The fine art of revenge
07-06-06 Suggested by: Jack of all Trades
by Laura Miller
A legal scholar says that "eye for an eye" justice is a lot more humane than you think.
"Eye for an Eye"
By William Ian Miller
When William Ian Miller, professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, came to the phone to talk about his new book, "Eye for an Eye," he was, he confessed, "wired." "I've been talking to my students about the Icelandic sagas!" he said. Miller -- known in literary circles for such provocative, unclassifiable books as "The Anatomy of Disgust" and Salon favorite "The Mystery of Courage" -- cut his scholarly teeth on the sagas, and he thinks we modern types don't give the harsh but heroic societies that produced them enough respect. "Eye for an Eye" describes how justice worked in Medieval Iceland and England, and in the biblical world that formulated the most familiar version of the law of the "talion." It's defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "a punishment identical to the offense."
"Eye for an Eye" offers a closer look at "talionic" societies -- also known as honor- or revenge-based cultures. It features such strange artifacts as a price list from 7th century England dictating in great detail the number of shillings owed to a person suffering various injuries, from a broken arm to a lost toenail. (Did you know that the little finger was worth more than the index finger? As Miller, who mangled his own pinkie while playing with his son, found out, it's more crucial to maintaining a firm grip.) Or, rather, the compensation laws of King Aethelberht might seem bizarre until you realize that contemporary insurance companies probably have the same sort of lists. And contrary to what we tell ourselves, honor-based societies, Miller argues, often placed a higher value on human lives and human bodies than we do.
Miller insists that underneath our sophisticated modern rationalizations, we still harbor talionic beliefs that make us uneasy when wrongdoers don't pay for their crimes in exact proportion to the harm they cause. That's why, he says, we like stories about characters who even up the score with their enemies -- not just vigilante action films, but comedies in which, say, the bullied nerd triumphs in the end. That's why we're fascinated by revenge.
Your book argues that we often use the term "eye for an eye" to describe a harsh kind of justice from the past. But talionic societies could be said to put a higher value on human life and the human body than we do. They were much more committed to finding the exact worth of body parts and lives. So, let's say you poke out my eye...
Then, instantly, my eye becomes yours. To get the value exactly right, we say an eye is worth an eye. You have a right to my eye. Now you can say to me, "I'm going to take your eye." Then I'm going to say, "Hey, what would you be willing to accept instead?" It becomes an initial bargaining position.
If you want victims to be more highly valued and you want real, adequate compensation, this is how to do it. Now if I offer you what some lousy insurance company says your eye is worth -- say, $100,000 -- you'll say, "No way! I would never have let you take my eye for that." Instead, you can be sure I'll put the same value on not losing my eye that you would have put on yours, and I will pay you that amount to keep my own eye. How about $5 million? Let's start there. And we'll bargain it out.
Of course there was no insurance in those societies. We like to think that life was cheap in those cultures, but the problem was that it was so expensive they couldn't get anything done. Life is cheap with us, despite all our talk about how we can't have capital punishment because human life is too valuable. Do you know there are these signs up on the Michigan highways that say, "Kill a worker, pay $7,500"?
Is that supposed to warn you to be careful not to hit a highway worker with your car?
Yes, because not only are you going to go to prison, but you'll pay a little fine. But everyone who drives by and reads it sees it as an insult. Seventy-five hundred for a highway worker! "Hey, I've got $7,500, let's knock one off!"
When people compare modern ideas of justice with the old idea of "eye for an eye," they often talk about the difference between justice and revenge.
There is no difference. The literature on punishment and retribution, the philosophical and legal literature, doesn't understand revenge. They talk about revenge as going postal, the lawless, crazed overvaluation of your own harm. But if you look at real honor cultures and real revenge cultures, they were measurers and proportionalists to the extreme. What they would call revenge is simply paying back exactly what was owed. No more, no less.
The law of the talion was not a law issued by a government to regulate criminal matters. It was tort law, a compensation principle dictating how much private party A owes private party B for the harm A did to B.
The rule of "eye for an eye" originated before there were ready money substances. There were things that worked as money, like grain and cows, but I argue that the dominate money substance in most settings was humans themselves, or parts of humans. You see human beings used as one type of money, as a way of providing a measure of value. You paid in humans, or you paid yourself over to secure a debt.
You mean your labor?
Your labor, but also your whole body. You enter into the household of the person you owe and work it off.
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