According to a good third of the human race, the first action ever taken was one of vengeance. Through banishing Adam and Eve from paradise, the Christian God took vengeance on the disobedience and disrespect of a creation arrogant enough to think for itself. In fact, a brief summation of the quantitatively more significant half of the Bible is a God doing vengeful things.
And for some of us today, it’s a strong argument against this God. That a being could acquiesce to suffering on such a scale, because he felt slighted by his creation — well, I for one certainly don’t want to believe in a being like that.
And maybe one difficulty in belief can thus be explained: the Old Testament God feels vengeful in a way that’s clearly uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. Amongst we earthly humans, vengeance appears demonstrative of some defect — like excessive egotism or an inability to accept difficult change. More often than not, a vengeful person is stubborn or arrogant — and, consequently, a rather nasty piece of work. More important, perhaps, is that vengeance also causes immense harm. Look at Hitler’s Germany or Putin’s Russia, and you see two vengeful states bent on causing harm because of perceived injustices by others at their expense.
But, if vengeance does bad, it doesn’t mean it's worthless or something to be overcome. Vengeance is paradoxical, complex, difficult and rich. It’s a part of human nature that is not just non-rational, but often irrational — working against self-interest to cause unnecessary harm and cycles of violence. Yet, this, I would argue, is precisely what makes it so valuable.
For the last 500 years or so — arguably much longer — we’ve attempted to tame the beast of the natural world. We’ve put conceptual categories around species, chemicals, particles and history so we can understand how things work and manipulate them. We’ve made increasingly complex and specialised goods and an elaborate economic system capable of their production. We tame and conquer, trying to flatten the incomprehensible into a singular frame.
What’s so great about vengeance is that it resists this. It is impossible to understand vengeance as a rational desire we have control over, but it is a desire nevertheless. In fact, some of the most worthwhile and complex things ever produced in human society result from it. That I and others can be drawn to do something as irrational as valuing my honour over the life of others is either weird, ridiculous or tragic — yet this is the point.
That vengeance exists makes our lives interesting, and this is no small thing. Importantly, vengeance is often the anchor of tragedy, drama and art: it allows us to understand a set of motivations, while simultaneously feeling some distance from them. Notably, the critically acclaimed Joker gives us this reflective ambiguity. We understand the lead is hurt, but we simultaneously know his reaction is an unjust one. Similarly with much of Shakespeare, it is the unnecessariness of harm, yet the fact we understand it, that gives his plays their richness and depth.
Vengeance’s irrationality also holds our society together. Vengeance might be about violence and hate, but more basically, it is both cooperative and communicative. When we act vengefully, we send a message about our self-worth — namely, that I have certain expectations of my relationships and you have fallen beneath them.
The result: vengeance is counter-intuitively a social good. Look at, for example, the vengeful anger the British public tends to hold towards the visible bogeymen of economic injustice. The public cry at economic inequalities is far more vengeful than it is rational. We focus on bankers, whose self-evident greed, entitlement and arrogance make us far more motivated than the more rational target of, lets say, upper middle class inheritors. Strangely, this is an advantage — without the blood-curdling cry of vengeful rage, it would be hard to imagine any change at all. Similarly, we would have no desire for law if we didn’t feel pleasure in retribution. And we would have no desire for compromise if we didn’t fear revenge of others. Cooperation and social harmony are powered as much by hate and vengeance as they are by love or rationality.
Most important, perhaps, is vengeance’s power and simplicity. It is primal and powerful in a world where things are slipping out of control. Perhaps this is what made Brexit, Trump and populism so cathartic for so many. In part an assertion of power against a political class that treated them as a noteless fact of existence, Brexit felt powerful and true for people whose self-worth had been repeatedly denied. Vengeance might bring out the beast in us — and it harks back to some half-rational primeval age — still, it may be worth asking, is that always so bad?
Illustration: The Saint Illustrations Team