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History, forgiveness and revenge



History is subject to an eternal dilemma: a perennial double reading; it is an agent of understanding which leads either to forgiveness or to revenge. Pascal thought understanding would inevitably lead to forgiveness. I am not so sure. I think a complete understanding might make forgiveness superfluous but an understanding, subject as it is to perspective, to scale, to myth cannot be complete and absolute. It is too humble for that, it can only place man ever more carefully in his environment.

Forgiveness is a power, a virtue that is needed precisely because understanding is always incomplete. One has to be strong and powerful to forgive. Conversely, power is not forgiveness. Power is a force which can be used for good or ill, for forgiveness or revenge. History in making us understand something from a particular perspective, might give us power. How do we use it?

History describes a landscape of obstacles and it describes journeys through that landscape. These stories are valuable because they help form attitudes and thereby help to determine decisions. So the next stage is for history to become the bed of politics. History is naturally politicised, it imagines reasons for the way things happen and why they happened that way and relate these reasons to us and our way of being. This helps us think about what to do: from the manure of these reasons, politics grows into a system of relative priorities.

One can use a description to understand what happened and allow an understanding to become an act of forgiveness. This way one can be tolerant towards the disbalances that have arisen out of the habit of that history. Depending on the scale of the disbalance such an attitude can lead to a benign tolerance or foolhardy tolerance. Tolerance is needed and can at the same time be extremely destructive.

Or one can use the history, not to excuse the failure of a people on account of the height of the obstacles they face, but by using it to design collective strategies of cooperation to scale obstacles and overcome them. This too is very dangerous, it is the story of the tower of Babel. What to do?



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