Properties of Blood I.5: Revenge, Part E

The Return of Revenge

If we admit to harboring the dark and primitive impulse to take revenge, a priest or minister or professor of ethics, will probably tell us it is an evil desire that ought to be resisted.  We should forgive our enemies and get on with our lives.  After all, living well is said to be the best revenge.

It is not always that easy.  Consider the situation in which the hero of Hank Williams, Jr.'s song, "I Got Rights," finds himself.  The song tells the story of a husband and father who buys a handgun and goes down to the courthouse, where the murderer of his wife and child is being tried.  Set free on legal technicalities, the killer gloats, while his lawyer smirks.  At that point, the husband and father threatens to take the law into his own hands and shoot the killer, explaining:

“Cause I got rights

I got rights too

And this time there won't be no damn lawyers

and systems to protect you."

Suspending moral judgment for the time being, we might look at the situation in “I Got Rights” as a kind of moral test-case--like the fables used by developmental psychologists to assess the moral development of adolescents.  The song raises a very basic question: Is it right to kill another human being, whether in self-defense or in retaliation for an injury received?  Most people might agree that war, self-defense, and capital punishment constitute legitimate exceptions to the general rule of “Thou shalt not kill,” but they draw the line at premeditated revenge.

When I have outlined the plot of “I Got Rights” to friends and colleagues, the response usually depends on the listener’s point of view.  From the perspective of different moral traditions, the shooting is viewed as either justifiable (or at least excusable) or entirely damnable.  The fact of the homicide is plain enough, but what moral language should be used to portray it?  Some people shake their heads, at any attempt to justify private revenge, calling it a premeditated murder that deserves the maximum penalty of the law.  Others take a more conflicted position and say that a crime of passion can sometimes be either excused or pardoned.  However, a few people, usually people whose instincts have not been entirely corrupted by the formal schooling of the regime, insist, without hesitation, that to take the law into his own hands is the only thing a sane and responsible man can do in such circumstances, provided, of course, that in incurring punishment he does not harm people who depend upon him.

The dominant position today, I suppose, would be the first.  Justice (particularly punishment), we have been taught by lawyers, judges, and theologians, is a monopoly of government, and the primary (or only) objects are the safety of the public and the social rehabilitation of the criminal.  Acts of personal revenge not only endanger the public, but they also contribute to the atmosphere of violence that is poisoning modern societies.  The man who takes revenge for personal motives is a threat to the social order, no better than the career criminal who kills for personal profit or for kicks.  Whether a particular form of legal punishment is justifiable or not, such power belongs only to the state and its professional representatives.  This is clear from a random sampling of definitions of law and punishment given by various experts representing quite different points of view.

J.L. Austin:  “Law is the command of a sovereign..”

Hans Kelsen: “Law is the primary norm which stipulates the sanction.” (This means that laws do not prohibit crimes but direct officers to apply specified punishments.)

Oliver Wendell Holmes “That [justice] is not my job.  My job is to play the game according to the rules.”

Thomas Aquinas: Principibus et judicibus tantum, non autem privatis personis, peccatores occidere licet.

It would be hard to imagine two legal thinkers more opposed than St. Thomas and Justice Holmes, but on this one point they seem to agree: that justice is the prerogative of government, a game whose officers are bound to play according to the rules.

It is not strange, therefore, that lawyers and judges tend to look upon revenge killings as a rebellion against the legitimate government that passes laws in order to give them employment.  The compassionate people who would like to excuse the homicide in “I Got Rights” argue that the husband and father was under severe emotional stress, which constituted grounds for a plea of temporary insanity.  Or they might be inclined to leniency on the same grounds that they would ask for mercy in the cases of criminals who came from deprived backgrounds.  However, in applying the criterion of compassion, they could also suppose that the man who killed the mother and her child had been abused as a child and that he, too, deserved understanding rather than condemnation, because “to understand all is to pardon all.”

The revenge-taker, however, might well be disgusted by a line of reasoning that put him on the same moral plane as the butcher who had murdered his family.  While he might be persuaded by his lawyers to use a plea for compassion as a means of avoiding execution, he will privately insist that he acted rationally and with deliberation. If he could put his feelings into the form of a coherent argument, he might say:

“The last thing in the world I want is forgiveness.  Yes, I killed for revenge, but also for justice, and I--and I would hope any honest man--would do exactly the same thing under similar circumstances. If I could count on the law to execute these predators, I might be content, but executions are so rare as to be exceptional.  No, hang me or let me go, but [to quote an older and better song] ‘I don’t want no pardon for anything I done.’” 

The hero of “I Got Rights” is from being a solitary case in the United States.  Americans seem to have a growing obsession with the idea of revenge.  Popular culture, which is often a better guide to national attitudes than social surveys, has elevated the avenger to the status of hero, and ever since the 1970's, films like Death Wish have glorified the brave man who defied the law and "did the right thing."

The avenger is hardly a recent phenomenon in films.  Getting even is the central theme of dozens of film noir classics, many of them based on popular detective novels (such as Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black).  Revenge has always been a plot staple in the most American of literary genres, the Western: The motif is prominent in famous movies from Stage Coach to High Noon to The Long Riders, to say nothing of a series of collaborative films made by Bud Boetticher and Randolph Scott.  Some of Clint Eastwood's western films—The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven—come close to being a parody of the revenge film:.  Unforgiven is, in fact, a set of variations on the theme of vengeance: prostitutes hire a retired gunman to kill the men who beat and disfigured one of their sisters, and Eastwood wipes out an entire town in revenge for the mistreatment and killing of his partner (whose body is exposed to public ridicule).

The themes of Unforgiven came straight out of ancient Greece, from Homer’s Iliad and Aeschylus’ Oresteia.  For the Greeks, too, the primal spirits of revenge were females who ignored mitigating factors, such as motivation, provocation, and degree of responsibility.  Only the facts mattered.  If a god told a Greek to kill his mother, and he did the deed, no amount of quibbling over justification would alter the fact that he had killed his own mother. Violence begets violence; blood demands blood, whether in a Greek tragedy or a modern western.

What people profess and what they feel may be two different things.  Educated Americans believe, for the most part, that revenge--even when it can be justified or mitigated--is always wrong, and yet, our popular entertainment seems to suggest an unquenchable thirst for getting even that is more appropriate to Shakespeare’s time than to our own.  The English mind, in the days of Elizabeth and James, was vey much a split personality.  Preachers and theologians harped endlessly on the evils of vengeance, but the plots of Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, and Hamlet (among many others) all turn on revenge, and, as Hamlet says, “Revenge should have no bounds.”   Shakespeare’s taste for revenge was hardly unique or even unusual among contemporary writers who produced the Revenger’s Tragedy and the White Devil.

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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