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The Psychopathology of Vengeance

What is vengeance? German born American social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, Ph.D., asseverates, in his The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), that vengeance is an instantaneous response to severe suffering heaped upon a person or his group. It is not a typical aggressive defensive maneuver because it occurs a posteriori to the harm exerted, when there is no impending threat. Moreover, the magnitude supersedes regular aggression, because of its odious, robust and unquenchable nature. Vengeance is so intense because, Fromm avers, “By destroying the one who committed the atrocity his deed is magically undone…. Vengeance may be said to be a magic reparation….” (p. 305). He believes, alluding to the book The Crime of Punishment (1968), by American psychiatrist/psychoanalyst Karl Augustus Menninger, M.D., that any form of punishment can be vengeful.

Fromm states that vengeance can be witnessed around the globe in the form of “blood revenge,” directed against tribes, families, etc., through chain reactions, wherein entire clans are liquidated, to dutifully avenge a wrong they want atoned for. When blood vengeance is divorced from criminal law, Fromm says, social stability is eschewed and countries, contending they were previously wronged by other nations, exact a perfervid and disproportionate payback toward the latter.

Nevertheless, Fromm does not believe vengeance resides in all cultures. Where there are individuals materially not opulent, but nevertheless satisfied, adhering to a more positive view of life, they are not motivated like the avaricious to pursue reparation for any losses incurred. Fromm speaks of a degree of development found in Christians and others, not falling prey to the hoarding cravings of those narcissistic types seeking revenge, when slighted, or when their property is spoliated, for instance. However, ironically, we are reminded of his words in The Dogma of Christ and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology and Culture (1955): “To understand the psychological meaning of the first Christians’ faith in Christ…it was necessary…to visualize what kind of people supported early Christianity. They were the…poor…and the peasants…who….harbored hate and revenge against…their own rulers and the Romans” (p. 34).

I thus found intriguing the 1984 series by psychology/social ecology professor John M. Whiteley, Ed.D., entitled “Quest For Peace – Forsaking Vengeance and Retaliation” (conducted at University of California, Irvine, and broadcasted by PBS KOCE-TV, Huntington Beach), wherein he and Menninger were engaged in an interview (available at here; May 24, 2012). Therein Menninger, concerning retaliation on the earth, believed we needed more efficacious methods to address crime, in lieu of just tossing miscreants in jail to punish them, although violent ones should be there to protect us from said. Further, he remarked that it starts with the family, where children become little criminals, learning revenge as a response to abusive treatment. Moreover, corporal punishment in schools, often approved by court judges, has to desist. Menninger asked, where are the common folk and the church people in this fiasco? Therefore, human nature—which has become aggressive and selfish–must be ameliorated. The following snippet from the Whiteley/Menninger exchange is illuminating…

Whiteley (concerning society’s employment of hateful violence to resolve conflict in the world, who should change it, and how): “Do you think the answer is to be found in…the voters?”

Menninger: “Yes, of course. The people want to be saved, they’ll have to save themselves….psychoanalysts have been trying to understand the…control of psychological energy. How do we control our hate? Where does hate come from? When you speak of violence, you say hate…. Now does the hate go into violence or…destructiveness? Or does it go into some other kind of motivation? Suppose you hate somebody very much.… You could…kill him…. You could…write articles about him. You could scream at him. What else could you do? …you could be kind to him, gentle him down…. And that’s what the sermon on the mount said; but who pays attention to that? Who believes in loving their enemies…? Well that’s Jesus stuff.” (We might remember Christ’s words [taken literally, or not] here: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too…. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one kilometre, carry it two kilometres” Matthew, 5: 38-39, 41 [Good News Bible, 1976, p. 9].)

Menninger abhorred moralistic bullies, indifferent to “sin” and even morality, who instead pursued vengeance and legality, with cutthroat methods, to stop criminals. To put the psychiatric-religious aspect (of guilt and moral responsibility) into perspective, Menninger declares, in Whatever Became of Sin? (1973), “Calling something a ‘sin’ and dealing with it as such may be a useful salvage or coping device. It does little good to repent a symptom, but it may do great harm not to repent a sin…it does little good to…psychoanalyze a sin, and…harm to ignore a symptom” (p. 56).

Finally, regardless of what psychological and theological stance one assumes, our approach to vengeance, justice and punishment have to be reexamined and revamped today, if we want to live in a safer and healthier community and planet tomorrow.

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