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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


SCHOEMAN, Marinus. Action, virtue and forgiveness in the political thought of Hannah Arendt. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2015, vol.55, n.1, pp.34-49. ISSN 2224-7912.

This article explores the interrelated concepts of action, virtue and forgiveness in the political thought of Hannah Arend. For Arendt a truly ethical or virtuous life is one that displays strength of character and greatness or generosity of spirit (magnanimity). As such it is the exact opposite of resentment and meanness of spirit. Forgiveness, together with trustworthiness (the capacity to make and to keep promises), constitute for Arendt the highest "principles" of action. The capacities of promising and forgiving do not only impart stability and durability to our actions, but they give us, in the first place, the confidence to act at all. Cultivating the capacities ofpromising and forgiving can thus be viewed as the highest expression of (and the most fundamental precondition for) virtue. According to Arendt, nothing on earth can be more ethical or more virtuous than helping to create a situation in which it becomes possible for people to go on with their lives, to make a fresh start in all candidness without being constantly plagued by feelings of guilt and remorse. For Arendt revengefulness is the opposite of forgiveness. It represents the worst of all vices, mainly because it is purely reactive, unable to initiate anything new or creative. Hence, the basic concern for Arendt is to devise strategies towards overcoming resentment and revengefulness. These strategies are discussed in some detail, with particular attention to Arendt's criticism of moral sentiments such as pity and compassion, as well as the egalitarian view of social justice. Arendt insists on the world-directedness of virtue and forgiveness. She takes it out of the narrowly circumscribed sphere of sentiments such as love, relating it rather to something like respect, which she describes as "a kind of 'friendship' without intimacy and without closeness." Arendt insists that in principle nobody should be excluded from participating in the public life of politics. But when persons indeed make their appearance in the public sphere, they are expected to demonstrate certain qualities, and quite rightly so. They are judged in terms of their trustworthiness, their personal integrity, their capacity for judgement, often their physical courage, as well as their commitment to matters of public concern (the res publica) and to excellence, "regardless not only of social status and administrative office but even of achievement and congratulation". Thus, participating in politics necessarily has an "elitist" (i.e. "aristocratic" or self-perfectionist) dimension: Only those who exhibit exceptional qualities and a passion for public life should be "allowed" to appear in the public sphere. The demand that everybody must be allowed to participate, irrespective of their capabilities or commitment to the public interest, will eventually lead to the degeneration of political action and its corruption through extra-political issues and interests. These views of Arendt must nevertheless be seen together with her plea for the "right to have rights", i.e. the right to belong to a political community where one can be seen and heard. This is the most basic, the most fundamental human right. Itfinds its purpose and legitimacy in itself, in the human condition of worldliness, natality and plurality. From an Arendtian perspective, a political community can only claim recognition and legitimacy if its members themselves respect the human conditions of natality and plurality. This, in turn, is what makes possible and sustains the public sphere, which isfor Arendt the best guarantee for a dignified, genuinely human existence, fragile as it may be. Violating these conditions amounts for Arendt to a "law against humanity". Genuine democracy requires a belief in equality and, where necessary, measures to maintain it. But this does not at all imply uniformity or homogenising of differences, which basically follows the logic of fabrication (social engineering). According to Arendt, this would lead to the destruction of the public sphere and genuine politics, leaving the door wide open for totalitarian rule or new forms of despotism.

Keywords : Hannah Arendt; action; virtue; respect; human dignity; forgiveness; moralism; pity; compassion; resentment; revengefulness.

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