Does Revenge Have a Flavour?

by Al Drinkle

The desire for revenge can be obsessive. I wonder if this has been important for survival over the course of our evolution; after all, our insatiable thirst for vengeance is still acute after millions of years of human development. Perhaps those with the capacity to avenge transgressions against them have proven to be better survivors.

A few weeks ago, to appease my many moods, I was reading two rather divergent books at the same time. One was Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra which I hadn’t read in almost 20 years, and the other was Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching which I had never read before. The engagement with these works happened to coincide with the discovery that I was being done an unapologetic wrong by a small company with whom I have had a harmonious if modest relationship for more than ten years. I was being relieved of $450, a considerable amount by my standards, without getting any service or product in return. This is infuriating to say the least, and anybody who has legally pursued a scandal of such an inconsequential magnitude knows that the process itself costs more than the amount that they hope to recover.

Thence arose in me a fiendish craving for revenge... or was it the noble desire for justice? The lines between the two are a blur of ethics and emotion. Day and night my mind would wander towards ways that I could achieve an equilibrium of financial disrepair against said company, or sabotage whatever reputation they might still have and value. I wanted to be assertive against the wrong that was done to me, and wished ill will against those who knowingly ripped me off.

These thoughts would tiptoe into my mind during my quiet reading time. In glaring contrast to my vindictive mindset, the teaching of Lao-Tzu instructs that vengeance is incompatible with The Way. On one particularly incendiary day I happened to read of the value of “taking no action” and the virtue of submissiveness, which in its most exemplary manifestation enables one to “ride roughshod over the most unyielding thing in the world.” I was further encouraged to do good to him who had done me an injury. This is against my nature. My own “Way” has always been that if you fuck with me, you get fucked with big time. Surely Nietzsche’s nihilism would urge me forward with a grand call to vengeance...

In fact, Nietzsche eradicates the blur between revenge and justice, not by claiming that the latter is an ethically supported version of the former, but by insisting that they are both the same distracting and fatuous waste of time. “Rather will I be a pillar-saint than a whirl of revenge,” Zarathustra explodes, insisting that vengeance is poorly concealed envy, fretted conceit, jealous maleficence, and a lacking of power - and that all of these are precursors (if not indicators) of intellectual exhaustion. We are urged to “distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful” and further, assured that “for man to be freed from the bonds of revenge: that is for me the bridge to the highest hope and a rainbow after protracted storms.”

Okay then. I'm grateful to these wise thinkers of bygone eras for the reassurance that getting ripped off is not a compromise of my personhood or a slur on my individuality. Although it’s hard not to think about how much Riesling I could have bought with that money…