehovah's salvation. Perhaps, as we can see in the Benjamin quote from three posts ago, forgiveness maintains its foremost significance by not being a priori referred exclusively to humans. Perhaps this forgiveness is not a human possibility, perhaps there are things that are, as Arendt writes in a footnote in The Human Condition, "unforgivable, at least on earth" - which refers to a realm in which such things are fulfilled; namely, God's forgiveness. However, that doesn't mean that we can simply be satisfied with our human-all-to-human forgiveness, with the calculations we make and the conditions we set. Pure forgiveness, a forgiveness "without Money & without Price," does set our "duty" for us, does "determine and orient our efforts," as we see in the Jankelevitch quote two posts below. We can get "infinitely nearer to" pure forgiveness, to a forgiveness "without Money & without Price," a forgiveness of the sin and of the sinner who remains a sinner, the sinner qua sinner, a forgiveness of the sinner not "despite" the sin and the fact that they are a sinner, not "even though" they have sinned, but "precisely because" they are a sinner and have sinned.

(When I started writing this, I didn't plan on tying all these quotes together, but once I started they just came together. It needs work, but I think it is a good start.)

Some Lines from Blake

"Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in/
His arms: Doth he [Jehovah] forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who/
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep & his Angel in my dream:/
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall/
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity/
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven/
Such is the Forgiveness of the Gods, the Moral Virtues of the/
Heathen, whose tender Mercies are Cruelty. But Jehovahs Salvation/
Is without Money & without Price, in Continual Forgiveness of/
In the Perpetual Mutual Sacrifice in Great Eternity! for behold!/
There is none that liveth & Sinneth not! And this is the Covenant/
Of Jehovah: If you Forgive one-another, so shall Jehovah Forgive you:/
That He Himself may Dwell among You. Fear not then to take/
To thee Mary thy Wife, for she is with Child by the Holy Ghost"

- William Blake

William Blake, "Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion," Ch 3, Plate 61, lines 14-27 in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 211-212.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Some lines from Jankélévitch

"Even if no one since the world has been the world has ever forgiven without reservations, without afterthoughts, without mental restrictions, or without an infinitesimal amount of ressentiment, it suffices that the possibility of pure forgiveness is conceivable; even if it has never been attained in fact, the limit of pure forgiveness would still designate our duty to us, would determine and orient our efforts, would furnish a criterion for permitting us to distinguish between the pure and the impure, and would give a standard of measure to evaluation and a direction to charity. The one who never attains the ideal (the ideal being made precisely for never being attained) can get infinitely nearer to it. It is what the Phaedo, speaking of intelligible essences, calls eggutata ienai, 'to go closest'."
- Vladimir Jankélévitch

Vladimir Jankélévitch, Forgiveness, trans. Andrew Kelley (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005) 115-116.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Some Lines from Benjamin

"It should be pointed out that certain correlative concepts retain their meaning, and possibly their foremost significance, if they are [not a priori] referred exclusively to man. One might, for example, speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it. If the nature of such a life or moment required that it be unforgotten, that predicate would not imply a falsehood but merely a claim not fulfilled by men, and probably also a reference to a realm in which it is fulfilled: God’s remembrance."
- Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin, “Task of the Translator,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shocken Books, 1969), 70. Hannah Arendt quoted this passage in her essay on Walter Benjamin and the differences are included in brackets. See Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin,” Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, INC, 1968), 203.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Undoing What Has Been Done: Arendt and Levinas on Forgiveness

[Here is a copy of the paper I presented at the conference "Forgiveness: Probing the Boundaries" in Salzburg, Austria on March 15, 2009. The paper will be published in the conference proceedings later this year. Allow me three disclaimers. 1) This paper is a shorter version of the paper that I wrote for the course "Ethics After Auschwitz: Adorno and Levinas" at the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto) in Spring 2009. The version of the paper for that course was 25 pages long and I had to cut it down to 8 pages for the conference - no easy task! - and, therefore, I have cut out a majority of the literary flourishes with the hope that this doesn't make it dry and boring. 2) I am writing my PhD dissertation on the topic of forgiveness, focusing primarily on the work of Hannah Arendt. Presently as I envision my dissertation, a version of this paper is to make up the final chapter and, therefore, this paper assumes quite a bit - and perhaps too much. For example, Derrida's discussion of forgiveness isn't discussed in this paper, but it plays a large part in my understanding of forgiveness. Also, cutting this paper down to 8 pages forced me to assume a lot more than I had originally assumed in the 25 page version. 3) I have made a few changes to the argument since I delivered this paper (which I won't go into here). As time goes on, I am less and less satisfied with the argument (even to the point of questioning whether or not I actually make an argument). However, this is the version of the paper I delivered at the conference.
Anyway, I know it is rather long, but any comments, questions, criticisms, or whatever would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!]

