02 February 2014

More Thoughts on Forgiveness

Some time ago I posted my thoughts about the place of forgiveness in the modern legal economy. In particular, I was keen to show that the promise-keeping was not the only virtue that should animate our legal rules and institutions. Thus, here, here and here I posted under the rubric of "Justice, Forgiveness, and the Bankruptcy Discharge." Evidence that I was not the only one thinking about the place of forgiveness in the law can be found in another of my posts here.

Reading on this bright and sunny "snow day" in Tidewater, Virginia I came across the following by Hannah Arendt in "The Human Condition" (although taken out of her order, I think her meaning is made more clear). On the one hand she writes, "the remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty of make and keep promises." Yet on the other hand she observes that, "The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility--of being able to undo what one has done ... is the faculty of forgiving."

Why are both faculties equally important?
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 is the future by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability, would be possible in the relationships between men.
Arendt goes on to challenge what I (not she) would call a naked natural rights understanding of human society, one which in its modern formulations sees society as an individual writ large. In its place, I take as significant Arendt's observation that a "moral code inferred from the faculties of forgiving and of making promises, rests on experiences which nobody could ever have with himself." Society is more than the individual although neither is it  less.

In other words, can we ask ourselves, which is more fundamental, the individual or the individual in society? Or, if I may be more provocative, from whom should our institutions draw inspiration, Prometheus or Jesus? Secular individualism is mighty tempting, especially when the only alternative seems to be secular statism. Neither, however, gives due credit to human nature as it is or, indeed, as it was created to be.

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