Properties of Blood, Chapter 5: Revenge, Part C

Civilized people will never be impressed by any argument that seems to celebrate the morality of apes.  We are, after all, human beings who are, as Christians say, made in the image of God or, as Darwinists insist, the product of tens of millions of years of evolutionary progress.  It is a main thrust of philosophical liberalism (and of ancient Stoicism) that human beings have a duty to rise above not only animal but parochial and sectarian passions.

I can almost hear the rumblings from the professors, social workers, and other right-thinking people:  ”If you once start conceding some legitimacy to revenge, people will go back to killing strangers who happen to belong to a different race, ethnicity, or religious sect."  As if such barbarism had ever ceased!

Wiser men than Beccaria, going back to Aristotle, have taken a more skeptical view of mankind's supposedly infinite capacity for rising above his natural inclinations.  Although most human beings are capable of reason, even quite rational men and women frequently give way to the irrational passions of sexual desire and revenge.  Odium theologicum is the name given to the merciless savagery displayed by rational theologians in their disputes, but the same passionate hatred can be found among scholars and scientists in every field.

The creators of our civilization, as Jakob Burckhardt pointed out to a disbelieving 19th century, were as bloody-minded, in principle at least, as the Comanche or the followers of Mohammed and the Old Man of the Mountain.  Greek children grew up, nourished on the tale of Achilles' wrathful revenge against his comrades in the Iliad and on Odysseus’ vengeance upon his wife’s suitors in the Odyssey. The blood-thirsty heroism of the Homeric epics might be ascribed to the traditional materials and an aristocratic fondness for honor and revenge, but the popular verses ascribed to Theognis were no less virulent:

“O Zeus, fulfill, o Olympian, my just prayer.

Grant me to suffer something good in return for the evils I have endured.  I should die if I were to find no release from my evil cares, if I could not give pains for my pains.  My fate is thus.  I get no vengeance on the men who still hold my property by force,after they stole it….  May I drink their dark blood. [341 ff]

Theognis, although a crusty old bird, was a popular moralist among later Greeks who quoted and anthologized him; in fact, he is the only poet between Hesiod and Pindar, whose work (apart from scattered fragments or recently discovered papyri) has not been lost.  His simple code of ethics has been described as a “catechism of friendship,” indoctrinating readers with the principles of loyalty, class-solidarity, and revenge.  If doing good to friends and liberally rewarding their loyalty is the chief positive virtue, the corresponding negative duty is retribution:

The heart of a man shrinks when he suffers a great pain, but when he repays it, his heart grows back again.” [361-2]

An earlier Greek poet (Archilochus) expressed this ethic even more succinctly: “I know one great truth: to pay back, with terrible evils, the man who injures me.”  Revenge was taken for granted as one of the duties friends owed each other.  Although the Socrates portrayed by Plato would appear to be above such concerns, Xenophon’s more down-to-earth Socrates advises his student to seek friends whose virtue or excellence surpasses his friends in kindness and his foes in hostility.  This was the common sentiment among Greeks, and a murdered man, as he lay dying, was expected to ask his relatives to take revenge by killing the murderer.

Although Socrates and Plato tried to elevate moral discourse above the everyday Greek plane of honor, loyalty, and revenge, Aristotle realized the futility of constructing moral theory on any other basis but the common and proverbial conception of the people.  He not only points out that a man feels a slave if he cannot retaliate against an outrage, but he also says that harming another, when it is against the law, is injustice except in cases of retaliation.  In other words the right to get even takes precedence over the law.  Aristotle was only summing up the conventional view that it is just to kill the aggressor who attacks you.

According to Aristotle, the underlying emotion—as opposed to the motivation--is anger:  “Men grow angry with those who slight them,” and if the display of contempt is strong enough or causes us some injury, we want to get back at the person who injured us.  Vengeance is thus a natural and even justifiable inclination.  We experience pleasure when we are angry, he observes: "because the thoughts dwell upon the act of vengeance, and the images then called up cause pleasure, like the images called up in dreams."  How often do we all daydream about what it will be like to get even with those who have injured us!  If the law provides a remedy, we may be satisfied.  Otherwise, in brooding on our wrongs we magnify them, and we might well be overwhelmed by the desire for revenge.

Anger is also useful in battle, argues Aristotle, but it must serve not as commander but as a common soldier, and anger and other passions, in moderation, are useful in other areas of life.  His disciple and successor Theophrastus, said that good men are angry not only with those who injure those they love but also with evil men.  Theophrastus was far from condoning men prone to anger.  In his character portraits of personality types, Theophrastus condemned the sort of surly man who is quick to take offense (portrayed in his character 15) as well as the arrogant man who is always eager to display his superiority (character 24).

In modern Europe and America, we may still regard revenge as sweet, but we perceive a tang of wickedness in the taste.  Capital punishment is said to be a barbaric vestige of the old morality of revenge, and if we want to denigrate a political decision or military action, such as George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, for example, we accuse the leader of seeking revenge.  The Greeks took just the opposite position.  Since taking revenge was an honorable act, a politician practicing Realpolitik might cloak his actions in the higher morality of vengeance.  Similarly, in defeating his rivals, the young Octavian portrayed himself as the avenger of his murdered great-uncle/adoptive father, Julius Caesar.

Within their settled communities, however, the Greeks were able to control their violence, and even a box on the ears in public was the occasion for a suit for hybris, and a street-brawl between families might result in an action for damages.  Even a man who committed a justifiable homicide, e.g. by killing an adulterer, might have to face exile.  In other words a moral and legal system rooted in the natural principle of revenge did not, at least in the cases of Greek and Roman societies, necessarily encourage lawlessness and violence.  Instead of having to turn to an army of police and an elaborate system of justice, Athenians relied on kinfolk, deme-members (demes were kin-and-locale-based boroughs) and neighbors who maintained the social order through gossip and social intimidation more than by violence and intimidation:

“Private initiative and self-help were fundamental to policing Athens.  This means that Athenian citizens participated to an unprecedented degree in the social control of their own society....In order to carry out the tasks of policing and law enforcement, they required a dependable network of kin and friends....This helps to explain why Athenians tried at all costs to void quarrels with their fellow demesmen, who were generally synonymous with neighbors.

For the Romans, revenge (ultio, vindicta) was more often thought of as the proper response of the community rather than a personal action.  Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger, was worshipped in the cults of the republic and not merely as a power to be appealed to by outraged victims but also as the champion of the Republic and its rights.  While self-help was not impossible under Roman law, the victims of criminal behavior were supposed to act within the legal framework.

Roman law made a distinction between two kinds of criminal acts: a delictum did harm to a person, while a crimen was an offense against the entire community.  Thus for delicta, retributive compensation could be sought in a court, while the punishment meted out to a criminal was not personal retribution.  Law did provide for men to take vengeance on adulterous wives, but other violent acts of revenge were not lawful.

Nonetheless, Romans were highly sensitive about personal honor, and they had ways of getting even short of violence.  Philosophers and orators took revenge for granted as a basic moral principle.  Cicero, who recognized vengeance as a major component of natural law, told an enemy that he had always destroyed anyone who besmirched his honor (Sul. 46).  The comparative stability of Roman society, both in the days of the Republic and under the Empire, show that the principle of revenge is not inconsistent with an effective system of law.  When Christians, with their commitment to charity, took over the Empire, they did not attempt to revolutionize Rome’s legal machinery, and the recovery of Roman Law in the later Middle Ages was a major step away from the barbarism of Germanic legal codes.

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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