If it is true that to forgive a person qua offender involves forgiving the person’s deed qua offense, what does it mean to forgive an offense?[1] Focusing my argument around Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, I will argue that forgiveness involves undoing a misdeed by reversing time, acting upon the past misdeed, and making it as if it did not happen. Such an act of forgiveness, thus, releases the sinner from the sinful past by giving the sinner a new past, a new beginning, and the possibility of beginning anew. To begin, we will turn to Arendt’s understanding of forgiveness as reversing the irreversible.

In The Human Condition, Arendt discusses action as involving the possibility of new beginnings.[2] Action as beginning “corresponds to the fact of birth” as the “actualization of the human condition of natality.”[3] Natality, for Arendt, is concerned with “the new beginning inherent in birth,” and is “the capacity for beginning something anew” on one’s own initiative, which each “newcomer possesses.”[4] For Arendt, this capacity for action means that “the unexpected can be expected,” that humans are “able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this… is possible only because each [person] is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world.”[5] Action as a “new beginning” then is a “miracle,” for Arendt, in that any new beginning “always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability.”[6] Every act “breaks into the world as an infinite improbability.”[7] Natality, the capacity to begin ever anew inherent in each individual by virtue of being born, is the source of our faith and hope that we are not condemned to some fatalistic eternal recurrence of the same, that what has happened did not have to happen and does not have to happen again. Thanks to natality, we can expect the unexpectable occurrence of the miraculous.

Such free action is boundless, unpredictable, and irreversible – three (potentially hazardous) characteristics of action. First, action is boundless. Action establishes relationships, opens limitations, and cuts across all boundaries. Laws, which are meant to protect against the boundlessness of action, are never reliable safeguards against such boundlessness. Second, action is unpredictable, in that it is impossible to foretell “the consequences of an act within a community of equals where everybody has the same capacity to act.”[8] The only possible safeguard against the unpredictability of action, for Arendt, is the making and keeping of promises. Promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible.[9] Third, action is irreversible. Once one acts, the action cannot be taken back and has uncontrollable consequences. It is irreversible in that one is “unable to undo what one has done though one did not, and could not, have known what he was doing.”[10] Promises do not provide an absolute safeguard against the unpredictability of action and, therefore, we need some way in which to reverse the irreversible action in order to release or unbind the offender from the offence and its consequences. This is where Arendt brings in the faculty of forgiveness as the “possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility.”[11]

Forgiveness, for Arendt, is itself an action – a miraculous new beginning – which creates a new situation. Forgiveness – as opposed to vengeance or revenge, which are predictable reactions with no power to unbind – “can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action.”[12] Furthermore, forgiveness is a “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.”[13] Here we see that, for Arendt, forgiveness, as a new action, frees both the forgiver and the forgiven from the consequences of the original action. Forgiveness is an action which redeems the irreversibility of action in that “forgiving attempts the seemingly impossible, to undo what has been done, and… it succeeds in making a new beginning where beginnings seemed to have become no longer possible.”[14] In part, forgiveness is the undoing or reversing of “what was done” – the act – “for the sake of who did it.”[15] Forgiveness, by attempting the impossible task of reversing the irreversible or undoing what has been done, is a new beginning where beginnings appear to be impossible, an action, which comes from the other and releases our capacity to act from the consequences of boundless, unpredictable, and irreversible action in order for it to be possible to begin anew.[16]

There are two characteristics of forgiveness as Arendt understands it in The Human Condition. On the one hand, Arendt understands forgiveness as a release, an unbinding of an agent from the consequences of an action.[17] On the other hand, Arendt holds that forgiveness is the undoing of what has been done for the sake of the one who did it.[18] These two characteristics are combined in The Human Condition, thus forging an understanding of forgiveness that focuses on the impossible and miraculous task of undoing the act in order to release the agent from its consequences.

