Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Aristotle on Courage and Revenge

Here's something I ran (back) across while looking over Aristotle's chapters on courage in Book III of Nicomachean Ethics:
Passion also is sometimes reckoned as courage; those who act from passion, like wild beasts rushing at those who have wounded them, are thought to be brave, because brave men also are passionate; for passion above all things is eager to rush on danger, and hence Homer's 'put strength into his passion' and 'aroused their spirit and passion and 'hard he breathed panting' and 'his blood boiled'. For all such expressions seem to indicate the stirring and onset of passion. Now brave men act for honour's sake, but passion aids them; while wild beasts act under the influence of pain; for they attack because they have been wounded or because they are afraid, since if they are in a forest they do not come near one. Thus they are not brave because, driven by pain and passion, they rush on danger without foreseeing any of the perils, since at that rate even asses would be brave when they are hungry; for blows will not drive them from their food; and lust also makes adulterers do many daring things. (Those creatures are not brave, then, which are driven on to danger by pain or passion.) The 'courage' that is due to passion seems to be the most natural, and to be courage if choice and motive be added.

Men, then, as well as beasts, suffer pain when they are angry, and are pleased when they exact their revenge; those who fight for these reasons, however, are pugnacious but not brave; for they do not act for honour's sake nor as the rule directs, but from strength of feeling; they have, however, something akin to courage. (NE, III, Ch. 8)
The mention of revenge is what first caught my eye, then I had to go back and re-read the first paragraph. (This discussion is of one of five "semblances" of courage Aristotle discusses.) Then I notice the line that such passionate action seems "to be courage if choice and motive is added." This would make it seem that a more pre-meditated form of "revenge"--what we might properly think of revenge, rather than an unreflective striking back--is, or at least seems, courageous.

This paper by Krisanna Scheiter is very helpful in clarifying what Aristotle means by revenge and what its function is (and that Aristotle would have thought that revenge can take immoral forms). However, she argues that the primary function of revenge (and suggests that this can be seen in Aristotle) is to "right a wrong and to ensure that we are not treated unjustly in the future" (2). I'm not sure how well this fits with Aristotle's claim above that the brave person acts "for honour's sake," since this would suggest that the brave person who engages in an act of revenge does it to restore (protect?) "honour."

Scheiter marks a clear distinction (for Aristotle) between punishment (done for the sake of the wrongdoer, to improve him) and revenge (done for the sake of the wronged, to ensure that they will not be wronged by this person again). So perhaps the idea is that revenge sends the message that one isn't to be f*cked with--and perhaps one's honor is bound up with that 'not-to-be-f*cked-with-ness'. (This would seem to suggest that revenge would only be appropriate when the wrongdoer hadn't already figured that out and/or the person remains a threat. Otherwise, there's no honor, or presumably bravery, in exacting it.)

One interesting point she makes toward the end of the paper is that, "on Aristotle's account, revenge does not have to be severe or violent in order to be effective." That makes me wonder whether there could be a form of "revenge" which, at the same time, doesn't violate Socrates' claim (in Crito) that it's wrong to wrong another, even if we have been wronged (and maybe even if it is violent). It seems this way because it seems like "revenge" here is something like preemptive self-defense. But then it doesn't exactly seem like what we might normally call revenge.

Apply to your favorite cases. Discuss.


  1. i've been working on a remark on nietzsche's about 'revenge' lately because he prefaces it with a claim that it's one of many things in which a word grants false unity to a phenomenon involving distinct actions/passions.

    in §33 of 'the wanderer and his shadow' ('human, all too human' vol. 2), there's this:

    One needs time if one is to transfer one’s thoughts from oneself to one’s opponent and to ask oneself how he can be hit at most grievously. This happens in the second species of revenge: its presupposition is a reflection over the other’s vulnerability and capacity for suffering: one wants to hurt. To secure himself against further harm is here so far from the mind of the revenger that he almost always brings further harm upon himself and very often cold-bloodedly anticipates it. If in the case of the first species of revenge it was fear of a second blow which made the counter-blow as vigorous as possible, here there is almost complete indifference to what the opponent will do; the vigour of the counter-blow is determined only by that which he has done to us. What, then, has he done? And of what use is it to us if our opponent now suffers after we have suffered through him? It is a question of restitution (Wiederherstellung): while the act of revenge of the first species serves only self-preservation. Perhaps we lost property, rank, friends, children through our opponent – these losses are not made good by revenge, the restitution applies only to an attendant loss (Nebenverlust) occasioned by the other losses referred to. Restitutional revenge (Die Rache der Wiederherstellung) does not protect one from further harm, it does not make good the harm one has suffered – except in one case. If our honour (Ehre) has suffered through our opponent revenge is capable of restoring (wiederherzustellen) it. But our honour has suffered harm in every case in which someone has done us a deliberate injury: for our opponent proved thereby that he did not fear us. By revenging ourself on him we prove (beweisen) that we do not fear him either: it is in this that the compensation (Ausleichung), the restitution lies.

