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  • Does Forgiveness Have a Place? Hegel, Arendt, and Revolution
  • Bernadette Meyler (bio)

Hannah Arendt concludes the section of The Human Condition on “Action” by considering two complementary concepts, those of forgiving and promising — both of which establish the other-regarding quality of action, and, hence, its political dimension. As she additionally explains, both forgiving and promising also affect the temporality of the world of action; while forgiving supposedly “serves to undo the deeds of the past,” promising “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 men” (HC, 237).[1] Although forgiving and promising each provide a plurality for the political that Arendt deems lacking in a Platonic politics, she identifies them as inherently moral rather than immediately political (HC, 245–46). Forgiving, in particular, is not described within the context of a recognizable political sphere, but instead assumes an interpersonal quality; verging on a religious type of redemption, it was supposedly “discovered” by Jesus of Nazareth (HC, 238). Promising appears to make up this deficit, as Arendt insists that it provides the only viable basis for the concept of sovereignty, and, in doing so, transforms that political principle (HC, 245). Given the intimate connection Arendt diagnoses between forgiving and promising, it is somewhat surprising that, when she rejects sovereignty as traditionally conceived in On Revolution, and insists upon the significance of the American revolution’s experience of promising, forgiveness nowhere appears on the horizon. Why, then, has forgiveness fallen away from this text?

Before approaching the question, it may be useful to imagine how forgiveness might have operated in On Revolution. Dealing with beginnings, the text focuses primarily on a comparison between the French and American revolutions and their respective capacities to continue the process of recommencement. Forgiveness, as Arendt describes it in The Human Condition, should assist in this task, the attempt to reformulate the present in a manner that exceeds the potential of the past. Calling forgiveness “the exact opposite of vengeance” (HC, 240), she explains that, whereas the latter simply reinforces the initial deed by perpetuating a “chain reaction,” the former realizes human agency, since “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” (HC, 241). When Arendt then elaborates on the triangulation of forgiveness, vengeance, and punishment, the final element differentiated from but not opposed to the others, her account recalls Hegel’s description of the relationship between revenge and retribution in The Philosophy of Right.

Whereas revenge (die Rache), for Hegel, remains personal, a “particular caprice of the subjective will (subjectiven Willens)” (PR, § 101 Addition (H)),[2] retribution (die Wiedervergeltung)[3] represents the cancellation (Aufheben) of the crime (PR, § 101). Although acknowledging that retribution may adopt the same form of arbitrary external equivalence as the lex talionis’ “eye for an eye,” Hegel insists that it instead establishes an inner equality of value between crime and punishment (PR, § 101). Rather than being imposed from without, retribution is entailed by the concept of the crime itself: “What is at first sight objectionable about retribution is that it looks like something immoral, like revenge, and may thus be interpreted as a personal matter. Yet it is not the personal element, but the concept [Begriff] itself which carries out retribution” (PR, § 101 Addition (H)).

Aligning Arendt’s punishment with Hegel’s retribution and pairing vengeance with revenge, the nature of the relationship between forgiveness and punishment becomes apparent. Since Arendt conceives of forgiveness as “an eminently personal (though not necessarily individual or private) affair” (HC, 241), an act that occurs for the sake of the other and does not pass through the objective determination of the state, it subsists on the same level as revenge. Punishment, like forgiveness, however, also represents an end to the cycle of crime, in contrast to vengeance (HC, 241); as Hegel, whom Arendt follows here, asserts, “revenge, as the positive action of a particular will, becomes a new infringement; because of this contradiction, it becomes part of an infinite progression...

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