In her work on forgiveness after The Human Condition, however, Arendt goes on to separate these two characteristics, no longer speaking of forgiveness as undoing while still maintaining the understanding of forgiveness as release that focuses exclusively on the person.[19]

But is Arendt too quick in jettisoning her understanding of forgiveness as reversing the irreversible, as undoing what has been done? Can an agent be released from her act without in some way having the act be forgiven?[20] I will argue that Arendt has jettisoned this understanding of forgiveness too quickly; the unbinding of the agent from the past deed does involve, in some way, undoing the past deed.

While one is not simply the sum of one’s actions – that is, one is not exhausted by one’s various inscriptions in the world, as Paul Ricoeur would say[21] – action, according to Arendt, does reveal, make manifest, or disclose “who somebody is.”[22] In light of this “revelatory character” of action[23] – that is, since any particular act reveals “who” the agent is – the agent is indissolubly bound to and, in an important sense, “one” with the act. If it is the case, as Arendt argues, that deeds reveal “who” a person is, then to forgive a person without forgiving the person’s deed would be to forgive that person only up to a point. It would be to forgive the part of the offender who either has not offended in the past or will not offend in the future, but it is not to forgive the “who” revealed in this deed, the offender qua offender, the part of the offender that has been offending and thus needs forgiveness. Forgiveness, rather, focuses on the “who” revealed in this deed, on the instant of offending when the offender is, in an important sense, “one” with the offense – so indissolubly bound to the offense that to forgive the offender also means to forgive the offense. Therefore, I think that Arendt has jettisoned too quickly her understanding of forgiveness as undoing what was done, and that we should pick it back up and take it farther.

In her discussion of forgiveness as reversing in The Human Condition, Arendt is not clear about what such a reversal of the irreversible entails. What does it mean to “undo” what has been done? Does she take such an undoing in a metaphysical sense in which the forgiver takes the place of Peter Damian’s omnipotent God and, reaching back in time, “physically” or “literally” makes something that was done in the past not to have been done at all?[24] Such an undoing, it seems to me, would not only annul the past but would also annul the forgiveness inasmuch as there would be nothing to forgive, the offender would become innocent having never offended to begin with. Forgiveness does not make the offender innocent; it makes the offender forgiven. Forgiveness requires that the past offense be left standing – or else there would be nothing to forgive – even as it requires that it somehow be undone or reversed. We need a forgiveness that is an undoing of a deed – which it has to be if it is going to be forgiveness of the offending aspect of the offender – and, at the same time, one that does not just eradicate the deed. Therefore, rather than understanding the undoing or reversing in such a metaphysical sense, I will read this undoing or reversing in what John Caputo calls a “purely ethico-phenomenological sense.”[25] In such a reading, I will turn to Levinas who is more explicit about what such an undoing or reversing would entail; namely, forgiveness is a reversing of time and an acting upon the past that makes it as if the event never happened, as if the deed had not been done, as if the doer had not done the deed.

For Levinas, one can “give the past a new meaning,” “repair the past” by re-narrating it, putting it in a new perspective, thus freeing and opening up the future.[26] This is the hermeneutical work of memory, the “salutary character of succession,” in which the past is re-presented and repaired within limits, but time keeps marching on.[27] By re-presenting and remembering – which is what Arendt means by teshuvah or repentance – one can retell one’s past, find new meanings for one’s past, and repair one’s past, but only so much.[28] As Robert Gibbs tells us, “it is FORGIVENESS that changes the past, not repentance” or memory.[29] In and of itself without recourse to others, memory has its limits; it can only do so much, “its age limits its powers,” as Levinas would say.[30] Without recourse to others – that is, without being forgiven – the past can be repaired, retold, and redescribed, but not to the point of changing it.

