The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Justice and Vengeance

Justice was a favorite topic of the ancient Greeks.

The question of “what is justice” was a question which the Athenian philosophers of the 5th and 4th centuries BC grappled with. It is the subject of Plato’s most famous dialogue The Republic where he deals with it at much greater length than he does discussions of the nature of temperance, courage, friendship, and love in the Charmides, Laches, Lysis, and Symposium respectively. Aristotle introduces it as one of a series of virtues in his Nicomachean Ethics, but gives it a far more extensive analysis in Book V than he does courage, temperance, generosity and the other virtues introduced in earlier books.

The philosophers were not the first Greeks to talk about justice, however. Aeschylus, the first of the famous 5th Century BC trio of tragedians, who was born roughly a century before Plato and died when Socrates was in his teens, addressed the topic of justice in his great trilogy of plays the Oresteia.

The first play of the trilogy is Agamemnon. The title character is the king who led the expedition against Troy to recover Helen, the wife of his brother Menelaus king of Sparta, after she had been abducted by Paris. The plays tells the story of his return to Argos where he was murdered by his Queen Clytemnestra and her lover a cousin of the king named Aegisthus.

In the second play, The Libation Bearers, Agamemnon’s son Orestes, upon the orders of the god Apollo, returns to Argos with his friend Pylades and, upon the urging of both the god and his sister Electra, avenged his father by killing his mother. His vengeance, however, does not close the matter. The blood of his mother, spilled in matricide, summon the Furies, the spirits of vengeance, who drive Orestes mad..

Finally, in the third play, The Euminides, the situation is resolved when Orestes arrives at Athens, with the Furies hot on his trail. He cries out to Athena for help, and she responds by holding a jury trial. Apollo speaks for the defence and the Furies for the prosecution. The trial ends with a tie which is broken by Pallas’ own vote in Orestes’ favour.

The theme of the Oresteia is justice, specifically the difference between justice and vengeance. Vengeance is a cycle which perpetuates itself. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon for revenge. Clytemnestra hated her husband for the loss of their daughter Iphigenia. Aegisthus believed that his father Thyestes had been wronged by his brother, Agamemnon’s father Atreus, and so sought to avenge his father by killing Agamemnon. This did not end the cycle however. Orestes and Electra, the children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, avenged their father by killing his murderers.

The cycle of vengeance and blood-shed only ended when the matter was brought before Athena’s court of justice and there resolved once and for all. The title of the last play is significant. “Eumenides” means “Kindly Ones” and this is the name which Athena gives the Furies at the end of the play when they agree to abide by the verdict and release Orestes from their claim. The spirits of vengeance had been transformed into the spirits of kindness by the intervention of justice into the cycle of vengeance bringing closure and resolution.

The justice that Plato and Aristotle sought to define was an attribute of people, a character trait, a virtue. Justice would also be considered a character trait in Christian theology where it was identified as one of the four cardinal virtues. The justice which is the theme of Aeschylus’ trilogy, however, is a social good that society and its members receive from laws and the government which administers the law. Indeed, this kind of justice, is the primary social good for which government exists.

Today we would tend to consider those meanings of justice as being distinct from each other, and we would expect to find them as separate definitions under the heading “justice” in a dictionary. This would not necessarily have been the case in ancient Athens.

Take Plato’s Republic for example. Early in the dialogue, Socrates enters into a debate with a 5th Century BC precursor to Nietzsche named Thrasymachus. Thrasymachus maintains that justice is the invention of the strong to rule the weak, that the strong do not practice it themselves, and are all the happier for not doing so. Socrates rebuts this claim but is challenged by Plato’s brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon to himself provide a definition of justice and to prove his claim that the just man is happier than the unjust. The remainder of the dialogue is his attempt to do so which involves the exercise of creating a hypothetical city in which ideal justice is to be found.

Thus, to Plato, the attempt to define justice the character trait must involve a description of justice the social good provided by government.

I will examine justice the virtue more fully in a later essay. For now, let us briefly define it by saying that justice presupposes the existence of right and wrong and is the virtue of thinking, judging, and acting rightly. For this reason Aristotle was right to say that justice in a sense, encompasses all of virtue, in addition to being a particular virtue in its own right.

How is this virtue related to the justice which people seek from their laws and government?

