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 From A C Grayling (Meditations for the Humanist- 2002)

In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior. - Francis Bacon


There is nothing so urgent as the desire for revenge, when real or perceived injury has been done to oneself or one's community, and there is nothing so sweet as the angry pleasure it gives once enacted. Connoisseurs of revenge might applaud Emile Gaboriau's remark that 'revenge is a luscious fruit which you must leave to ripen', but it is rare for revenge to be patient. We hurry to avenge whereas we dawdle to pay other kinds of debts - most notably those of gratitude - and failure to achieve revenge is painful and mortifying in ways that not discharging other debts rarely is.

The impulse to revenge is an impulse to justice, but it is a primitive one, and although its intention is to restore a balance, its personal and emotional basis always threatens to make it too harsh and punitive, therefore inviting further revenge. Between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, the Montagues and the Capulets, vengeance bred vengeance; that is the nature of feuds, which quickly escalate and consume the parties to them in a spiral of hatred and violence. 'It is sweet,' said Euripides, 'to see your foe perish, and pay to justice everything he owes,' but alas, matters almost never stop there. And that is the crucial problem: for society cannot function if individuals are left to seek redress on their own; justice cannot be a matter of private enterprise. Recognition of this fact from the earliest times led to the building of institutions of justice, culminating - in mature societies - in laws, with officers to oversee their proper application, and with due form and process as a protection against whatever forces might pervert their functioning.

A system of justice can be seen as a well-meaning human endeavour (describing it as such acknowledges the imperfection of all human creations) to provide an objective and impartial means of redressing wrong, whether against individuals or the collective. Because the justice system is constituted by the collective, from which it gets its authority, it acts as the collective’s agent, and carries out its desire for justice wherever required and possible. Revenge is only one part of the aim, if it is part of the aim at all - some think the aim should exclusively be rehabilitation, never retribution - and this downgrading of revenge is appropriate in a mature state of society, where the fundamental idea of the implicit contract between its members, and between each of them and all the others, is to live by the rules for the sake of all-round mutual benefit. When individual members of society flout the rules, they accept the agreed sanctions for doing so; but that is not a case of society taking revenge, properly speaking, so much as redressing the balance of relationships and repairing the wrong done to them.

Desire for revenge is most dangerous when felt by individuals additionally oppressed by fear, anger, and a sense of impotence in the face of perceived injustice. Most of the world's flashpoints are thickly wreathed in such combustible vapours. When someone who seems to have every reason in the world to seek revenge - Nelson Mandela, say - does not do so, the example set is extraordinary and impressive. 'No revenge is more honourable than the one not taken,' says the Spanish proverb. There is nobility in forbearance, and it expresses a desire for something far greater and grander than revenge, namely peace, a future, and an end to the festering hatreds and hurts which poison life It takes magnanimity - that impressive word Anglicized from magna anima meaning 'great soul' - to rise above revenge Magnanimity is always in short supply, but it is the main ingredient in everything that makes the world a better place and the only antidote to the rage for revenge which, without fail, always makes bad things worse.


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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