In contrast to the limited power of re-presenting the past, which is predicated on a successive understanding of time as becoming in which one is always launched toward the future and “toward death,” Levinas discusses what he calls “the discontinuous time of fecundity” which “makes possible an absolute youth and recommencement.”[31] This discontinuous time, beyond mere re-presentation, is the time of forgiveness in which, similarly to Arendt’s understanding, it bequeaths a radical new beginning without which “the I would remain a subject in which every adventure would revert into the adventure of a fate,” and thus no adventure at all.[32] When discussing “discontinuous time,” Levinas has in mind the parent/child relationship in which the parent has new chances in the life of the child; the child represents a new beginning for the parent. “My child is a stranger,” Levinas writes, invoking Isaiah 49, “but a stranger who is not only mine, for he is me. He is me a stranger to myself.”[33] It seems that Levinas is not discussing the parent/child relationship in a strictly intergenerational sense, and I would like to say that this discontinuity of time can be regenerational, pertain to the possibility of rebirth within the lifetime of a single person.[34] In a word, forgiveness is not only concerned with one’s flesh and blood child, but with one’s own rebirth. When someone forgives an offender, the offender is given a new birth in the eyes of the forgiver. Forgiveness, then, is “the very work of time”[35] since, as Levinas writes in Time and the Other, “time is essentially a new birth.”[36]

Forgiveness, for Levinas, is paradoxical in that it is retroactive and, as the “very work of time,” opens up the past itself and changes and acts upon it. From the view of “common time,” in which the present acts for the future but not the past, forgiveness “represents an inversion of the natural order of things” in that it is a “retroaction,” a reversing of time.[37] In remembering, we only bring the past forward, re-present the past, but do not go back and change the past. For Levinas, forgiveness “refers to the instant elapsed” in that “it permits the subject who has committed himself in a past instant to be as though that instant had not passed on, to be as though he had not committed himself.”[38] In forgiveness, what was done in the past is “undone” not in some metaphysical sense in which one “physically” or “literally” changes the past but, for Levinas, the past is ‘undone’ in a “purely ethico-phenomenological sense.”[39] Here the past is not manipulated, distorted, annulled, or abandoned and blotted out by forgetting. Rather, forgiveness, which is more active than forgetting, “acts upon the past, somehow repeats the event, purifying it.”[40] The past is not re-presented in the present through memory, or nullified through forgetting, but repeated in the past. Furthermore, the past event is repeated, but repeated differently, as if it has not passed, as if it never happened, as if the doer had not “committed” herself in action. Forgiveness is a “rigorously ethical event” in which the other reverses time and repeats the past as if it had not happened and as if the agent had not committed herself, therefore, altering “the event of the past, while preserving the past offense.”[41] Historically, the deed was done, but ethically, it is as if it had not been done.[42]

Such repetition purifies or cleanses the past event – the past is washed clean, not washed away – and “conserves the past pardoned in the purified present.”[43] Forgiveness cleanses the past event and repairs it “by repeating the past as forgiven.”[44] So while the event did happen, it is repeated in the past as if it did not happen and its reality is transformed in the present. By being forgiven, as Jeffrey Dudiak writes, “[i]t is not that my past is eliminated… but time will be relived, over and again, providing the possibility of a break with the past that is not heavy with this past, of a recommencement in time, liberated, time and again, with each passing generation, from fate.”[45] In forgiveness, I am given a new beginning, I become a child. Both pasts – the sinful one in which the event did happen and the cleansed or purified one in which it is as if the event did not happen – are conserved in the present. Therefore, forgiveness does not reinstate innocence, because the past did happen,[46] yet, forgiveness acts upon the past making it as if it did not happen.

Levinas then goes on to discuss forgiveness as constituting time itself. Time, for Levinas, is not the achievement of my consciousness, it is not of my doing, the future is not a ‘future-present’, a set of “indistinguishable possibles which flow toward my present and which I would grasp.”[47] Rather, time comes from across an “absolute interval” from the other as tout autre as a gift.[48] As Caputo writes: “The gift of forgiveness from the other belongs to the way the other, in forgiving me, gives me time.”[49] In forgiveness, this gift of time from the other is a gift of a new past, a cleansed sinful past, a forgiven past. In giving me my past, the other “unknots” me from my sinful past and “knots” me to the gift of a forgiven past.[50] Forgiveness, for Levinas, is the gift of time, the gift of a new birth.

