Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Deus Ultionum

There are a large number of questions connected with morality which in quiet times are the exclusive property of speculators, and have but little interest for men engaged in the practical business of life. After a very early age, most men cease to discuss the origin of society, the foundation of the rights of governments, the true character of moral obligation, the freedom of the will, and many other “puzzles,” as they are often called, which so frequently exercise the ingenuity of their juniors. In a vast majority of cases there is an easy escape from such disputations. Whichever side may be true, our conduct will be the same. If Palmer was a free agent, it was right to hang him for abusing his freedom. If he could not help poisoning Cook, neither could we help hanging him. From time to time, however, discussions arise which do produce an intelligible issue. If passive obedience was an absolute duty, William III. and his abettors were certainly traitors. There are theories, moral and theological, which imply that marriage is indissoluble, and there are other theories which imply the reverse. In short, however eager we may all be to avoid theoretical disputes, they sometimes bear so immediately upon the affairs of life that they cannot be avoided, and we believe that the present state of affairs in India is precisely a case in point. The atrocities of Delhi and Cawnpore have excited throughout the whole land a fever of indignation unparalleled in our history. There is hardly a man amongst us who would not submit to almost any sacrifice to revenge what has been done to English women and children in those towns. From the pulpit, from public speakers, and from the newspaper press, there has been, with few exceptions, but one voice on the matter. These exceptions, however—though in some cases, and especially in that of Mr. Disraeli, it is impossible entirely to believe in their honesty—are sufficiently plausible to demand serious attention. Revenge, it is said, is in all cases and under all forms, distinctly opposed to the spirit of Christianity, and is condemned by the express words of the New Testament; and this Journal, amongst others, has been taxed with unchristian language in this respect.

Differing as we do, on the very broadest grounds, from the writers to whom we have referred, we think it most necessary to show that, whatever objections may be made to our views upon the subject, it is a very shallow and inattentive criticism which attacks them as unchristian. If they are so, the fact is one which deserves the most serious attention; for unquestionably, the opinion that there is nothing retributive—which is but another word for revengeful—in legal punishments, is not only not a Christian doctrine, but is distinctly anti-Christian. Ever since Christianity first obtained any extensive political authority—all through the many centuries which separate the fall of the Roman Empire from the French Revolution, during which the connexion of Christianity with the ordinary business of life was far more formally and more widely recognised than it is at present —the vindictive, retributive, or revengeful theory of criminal law was supposed to be expressly enjoined by God himself on all Christian States. The notion that punishments act only by fear—that they are a mere deterring force upon persons about to do wrong—that they have no moral relation to crime, and, indeed, that man is only a bag of appetites, and has no moral constitution at all—may be right or it may be wrong, but to call it Christian is either very ignorant or very impudent. Robespierre and Penn no doubt thought it very wicked to put a man to death by legal process. Rousseau, we believe, was of the same way of thinking; and we have amongst us in the present day many representatives of their opinions. We do not just now dispute their wisdom, but we do think it very odd that they should claim to be orthodox upon a point which Rome, Canterbury, and Geneva concur in deciding against them.

The opinion which condemns revenge is defended by a reference to certain well-known passages of the New Testament. It would perhaps be hard to find a stronger illustration of the careless fragmentary way in which those who most frequently appeal to the Scriptures are accustomed to read them. The great authority upon the question is the famous passage which extends from the 18th verse of the 12th chapter of Romans to the end of the 13th chapter. Stephens's awkward division of chapter and verse has seldom caused greater confusion than in this instance. No ordinary reader would perceive that the sense is completely cut in half by it, yet nothing can be plainer than the fact; for if the passage be read continuously, it has the clearest logical connexion:—“Do not revenge yourselves, but rather pause (δοτε τοπον) in your anger. For it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him,' &c. Let every soul be subject to the Civil Government [the higher powers], for it is ordained of God; and whoever resists it, resists God's ordinance. Rulers are a terror to evil works. The magistrate is the minister of God to thee for thy good; but if thou do evil, be afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain, for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Inverting the order, the passage runs thus: —The civil government is ordained by God himself, as his agent to execute vengeance upon evil-doers. Do not, therefore, take the law into your own hands on your own behalf, but pause, being confident that God does and will (through his agent or otherwise) revenge you, and, in the mean time, try to soften your enemy by kindness. Unless the whole of the Old Testament history is a fable—unless the most awful revelations of the New Testament are false —unless this very passage is the exact opposite of the truth—unless David blasphemed when he called upon “the Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth”—unless Christ was mistaken when he said that he “came to establish the law, and that not one jot nor tittle should pass away till all were fulfilled"—unless we are prepared to say that, in order to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect, we must disarm the civil magistrate of the sword of justice and vengeance which he wields as God's appointed agent—we must admit that the prayer that the Lord may have mercy on the souls of Nana Sahib and his crew ought to be coupled with the sentence of the law, that they be hanged by the neck till they are dead.

