Properties of Blood, Chapter 5: Sweet Revenge

NOTE:  I had decided to omit the following two chapters on individual violence-- as well as a later chapter on blood feuds etc.--from this volume and to put them in a separate book.  As I worked on the later chapters, it became apparent to me that my initial outline was better.

Sweet Revenge

With base deceit you worked upon our feelings.

Revenge is sweet, and flavors all our dealings.”


Revenge is sweet, whether anyone likes to admit it.  But even a hundred years ago, when people were more candid about the reality of aggression, audiences at productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance could hardly have approved of the lust for vengeance put in the mouth of a light-opera pirate.  The spirit of revenge was inconsistent with the Victorian sense of duty that W.S. Gilbert was mocking in his libretto, subtitled “The Slave of Duty.”  The higher morality of the 19th century, whether it was preached by enlightened Anglican ministers like Thomas Arnold of Rugby, borrowed from mystical Germans like Immanuel Kant, or expounded by rationalist Utilitarians like John Stuart Mill or Henry Sidgwick, held out the ideal of doing the right thing for the right reason, which was always some rational motive like patriotism or humanity or the public good, regardless of one's personal feelings.

The Pirates is not Gilbert’s only foray into the hypocrisies of duty.  In Ruddigore, he  creates the unlovable blowhard Dick Dauntless, who squeals on his half-brother Robin in order to gain his fiancée.  Of course, his treachery is all done in the name of a higher obligation:

Within this breast there beats a heart

Whose voice can’t be gainsaid.

It bade me thy true rank impart,

And I immediately obeyed.

I know ‘twould blight thy budding fate,

I know ‘twould cause thee anguish great,

But did I therefore hesitate?

No! I at once obeyed!

Robin is the opposite type:  A self-effacing youth who hides his light under a bushel and dares not confess his love for the beautiful Rose.  (Rose may be less she but her devotion to the iron laws of etiquette make her no less reticent.)  Being a man of good character but no pretensions, Robin cannot deny the charge that he is by birth the “bad baronet” of Ruddigore, but, once he accepts his station in life, he will be bound to commit every crime imaginable.  The plot of Ruddigore is designedly silly, but it does point the contrast between an unaffected good character and those loftier principles of philosophical ethics that had replaced the more primitive virtues of friendship and loyalty.

The rejection of the irrational affections and loyalties that inspired anger and revenge was not confined to one or two philosophical schools:  From Socrates to Seneca, from Platonists to Stoics, most schools of philosophy have railed against any surrender of the rational will to irrational passions.  Seneca’s long essay De Ira (“On Wrath”) is a virtually exhaustive list of the arguments, but even Seneca is forced to admit that philosophy does not speak with quite 21q`one voice:  Two thirds of the way through his treatise, he pauses to warn his readers that the need for completely repressing anger requires more proof than the statements of leading philosophers: “There’s no doubt, you’ll say, that it is a potent and deadly power… And yet… Aristotle stands as the defender of anger and forbids us to cut it out.”

Seneca’s multi-sided answer to his rhetorical question—and I can only summarize a few points—is that human beings live by reason and can no more blame irrational men for offending us than they can blame beasts and children.  If anger could be controlled and deployed usefully, we might consider employing it, but the force of anger is too great.  As a Stoic, he believed that each of us must duty his duty according to the station of life and circumstances in which we find ourselves.  Robert E. Lee, who in so many ways epitomized the highest ideas of Christian civility, summed it up in his famous statement that "duty is the most sublime word in our language," adding the injunction: "Do your duty in all things.  You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less."

General Lee was no hypocrite and he, as much as any great man known to history, lived up to his own code. Military commanders, who routinely make life and death decisions, require a clear-cut moral code to serve as the basis for direct action.  Unfortunately, as General Lee realized in 1860, one duty may conflict with another:  As a military officer, Colonle Robert Lee had a duty to obey the commander-in-chief of the US Army, but as a husband and father he had to protect his family and kinsmen, and as a Virginian in the tradition of Jefferson, he strongly believed the state of Virginia demanded a higher loyalty.  In the course of the war, soldiers on both sides had to decide, when they learned of family emergencies, on which had prior moral claims, the cause for which they were fighting or their wives and children.

A stout Victorian himself, W.S. Gilbert did not denigrate the virtues or the sense of duty:  As an overweight old man he died trying to save a young woman from drowning.  Gilbert did, however, understand that any good principle, if carried too far, could make life less pleasant for everyone.  As the Italian proverb goes, "il meglio è nemico del bene," the better is good's enemy.  Though life and death responsibilities are often too complicated to be handled in a comic opera, the Pirates may still have a few lessons to teach.