To conclude, we should focus on this mention of “new birth” which reveals the most striking similarity between Levinas and Arendt. For Arendt, natality is the capacity to begin anew that humans have by virtue of being born. For both Arendt and Levinas, in forgiving, we see the new birth or “recommencement” coming from the other. The other, for Levinas, gives me a new past, which releases me from my “sinful” past, and, therefore, gives the possibility of a new future, a “new chance for desiring and being good.”[51] By forgiving, the other gives me time, gives me a new past, and gives me a new beginning. In the eyes of the forgiving other, it is as if one did not do what one did; the forgiven person is released from what she did and therefore is given a new beginning. Such a gift of a new beginning allows for the possibility of beginning anew, the possibility to “capitalize” upon our capacity of natality. Forgiveness both is a new beginning and gives a new beginning where one no longer seemed to be possible. For both Arendt and Levinas, forgiveness is that way in which humans give birth to the child of the future.

Arendt is on the right path when she discusses forgiveness as the reversing of the irreversible, or the undoing of what has been done for the sake of the one who did it. In order to forgive a person, the deed must be altered in some way; it must be undone or reversed. Arendt is correct, that is, to focus forgiveness in part on the deed itself and not simply on the doer, and I think we should not be quick to jettison such an understanding of forgiveness. From here we can pick up Arendt’s understanding of forgiveness as undoing or reversing again, and take it in a Levinasian direction in order to explicate what such an undoing or reversing would entail. Forgiveness, in part, focuses on a past misdeed, reversing time in order to (retro)act upon the misdeed, repeating it and purifying it, undoing or reversing the misdeed, making it as if the misdeed had not been done, as if the agent had not committed the misdeed, thus, giving the agent a new, forgiven past and the possibility of beginning anew. The deed has been done; yet, by forgiving, the past is cleansed and the future is opened for the offender to begin again as if the deed were never done.[52]


[1] Already, Arendt would contest such a question because forgiveness , for her, is not concerned with “offenses” (cf footnote 16). This paper assumes that to forgive the doer is at the same time to forgive a deed qua misdeed. I briefly (but by no means exhaustively) explain why I think this is the case later in the paper.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958). (Hereafter HC.) This beginning is only one part of action (archein). There is also another side to action, namely acting in concert to see the action through (prattein). “Here it seems as though each action were divided into two parts, the beginning made by a single person and the achievement in which many join by ‘bearing’ and ‘finishing’ the enterprise, by seeing it through.” (Arendt, HC, 189). (This has been, from the beginning of political philosophy, divided between two different stations in society; the ruler (archein) and the ruled (prattein). However, Arendt sees this as an attempt to control the unpredictability and irreversibility of action.)

[3] Arendt, HC, 178.

[4] Arendt, HC, 9, 176-177. See also HC, 246 where Arendt implicitly distances herself from Heidegger when she writes that “men, though they must die, are not born in order to die but in order to begin.”

[5] Arendt, HC, 178.

[6] Arendt, HC, 178.

[7] Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?,” Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin, 1968), 167.

[8] Arendt, HC, 244.

[9] Although I will not attempt it in this paper, it would be interesting to discuss action in relation to Jacques Derrida’s “archi-promise.” For Derrida, language promises, namely, by speaking, I am promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (but language is just a pointer and never delivers the “thing itself”), even if you lie (and this is why a lie works, because by speaking you are promising to tell the truth). Perhaps we could say, in a similar way, that action promises, namely, by acting, I am promising (perhaps the universal, or justice, or whatever), a promise that I cannot fulfill (so we always need forgiveness). See Jacques Derrida, Memoires: For Paul de Man, trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler, and Eduardo Cadava (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 119 and Howard Coward and Toby Foshay, eds., Derrida and Negative Theology (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1992), 84-85.

[10] Arendt, HC, 237.

[11] Arendt, HC, 237. Arendt sees the consumptive cycle of labor redeemed by work and the category of means and ends of work redeemed by action and speech. However, the redemption of the irreversibility and unpredictability of action “does not arise out of another and possibly higher faculty” (as with labor and work); rather, the redemption is “one of the potentialities of action itself” – namely, forgiveness and the making and keeping of promises. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to make the argument, I don’t agree with Arendt that forgiveness is a “potentiality” of action itself. If the possibility for reversal is built in, then the irreversible is not really irreversible and the reversal is not really a miracle.

[12] Arendt, HC, 241. Forgiveness, for Arendt, is the opposite of vengeance or revenge. Vengeance is a re-action against the original action. However, it does not put an end to the consequences of the action. Rather, “everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course.” Vengeance is programmable, expected, predictable, and calculable; forgiveness is not. See Arendt, HC, 240-241.