    the remark is very long, that's only part. but i think it shows one way of filling out your thought about being fucked with, specifically in terms of fear, power, and the contribution they make to what others (generally) think of us. i often have a hard time getting clear on what 'honor' is supposed to be for nietzsche, but in that book it's pretty straightforwardly connected to how you appear in others' eyes/esteems (and your own, so far as that matters to you).

    i've run into a similar problem about what we normally call 'revenge', and i thought it was handled pretty well by laying out some of the different ways we ordinarily say 'pay back' or 'get back at' or 'get even with'. apparently that's clearer in the verb forms of rächen and sich rächen in german. i haven't looked at the etymology or history of usage of 'revenge' in english, but i think that might account for why 'revenge' seems so strong now (where as 'pay back' or 'get back at' can stand in for almost any 'harm' to one or one's honor or personal sovereignty).

    (nietzsche also gives a form of self-defense revenge as his first time—so i'm surprised to find he's following aristotle or someone who followed aristotle! thanks for that.)

  2. Thanks, j. The really important thing here, I think, is that revenge isn't just one kind of thing. I myself tend to associate the notion of revenge with "getting even"--that second, restitutional type. The first kind of "revenge" seems to be something that (we hope) is taken care of by the criminal law and penal system.

    Off the top of my head, I wonder why one needs to take revenge to prove that one does not fear the other. Indeed, something like this happened to dueling as it became "uncool." (See Appiah's book on honor, or my review of it here.) One then no longer needed to prove one's honor by dueling--the "honorable man" had become above the duel.

    This connects, I think, with your uncertainty about what honor is--and this goes for Nietzsche or anyone. It's a very spooky concept. It's connected with being shamed, or doing something shameful. But this is very culturally defined, which is connected to its seeming to depend upon how one is viewed by others. It's not a stable concept (though I suppose one could ask: what is, in these contexts?...).

  3. nietzsche associates the first ttype, like aristotle, with self-preservation; but only so far as it's done immediately, out of fear or as a response to bodily pain. he leaves room for restitutional revenge to be exacted either privately or by the state (for the revenger's satisfaction), but in the end uses the comments about revenge to make a point about legal punishment as well (a typical one for him). nietzsche actually qualifies the first type as something you can call 'revenge' if you like, even though it involves no intention to harm the other party.

    whether or not you need to take revenge to prove you don't fear someone who harmed you is relative to your power (and theirs), meaning, strength, ability to act and do various things. so some blows may not warrant much retaliation. but even if someone attacks you ineffectually, he's still shown he wasn't afraid of you, which (i think) has the effect of altering the state of knowledge of your honor. if people know there is someone who is not afraid to attack you, then your ability to inspire fear is called into question.

  4. I think J is right on the money in looking to Nietzsche. I included a link to WS 33 for a relevant discussion several years ago of Jared Diamond's New Yorker piece [1]. I also referenced WI Miller, whose work (especially the Saga Icelandic stuff, 'Humiliation', 'Anatomy of Disgust' 'Mystery of Courage' and 'Eye for an Eye') represents for me the closest thing around to an approximation of the scholarly agenda Nietzsche proposes in the "Note" appended to the First Treatise of the Genealogy. (Really wish Miller had reviewed Appiah's book, as I suspect he also found the treatment of duel as rather facile.)

    As far as I can tell, "revenge" functions pretty much as a smear word against those whose pursuit of justice defies law, or against those who hold different (often also smeared with "barbaric") intuitions about proportionality (by, say, supporting capital punishment). Would love to see what fMRI says about the supposed differences in "emotionality" between those who get smeared as "vengeful" and those who wield the word as a term of abuse.

    [1] (see last link)

  5. that's funny, because nietzsche tends to use it to provoke people who support the idea of punishment, at all.

  6. Yes, Nietzsche's definitely trying to undermine some kinds of support for punishment, and in his middle period works can seem to be actually opposing (instead of merely deploring as a necessity) the very practice of it, but I think the Second Treatise of GM shows that he backed off of the latter line of thought as he became more versed in the kind of historical, ethnographic, anthropological material (of the kind explored by Miller in 'Eye for an Eye', which is why I think the latter is a great companion piece to the Second Treatise).

    Basically, I think Nietzsche's position in GM is akin to Wittgenstein's admirably philosophically unsatisfying ur-phenomenon view ("There is the institution of punishing"):