Properties of Blood, Chapter Five: Sweet Revenge, Part B

This Simian World

Revenge and marriage, as institutionalized means of expressing love and hate, have much in common: Both are found in a variety of forms, but the forms and tendencies that converge in societies around the globe encourage us to think of them as generically human phenomena.  That is because they are, both of them, based on natural necessities and passions that have probably been instilled into the human species throughout the long course of evolution.  A mouse will fight against an attacker, whether the enemy is a rival mouse or a cat, and I have been charged by a chipmunk I was trying to scare away from our bird feeders.  Troops of baboons will defend their territory against aggressors, and male chimpanzees will even risk their lives to protect the children of their band.  Defense of one’s own self and one’s near and dear is reflexive.  However, revenge may require a better memory than most other mammals--with the exception of chimpanzees and other higher primates--possess.

Many apes and monkeys establish social hierarchies in which individual males compete for status and “reproductive rights” and, as a group, defend their territory, food, and females against rival groups.  Chimpanzees are also far from non-violent.  In fact, chimpanzees take competition and self-defense one step further and apparently cherish the memory of an injury for hours until they find the opportunity to retaliate.  Chimpanzees not only are able “to keep negative acts in mind,” but they also repay them “with other negative acts.”  Female chimpanzees also retaliate against an injury either by physical aggression  or by using a technique not unknown to female humans: the withholding of affection.

Chimpanzee social life is complex enough to be described in human terms: “Chimpanzee group life is like a market in power, sex, affection, support, intolerance, and hostility.  The two basic rules are ‘one good turn deserves another’ and ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’”  The chimpanzee system of revenge has not been discovered in any other form of animal life except for human beings who “go a step farther by setting standards--called laws--designed to keep violent retaliation under control.”

Revenge, among chimpanzees at least, seems to be little more than a form of delayed retaliation.  Since no competitive mammal could survive very long without defending itself or retaliating against aggression, the roots of revenge lie not in some diabolical rage to destroy but in the everyday need to preserve life.  Of course, langurs, baboons, and even chimpanzees are brute beasts from whom we do not, ordinarily, take moral and political lessons; but a useful habit cannot be dismissed by saying that it is instinctive.  We do not usually have to philosophize too much about food: When we are hungry we eat.  Sex and taking care of our babies also seem to be instinctive.  If they were not, the human race would die out quickly.  Even moral philosophers have to eat; occasionally they may even reproduce and take care of their children--though the jury is still out on that final point.

Thomas Hobbes has said that two basic necessities--provision of food and propagation--are also the greatest pleasures of human life.   Americans who eat as badly as any people in the history of the human race are, nonetheless, devoted to gluttony.  The poor cripple themselves with overeating, and the upper classes, calling themselves “foodies,” watch endless hours of television programming devoted to pretentious cookery.  Of sex, enough has been written to accept Hobbes' contention without exception, but to this short list of natural necessities, a third must be added--self-defense: Unless a creature can defend himself from an attacker, he can neither eat nor propagate, and by the same law that turns eating and propagating into sources of pleasure, men seem to enjoy fighting.  In fact, “most kinds of diversion in men, children, and other animals, are an imitation of fighting.”

It is small wonder, then, that men take pleasure in war or that most masculine sports--even such nonphysical games as chess--are ritualized combats.  We might wish it were not so or try to pretend that Margaret Mead and other anthropologists have discovered societies where males do not compete for wealth, power, status, and sex.  We can even imagine political experiments--like communes and Communist states--where distinctions of gender and status are eliminated, but, like a dirty joke told at the bishop’s tea party, human nature is forever reasserting itself.  Communards want to take care of their own children, and communists (as Milovan Djilas pointed out in Conversations with Stalin) eliminate every form of property but their own, and when it came to getting even on people who had in some way crossed him, the Montenegrin Djilas was a master.

When it comes to retribution, human beings, naturally, have even better memories than chimpanzees have, and he who neglects to retaliate against a deliberate injury--an assault or a theft, perhaps--is making a virtual promise not to defend himself in the future.  Turning the other cheek makes good sense in a small community where people share the same moral values and practice the same religion; applied to strangers and predators, it is a prelude to slavery and oppression (to say nothing of two broken cheek-bones.)