[13] Arendt, HC, 241. Arendt holds that forgiveness is the “only” reaction that “acts anew and unexpectedly.” But is it the only one? What about turning the other cheek? What about being grateful to the offender for providing an opportunity for my own personal growth?

[14]Hannah Arendt, “The Tradition of Political Thought,” The Promise of Politics, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 58.

[15] Arendt, HC, 241.

[16] I would like to point to perhaps the main problem I have with Arendt’s notion of forgiveness as undoing and releasing. Forgiveness, for Arendt, is concerned with undoing what was done in order to release the person from the consequences of action and not from the action itself because action, in the very specific, normative, phenomenological way in which Arendt describes it, is an “end in itself” (Arendt, HC, 206.) and is therefore “good” in and of itself and does not need to be forgiven. However, actions, as boundless and unpredictable, can become “trespasses” (harmartanein. Arendt, HC, 240 and n. 78.). “Trespassing,” according to Arendt:

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 make it possible for life 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 (Arendt, HC, 240).

Since action is unpredictable, when we act “we know not what we do” and every day we “miss the mark.” Forgiveness, then, is not concerned with those unpunishable and unforgiveable “offenses” (skandala. See Arendt, HC, 240, n. 80 and Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions on Moral Philosophy,” Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2003), 125). Forgiveness and punishment are alternatives, for Arendt, in that they both “attempt to put an end to something that without interference could go on endlessly” (Arendt, HC, 241). A deed that turns out to be unpunishable, according to Arendt, is also unforgiveable, and vice versa. Such a deed is an offense which “since Kant, we call ‘radical evil’”( Arendt, HC, 241). Therefore, on the one hand, radically evil offenses, for Arendt, are outside of the realm of forgiveness and punishment. In the destructive case of “radical evil,” Arendt repeats with Jesus: “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea” (Arendt, HC, 241. Here, Arendt is quoting Luke 17:2). However, on the other hand, “crime and willed evil” are outside the realm of forgiveness as well (However, in her later writings, Arendt holds that “it is the person and not the crime that is forgiven” (Arendt, “Some Questions on Moral Philosophy,” 95. My emphasis. It is interesting that she uses the word “crime” here and not “trespass.” Is this because she has broadened the boundaries of forgiveness to include the possibility of forgiving someone who has committed a crime?). Crime or willed evil are, according to Arendt’s reading of Jesus, dealt with at the Last Judgment which “is not characterized by forgiveness but by just retribution” (Arendt, HC, 240). In a word, forgiveness, for Arendt, is not concerned with evil (See Amos Friedland’s “Evil and Forgiveness: Transitions,” Perspectives on Evil and Human Wickedness, Vol. 1, No. 4, 2004, 24-47).

Why can’t evil deeds be forgiven? Arendt seems to make forgiveness a rather trivial matter that is too predictable, expected, and calculated (three things she said forgiveness is not. Arendt, HC, 241). What is more unpredictable, unexpected, and uncalculated than forgiving something that appears to be unforgiveable? It may be better if they were never born, but why not afford them the possibility of being reborn? Why not forgive? (For a discussion of forgiveness as forgiving the unforgiveable, see Jacques Derrida “To Forgive: The Unforgiveable and the Imprescriptible,” in Questioning God, ed. John D. Caputo, Mark Dooley, and Michael J. Scanlon (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001), 21-51, Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. by Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 27-60). While Arendt focuses forgiveness on undoing what was done in order to release a person from the consequences of an unpredictable and boundless action, I would like to follow Levinas, to whom we now turn, and focus it on undoing what was done in order to release a person from the action itself, from the deed qua misdeed, from the offense and not simply from the consequences of an action that has “missed the mark.” Forgiveness, as I understand it, involves the undoing of an offense, the reversing of a misdeed in order to release the agent from the misdeed, from the offense as well as its consequences.

[17] In this regard here are two quotes: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done…” (Arendt, HC, 237) and “Only through this constant mutual release from what they do…” (Arendt, HC, 240).

[18] Arendt writes that “forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past” (Arendt, HC, 237). Later, she writes about forgiveness as “the undoing of what was done” and goes on to write that “what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it” (Arendt, HC, 241). Here I assume that by “forgiven” she means the “undoing” of what was done.

