An Eye for an Eye Makes Us All Polyphemus

Yesterday, Crissy Moss posted an interesting article on the revenge aspect of justice forming obstacle to peace. And I wholeheartedly agree that not letting the slights of the past distort or dismay taint the bountiful future is a strong course. However, I also believe that an eye for an eye is not the downward path it is sometimes painted to be.

One of the most famous rejections of revenge is Martin Luther King’s assertion that an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind; as statement that both rightly champions moving beyond a revenge-based view of justice and mischaracterises the original quotation.

If we look at ancient cultures (and, sadly , some modern ones) one common story was: I insult your sister, so you assault me, so my brothers kill you, so your family attacks mine. An escalation.

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Exodus 21:24-25 (King James Version)

Whereas if we look at the original quote, it describes equality of response.

If we apply it to taking an eye: you take my eye, and in exchange I take yours. And that is an end on it: an eye for an eye and each has paid the other, leaving no debt owing. No escalation.

Viewed in context, an eye for an eye is not a call to take draconian vengeance. It is a call to not take excessive vengeance; to not carry vengeance forever.

So, while not needing vengeance in the first place is a sound goal, one of the first steps to achieving it is to obtain a sense of proportion; to accept that if your eye is harmed, more than an eye in return is too much.

2 thoughts on “An Eye for an Eye Makes Us All Polyphemus

  1. An eye for an eye and there’s an end to it — good in principle, but when it comes to real situations things rarely work out that way. My eye is more important than yours, or your taking my eye was such a heinous act that you deserve to lose both of yours. Whereupon the first guy needs to get even and then some… I suppose it’s because emotion so often overcomes reason. But with regards to Jordan executing those prisoners — to me it seems like injustice, because if whatever they did to become prisoners didn’t justify a death sentence before ISIS murdered the Jordanian pilot, why would it do so afterward? That was my first thought, without knowing the details of the matter.


    1. That was my point: to get to not taking vengeance at all, many people and cultures have to move to only taking proportionate vengeance.

      Nothing is ever perfectly black and white, but I have yet to see a situation where a death sentence was a good reaction.


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