THE whole object of literature is to prevent truths from becoming truisms. We must not only keep our truths but keep them alive; we must not only guard our truths, but feed them. It is quite possible to regard something for ten years as a truism and still to jump into the air with astonishment on discovering that it is true. I always believe in the theory that the poor are ordinary human beings. But I shall never forget the moment of shattering astonishment when I discovered that they really were. If we have omitted to examine and test any stock idea in our heads we ought not to refrain from testing it merely because we are certain that it is true. It may be true, and we may not know how true. There is, perhaps, in our world a little too much of the practice of poring over new ideas until they become old. We require a little of the practice of poring over old ideas until they become new.

Here is a case of a phrase we must all of us have often used; a phrase that has a thought in it, only that it is used quite thoughtlessly. The phrase I mean is this: ‘Punishment should not be vindictive; it is only for the protection of society’. When next we use this phrase let us stop and think about it for five minutes, unless, of course, we are using it in the middle of a political speech, when so long a reflective pause would rather be a strain on the audience.


What is it that is really evil about revenge? Certainly not that it is selfish; there is nothing immoral merely in pleasing oneself; it is selfish to read Virgil; it is selfish to get up and see the sun rise. Not that it is violent or destructive; it cannot be wrong to redress wrongs; Sir Galahad was violent and destructive.

The evil of vindictiveness is the same as that of every other sin; it is that in some extraordinary way it tends to destroy the soul, to blacken and eat up the whole nature. This is really the whole quarrel between the moralists and the immoralists. A celebrated decadent wrote, ‘The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it’. Yet that unhappy man himself was a complete contradiction of his own epigram; his life narrowed and darkened to a dungeon because he was unable to get rid of the hideous desires that he had satisfied. Yielding to a temptation is like yielding to a blackmailer; you pay to be free, and find yourself the more enslaved. The reality of sin arises, in fact, that the same truth which makes the reality of human poetry and joy. It arises from the fact that the smallest thing in this world has its own infinity. A mouse has an eternity of truth tied on to its tail. A prisoner in an empty cell has been known to occupy himself for decades with the natural history, philosophy, and morality of a single mouse.

Now just as a good man can find everlasting joy in looking at a mouse, so it is possible for a bad man to find everlasting joy in torturing a mouse. It is not true that cutting off its tail is a mere episode and that the man passes on to pat his children or day his prayers. The truth is that having cut off the mouse’s tail is the first suggestion of the artistic interest of cutting off its ears. The hellish happiness renews itself, and has an infinity of its own.

That is the whole point of the position of sin in human psychology, and that is the whole point of the peril of revenge. Hatred is bad not because it is personal or destructive, but because it narrows the soul to a sharp point. It is not merely that Jones desires the death of Brown. Under certain circumstances, instantaneous or impersonal, he might justly desire it. The evil is that the death of Brown becomes the whole life of Jones. The violent man, in short, tries to break out; but he only succeeds in breaking in. He breaks into smaller and smaller cells of his own subterranean heart till he is suffocated in the smallest, and dies like a rat in a hole.

But a whole people can hardly die like a rat in a hole. It is not very likely that an entire nation will go mad upon one point of morbidity. A million city men with black hats and bags will not all be dreaming at the same moment of how they may poison Brown. Therefore we must first remember that the public acts done by a whole people, though they may be fierce and tragic, will hardly be vindictive in this stagnant, secretive, and poisonous sense. The people may be a butcher; but the people can hardly be an assassin. You may happen to think that the killing of Charles I. as lawless or cruel as the killing of his friend Buckingham. But you will hardly deny that Bradshaw, with all his bitterness, was in a more open and bracing frame of mind than Felton fingering the knife in his pocket and brooding over his private wrongs.

While assenting, therefore, to the ultimate proposition that punishment must not be mere vengeance, we have to point out first that it never is mere vengeance in the sense that mere vengeance can corrupt and weaken an individual soul. And, second, we have to point out that in continually repeating without reflection that it must not be vindictive, we lay the foundation of another evil more cruel than vengeance itself. There is no fear of modern English punishment being excessively revengeful; it has not enough life in it. It is attacking altogether the wrong danger to tell a modern judge that he must not shudder from head to foot with horror of sin or foam at the mouth with the hatred of individuals. You might as well tell the stonebreaker in the road not to be an iconoclast. You might as well reproach the tax collector with his fanatical Socialism, or earnestly assure the scavenger that he must not value too transcendentally and supremely the mere ideal of hygiene.

The evil in our modern law is not one of barbaric passions, but one of passionless routine. The trouble is not that a lawyer really flies into a passion when he thinks about petty larceny; the trouble is that he never really thinks about it at all. It is not that the authorities have an excessive horror of the idea of sin; it is that they have a quite insufficient horror of the idea of punishment. The professional lawyer punishes more drearily and mechanically than the professional thief thieves. To tell him not to punish from mere vengeance is like telling an oyster not too run too fast. He has about as much vindictive feeling against criminals as butcher has against oxen and immeasurably less than a gardener has against snails.

Now in this legal atmosphere a burst of decent human vengeance would be an almost unmixed benefit. There is nothing in the least Christian or charitable about not being vindictive. It is Christian to love your enemies, but there is nothing Christian in the mere fact of hurting them without hating them. Real tenderness is really the better, because it is effected with difficulty. But cruelties are not any better because they are effected with composure. Thus we see that this modern phrase, ‘Punishment should not be vindictive’, is exactly the wrong phrase; innocent as it seems[,] it puts the matter precisely in the wrong way. Say that we ought to have a flaming charity or a fierce pity, say that we ought to be like the saint who kissed the criminal’s severed head or the saint who took the convict’s seat in the galleys; say that and you may raise the banner of a really valuable revolt. But to say simply that we must not be vindictive is merely to say that we must not only do a heartless thing, but do it in a heartless manner.

And there is one more point that should be emphasised yet more pointedly. By merely saying that we must not avenge, we make it much easier to punish a poor and feeble class of criminals against whom no sane man can feel vengeful. And we make it much more difficult to punish the only class of criminals on whom we might really wish to be avenged. The prosperous oppressor, the successful swindler may really inflame vindictive feelings; but they escape – because punishment is not vindictive. The desperate tramp, the dreary pickpocket, could not make anyone feel vindictive; but they can be crushed under wheels of iron – because punishment is not vindictive.

In short, the theory that we must not be angry is the very charter of escape for all evil-doers who are strong enough to awaken anger. We are not told to love; that divine and terrible commandment has died with the superstitions of our infancy. But we are told not to hate. And so the tyrant escapes – because he is only hateful.

~G.K. Chesterton: Daily News, August 8, 1908

The Seven Virtues: Justice,
by Giotto di Bondone.
Fresco, 1306; Cappella Scrovegni, Padua.
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