A farmer, who bore a grudge against a fox for robbing his poultry yard, caught him at last, and being determined to take an ample revenge, tied some rope well soaked in oil to his tail, and set it on fire. The fox by a strange fatality rushed to the fields of the farmer who had captured him. It was the time of the wheat harvest; but the farmer reaped nothing that year and returned home grieving sorely.

The Farmer and the Fox, Aesop’s Fables

Revenge, and its promise of retribution, is one of the most compelling of all lies. Any pleasure gained from an act of revenge is momentary. And as with any form of pleasure gained from the suffering of another, the “joy” experienced after exacting revenge is a form of sadism. The farmer, who must have felt the sinister thrill of revenge for a few seconds, quickly learned that revenge hurts not only its target, but also the one who seeks it.

An Argument for Revenge

Some researchers argue that revenge isn’t such a bad thing. McCullough et al. (2013) contend that revenge can be beneficial when it prevents an aggressor from hurting the victim in the future. If victims become avengers, responding to attacks in ways that inflict damage, it may cause aggressors to think twice before attacking them again. McCullough et al. (2013) also highlight the benefit of having a reputation for revenge: it prevents attacks from potential aggressors. For example, if John (a former victim) had developed a reputation as an avenger, then Tim (a potential aggressor) might avoid attacking John based on the damage John had done to previous attackers. From this perspective, revenge is good whenever it successfully prevents an attack.

Revenge, Punishment, and Self-Defense

McCullough et al. (2013) make a reasonable argument; however, I don’t think their definition of revenge mirrors the common understanding of it and it is certainly different from the revenge portrayed in Aesop’s fable. What they call revenge oftentimes resembles punishment, a fact they freely admit (p. 4). In addition to punishment, they would also mistake self-defense for revenge because of its ability to deter an aggressor from making future attacks on a victim. Yet, revenge is not the same as punishment, nor is it self-defense. There was a reason the word revenge was used to describe the farmer’s actions; revenge embodies a darkness that punishment and self-defense do not. Aesop’s fable would not have been remembered if it had described acts of punishment or self-defense. No one would have faulted the farmer if he had captured the fox and released it elsewhere as punishment for its thievery. We would have understood if the farmer had quickly dispatched the fox with an arrow. But Aesop’s fable is a story of revenge and it is because of this darkness it portrays and the lesson it teaches that it has survived these thousands of years.

The differences between revenge, punishment, and self-defense lie in the intent of the victim. The intent behind punishment is justice. The intent behind self-defense is survival. The intent that fuels revenge is the desire to inflict pain. Revenge is not satisfied with justice or survival. It is greedy. It comes from a place of unchecked anger and has no empathy for its target. Revenge, though understandable, is altogether evil.

Consequences of Revenge

Revenge is always accompanied by collateral damage. In the case of the farmer, his wheat crop—his livelihood—was destroyed. His act of revenge could very well have cost him his life and the lives of those who depended on him. In this way, revenge is like an atomic bomb: its immediate effects are incredibly destructive, like the bomb’s blast, but it also has far reaching effects like those of radiation that cause damage long after detonation.

Revenge begets revenge. This is the case with blood feuds and gang violence, for example. One life cannot be paid for with another. The contagion of revenge acts by addition, not subtraction. It enhances pain without ever relieving it.

The consequences of revenge are not limited to material possessions and lives, they also include damage to the minds and hearts of those who seek it. A life bent on revenge leaves no room for love, joy, peace, healing, or happiness.

If Not Revenge, Then What?

It is natural to want to retaliate after being hurt by someone. I think this is why revenge is such a tempting response to being wronged; it plays on this natural desire. Revenge may be even more tempting when other responses like discipline, punishment, and legal recourse are not readily available to us. This is often the case when we are hurt by people who sit in positions of power over us (e.g., a boss).

The next time we are wronged and it appears that revenge is our only option, we should remember that one alternative is available to us. I will be discussing what this alternative is in next week’s blog. I hope you have the chance to read it.