Sweet Revenge

I have blogged in the past about the inherent problems with capital punishment — chiefly the fact that humans who are inherently fallible make the decisions that determine whether another human will die for a presumed crime. But the recent conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 22 year-old found guilty of participating in the bombing of innocent victims in the Boston Marathon in 2013, raises the issue anew. This is especially the case since the young man was found guilty and sentenced by a jury in Boston, Massachusetts, presumed to be a liberal and enlightened city in these United States.

Recall with me a quote from Francis Bacon who said at the turn of the seventeenth century:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought the law to weed it out.”

The presumption Bacon makes here is that the law should “weed out” the human tendency to revert to revenge, that revenge is not something we humans ought to be motivated by and it can and should be inhibited by civil law. And yet what possible justification can there be for capital punishment, even in the case when it is crystal clear that that human has taken another life, or lives, except revenge, pure and simple? The usual problem with capital punishment, that human beings are prone to error, especially in moments of stress, cannot be raised here. There is no question of Tsarnaev’s guilt in this case. Three people were killed and many more injured seriously. The question is whether death by injection, as ruled by the court, is called for in this case in a country that prides itself on being humane and civilized.

As Bacon suggests, revenge is a kind of “wild justice” and certainly not worthy of rational, civilized persons who claim to be obedient to the rule of law. Presumably the civil law is consonant with the moral law and if it is not we have no obligation to obey it — as Martin Luther King reminded us many years ago. It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans. And, if Bacon is to be believed, law also ought to curb our desire to get revenge on those who do us harm. When we ignore these tenets we lower ourselves to the level of those who live by “wild justice.” Revenge may be sweet, but it is not something we ought to lower ourselves to if in doing so we risk doing irreparable damage to ourselves in the process. Toward that end, law ought not to encourage capital punishment; it ought to “weed it out.”

At a time when those who are pledged to protect and serve the cities in which we live are charged with unfettered and unjustified violence toward, in many cases, innocent civilians, we naturally begin to question the legitimacy of civil law. But there is a difference between respect for those laws when they promote the common good and the human beings who occasionally abuse the privilege of enforcing them. For myself, I think those who abuse the position of protectors of law and order should be punished and punished soundly. But we cannot turn our backs on the law itself when it is precisely that which separates us from brutes — which is what we become when we insist that revenge is lawful. Bacon was right.


5 thoughts on “Sweet Revenge

  1. Among notable notions, this one strikes hard:

    “It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans.”

    This is true of Cave Dwellers in Plato’s Republic, but NOT of those who have Witnessed the Good in full splendor, what I think our Professor would acknowledge is the “moral law” to which the sentiment of Beauty is attached in most accounts of importance here.

    So, there is a difference between the Obedience to the ‘civil’ law…the law of civility, the law of society…the law of Order arrived at reasonably through the Consent of the General Will, and Love (agape), which holds a more ‘gnostic’ emphasis of Motive than that attributable to Duty, properly understood.

    I have argued since at least 1999 in academic circles among friends that: Aesthetic Judgment is the Bridge that vaults from the Lower hell’s (Dante?) to the verges of St. Peter’s Gate, and that the Instinctual ‘grace’, in which all terrestrial life (or any Rational Being (Angels all, or ‘gods’ as Christ may have asserted (“have I not called you gods?))) moves about and has its Being, crossing from the Darkness of the Cave across the abyss through Moral Sentiment, as if upon a Bilfrost Bridge of radiant Promise (Faith).

    Yes, I qualify the down-turned assertion of this Duty to ‘civil’ law…laws of mere men, for a Dynamic which ALL these Fellows participate in, as Below…so Above. Forgive my obscurity, as I have no longer Time to dawdle with too fine a point.

    Are these 2 sides to the same Perceptual Coin? Perhaps…one Material, the other joined hip-to-head with Speculation on the Moral Grounds of self-determination, of autonomy, and the ‘free will” which all Rational Being is supposed to possess, by ‘nature’, i.e. Instinct.

    Could this not be the distinction the gnostics made among the ‘chosen’, the ‘elect’ whose Promise comes spontaneously and with the full conviction and force of an inbred Disposition, or Favor of (what I think our Professor is calling) gentleness, or “the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans”?

    If anything, it is the Cave Dweller who, through great exertion and, perhaps, many transmigrations (in the “eternal return” sense), redeems their own fallen Virtue, and thence is literally Empowered to return to the Cave on behalf of the ignorant Denizens from which they escaped…it is this same Elect of Nature (thence become in Europe as previously in Asia, a concept of Divine Right of the Superior Intelligences among men and their ‘given’ or even ‘fateful’ role, vis-a-vis the Good (Moral Law in our Professor’s lexicon (methinks)).

    One may even Speculate that the Virtue of such an exhausting accomplishment as this, among the very Rare and Few (Elect) of Earth and Heaven (Fate and Destiny?), is that Chance of Time and Space (Circumstance…(how many Angels on a pin?)) that actually works-out a Telic discernible to EVERY Rational Being under the Sun (local or cosmic) and complicit to the very Kore of everything Mankind calls their “innocence” or “purity” or admirable/noble “virtues.”

    Some hint was made over the Shadowy quality of human virtue commanded by Duty, and that the Genius of Nature was to instruct Genius and NOT the average rung of Cave Dwellers, who being bound to their delusions (from which they CANNOT free themselves, but applaud each in competition of each other’s folly, making a semblance of living community and agreement when there is Really only ignorance, and death (civil law?). And from this hint an Assertion of Providence in the Ultimate Good of that which Exists, both prior to and after, forever, anything so foolish as the ‘civility’ of Man can, or has ever, invented (even in their Utopic Visions so far expounded (save only One Example centered upon a Common Theme among the Wise in every Culture)).

    For these very Few, among whom fell the Lots of the wise, Virtue is in Truth the very highest reward of Moral Bravery, which their heart espoused once secretly but broke the bonds of Darkness to rise anew the certainty but sweet and glorious agony of the Wakening to the Good in full splendor of urgent Experience (no Speculative Object), as our gnostics attest, or alchemist contrive, propounding the Gold of Illumination over the Shadow of pervasive and mortal and treacherously vain conceits of Duty no ‘civil law’ has failed to profoundly disappoint.

    But like that Quintus Horatio Flaccus guy…our Professor has it Right that “the absence of Virtue is it’s own reward.” Perhaps the most damning and obvious Truth of this to be found in the many Postures of Profession such “men of science” have come to know in the vicious cycle of their own confirmation bias…looking for what they want or expect, and dismissive of those Perspectives and Experience that haven’t a theoretical grounding in the Cave of their Special Disciplines.

    I invite our Professor to tour away the lasting hours upon the “Content Demonstration” I speak of at Cultural Criticism here:


    and remark that there is a Special Note made of Our Shared conversation in the last days of 1999…which I have been busy with, as a matter of Duty, ever since. Adieu.

    • Many thanks for the lengthy comment. I will only note that in the quote you focus on I say civil law is “supposed” to civilize us. I note the need to recognize a “higher law” — with reference to Martin Luther King — in cases where civil law fails to fulfill its proper function. But without civil law (with all its flaws) we are nothing more than denizens of the Cave.

      • I knew as much, kind sir. I have a fault, as some say, to provoke contention on finer points, really, only to make even finer our best or better discernment. You have ever my best regards.

  2. Hugh, with DNA tests proving more death row inmates innocent coupled with the recent FBI forensics problem, how can anyone support capital punishment on top of what Mr. Bacon rightfully said. Good post, BTG

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