The justice which we seek from law and government can be defined simply as “right and fair judgment”. When we have serious disagreements with our neighbors which we cannot settle ourselves we go to a court of law to get the matter judged rightly. If someone is criminally wronged we expect the police to find and arrest the person who committed the wrong, a prosecutor to establish the culprit’s guilt in a court of law, and a judge to determine what penalty the culprit owes his victims including first and foremost society whose laws he has broken, and finally, we expect that the guilty culprit will be forced to pay that penalty.

Right judgment, in civil and criminal cases, is the justice we expect our laws and government to provide us. Thinking, judging, and behaving rightly is justice the virtue. Clearly the two are intimately connected and the cultivation of the virtue of justice on the part of a society’s rulers is necessary for obtaining justice from government. This was understood by Plato and Aristotle. It was also understood by the Hebrew prophets. The messages they brought to the kings of ancient Israel and Judah from the Lord contained threats of divine justice that would come because of unjust practices (idolatry, adultery, bloodshed foremost among them) and because Israel’s governors were not providing the people with justice.

Having established the relationship between justice the virtue and justice the social good, let us now turn to the relationship and difference between justice and vengeance which was the theme of Aeschylus’ famous trilogy.

Aeschylus, writing from the perspective of a poet and a playwright, illustrated the difference between justice and revenge with the purpose of establishing that the former is superior to the latter. Justice is superior to revenge because it provides people with that for which they are seeking when they pursue revenge without establishing a cycle that perpetuates itself. It limits and contains wrongdoing. This is one of the key differences between civilization and barbarism.

There is a subtle implication of that, however, which is often overlooked. As we shall see, overlooking that implication has had serious consequences for us as a society. For justice to be superior to revenge it must do a better job of achieving the end for which vengeance was a means. This means that justice, while different from vengeance, must also be similar to it.

What is the similarity between justice and vengeance?

Justice and vengeance are both responses to wrongdoing. Vengeance is when the person wronged personally attempts to extract retribution from the person who has wronged him. Justice is when the authorities within a society judge the wrongdoer and extract retribution from him. Both are ways of providing satisfaction for the party that has been wronged. Justice, however recognizes society’s law as the first victim of criminal wrongdoing, and therefore the right of going after the wrongdoer and demanding retribution and restitution belongs to society.

For this reason, in a civilized society under law, we are not to seek restitution and retribution on our own. That is to take the law into our own hands, usurp its authority, and undermine that very thing which makes our society civilized. (1)

Why is it important that we recognize the similarity between justice and revenge?

The justice system can fail in two different ways. The first way is by committing a positive injustice against someone. The obvious examples of this include the conviction and punishment of a man for a crime he did not commit, imposing a penalty which is too severe to fit the crime, and punishing someone for something which should not be criminalized in the first place.

The second way is when the justice system fails to provide justice. The obvious examples of this is when a guilty person is acquitted or given a sentence that trivializes the law and his crime by being too light.

In the English-speaking world, we have long considered the first form of injustice to be far worse than the second. This is an application of a principle Socrates’ expressed millennia ago in Plato’s Gorgias where he says that doing injustice is the greatest of all evils, and that he would therefore rather suffer an injustice than to commit one. As Sir William Blackstone, the eighteenth century English jurist put it in his Commentaries on the Laws of England it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.

This is as it should be and this principle finds its concrete expression in the long-established prescriptive rights of English common law which exist to guard against this kind of injustice. Among these are the right to be informed of whatever charges you are arrested for, the right to have a magistrate quickly hear your case after you have been arrested to determine whether you were lawfully detained, the right to a speedy trial before a jury of your peers, and a right to appeal to a higher court if you are convicted. (2)

The second kind of injustice may be the lesser injustice, but that does not mean that it should be treated lightly. If the justice system fails to provide people who have been criminally wronged with satisfaction often enough, they will turn to vigilante justice, which is a form of revenge. The problem with revenge is that it is not self-limiting the way justice is. The standards of justice place a limit on the payment that can be demanded from a person who has wronged someone. A person seeking revenge is not so limited and is likely to demand and take too much from the person he is avenging himself on. That person, or his relatives, will then seek revenge in turn. The violence escalates and cannot be contained. This threatens the survival of society itself.

How do we know when the failure of the justice system is reaching the critical point where vigilantism will break out?

When a man, cuts off another man’s head in front of a busload of witnesses, is arrested, and then placed in a mental hospital where he will walk free the moment his doctor decides he is cured, and the media berate the public who are appalled at this breakdown in justice for their insensitivity towards the sufferings of the mentally ill, this is a pretty good clue that we are rapidly approaching that point.

How did we come to the point where such an occurrence was possible?

