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On Vindictiveness, Vengeance, and Other Acts of Retribution

Vindictiveness is the quality of seeking to do harm to another in return for an injury or perceived injury they have done to you. (In this essay, the terms “vindictiveness,” “revenge,” “vengefulness,” and “vengeance” are used interchangeably, though, for me, vindictiveness implies a certain pettiness compared to vengeance.) Our society is rife with vindictiveness, with every injured party believing it is their right to take out revenge on the person or entity they consider responsible for doing injury to them. While the vindictive person may believe that they are merely carrying out a form of justice and that what they are doing is morally correct, as explained below, vindictiveness is very different from justice. Many thinkers have had wisdom to offer on the vindictive instincts of humans. I offer my own thoughts and some of theirs in the
discussion that follows.

While vindictiveness in the abstract may seem like a virtuous response to harm that has been done to us, it is too often a small-minded instinct that demeans the person carrying it out, especially when the injury that motivates it is not of great import. It does nothing to erase the
harm done to the person pursuing it, is destructive of their spirit, and seldom resolves the pain that gave rise to the vindictive act. In short, it does little to help the vindictive actor move forward with their life and merely perpetuates the burden that the initial injury imposed upon
them. Albert Einstein put this notion well when he stated: “Weak people revenge. Strong people forgive. Intelligent people ignore.” As for the toll that a vindictive disposition takes on the one carrying out revenge, the author Adeline Yen Mah had the following to say: “If you concentrate on revenge, you will keep those wounds fresh that would otherwise have healed.” On the damage that vindictiveness can visit on one’s psyche, T. S. Eliot noted that, “In a mind charged with an eager purpose and an unfinished vindictiveness, there is no room for new feelings.”

The Stoics were especially prolific in denouncing vindictiveness. Seneca, one of the foremost Roman Stoics, said of it, “What should a wise person do when given a blow? Same as Cato when he was attacked; not fire up or revenge the insult . . . or even return the blow, but
simply ignore it.” In a similar vein, he advised that “You would not return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog. You say, ‘Oh, that’s what dogs and mules do’.” He also wrote of how vengeance scrambles the mind, obscuring reason and good sense. “Revenge is an admission of pain,” he
wrote, “a mind that is bowed by injury is not a great mind.” And he considered that vengeance is unworthy of a great man:

“It is the part of a great mind to despise wrongs done to it; the most contemptuous form of revenge is not to deem one’s adversary worth taking revenge upon. Many have taken small injuries much more seriously to heart than they need, by revenging them; that man is great and noble who like a large wild animal hears unmoved the tiny curs that bark at him.”

Although not thought of as a Stoic, the novelist and poet Richelle Goodrich put it this way:

“Vengeance, retaliation, retribution are deceitful brothers; vile, beguiling demons promising justifiable compensation to a pained soul for his losses. Yet in truth they craftily fester away all else of worth remaining.”

Of the nobility that attends refraining from vindictiveness when injured, Francis Bacon wrote, “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior.” Marcus Aurelius, the eminent Roman emperor and philosopher, succinctly noted how an injured person should respond to the perpetrator as follows: “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” The Greek Stoic Epictetus counseled forgiveness over revenge: “Forgiveness is better than revenge, for forgiveness is the sign of a gentle nature, but revenge is the sign of a savage nature.” And, of course, George Herbert, the 16th century poet would opt for showing the perpetrator that his injury has not bowed your happiness when he wrote that “Living well is the best revenge.”

No matter what we might think of revenge, there is no denying that it is a powerful instinct in humans, borne of the pain caused by the injury that motivates it. In this regard, the musical composer Kevin Hendrickson amusingly quipped, “Funny thing about revenge. It could
make a killer out of a nun.” Romans 12:19 counsels us that vengeance is to be left to God and is not the province of men: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” And there is no denying that we have all cheered acts of revenge in film, TV, and literature and the closure they can bring for the audience. But in the end, as one Latin proverb opined, “Revenge is a confession of pain.” How sad it is for the one who carries out revenge to double their injury by seeking vengeance for a harm done to them.

An important point not usually considered by the vindictive actor is that an act of vengeance can set off cycles of injury that are destructive of both the perpetrator of the original harm and the party that first sought revenge. Of the futility of such conduct, Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” In this regard, Confucius cautioned, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

But not everyone who has an opinion on it abjures vengeance. In his inimitable style, Muhammad Ali remarked,

“I’m a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I’m no cheek turner. I got no
respect for a man who won’t hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.”

On this point, the German poet Heinrich Heine humorously quipped, “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.” And then there is the old adage, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” which I have always interpreted to mean that if you are going to embark on a path of vengeance, you had best carry it out without emotion or feeling as to do otherwise may thwart the effect.

Shakespeare deserves a special mention here, as several of his works explore the subject of vengeance, with a number of his characters seething with vengefulness. The scholar Harry Keyishian has distinguished between Shakespearean characters whose vengeance is justified and those whose vindictive instincts are motivated by hatred and envy, finding virtue in the former and disdain for the latter. Keyishian wrote that revenge can be good – as a strategy for assuaging feelings of powerlessness and injustice, an act of recovery, and a balm for feelings of alienation. Perhaps his most complex character in this regard was Hamlet, whose vengeful broodings on his father’s murder were certainly understandable, but whose vengeance spiraled out of control and sucked in many victims. And in Henry VIII, Shakespeare cautioned of the need for vengeance to remain measured: “Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.”

Too often, vindictiveness masquerades as justice, but the two are not invariably the same, even if there may be a thin line separating them. In the case of vengeance, it is taken out by the individual who was harmed, and it is they who are determining the culpability of the perpetrator of the original injury and the type of punishment that will be meted out (i.e., the vengeful act). In other words, the one taking revenge is acting as prosecutor, judge, and executioner.

In the case of justice, however, there is a more rigorous mechanism at work. These mechanisms include professionals and other individuals playing the roles of prosecutor, judge, and jury. Unlike vindictive acts, which are taken on behalf of the victim, judicial proceedings are carried out on behalf of the community, as well as the victim. Significantly, the justice system accords certain rights to the accused and usually provides an appellate process to correct erroneous decisions. In contrast, campaigns of vengeance are more likely to be unfair, subject to error, and, in extreme cases, extraordinarily cruel and inhumane (think lynchings of Black people).

While I take a dim view of most cases of vindictiveness and vengefulness as a matter of principle, I do consider them to be appropriate in certain circumstances, mainly where the harm done by the transgressor has been very serious and there is no opportunity for the wrong to be
redressed through systems of justice, because, for example, the institutions that carry it out are weak or nonexistent or the perpetrator is outside the reach of the law. An example of this might be where a country takes out a terrorist leader with a drone. But even those cases can leave one uncomfortable, as a life has been taken through summary execution and without any due process.

The best advice is that we should refrain from vindictiveness, especially where the initial harm was not of great significance and alternative means for seeking redress exist. (For those of you who are interested in alternatives to vengeance, I would direct you to my blog post titled On Forgiveness, which discusses different approaches to forgiveness.) However, where the exercise of vengeance is an imperative, it must be carried out with great care, as the opportunities for error or cruelty are too great.