I can’t imagine there’s a saint among us who’s never wished for a snappy comeback to an insult, never brooded on this failure of words, and never delighted by reimagining herself the victor when she finds them. If only I said … Ha! That would have been ssooooo good! Next time I’ll be ready.
It’s palliative to merely think of someone who’s hurt us, or someone we care about, getting her comeuppance. And this revenge needn’t be at our own hands. In fact, sometimes we prefer it isn’t, since distance allows us the moral high ground. Even the staunchest atheist satisfies herself with the idea that some higher power metes out punishment to those who deserve it; i.e. cosmic justice.
What goes around comes around, we assure ourselves. But don’t we get a little thrill when the bully suffers some humiliation for her reign of terror, a blood stain on her white gown as she saunters across the stage at her high school grad? When the workplace gossip drops a nugget about her boss into the hands of the new employee, his daughter as it turns out? Or when you pass that asshole driving like James Bond through a national park and wave as he stands staring haplessly at the smoking hood of his shiny new Mercedes?
Once in a while a little pang of guilt follows from our schadenfreude. This guilt might prevent us experiencing delight disproportionate to the offence and so inviting the scythe of cosmic justice to fall on our own necks. Better to be smugly satisfied that the offender received her just desserts than to pick up a spoon and join her — to yet another’s satisfaction.
I’m sure most understand the feeling of pleasure that follows from the scenarios I’ve sketched. But where does that pleasure, that sweetness, come from? One plausible explanation is that when we experience or witness an insult, our brain registers a threat. Hence the fight or flight mechanism kicks in and keeps kicking in with each recall or repeat of the incident.
Being in a hyper-vigilant state is unpleasant and draining. But a little time and distance tends to put us right. Usually. And often a revenge fantasy salves the wound, especially when the insult is egregious or liable to reoccur. This fantasy releases a bit of steam to prepare us for the next round, maybe to develop an avoidance strategy or some tactic to mitigate the threat. Or maybe just afford us a coping mechanism for a no-win situation. Whatever the case, the ensuing relief, if it occurs, feels good. Or better, at least.
Some worry about revenge scenarios like the jilted husband who stalks and kills his ex-wife, or the man who goes postal on his co-workers. It’s true that revenge impulses and fantasies can manifest in extreme and tragic ways. But not usually. In fact these incidents are extremes of a very commonplace trait, one we share with other animals. Like crows,
“Crows can recognize human faces and remember whether that face presented a threat or a benefit. Crows will even seek revenge on specific humans that have harmed them in the past. Crows will communicate with other crows about dangerous humans or animals.”
Garrison Frost, Things you may or may not know about crows, Audublog: Audubon California, July 02, 2013. Retrieved March 02, 2021.
Whether a crow feels pleasure for exacting revenge on a hapless human, I can’t say. But there must be some impetus to take revenge and some reward for doing so, else no human or crow would do it. The expenditure of energy and risk of harm to self by taking revenge, such as landing up in a fight, is otherwise inexplicable.
Some people take revenge on behalf of another. In The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya dedicates his entire life to avenging his father who died at the hands of the six-fingered man. When Montoya finally kills his nemesis, he is lost. “Is very strange,” he muses, “I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
Sometimes the benefits of revenge are distributive. A crow nests in an old elm tree along a boulevard in the suburbs. Parked below is a thoughtless twit who revs the engine of his hotrod convertible all night long. Close to that same elm tree is the bedroom window of a neighbour who rises at four a.m. to drive the two hours to his factory job. When the crow lands a sloppy dropping directly on the twit’s head, everyone gets some sleep. And as the neighbour nestles wearily into his pillow his troubled mind gives way to sweet dreams. Of revenge.
The following are some historical quotes that give clues to what it is that makes revenge so sweet.
It is very sweet to do a just action which is disagreeable to those we do not like.Victor Hugo. By Order of the King. (Or, The Man Who Laughs.) The Valjean Edition of the Novels of Victor Hugo. New York: P.F. Collier & Son. (1912?) The Waif Knows Its Course, p 391.
To passion and anger are due all acts of revenge. Revenge and punishment are different things. Punishment is inflicted for the sake of the person punished; revenge for that of the punisher, to satisfy his feelings.Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Dover Publications, 2004. p 39
Revenge, too, is pleasant; it is pleasant to get anything that is painful to fail to get, and angry people suffer extreme pain when they fail to get their revenge.Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Dover Publications, 2004. p 41
David Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature. Book I, Part III, Section III, Of unphilosophical probability.
The fact is that anger makes us confident — that anger is excited by our knowledge that we not the wrongers but the wronged, and that the divine power is always supposed to be on the side of the wronged.Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Dover Publications, 2004. p 72