Any one accustomed to accuracy in the use of language must be aware that the whole popular nomenclature of the moral virtues is composed of what Bentham used to denounce as eulogistic and dyslogistic phrases. In other words, it is popular, and not scientific. Want of spirit and humility, justice and revenge, mercy and weakness, liberty and license, contentment and apathy, and other words without number, are only different names for the same things—the one word or the other being employed according to the good or bad use to which the quality to which it refers is applied. We all use these words in conversation, and we all understand what we mean by them; but they do not apply to, and were not intended for, exact reasoning, and nothing can be more absurd than to take advantage in an argument of their use in conversation. If a boy had a toothache, and his father told him that he must bear it patiently, because contentment is a great virtue, he would not lose his right to be indignant if the boy on a future occasion justified his dirty hands on the ground that, though dirt was very unpleasant, he was quite contented with it. If a politician praises liberty, he does not commit himself to the doctrine that everyman may do just what he pleases; and in exactly the same way, the general proposition that revenge is a bad thing does not condemn the whole notion of vindictive justice. Any one who thinks it worth his while to do so may, by a little familiarity with the trick which we are exposing, enjoy a logical triumph over the greatest of human thinkers.

In reasoning, no doubt it is most desirable, if possible, to have only one name for one thing, but in order to this it is necessary to begin by laying down a special definition for the purposes of the argument. In answer therefore to those who charge ourselves and our contemporaries with unchristian sentiments respecting vengeance, we will explicitly state our opinion upon the subject. Understanding, by a pleasure in vengeance, satisfaction in the infliction of pain upon another person in consequence of wrongs done by him either to ourselves or to others, we deliberately maintain that, in very many cases, it is a duty to execute vengeance, and quite right to feel a pleasure in it. Every one admits the utility, and indeed the absolute necessity, of punishment; and no one, we should suppose, would deny that, rightly or wrongly, men are so constituted as to feel satisfaction in inflicting it. The whole question therefore comes to this—Is that feeling wrong? To say that it is, is to say that a distinct constituent element of human nature—a disposition, quite, as universal as the appetite for food—is bad in itself, and that there is in human society no lawful channel for its exercise, though a thousand occasions constantly call it into action. This consequence was long since pointed out, by Bishop Butler, and appears to us absolutely decisive of the whole question. The desire of revenge is like all other human desires. It is good or bad according to the purposes for which it is used. Generally speaking, in the private relations of life, it prompts men to act ill, because they take a most exaggerated view of the injuries which they have received; but the very object of all penal laws, whether they are those of a State, of society, of a school or of a family, is to draw the line (roughly enough, no doubt) at which conciliation is generally speaking to stop, and punishment or vengeance to begin. Whether a man boxes his son's ears for being saucy, or flogs his scholars for telling lies, or refuses to speak to a person who has cheated at cards, or sentences a thief to imprisonment, or a murderer to death, he is executing vengeance; and he feels, if he is properly constituted, a certain amount of satisfaction, mixed no doubt with other feelings, in doing so.

To deny this theory is easy, but we doubt whether those who do so are quite aware of the consequences to which their denial leads. It may seem a strange assertion, but it appears to us to be clear beyond a doubt, that Monasticism and Quakerism have exactly the same root. Each repudiates an essential part of our nature, instead of trying to find out its use, Revenge, no doubt, is an awful thing. It has caused unnumbered griefs to men; but we have a precedent which those who wish to eliminate it from human affairs would do well to consider. We all know what evils immorality has produced in the world; and we also know in what proportion monkery and marriage tend to purify men's minds. The attempt to disconnect justice and vengeance is much the same as the attempt to stigmatize the relation between the sexes as essentially evil. In some manner, and under some form, nature will have its way, and if thwarted, she is apt to become all the more violent. We openly express our wish for such retributive vengeance on the Sepoys as will assert, in the plainest and most durable manner, the eternal connexion between sin and suffering, and the determination and power of the English nation to make it manifest to the whole world. If we cared only to have the maximum of pain inflicted on the miserable wretches themselves, we should be inclined to hand them over to the tender mercies of our meeker brethren who, we fancy, would inflict upon them—all, of course, entirely for their own good—far severer punishments than we should approve of. The grossest immoralities have been committed by people who thought themselves too holy to have anything to do with their bodies—the most atrocious cruelties by those who shrank from revenge or bloodshed. The Anabaptists and Antinomians embellish the one calendar, and the gentle Robespierre is the meekest saint in the other.

Saturday Review, October 17, 1857.

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