Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 5.: Revenge - The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 5.: Revenge - Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, vol. 1 
The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols.
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134. Among intelligent creatures the struggle for existence entails aggressions. Where these are not the destructive aggressions of carnivorous creatures on their prey, they are the aggressions, not necessarily destructive but commonly violent, of creatures competing with one another for food. Animals severally impelled by hunger are inevitably led into antagonisms by endeavors severally to seize what ever food they can; and injuries, more or less decided, are usual concomitants.
Aggression leads to counteraggression. Where both creatures have powers of offense, they are likely both to use them; especially where their powers of offense are approximately equal, that is, where they are creatures of the same species: such creatures being also those commonly brought into competition. That results of this kind are inevitable, will be manifest on remembering that among members of the same species, those individuals which have not, in any considerable degree, resented aggressions, must have ever tended to disappear, and to have left behind those which have with some effect made counteraggressions. Fights, therefore, not only of predatory animals with prey but of animals of the same kind with one another, have been unavoidable from the first and have continued to the last.
Every fight is a succession of retaliations–bite being given for bite, and blow for blow. Usually these follow one another in quick succession, but not always. There is a postponed retaliation; and a postponed retaliation is what we call revenge. It may be postponed for so short a time as to be merely a recommencement of the fight, or it may be postponed for days, or it may be postponed for years. And hence the retaliation which constitutes what we call revenge, diverges insensibly from the retaliations which characterize a conflict.
But the practice, alike of immediate revenge and of postponed revenge, establishes itself as in some measure a check upon aggression; since the motive to aggress is checked by the consciousness that a counteraggression will come: if not at once then after a time.
135. Among human beings in early stages, there hence arises not only the practice of revenge but a belief that revenge is imperative–that revenge is a duty. Here, from Sir George Grey’s account of the Australians, we have a graphic picture of the sentiment and its results:
The holiest duty a native is called on to perform is that of avenging the death of his nearest relation, for it is his peculiar duty to do so: until he has fulfilled this task, he is constantly taunted by the old women; his wives, if he be married, would soon quit him; if he is unmarried, not a single young woman would speak to him; his mother would constantly cry, and lament she should ever have given birth to so degenerate a son; his father would treat him with contempt, and reproaches would constantly be sounded in his ear.
Of illustrations from North America that furnished by the Sioux may be named. Burton says: “The obstinate revengefulness of their vendetta is proverbial; they hate with the ‘hate of Hell’; and, like the Highlanders of old, if the author of an injury escape them, they vent their rage upon the innocent, because he is of the same clan or color.” From South America a case given by Schomburgk may be quoted: “My revenge is not yet satisfied, there still lives a member of the hated family,” said a Guiana native, whose relative he suspected to have been poisoned. Here, again, is an instance from Williams’ account of the Fijians.
At that hour of death, he never forgets an enemy, and at that time he never forgives one. The dying man mentions his foe, that his children may perpetuate his hatred–it may be against his own son–and kill him at the first opportunity.
And then Thomson tells us of the New Zealanders that “not to avenge the dead, according to native law indicates the most craven spirit.” Passing to Asia I may quote Macrae’s account of the Kukis.
Like all savage people, the Kukis are of a most vindictive disposition; blood must always be shed for blood. . . . If a man should happen to be killed by an accidental fall from a tree, all his relations assemble . . . and reduce it to chips.
In Petherick, we read that the shedding of blood is “an offense with Arabs that neither time nor contrition can obliterate, thirst for revenge descending from father to son, and even through successive generations.” So too of the East Africans Burton writes:
Revenge is a ruling passion, as the many rancorous fratricidal wars that have prevailed between kindred clans, even for a generation, prove. Retaliation and vengeance are, in fact, their great agents of moral control.
In all these cases we see that either avowedly or tacitly revenge is considered a moral obligation.
The early stages of various existing people yield equally clear evidence. In his Japan in Days of Yore, Mr. Dening translates the life of Musashi, published by the Momtusho (Education Department), narrating a prolonged vendetta full of combats and murders; and, in partial sympathy with the Japanese educationists, remarks that his hero’s acts of undying revenge, displayed “so many of the nobler aspects of human nature” and are “calculated to inspire confidence in humanity.” A kindred spirit is shown in the early Indian literature. The gods are revengeful. As described in the Rig-Veda, “Agni swallows his enemies, tears their skin, minces their members, and throws them before the wolves to be eaten by them, or by the shrieking vultures.” And the ascribed character of the gods is participated in by their devotees, as instance the invocation:
Indra and Soma, burn the Rakshas, destroy them, throw them down, ye two Bulls, the people that grow in darkness. Hew down the madmen, suffocate them, kill them, hurl them away and slay the voracious. Indra and Soma, up together against the cursing demon! May he bum and hiss like an oblation in the fire! Put your everlasting hatred on the villain.
The narrative of the “ferocious and deadly struggle” carried on “with all the frenzied wrath of demons,” as Wheeler says, is full of vows of revenge–a revenge extending to horrible treatment of enemies’ remains. Nor do we find a different sentiment displayed among the Hebrews, whether in the ascribed actions of Jahveh or the actions of his worshippers. The command to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Deuteronomy xxv 19), and the fulfillment of this command by Saul and Samuel, to the extent of destroying not only the Amalekites but all their cattle, is a typical example of the implied divine revenge–a sample variously paralleled in other cases. And with this sanctification of revenge we see that the acts and feelings of the Hebrews themselves harmonized. The wreaking of vengeance was bequeathed as a duty; as when David, after enjoining Solomon to walk in the ways of the Lord, told him not to spare the son of a man who had cursed him (and who had been forgiven on oath), saying “but his hoar head bring thou down to the grave with blood” (1 Kings ii. 9).
