Political space rests on forgiveness.
We cannot take back what we have said. As soon as we have said something out loud it is impossible for us to reverse time and to take it back. “What’s done is done.”
Consequently, the debaters will be very careful what they say, not only because they are worried about their own appearance but also because they know that whatever they say is out of their control as soon as it has left their lips. Even the simplest expression such as a thoughtless sigh may be the reason for great regret – especially today, when almost everything that those who still dare to appear in public say and do, is recorded, analysed from all possible perspectives and often (over)interpreted.
To Arendt, irreversibility is one of the three great frustrations of human action (the other two are unpredictability and boundlessness). All of them stand in sharp opposition to the faculty of making. While human hands are capable to destroy and to take back, as it were, everything they have made, they are helpless with respect to the deeds they have done. This helplessness is one of the reasons why we distrust the political realm; and why so many have tried to turn political action into a form of making.
Luckily humans have the power to forgive. While we make promises in order to limit the unpredictability of the future, we forgive in order to free ourselves from the past. If we could not forgive each other, we would be bound forever to what we have done; and action would turn into a series of reactions, thereby losing its very essence, namely the power to begin new processes that cannot be reduced to causes and effects.
“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. In this respect, forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing” (HC: 240)
But while “the power of stabilization inherent in the faculty of making promises has been known throughout our tradition”, Arendt remarks that forgiveness “has always been deemed unrealistic and inadmissible in the public realm” (HC: 243). Nonetheless, forgiving is an authentic political experience – I cannot forgive myself; and your forgiveness is irrelevant if I do not accept and affirm it – with such an enormous impact on the realm of human affairs that Arendt once described it as “one of the greatest human capacities and perhaps the boldest of human actions” (EU: 308).
It should be pointed out in passing that forgiving, in contrast to forgetting, is a human capacity. We can forgive; it does not just happen. Forgetfulness, on the other hand, is natural and it often happens even though we try our best to avoid it. The only way to make sure that we will not forget whatever we would like to remember is to transform fleeting thoughts, words and deeds into durable objects. In this respect, action is completely helpless since it cannot produce anything that would survive the moment of action. Therefore “acting and speaking men need the help of […] the artist, of poets and historiographers, of monumentbuilders or writers, because without them the only product of their activity, the story they enact and tell, would not survive at all.” (HC: 173)
Political action is irreversible. In order to remain free actors, capable of making new beginnings, we rely on our capacity to forgive others. Political space encourages us to forgive.