2nd Global Conference
Friday 13th March – Monday 16th March 2009
Session 8: Arendt and Levinas
Chair: Francesca Dominello
Tikkun Olam through Forgiveness and Promise: Renewing the World in the thought of Hannah Arendt
University of Tasmania, Australia
This paper is an exploration of the inseparable faculties of forgiveness and promise in the thought of Hannah Arendt. It focuses on the ways she demythologised certain religious practises and concepts in her political account of forgiveness and promise. Attention is drawn to her recommendation to engage in “the secularization of religious tradition,” and the similarities between elements of the Jewish mystical tradition, in particular the concept of tikkun olam, and her political theory are made explicit. This study reveals that there is much more at work and at stake in forgiveness and promise than just release from the past and shared commitment to the future.
Consider forgiveness. It does not just release or unbind someone from the consequences of a past action. First of all, in Arendt’s account forgiveness must be requested, and in the request for forgiveness there is simultaneously an acknowledgment that this particular harmful action did in fact occur in the world. The one who asks for forgiveness binds themself to a past in which at least one other was hurt. The reality of that particular past is reconstituted as a shared reality held in common between different human beings. Yes, it was experienced differently by those present, but the same event is mutually acknowledged as an event that did occur. All are bound to it. Only then, when its reality has been re-established, can that past release its hold. While forgiveness releases the doer of the deed, it is the acknowledgment of the reality of the event that can sometimes release the one done unto. In other words, the reconstitution of the reality of the event can serve to bind the wound or to mend the rupture and thus enact tikkun olam.
Similarly, Arendt’s discussion of making and keeping promises is a paradigmatic instance of the secularisation of another key Jewish belief and practise. The belief is that promises made between people are so important that not even God can forgive someone for breaking a promise made to another person. In practise, the day before Yom Kippur (which is the day of atonement, the holiest day of the year in the Jewish liturgical calendar) is set aside for asking forgiveness from those to whom you have broken a promise. Put bluntly, before one can petition God for the forgiveness of sins, one must ask for human forgiveness of broken promises. The day preceding Yom Kippur is set aside for this human activity of mending broken promises, of reconstituting a world in common.
If we begin from the premise that Arendt herself engaged in what she proposed, i.e., “the secularization of religious tradition,” then our understanding of what is occurring in her thought on forgiveness and promise is markedly enriched, for we are led to recognise it as a form of tikkun olam, a way of renewing, mending, reconstituting worldly reality. We might also comprehend more fully why forgiveness, in Arendt’s thought, is simultaneously personal (though not private) and political.
Undoing What Has Been Done: Arendt and Levinas on Forgiveness
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, a misdeed, a sin? The purpose of this paper is to explore this question. Focusing my argument around Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas, I will argue that forgiveness (which is not synonymous with forgetting or condoning) involves undoing or reversing a misdeed by reversing time and acting upon the past misdeed, cleansing and repeating it in the past, and making it as if it did not happen. Such an act of forgiveness, which only the victim may grant, releases the sinner from the sinful past by giving the sinner a new past, a new beginning, and the possibility of beginning anew. I will begin by focusing on Arendt’s understanding of forgiveness in The Human Condition, as the reversing of the irreversible, the undoing of what has been done. One of the characteristics of action, according to Arendt, is that it is irreversible and cannot be undone. However, forgiveness, for her, performs the miraculous and impossible task of reversing an action that has consequences that we never anticipated. Forgiveness, then, is the undoing of what has been done for the sake of who did it. Here we see that, for Arendt, to forgive a doer is indissolubly tied to forgiving a deed and that forgiving a deed allows for the forgiven person to begin anew. Arendt claims, however, that forgiveness is not concerned with misdeeds, offenses, or sins, but with actions from whose consequences we need to be released. Against Arendt, I would like to focus forgiveness on harmful deeds themselves, on deeds qua misdeeds, offenses, or sins. While Arendt is not quite clear as to what undoing a deed would look like, and she later stopped talking about forgiveness as undoing what was done, I am not ready to jettison such an understanding of forgiveness and would like to hold to it, but take it in another direction.
The direction in which I would like to take it is the one proposed by Levinas, who, in Totality and Infinity, discusses forgiveness in a way similar to Arendt’s understanding in The Human Condition. However, Levinas has a more expanded notion of forgiveness as undoing – one that concerns the undoing or reversing of misdeeds. Furthermore, he is more explicit about what such an undoing or reversing would entail. Namely, forgiveness is a reversing of time that makes it as if the deed had not been done, as if the doer had not done the deed. In forgiveness, the forgiver acts upon the past by repeating and cleansing it, and, therefore, the forgiver gives the sinner a new past, a forgiven past, which releases the sinner from the sinful past and allows for a new beginning.
The Unatonable Guilt and the Force of Time. The Problem of Forgiveness in the Works of Emmanuel Levinas
In the philosophy of the western tradition, forgiveness has not been seen as an urging philosophical problem for centuries. Forgiveness played a role in two related areas, theology, and justice. In Christian theology, forgiveness descends from divine grace. In justice, certain authorities can forbear from punishing by giving judicial pardon. The two forms of forgiveness have a related structure, as the judicial authorities traditionally claimed to derive their power from god.
But what if the guilt in question is so profound that it has no imaginable atonement in judicial or theological terms? The problem of the unatonable guilt has been explicitly introduced in the philosophical discourse of the second part of the 20th century, under the impression of the historical disaster. The French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, for example, has written: “Forgiveness has died in the death camps”, and has expressed thereby a helplessness that has dominated philosophy since 1945, especially German philosophy, whose famous representative Martin Heidegger remained silent with respect to the shoah until his death.
An important theoretical attempt towards the problem of the unatonable guilt is the consideration of forgiveness by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who related both, guilt and forgiveness, to the problem of time. Time will therefore be the key to the understanding of forgiveness that this paper elaborates on.
For Levinas, guilt is based on a constitutive relation between time and choice. He sees the fundamental guilt in being I in the first place, because being I means to take away opportunities from the other by choosing them for myself. This structure of choosing possibilities and thereby blocking them for others had already been introduced by Martin Heidegger in “Being and Time”. While Levinas tried to keep a distance from Heidegger and his thoughts throughout the rest of his life after the war, his early studies in Freiburg were certainly influenced by Heidegger’s thinking, and the structural relation between their concepts of the origin of guilt is striking. Heidegger’s concept of time, especially considered as “Zeitlichkeit”, seems to be the theoretical knowledge on which the relation between forgiveness and time in Levinas’ main work “Totality and Infinity” should be based.
The movements of choice and time are fundamentally related to guilt by Heidegger and Levinas. In this way guilt is taken out of a traditional theological or judicial context. Guilt is no longer related to an “original sin” nor to breaking rules. Levinas’ view on forgiveness is based on this concept of guilt. This paper discusses to what extent the concept of forgiveness proposed by Levinas can provide an approach towards forgiving the unatonable, beyond traditional terms, by conceiving forgiveness as time.