In the current political climate of populism and xenophobia, it is tempting to simply close the door and withdraw from public affairs. Indeed, there is a pervading sense that there is no alternative to our polarised politics, neoliberal capitalism and corruption. Pleas for solidarity among nation-states seem to be easily overshadowed by resentment towards foreigners and nostalgia for lost national glory. And yet, it is precisely such retreat into the private realm that Hannah Arendt warned against during the 20th century. It is during moments of political crisis that individual potential for new beginnings matters most; it is in times of political division that we are faced with the task of cooperating and finding a way to share our fragile world.
Withdrawal from public affairs is more than a sign of cynical escapism and alienation; for Arendt, it denotes the situation of ‘worldlessness,’ whereby the sense of shared reality begins to disintegrate. Worldlessness is like a desert that dries up the space between people. By resigning ourselves to the belief that political engagement is futile, we remove ourselves from the world and from one another. As Arendt argues in Crises in the Republic (1972) and her posthumously published The Promise of Politics (1993), when we lose touch with the world, we experience a dangerous ‘remoteness from reality.’ Worldlessness, as the loss of a shared common space, typifies the post-truth age of alternative facts and conspiracy theories. In reducing the boundaries of the world to ourselves and our digital bubbles, we foreclose connections with a larger shared reality full of people with conflicting beliefs. By retreating to the inner citadel, we limit chances to find common ground with those holding different political opinions. Remoteness and withdrawal leads to tribalism and the inability to listen to the other person’s point of view.
"By resigning ourselves to the belief that political engagement is futile, we remove ourselves from the world and from one another."
The two most important examples of new beginnings are the faculties of promising and forgiving. In making a promise, we indicate our intention to act in the future with others. The ability to make a promise sets in motion unexpected events that lead to political foundation, covenants, legal obligations and social contracts. In forgiving someone, we have the possibility to undo actions in the past. If promises are future oriented, forgiveness looks backwards and tries to reverse actions for the sake of a shared new beginning. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetfulness or the erasure of past events. Rather, it frees one from revenge and from being ‘confined to one single deed,’ while promises bind us to fulfil future intentions. Both activities require other people and ‘depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others.’ The ability to promise and forgive are necessary components for a good life, good governance and essential conditions for the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.