Friday, July 16, 2010

The Meaning

“Don't seek to revenge yourself, it doesn't do you or anyone else good.”

When punishment doesn't make us safer, the reason can be that wish for retribution itself is what is most capable of deterring violence, more than actual punishments threatened or performed, and that this wish is lacking.

We are told revenge is illegitimate because it is petty, because it is an urge to balance destruction, that we are making the mistake of thinking causing another to feel bad will make us feel better.

Seeking retribution though can be a wish to protect the freedoms granted to us by safety in our public life, to protect the public spirit which is the foundation of our individual private lives. Respecting public spirit is part of our civic education. (The idea of protecting public spirit through defining and deciding retribution is as old as Athena the god of the city laying down the law in Aeschylus's Orestes Trilogy.)

When we are not participants in either public deterrence or public approval, we are astonished by episodes of violence in public life whose meaning escapes us. The hidden meaning of course is that we pay a price for the public spirit we have lost.