It is superfluous to illustrate in detail the kindred sentiments and ideas of European peoples throughout medaeval times. Most of the political and private incidents narrated exhibit them. To inflict vengeance was among them, as now among savages, considered an obligation; and when, occasionally the spirit flagged in men it was kept alive by women, as in the Merovingian period by Fredegonde and Brunehaut. Then in later centuries there were chronic family feuds between nobles everywhere, transmitted from generation to generation. And the spirit was still active down to the time of the Abbé Brantôme, who, in his will, enjoins a nephew to execute vengeance on his behalf should he be injured when too old to avenge himself. Nay the vendetta, once so general, is even now not extinct in the East of Europe.
Though, throughout the modern civilized world, not perturbed everywhere and always by conflicts, life does not furnish such multitudinous examples of like meaning, yet survival of the ethics of enmity in so far as it enjoins revenge, is sufficiently manifest. Duels almost daily occurring somewhere or other on the Continent, exhibit the conceived obligation under its private form; and under its public form we have before us a striking example in the persistent desire which the French cherish to punish the Germans for defeating them–a desire of which the strength has lately (August 1891) been shown by the remarkable fact that while professedly enthusiastic advocates of liberty and upholders of free institutions, they have been lauding “the noble Russian people” and the despotic Czar who holds them in bondage; and all because they hope thus to be aided in their wished-for fight with Germany. Clearly the appropriate expression of their feeling is–Not that we love freedom less but that we love revenge more.
136. But, while societies have been in course of growth and consolidation, there have been occasional expressions of ideas and sentiments opposite to these–occasional expressions which, as they are associated with the arrival at more settled social states, may be fairly regarded as consequent upon a diminution of warlike activities.
Various illustrations are furnished by the literature of Hindostan. In the code of Manu we read:
And again, in another place, there is the exhortation–
Of like spirit is the following from the Cural: “The do no evil even to enemies will be called the chief of virtues.” So, too, among some of the Persians. In their literature of the seventh century we find the passage–"Think not that the valor of a man consists only in courage and force; if you can rise above wrath and forgive, you are of a value inestimable.” At a later date, namely in a story of Sadi, there occurs the injunction:
And still more extreme is the doctrine we find in Hafiz, as translated by Sir William Jones:
Nor are the writings of the Chinese sages without kindred utterances of sentiment. Lao-Tsze says, “Recompense injury with kindness.” So also according to Mencius, “A benevolent man does not lay up anger, nor cherish resentment against his brother, but only regards him with affection and love.” While Confucius, in conformity with his doctrine of the mean, expresses a less extreme view:
“What do you say concerning the principle that injury should be recompensed with kindness?” The Master said, “With what then will you recompense kindness? Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness.”
In the later stages of Hebrew civilization, we similarly find the social and divine sanctions for revenge occasionally qualified–a mingling of opposed ideas and sentiments. While, in Ecclesiasticus xxx. 6, a father is regarded as happy who leaves “an avenger against his enemies,” yet in chapter x. 6 there is an injunction to “bear not hatred” for wrong received–an injunction containing in germ the ethical principle which, centuries later, took shape in Christianity.
137. Proofs that decline of vindictiveness and growth of forgiveness are associated with decrease of militancy and increase of peaceful cooperation, cannot be clearly disentangled from the facts; since the two kinds of life have nearly everywhere, and at all times, been associated in one or other proportion. But to such general evidence as the foregoing quotations furnish, may be added some evidence furnished by existing societies.
There is the fact that throughout the chief nations of Europe, the family vendetta has disappeared during a period in which the conflicts of nations have become less constant, and the peaceful exchange of services within each nation more active: a contrast between ancient and modern which asserted itself soonest where the industrial type was earliest developed, namely among ourselves.
Again, there is the fact that in our own society with its comparatively small number of soldiers and a militancy less predominant than that of continental societies with their vast armies and warlike attitudes, there has been a suppression of the revenge for private insults, while this with them continues; and so far has the vindictive spirit declined that an injured man who shows persistent animosity towards one who has injured him, is reprobated rather than applauded: forgiveness is, at any rate by many tacitly approved.
But if we seek a case in which the virtue supposed to be especially Christian is practiced, we must seek it among the non-Christians. Certain peaceful tribes of the Indian hills are characterized by it, as witness this account of the Lepchas:
They are wonderfully honest, theft being scarcely known among them; they rarely quarrel among themselves. . . . They are singularly forgiving of injuries, when time is given them, after hasty loss of temper. Although they were ready enough to lodge complaints before the magistrate against one another in cases of assault and other offenses, they rarely prosecuted to a decision, generally preferring to submit to arbitration, or making mutual amends and concessions. They are averse to soldiering, and cannot be induced to enlist in our army even for local service in the Hills.
Thus we get both positive and negative evidence that the revengefulness within each society is proportionate to the habitual conflict with other societies; and that while, at the one extreme, there is a moral sanction for revenge, at the other extreme there is a moral sanction for forgiveness.