December 07, 2010

Revenge, Justice and Forgiveness

Dear Hilton has asked for my thoughts on forgiveness, and I am happy to oblige. But first I feel it necessary to disentangle the quest for revenge from the concept of justice. There is some confusion out there in the ether, that a man who seeks justice is a man seeking revenge, and that justice should be foregone so that we do not surrender ourselves to the cold-heartedness and self-imprisonment of vengeance. ‘An eye for an eye’ is a brutal notion, and it is just as well for us that we live in civilisation, where the institutional structure of society is designed to give us access to justice. Where this fails, we must not take the law into our own hands, but rather, fight to make the law, and our communities, work.

Revenge is a cold, considered insanity. It cannot claim that impulsive, momentary quality exemplified by the bar-room drunkard. Through cultivated anger, the vengeful man surrenders his soul to that which is most monstrous. We all are capable of this, and must watch vigilantly over our inner demon. For so long as vengeance remains only a thought, it can be defeated. Once it becomes an act, all is lost. Take Ahab, who enacts his vengeance over the longue durée, at every moment ready to immolate himself for the sake of it:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more. Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad. (Moby Dick, 1851).

Vengeance is pouring injustice upon injustice. It does not even the scale, but merely adds further weight to the one side. We all learnt, as children, that two wrongs do not make a right, and though for an instant we may feel gratified by the settling of a score, we subsequently sink into despair at the lowering of our nature to that of our offender. Society as a whole suffers by the example, for as the keeper of justice it must now serve justice against both parties. The example of vengeance strikes fear into the hearts of men, for they know that a society in which vengeance occurs is a place where justice has failed. We are all laid open to the possibility of being the victim.

When we are wronged we must have justice, but we must know what it means to be wronged. To have one’s house swept away by a tornado, or to have one’s dog struck by lightning – these things are not unjust; they are unfortunate. We may feel aggrieved, but we must simply dust ourselves down and rebuild. We may be ruined, but we are not wronged. In such cases, insurance companies come under scrutiny when they fail to follow contractual obligations to pay. And where there is injustice here, there are courts in which to fight. It is no use waging war against the heavens, for injustice is a human contrivance.

To be clear: to seek justice is not to be confused with seeking revenge. To that end, the quest for justice is not incompatible with forgiveness. Indeed, when we are wronged we must let go of the hurt that drives us into malice and contempt – into unjust acts of our own – and, especially if we are met with contrition, we must forgive. If we seek justice in the appropriate way, we may feel it better to see justice served before we forgive, but that already implies a will to relent our ill-feelings. And ultimately we must, for no good comes of hate; no right comes from a will to do wrong; no humanity was ever wrought from a hardened heart.

We may rue our lot, but we must not let the injustice done to us define us. To be human, and to prosper, we must let go and look forward. Those who trespass against us may not be the worse off for that, but we shall be the better.


  1. Doctor, let me applaud your daring in tackling Melville. But if it is useless to charge injustice to God, then God does not exist. God redeems the injustices of this world. Without God, Ahab's tragedy is meaningless, for the injustice of the world is irreparable and the justice of men just a pretense. Telling people who look the dead in the face to shake it off will really not do...

    One may rebuild if one can, but what if one can't? What if the world is so harsh that it destroys men? And on the other hand to trust in the justice of men is an illusion everyone but the luckiest eventually comes to regret - and they are revealed then as the blindest of men.

    If civilization is supposed to be just, then I am sure there must be a serious standard of justice. In fact, doctor, it's in the center of your title - and you are assured we must seek it and have it, but you somehow have avoided saying what it is...

  2. I do not follow the logic of 'if it is useless to charge injustice to God, then God does not exist'. I have not read any theological or philosophical treatise that argues for anything other than God as just. A more successful argument would be 'because God exists, it is useless to charge Him with injustice'.

    Indeed, what if one can't? The world is harsh, and does destroy men, just as it has always done, and will continue to do. Is this right or wrong? or is that not an appropriate question? I do not know that one should trust in the justice of men as a quality of being a man, but those of us who will have justice must pursue it. I do not advise us to wait for human nature to do the right thing. I advise us to make sure the right thing occurs.

    I do not think there is avoidance here, and I am thankful that there is no pithy definition either. But we shall know justice when we have it, and, what is more certain, we shall know it when we do not.

  3. Doctor, I fully agree on the last part: it is probable we will only have a direct experience of injustice. That is why men resort to destruction: on your notice, they just imitate the world. Are they wrong?

    Justice is necessary to define because different people have different definitions. This is not like sartorial differences, you don't get snubbed: entire countries butcher one another over differences in defining justice. I should think two World Wars would convince any serious man that justice must be defined clearly...

    As for God: the priests say God exists and God is just. But are they right? Doctor, we have an everyday experience of injustice and next to nothing in terms of justice. Job's cautionary tale and God's terror in mentioning the Leviathan should show you that even the faithful may come to shattering doubts about God's justice. Ahab is tragic because he believe God does not exist and good is not grounded - therefore, he chooses evil and tyranny. Why is he wrong?

  4. Thank you very much for this noble explication, Mr. VB. I shall mull this over and refer back to it when tempted to succumb to thoughts of a baser nature. You are very kind, sir.


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