Mini-Feature: Justice and Revenge

What's the difference, anyway?

What’s the difference between justice and revenge?

One of the best things you can do for yourself and those you love is to internalize perseverance. Whatever you are working on to do better, or working not to do, if it is of high importance you need to cast an iron will deep within yourself so that when you fail you will never give up. Choosing your battles here is important, of course. If you do this for the wrong purposes or for unrealistic ends you might go crazy. But when it is obvious that something is a vital goal, you do have to cast the iron and decide: I will not give up or stop fighting no matter how many times I fail. If you stop fighting these internal battles, the current drifts in one direction: towards dissolution, addiction, and decay. To be human is to strive, again and again, to make yourself better.

-Matt Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord… not that justice isn’t. But justice is political, and politics establishes and sustains human order through human forms.

And yet, though Caesar is to get his own and God His, we remain idol factories, prone to imitating nearly anyone or anything to the point of worship, even hate-filled and envious worship. Just because we are not explicitly polytheist does not mean we want for “city gods,” and without a doubt the greater of these are palpably gods of revenge.

In this sense it is always and already harder than it seems to rid even our “merely” political life of sensibilities that make it seem necessary or inevitable to commingle justice with revenge.

This is a problem compounded by the elevation of justice itself, with or without modifiers, into a kind of god, one which often in the worshipper’s imagination exists only in utopia, a place toward which we must force all society (if not all the world) to relentlessly trend, even if—especially if—we never “get there.”

In such a schema revenge may be something less than justice, even sadly so, and yet immeasurably more than nothing, and so the worse than nothing that is a lifetime or a history or a cosmos of oppression. “Now you the bitch”—not justice, surely, but progress! So the thinking goes, and understandably, however wrongly, so. A problem justice can cure? Perhaps, but after a certain line has been crossed in the souls of the people, perhaps not.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


The essence of civil society is justice, or orderly, centralized vengeance. There can be no civilization if everyone takes the “law”—meaning retribution—into his own hands.

Every code of law is meant to suppress human bloodthirst by abstracting and depersonalizing it. Even the “eye for an eye” code of the Hebrew Bible—which some mercy-besotted Protestants decry as an example of the grotesque nature of Mosaic Law—represents a justice-oriented approach to settling scores. If you can only take one eye to compensate for the eye you lost, that approach sets an upper limit on tort claims, so to speak. If someone breaks your son’s leg, you can’t wipe out his whole village in return. 

Taking revenge out of the hands of the individual and putting it in the domain of the robed judiciary is supposed to instantly dampen the problem of the cycle of revenge, which is when claims of retribution go too far and invoke a demand from the counterparty for rectification of the excessive penalty. This is how you wind up with ancestral Albanian blood feuds that keep male children locked in the house for decades.  

Rene Girard claimed that the whole point of Jesus and his sacrifice is to end the cycle of revenge, which he called mimetic violence. Maybe it would work; it hasn’t so far. 

-Seth Barron, managing editor of The American Mind

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Revenge ends where justice begins. This is the whole point of Aeschylus's Oresteia: the blood feud within the house of Atreus, no matter the rightness of each individual cause within it, wraps all its participants into a self-perpetuating cycle of retribution. Agamemnon must murder his daughter or the Achaean army is doomed; Clytemnestra avenges her slaughtered child and becomes a regicide; Orestes avenges his father and becomes a matricide; in attempting to set the scales of justice aright, each one incurs new guilt and only adds to the imbalance.

The solution to this is for a disinterested party (the goddess Athena) to determine the appropriate course of action from outside. Athena puts the furies, the revenge goddesses, to rest and mythologically inaugurates the Athenian law courts. In this we can discern the seeds of a shattering Western insight, that no human is really fit to judge another in the last analysis because each is implicated in same the fabric of injustice that he seeks to put right. The impotency of all merely ritual absolution, the futility of political gestures (such as reparations for slavery) which have as their object the rectification of mortal sins, and the desperate need of someone whose nature is not sinful like ours, who is exempt from the punishment of revenge, to step in from outside and set things right—all of this is prefigured in the wisdom of Aeschylus. We have no help to help ourselves.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind