There are many reasons why one would be vindictive. It is commonly said that narcissists and tyrants tend towards vindictiveness as when their false sense of self or power is threatened or exposed, they then feel the need to quickly rectify this by punishing others in a way that reaffirms their false sense of superiority. This is vengeance out of pride.
But there is another, perhaps more common reason for vengeance, one born from compassion, and this is to teach others.
One common reason we do harm to others is because we genuinely do not understand (or often, refuse any philosophical opportunity to understand) the “whys” and “why nots” of our actions. For example, there are men who justify their infidelity in saying “This is just what men do, it’s part of our nature”. Because they so badly want to resist the pain of “looking in the mirror” and the subsequent trials of discipline and transformation that come from these wrong doings, their minds protect their corrupt behavior with flimsy arguments.
But, as we all know, there is no greater teacher than suffering. Whereas before one could ignore an important life question or opportunities for self-reflection because they seemed irrelevant to one’s life, now, with the torments of suffering, one’s mind is forced to deeply ponder these same philosophical questions as a means of looking for an answer to save oneself.
Let us continue with the example. Say the man’s wife, having decided she has had enough, doesn’t leave him but instead cheats on him back. She begins a covert flirtation with a close friend of his that last for months and even gets the friend to fall in love with her, then orchestrates her husband to catch her in bed with him. He walks in on them silently and the wife pretends to not recognize the characteristic creeks of the floorboard as someone approaches her room and opens the door — she knows he is there, and he is watching but he is stunned and says nothing. He thinks he was not noticed and quickly leaves, tears streaming down his red-hot cheeks. He takes his coat and goes for a long walk in the pouring rain and sits on a park bench. The showers form such a thick curtain around him, and they fall with such rapid succession that they seem to combine into a single wall. The single streams of water drops are now one texture, and they close in on him, making him feel like he is trapped within a four walled cell of wetness and misery.
Her husband, his soul in agony, begins to ponder matters of trust and love and broken promises, and deception and resistance to temptation but this time in a real way. Before, when he was guilty of the same, he resisted the contemplation of such matters, firstly to excuse his continuing indulgence in his matrimonial crimes, but also as a means of protecting his sense of self — for what man likes to think himself a “bad person” even if he does bad things? Better to scapegoat mother nature in saying “men will be men” than to take up his own cross.
But now, because the same thing happened to him, in order to heal himself from the haunting confusion of why his own wife has done this to him, his mind feels the existential need to quickly and deeply reflect upon these matters as a way of understanding her.
What is wonderful about suffering is that it does just that — it makes philosophical inquiry a matter of life and death. You must ask yourself why someone would cause you such pain as the greatest suffering is pain without reason, so you must know “why”. If one’s life is threatened, one’s entire consciousness will focus on trying to protect itself. In order to protect himself from disloyalty, he is forced to ponder on the nature of loyalty. In order to protect himself from broken promises, deception, partners who would give into their own lust and forsake their union, he must contemplate the nature and value of truth, discipline, and love.
But, in these meditations (as a means of truly understanding these subjects, again, for his own existential interests) he must also confront himself with his own actions and realize his own errors. Now he is at a crossroads. He must either, finally, build a moral system based on truth, take up his own cross and discipline himself or he must continue living like the low-down dirty dog he is — for now he knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this what he is.
There is a generosity to vengeance as one must sacrifice one’s own time and energy and often mental peace to plot a proper lesson plan to educate someone on their crimes. It is because we have such expectations for other people and because we have such faith in humanity’s and society’s potential that we go out of our way to correct others, to get them to do better, because we know they can. We also wish to spare anyone who may come into contact with such a person of the potential crimes they may commit against them.
It is through faith in the criminal and compassion for humanity that we hold onto our anger and use it to retaliate. If one’s sister is wronged, if one’s neighbor is wronged, is it not right to feel angry and turn this fire into a furnace to burn out the evil from one’s vicinity to create a safer world? Do we not betray our sister and neighbor by being too quick to let go of our anger and allow the criminal to go on uncorrected and committing more crimes?
The problem of equilibrium
The true value of punishment is this — to trigger a deep understanding of the nature of one’s crimes. But this is where our justice system fails. All crimes are given pretty much the same penalty but to varying degrees — that of being sent to jail. Rapists are sent to jail. Murderers are sent to jail. Marijuana dealers are sent to jail. But are the four walls of their cell really conducive to learning the deep lessons behind each of their individual crimes? No. The prison system is a failure under these philosophical terms because it is not constructed for this triggering process.
Prison is not a proper tit for tat. But, there is another issue — the common man himself cannot be trusted with vengeance. The common manner that humans enact their vengeance is also given to error, and this is the error of imbalance. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Consider this. Jack has suffered from bullying all his life — of the most severe variety. Every morning of the 8th grade he was served his daily dose of stomach kicks, head to wall smashings, burning wedgies, and general group beatings. He grows, and in 10 years, becomes a pro bodybuilder. One day, as he is parking at his supermarket, a teenage boy parks beside him a little to close and as he opens his door, he scratches Jack’s new car. Jack is rightly angry… but he responds in smashing the boy’s window and even giving him a few knuckle sandwiches — bruising his eye and even knocking out a few teeth.
If the true virtue behind vengeance is teaching and correction, should Jack not have first diagnosed the problem to see if the teenage boy committed his transgression from a place of ignorance? There are times we do what we do because we do not know better. Other times, we may actually know better but as humans we occasionally slip into error. And even if he the teenage boy was intentional in his crime, was sheer brutality the proper teaching tool? One may argue that Jack’s reaction was less prompted by compassion and instruction and more so a result of projection. Jack looked at the teenage boy but did not see him, instead he saw a ghost of his own high school past.
True, virtuous vengeance is correction — it is not an excuse to project upon others our traumas and lack of emotional stability. And this is what makes vengeance such a dangerous practice — despite its uses.
This also helps us understand why forgiveness is such an important and safe virtue. Since the opportunities for error are vast, so that the pendulum does not swing back our way with fury, we must learn how to forgive those who have wronged us in the past, as a way of riding ourselves of their ghosts and to not project upon those living in the present. The foolish are taught forgiveness for they lack clarity. Their path to clarity comes by way of forgiveness — among other practices.
And this is why only God or the “spiritually evolved” can be trusted with enacting vengeance, for when they do it, it comes from a place of clarity — the opposite of muddy ignorance. They will properly diagnose the issue and prescribe the right medicine in its right dosage. The objective here is not to satisfy excess anger or to project but is purely and innocently to teach another fellow human the full import of his crimes. And full-on vengeance is but a last resort, for often, lighter methods of correction are all that is needed. Most of the times, most people only need to be told “Uh… Sorry, what you’re doing is not right” and that is all that it takes for them to learn, as learning is the only true objective and vengeance is but a mere teaching tool, only employed when necessary.
Forgiveness for the ignorant. Vengeance for the wise.
This is also why the criminal justice system, despite its philosophical flaws, must be defaulted to for crimes as, presumably, they will look upon the matter with more clarity and spare the victim of the dangers of his own miscalculations, should he decide to take matters in his own hands.
Virtues of vengeance
· The triggering of true and sincere philosophical inquiry that results in the refining of a soul through burning it in the furnace of suffering.
Dangers of vengeance:
· An excuse to project our unrelated issues onto others
· The danger of not diagnosing the problem first
· The danger of disequilibrium — which means that, for our own over-correction, we will suffer either proportionally or worse, given more than the required dose
· Where one is guilty of disequilibrium, the victim of one’s over-correction, instead of having his philosophical side triggered, he may instead obsess over his own retribution and in so doing begins an unnecessary cycle of vengeance and projection that results in the degeneration of a society instead of its improvement.