A Remedy for Incongruence

When I was in late elementary school, I sinned against my childhood friend, one of three close friends I had at the time. His father and my father were deans of the university in my hometown, but of different faculties. I had overheard a conversation my father had and the topic was his father. My father expressed some dissatisfaction. Yet, in my next conversation with my friend, dissatisfaction was converted to “hate”. The relationship between my friend and I never recovered, and to this day, I don’t know what has become of him. Something was incongruent with me, but also, with my inner circle.

How many people who have been part of your inner circle have become enemies? Or… how many enemies do you count as part of your inner circle?

Most of us have primarily like-minded people in our inner circle. Either they come from the same culture, or we happen to connect with them because we have common interests, or common explicit perspectives about public issues. A very small minority of us include people who are more than merely supportive of us.  Our inner circle is our group of significant others, who by being significant, have made substantial contributions to who we are as individuals. Think of your closest friends and family members. But to count those who conflict with us among them? Jesus commanded us to love our enemies – and Jesus had Judas Iscariot among his group of significant others.

Our significant others form a kind of communal space through which we find our own identity.  To be true to ourselves – to be authentic – requires that such a communal space provides us a repertoire of skills that includes a culture of forgiveness. If we are not able to enter into a relationship of forgiveness, then we will have no people who can refine us. These people are important, because they don’t just act as an audience to our whims or to our false self-perceptions; they check us.

But this can lead to conflict, and frequently, to a type of conflict in which the only way to save the relationship would be to enter into the process of forgiveness. It is one of the biggest sources of incongruence in our lives.

It is at this point where Hannah Arendt enters the story and offers us an explicit connection between what we do and who we are. In The Human Condition, she explains that while being other is a feature of human plurality, human distinctness is something human individuals do; we distinguish ourselves. “But only man can express this distinction and distinguish himself, and only he can communicate himself and not merely something—thirst or hunger, affection or hostility or fear. In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinctness, which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness, and human plurality is the paradoxical plurality of unique beings.”

For Arendt, action expresses an individual “who”, and actions express the “who” within a context of human plurality. For Arendt, action is a disclosure of an individual, but interestingly, not necessarily the identity which the individual themselves want to project. As Arendt further explains,

“On the contrary, it is more than likely that the “who,” which appears so clearly and unmistakably to others, remains hidden from the person himself, like the daimon in Greek religion which accompanies each man throughout his life, always looking over his shoulder from behind and thus visible only to those he encounters. This revelatory quality of speech and action comes to the fore where people are with others and neither for nor against them—that is, in sheer human togetherness.” (pp.179-80)

And in this, Arendt admits the essential quality of authenticity as distinguished from self-perception – who we really are as distinguished from who we think we are or attempt to project to others – is only disclosed in the presence of the plurality of other people, and a plurality of people who are neither for nor against us. Authentic people, thus, are not possible when completely surrounded by a lifestyle enclave or people of the same opinion. The problem of political polarization is here particularly acute. Yet, distinguished from these enclaves is the space of human plurality where action takes on its other particular importance.  The space of human plurality isn’t a lifestyle enclave, but instead, a guaranteed space to be.

In a guaranteed space to be action not only discloses a who, but action also starts something new.  Arendt here employs her famous concept of natality, almost surely derived from her interpretation of glad tidings in the Gospel of Luke in which she actually takes the phrase “Unto us a child is born” from Isaiah. Natality is the entering into the world of something new, about which consequences can never be known in advance. While our action clearly discloses a who, our action also begins events which have no predictable end. Our authentic action, thus, is understood as a principle of genuine freedom.

It is in this concept of natality, which appears in a guaranteed space to authentically be, that Arendt most persuasively considers Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus, as having the utmost political and philosophical importance. The three essential features of action are: forgiveness, promises, and miracles.

Arendt is at her boldest in absorbing the experience of Jesus into her model of political life. She regards his insights into the faculty of action to be as original and unprecedented as were Socrates’s experiences of thought. Her esteem for Jesus is based on the conviction that his “faith was closely related to action” and that the New Testament’s portrayals of him have philosophical implications. The most significant of these for Arendt is that freedom is presented as the “power of performing miracles.” “The only activity Jesus of Nazareth recommends in his preaching is action, and the only human capacity he stresses is the capacity ‘to perform miracles’.” The appeal of this form of freedom for her is that it directly confronts the modem fascination with history as a natural process: “the work of faith, actually its product, is what the gospels called ‘miracles’” which are “interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected.” As Arendt points out, this power to perform miracles is not rooted in will or thought, but in faith. This faith’s most essential effect is the personal acceptance of natality. Specifically differentiated from the classical emphasis on human mortality is the experience of the potential which one’s beginning possesses for the world. For her, the very purpose of being is to begin and she never tired of citing Augustine’s definition; “that there is a beginning man was created, before whom nobody was.” NataIity is the “miracle that saves the world” and its source is faith’s discernment, against the background of natural processes, of the “infinite improbability” which every new beginning represents.

Not only does action, based in natality, contain within it the capacity for miracles, action also has two remedies for its unpredictability: forgiveness and the ability to make and keep promises. Arendt’s very religious conceptual schema is exhibited best in her analysis of action. The delineation of that realm allows her to introduce two powers which she sees as essential both to the character of the actor and to the preservation of the realm itself. These are the powers to forgive and to promise. Both are put forward as specifically worldly acts. For Arendt, forgiving is a necessarily interpersonal act. Promising is put in opposition to the “darkness of the human heart” which symbolizes the unreliability of the human being who is always capable of change from day to day. Forgiving and promising shelter the realm of action for they remedy the two predicaments intrinsic to action. Forgiving is a “redemption” from the predicament of action’s irreversibility, the fact that once an action is done, it cannot be undone. What allows the actor to recover from deeds which were performed but which are regretted is the forgiveness received from others. Without such forgiveness, without release from the consequences of our acts, we would be confined to the first mistaken deed for which we are responsible. Forgiveness allows the continuance of a public life, which always carries the risk of unanticipated, regrettable consequences. 

Promising is a liberation from the predicament of the actor’s chaotic unpredictability. When people come together and pledge themselves to a course of action, they make mutual freedom and a common political achievement possible. The superiority of those capable of promising over ”those who are unbound by any promises and unkept by any purpose” is that they have the capacity to “dispose of the future as though it were the present, that is, the enormous and truly miraculous enlargement of the very dimension in which power can be effective.” Deprived of the ability to make promises, we would be without a stable individuality and would lack the ability to join with others in contributing to the world, an achievement worthy of future remembrance.

The human abilities of the miraculous, of unpredictability, of forgiving, and of making and keeping promises are built into her concept of action – taught and lived by Jesus – and they truly are the mechanisms by which the world and individual humans can be saved.

What is vital about this, for our purposes though, is that these powers are located in individuals, and are constitutive of genuine human action. Genuine human action can only occur if it is offered a stable place to be.

For Arendt, this stable “place to be” was guaranteed in a kind of model of civic republicanism – small governmental spaces of the kind of a rural township model of Thomas Jefferson. It was the political realm of freedom. And she worried that the oligarchic influence of mass society would indeed eradicate such a possible place – and thereby destroy the possibility of human freedom. In such oligarchic conditions, where human beings were thrown back into the activities of work (with its characteristic understanding of activity having a definite beginning but also a definite end), and of labor and consumption (with its characteristic understanding of the endless cycle of meeting the needs of us as biological organisms), human freedom would disappear.

I believe her fear is more likely to come true now than it was in the 1960’s when she was writing. Which is why I again think that envisioning the space for human freedom to appear, and to show how concrete authentic individuals are actually formed, needs to be articulated. And it is why that forgiveness offers a remedy for our most deeply experienced incongruences.

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