[19] After reading The Human Condition, W.H. Auden, in a letter to Arendt, questioned her claim that we forgive “what was done… for the sake of who did it” (Arendt, HC, 241). “I was wrong,” Arendt concedes, “when I said we forgive what was done for the sake of who did it…. I can forgive somebody without forgiving anything” (Arendt to Auden, 14 February 1960, Library of Congress. (Arendt’s files do not contain the letter from Auden to which she was replying). See Elisabeth Young-Breuhl, For Love of the World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982), 371). Therefore, as she writes in her essay “Some Questions on Moral Philosophy,” Arendt came to understand that “it is the person and not the crime that is forgiven” (Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions on Moral Philosophy,” 95). Here we see that Arendt no longer understands forgiveness to be directed at the act in order to release the agent from the consequences of an action; rather, forgiveness is focused solely on the person. Therefore, forgiveness, for Arendt, is no longer concerned with undoing what was done; rather, it is concerned with releasing the agent from the act. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, a student of Arendt’s, writes that forgiveness as “releasing is much better for [Arendt’s] purposes than undoing or reversing for it carries no implication that the deed is forgotten or dissolved in some way, while releasing implies being unbound from the past in order to go on: it is a letting go” (Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 100). But is Arendt too quick in jettisoning her understanding of forgiveness as reversing the irreversible, as undoing what has been done?

[20] Does forgiveness as undoing necessarily imply that the “deed is forgotten or dissolved in some way,” as Young-Bruehl says? Can you “forgive somebody without forgiving anything,” as Arendt says? Can an agent be released from her act without in some way forgiving the act? Can one simply forgive an agent and not forgive the act?

[21] Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 490.

[22] Arendt, HC, 178. For Arendt’s discussion of action as disclosing “who” the actor is, see Arendt, HC, 175ff .

[23] Arendt, HC, 178.

[24] See Peter Damian’s “On Divine Omnipotence,” in Peter Damian, Letters, vol. 4, trans. Owen J. Blum (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998).

[25] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 229.

[26] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 282.

[27] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 282.

[28] Arendt, “Some Questions on Moral Philosophy,” 111-112. See also Robert Gibbs, Why Ethics? Signs of Responsibilities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 349.

[29] Gibbs, Why Ethics?, 351.

[30] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 282.

[31] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 282.

[32] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 282.

[33] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 267. Levinas’ emphasis.

[34] Caputo, The Weakness of God, 229.

[35] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 282.

[36] Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 81.

[37] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 283.

[38] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 283.

[39] Caputo, The Weakness of God, 229.

[40] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 283.

[41] Caputo, The Weakness of God, 229-230. Caputo also says that forgiveness alters the “meaning of the past,” but how is this not just re-presenting?

[42] As Kierkegaard would say, alluding to Isaiah 38:17, in forgiving, the past misdeed is placed “behind one’s back” and when one “turns to the one he forgives,” “he cannot see what lies behind his back” even though he is still aware of it. (Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), 274-275). While the deed has still historically been done, when the forgiver faces the forgiven person the deed is not seen by the forgiver, but the forgiver still is not unaware of the deed. In this sense, the deed was done and the forgiver knows it was done, but when facing the person with the deed behind the forgiver’s back, it is as if it was not done.

[43] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 283.

[44] Caputo, The Weakness of God, 230.

[45] Jeffrey Dudiak, The Intrigue of Ethics: A Reading of the Idea of Discourse in the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), 276. Here, Dudiak makes reference to two passages in Totality and Infinity: “Reality is what it is, but will be once again, another time freely resumed and pardoned” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 284) and “The fact and the justification of time consist in the recommencement it makes possible in the resurrection, across fecundity, of all the compossibles sacrificed in the present” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 284).

[46] Levinas writes that “[t]he pardoned being is not the innocent being.” Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 283.

[47] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 283.

[48] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 283.

[49] Caputo, The Weakness of God, 231.

[50] Gibbs, Why Ethics?, 352. Also see Caputo, The Weakness of God, 231.

[51] Adriaan Peperzak, To The Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1993), 200.

[52] I would like to thank Ronald A. Kuipers, Jeffrey Dudiak, and Shannon Hoff for their extensive and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I would also like to thank Lambert Zuidervaart who, along with Shannon, Ron, and Jeff, lead a seminar entitled “Ethics After Auschwitz: Adorno and Levinas” at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto in Spring 2008. This paper is a shorter version of the paper that I wrote for that seminar.