We have arrived where we are, by allowing progressives to convince us, that traditional ideas of justice, in which the lawbreaker is regarded as owing a debt to society which must be paid, are archaic, cruel and barbaric and must be replaced with more enlightened, modern views of justice which are about rehabilitating the lawbreaker, making him whole, and reintegrating him into society. Progressives, in their theories of justice, are not content to distinguish between justice and vengeance. They seek to eliminate from justice any and all resemblance to vengeance.

When all resemblance between justice and vengeance has been eliminated, however, justice no longer provides people who have been wronged with the sense of satisfaction that can only come from justice or revenge. If they are not getting that satisfaction from the justice system they will turn to revenge.

One of the most ancient concepts of justice is the notion that the punishment must fit the crime. This is the lex talionis – most commonly expressed as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” This principle is as old as Hammurabi’s Code in the 18th Century BC. It was the standard of justice in ancient Israel, recorded in the Torah itself in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Some regard the lex talionis as being a harsh and cruel standard. Such people overlook the fact that the “eye for an eye” principle is the very definition of fairness. They also overlook the fact that it’s primary purpose is to limit what penalties are considered just to those which are reasonable. If the standard of justice is that you cannot demand retribution in excess of that which you have lost through the wrongdoing of another then it would be unjust to demand more.

Others object to this principle on the grounds that Jesus was supposedly against it. That conclusion can only be reached by taking Jesus words’ in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 5 verses 38 to 42, out of context, and then ignoring most of what is actually said. These verses, form one of six parallel passages in that chapter, in which Jesus’ introduces a quotation from the Torah with “ye have heard that it was said”, then gives His own instructions beginning with “but I say unto you” While He might appear at first glance to be contradicting the Torah, He warned against that conclusion in His words immediately prior to these passages where He says “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” The common theme of all of these passages is that in each Jesus’ requires more righteousness of people than the Torah required.

In the first two, He quotes the commandments against murder and adultery, and tells His disciples that it is not enough to obey these commandments outwardly – they must not be violated internally by anger or lust either. In the second two He quotes civil law provisions from the Torah for divorce and taking oaths. He tells His disciples that they should be so righteous and truthful as to have no need for these provisions. The quotation of the lex talionis is found in the first of the final two passages which have the common theme that true righteousness involves selfless love. In this context, it is absolutely clear, that Jesus is not seeking to replace “an eye for an eye” as the standard of justice, but is rather forbidding personal vengeance.

Which brings us right back to Aeschylus. How are justice and vengeance alike? In both, the person who has been wronged by another, seeks satisfaction. True justice, provides that satisfaction in a way which brings the matter to a close. Vengeance invites retaliation from the other side and cannot be contained by the limits which are inherent in law and justice. Laws and justice are essential for a civilized society but they break down when they fail to provide satisfaction. People will then turn again to vengeance and it will consume a society.

(1) A careful distinction must be made here between “taking the law into one’s own hands” and action taken in defense of one’s person, family, and property. The phrase “taking the law into one’s own hands” properly applies only to vengeance. Defensive action against criminal aggression is right and laws which would seek to prohibit such action are inherently unjust. This is a distinction, which some judges and policemen have unfortunately lost sight of, in our Canadian society today.

(2) These safeguards are not foolproof, of course. Here in Canada there have been a number of famous cases of wrongful conviction, that of David Milgaard being probably the most noted. Dr. Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence Stratton in their The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Law Enforcement Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice discuss how the traditional safeguards against wrongful conviction and punishment are being deliberately undermined in the United States in the name of being “tough on crime”. The second, paperback edition of this book was published in 2008 by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing in New York.


  1. If you keep offering posts as magnificent as this one, I might be forced to start reading Plato, just to keep up.


    Have you read all of Plato's dialogues, or just a sampling? Do you work from secondary texts, such as a modern introduction to Plato in context, or something like that?

  2. You're welcome. I have read each of Plato's dialogues in English translation at least once, some several times over. Of the ones mentioned in this essay, for example, I have read The Republic and Symposium several times. The Charmides, Laches, Lysis, and Gorgias I have only read one time each so far. The dialogue I have read most of all of Plato's dialogues is the Apologia of Socrates. Usually, but not always, the translation is Benjamin Jowett's. I hope to read Plato in Greek one day. The ancient Greek I studied in college was Koine, the dialect of the New Testament. That is insufficient for Plato and I have been slowing working at learning Attic. I have consulted secondary texts from time to time, but my preferred study tool is a translation in a good critical edition with extensive notes.