Young Frederick, Gilbert's "slave of duty," has virtuously obeyed the pirate crew to which he was mistakenly apprenticed.  Reaching the age of 21, he is no sooner released from his apprenticeship than he meets a flock of pretty girls, the daughters of Major General Stanley.  He gets engaged to Mabel, but the pirates kidnap the girls with the intention of marrying them.  The Major General persuades the pirates to release his daughters by pretending to be—like the pirates—an orphan boy.  Frederick, joining his future father-in-law, resolves to exterminate his former comrades and best friends.  Upon being informed that he was born on leap day and thus, technically, only "five and a little bit over," he rejoins the pirates who are planning to murder the major general in retaliation for his deceit.  "With base deceit, you worked upon our feelings," the Pirate King tells the general whom he has captured, "revenge is sweet and flavors all our dealings."

The pirates may be sentimental rogues, but their morality of revenge is no more insane than their apprentice's obsession with rational duty.  Both are comical, though, if anything, Frederick is portrayed as the greater fool.  The desire to retaliate for some injury or humiliation is part of the human condition, as natural as the urge to acquire power and status or beget children.  Theories of justice, however, do not generally take account of desires and impulses that operate below the level of conscious reasoning.  What matters are the law and its legitimate agents.  Naturally there is great diversity:  Cicero and St. Thomas emphasize the divine and universal moral foundations of the various legal systems; while others emphasize the significance of sovereignty, while still others stress the constitutional apparatus that makes and enforces laws. Nonetheless, “the law,” as another of Gilbert’s characters sings, “is the true embodiment of everything that’s excellent,” and the law, passed and imposed through legitimate processes and rational men, takes precedence over the passions of men. When men of conscience defy what they regard as an unjust law, it is usually in the name of a higher law or higher principle.  The popular acceptance of civil disobedience by irrational and often hysterical political activists ought to be enough to make a prudent man question the basic assumption that law can ever fully displace the powers of love and hate.

Justice, in the standard view of philosophers, must be abstract and impersonal.  Like the deity, law is supposed to be no respecter of persons, much less of personal passions, and it is a black mark on capital punishment that it looks like the Biblical law of "an eye for an eye."  Revenge is seen as an entirely negative force, a dark wind that disorders the passions and drives men and women into irrational acts of violence.  All good things come from love, rationally expressed, and the preservation of rational life is the primary objective of legal and social policies.  (Hence, abortion must be justified as a rational decision to terminate a non-rational existence).  Revenge, by contrast, is an expression of irrational hatred that leads ultimately to death.

Accepting, for the moment, this characterization of vengeance (though I shall show that there is, in fact, an objective side), I wonder why it is seen as a self-evident discrediting of a universal human behavior.  The juridical argument against vengeance is parallel to a Puritan’s diatribe against sex and love, lawless passions that break up marriages and lead to shame, illegitimacy, and social chaos.  Sex is, most of us would agree, a powerful force in human life, and, if left unchecked and unchanneled, it can be socially disruptive.  On the other hand, human life would have come to an end long ago, if men and women listened to the Shakers.  Even St. Paul conceded that it was better to marry than burn, and the institutions of marriage and the family are the creative mechanisms which domesticate the wild passions of Eros and make it the foundation of the entire social order.

Most religious sects that have attempted to suppress sexuality have failed—or disappeared—and such campaigns are often followed by an orgy of libertinism.  Even in a flourishing Puritan commonwealth, efforts to control sex have not been conspicuously successful: Illegitimacy rates were high in Puritan New England, and the Victorian Age was conspicuous for the proliferation of pornography and commercial vice.  Moral reformers have been no more successful in eliminating sexual vices than Marxists have been in eliminating inequality or progressive legal systems in eliminating revenge.  There are passions that refuse to be repressed, and the effort to repress them results more often in perversion than in elimination.  Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, an upright and virtuous physician, wanted to be able to take an occasional moral vacation, and in unlocking his more primitive self he created the monster Mr. Hyde.

There are, of course dissenters, philosophers and writers who refuse to denigrate the passions, whether of sex (Freud) or enmity (Karl Schmitt) or the libido dominandi (Nietzsche).  Their arguments, however, are not quite respectable in polite circles, where the abstractions of Liberal-Marxist thought hold sway.  Inevitably, the Liberal theory of the way-things-ought to be is confounded with the way-things-are.  In an endless search for utopia, 20th century anthropologists were always hopefully discovering peaceful peoples that did without property, marriage, and violence.  Upon closer examination, these peaceful utopias vanished like a mirage.

Traditional Christians, without attempting to eliminate sex and violence, have tended to treat our strongest passions as transitory and trivial—mere clouds blown across what should be the clear skies of planet Earth by temporary gusts of wind:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,

Love, and desire, and hate,

I think they have no portion in us after

We pass the gate.

But in this sublunar existence of ours, we cannot, even if we are saints, transcend these fundamental passions without an heroic exercise of discipline, and even then we risk losing more than we gain.  Getting married and seeking revenge are part of the human condition.


Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina