Ancient Vengeance

It is not philosophers only, but most modern men and women, who will object to 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 that has purged at least some of us of our bestial instincts.  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.  Any attempt to justify revenge must therefore represent a step back toward the jungle from which we escaped all too recently.

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!  As if our daily news did not document the jungle existence that has engulfed all major American and European cities! As if the most powerful of civilized nations (our own United States) had not waged a genocidal war against Filipinos who resisted American aggression, terror-bombed German and Italian cities, dropped atomic bombs on Japanese civilian centers, used chemical weapons of mass destruction against the people of Vietnam, and in recent times invented pretexts for wars against Yugoslavia and Iraq in which civilians were targeted for extinction.   To be fair, the United States have behaved no worse than most other great nations, but the citizens of such a country can have little justification for any feelings of moral superiority they might be tempted to entertain.

Wiser men than Beccaria, going back to Aristotle, have taken a more skeptical view of mankind's supposedly infinite capacity for rising above natural inclinations.  Although most human beings are (theoretically) 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.

Once upon a time, when all educated Europeans had studied the Greek and Latin classics, reformers and humanitarians traced the light of progress to the Greeks, who set an example that would inspire Rousseau and Robespierre.  Unfortunately, those noble idealists who created 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.  In The Greeks and Greek Civilization, Burckhardt portrays—quite correctly—a people endlessly fighting for power and prestige.  

Greek children grew up, nourished on the tale of Achilles' wrathful revenge against his comrades in the Iliad and on the vengeance Odysseus inflicted upon his wife’s suitors in the Odyssey.  The blood-thirsty heroism of the Homeric epics might be ascribed to the traditional materials of epic poetry 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 and class-solidarity, but it is equally a catechism of 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 [Memorabilia II.VI.35] 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 the orator Antiphon informs us [I. 29-30] that 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 conceptions 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 may take precedence even 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 conscious 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. [Eth. Nic IV. 5.12]  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." [Rhetoric II.2] 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.  In even the kindest of people, we can often detect an Iago lurking just below the surface.

Aristotle, as Seneca noted, regarded anger as useful in battle, but he stipulated that it must serve not as commander but as a common soldier.  Similarly, anger and other strong passions, if indulged in with moderation, are useful in other areas of life.  Without desire, there would be little procreation; without ambition, there would be neither art nor science.  Any powerful force, whether desire or anger or ambition can be used for any number of purposes both good and ill, but few of us would wish to eliminate rape by imposing the universal emasculation of young men, though that does appear to be the objective of some feminist groups and by their unwitting allies who now go by the nickname “Incels.”

Aristotle’s disciple and successor Theophrastus said that good men are angry not only with those who injure those they love but also with evil men.  He 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 as well as the arrogant man who is always eager to display his superiority.  Nonetheless, as a true disciple of his master, Theophrastus accepted man for what he was.

In modern Europe and America, while we may still regard revenge as sweet, we find 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 (in that case, for an alleged murder plot against his father).  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 eliminating 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 coercion.   As Virginia Hunter points out in an influence study of Athens:

“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 avoid 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—and there is much more to be said about this in the next volume—but most 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

4 Responses

  1. Clyde Wilson says:

    And the U.S. engaged in massive war crimes against Southern women and children. Just in revenge for nothing except their feelings of inferiority.

  2. Raymond Olson says:

    The Athenian way of vengeance is preferable to the ways of all other peoples I know of. Our own attitude seems based on the Roman way, instead. As the great tragedies show us, the Athenians faced the horrifying implications of vengeance. But there are no Roman tragedies. It goes without saying, pace Dreiser, there are no American tragedies.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The question of Roman tragedy is interesting. The Romans naturally tried to imitate/recreate all the great accomplishments of the Greeks, including tragedy, and the works of Ennius, Pacuvius, and Accius were highly esteemed. They are all lost as is Ovid’s Medea, though we know of lines and scenes that were famous, such as a play where Pylades claims to be Orestes so that he can be killed instead of his friend. All that is left are the works attributed to and probably written by the younger Seneca, who in term profoundly influenced Renaissance tragedies written in Italy, Spain, and England. Revenge, predictably, was a plot staple.

    In pondering on the uniqueness of Greek tragedy for over 50 years, one thing stuck me, namely, that the plot often involves some kind of conflict betwen the private–but not individualistic–sphere and the public sphere. This is clearest in the case of Antigone, whose loyalty to the ties of kindred (and thus to the gods) puts her at odds with her uncle’s government which is rooted in Realpolitik. In the end, the noble tyrant loses both his wife and his son, a very fitting punishment. We can see a parallel conflict in Ajax’s defiance of the army and its leaders or in Neoptolemus’ decision to put his friendship with and sympathy for Philoctetes above winning the Trojan War. Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes could also be cited as well as many plays of Euripides. What I conclude is that Attic tragedy is not just a very great civic art–like the Parthenon sculptures–but also an art that constantly engages the audience in a deep consideration of the most serious moral and political issues. By the time the Romans had learned how to write lasting works, it seems to me, they were less of an actual people than the Athenians had been. We Americans cannot have tragedy, because we are not a nation in any real sense, only a Potemkin Village ruled by an oligarchy in the guise of democracy.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I should have added that another distinguishing feature of Greek tragedy is that performances were connected with a religious celebration, giving the works a liturgical slant absent in later drama, apart from Medieval Mystery Plays, which are not exactly first rate works of literature.