The Basic Case Against Revenge

No argument drawn from biological necessity would impress philosophers who, since the Enlightenment, have often written as if man were either naturally good or was only weakly endowed with a bundle of propensities known by philosophers as human nature or, by Christians, as "the old Adam."  Since men are, as they believed, primarily rational (even benevolent) beings, human individuals can be expected to seek their own self-interests in a rational manner.  In the pursuit of their own interests, even rational men might be led to commit anti-social acts.  If such things happen, then the object of law and penology is to discourage such unproductive behavior by punishing the malefactors.  The primary goal of enlightened penology is, therefore, educational.

Such, in substance, was the argument that Cesare Beccaria put forward in his celebrated essay "On Crime and Punishments."  Beccaria never challenged the right and duty of governments to punish and deter crime, and his theory did have a wholesome effect in discouraging torture and cruel and unusual punishments.  Nonetheless, it is only a theory and one that does not take very much human reality into consideration.  Like his idol Montesquieu, he takes little notice of powerful human passions such as gratitude, love of beauty—or revenge.

Beccaria was neither an original nor an important thinker, and his significance lies largely in his repackaging of Enlightenment platitudes to serve as propaganda against traditional methods of punishment.  One of these platitudes is the theory of social progress according to which human civilization is marked by mankind's efforts to liberate itself from the tyranny of irrational superstition and traditions.  That this progressive theory of history is as much a piece of historical myth-making as the stories in Hesiod and Genesis, did not occur to young intellectuals in the throes of Enlightenment enthusiasms.

Beccaria inevitably accepted John Locke's myth of the state of nature and the social contract according to which  men are supposed to have invented law and punishment in order to eliminate the inconveniences arising from the savage state.  In early stages of human civilization, punishments were an extension of the private revenge taken by one's kinfolks, but, in the course of human progress, government has taken over more and more of these responsibilities.

If this theory were correct, we should be nearing the desired point at which computers could apply the relevant laws to specific cases and impose appropriate penalties.  Before reaching that state of rationalized bliss, however, we have been talked into accepting a criminal justice system in which the needs of felons take precedence over the protection of the citizens or the most obvious requirements of justice.  Rapists and murderers are no longer punished in proportion to the severity of their crimes, but sentences are ameliorated by considerations of social deprivation or mental illness.  The harsher punishments of earlier times are condemned as “vengeance” in the belief that sticks and stones will break no bones but words will always hurt me.  The desire for revenge, nonetheless, has never gone away.  It remains constant, and those who feel cheated of justice will fall back on the ancient siren song of vengeance.

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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

3 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    If, as enlightenment thinkers like Beccaria believed (and quoting from the third paragraph from the end) , “human civilization is marked by mankind’s efforts to liberate itself from the tyranny of irrational superstition and traditions”, then did it not ever occur to any of them to ask just why those superstitions and traditions ever existed in the first place? Setting aside their inability or unwillingness to perceive that tradition might have a useful and beneficial purpose, and assuming just for the sake of argument that it does not, did they not ever consider just why did a supposedly rational mankind ever sink down into that morass to begin with? Why bother with all that and then have to make a several millenia long struggle to liberate one’s supposedly rational self from it? Wouldn’t a rational mankind have started off rationally in the first place and thereby avoided all that trouble? Maybe the only way to escape this conundrum would have been to resort to some kind of evolutionary psychology, which not only did not exist in those days, but also would have been counterproductive since it would have undermined the idea that man is a rational being, and thus would have perpetuated the conundrum it had been implemented to solve.

  2. Ben says:

    To the author: do you bet still on imprecise civilization, us hitherto losers, to pull through via freak luck & chance and win by producing, or at least attracting enough genius saviors VERSUS the more precise militarized ways of today’s power wielders? …I guess it depends on what kinds of odds you’re given.

  3. Ben says:

    my goodness I meant to post this to the betting on losers WC piece. sorry!