Updated: Nov 4, 2019
Contemporary psychology and psychiatry have looked at the subject of vengeance in terms of human health and come up with some interesting theories involving principles that were first enunciated by the ancient Greeks.
Justice or, more accurately, injustice as perceived by the victim, is not only interpersonal but also intergenerational. According to Aristotle, “…a man can give something if he likes, but he cannot suffer injustice if he likes – there must be somebody else to do him the injustice.” Plato, who ascribed a high role to demons, explains that the evil acts of a wrongdoer can impact the entire human community through succeeding generations. A direct correlation exists, therefore, between a people’s collective sense of injustice – something that can vary from culture to culture – and aggressive acts of retribution carried out by descendants of the victim or victims, known in Italy as la vendetta.
In vendetta logic, murder avenges murder to appease the murdered, that is, the already dead. The root causes and intergenerational aspects of la vendetta are best illustrated by such situations as the murder of a father, the consequences of which can profoundly alter the lives of his children, grandchildren and succeeding generations. In Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and elsewhere, there are even special types of guns and knives traditionally associated with revenge killings.
The teachings of Jesus Christ rely heavily on Aristotelian logic for articulation of their ethical doctrine, and policies of the Roman Catholic Church – despite the benevolent and caring façade it endeavours to project versus its rather bloody and uncaring historical record – continue to be characterized by Aristotelian formulations. The judicial or ex-judicial execution or wholesale murder of innocents that Early Christians experienced in ancient times, and that the Church establishment later ignored or even supported in the case of other groups (e.g., the massacre and enslavement of native peoples during the colonialization era; the extermination of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, others during the Holocaust of the 1940s), although ethically acceptable according to the state’s or another institution’s norms or laws, would be theoretically forbidden by God.
Affirming Aristotle’s admonitions about settling scores before the whole community is irreparably damaged by drawing divine wrath down upon all, la vendetta finds its contemporary roots in Judeo-Christian mythology. The wholesale destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is one such tale. “For the sins of their inhabitants, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim were destroyed by fire and brimstone (e.g., a rain of burning sulfur) from the Lord out of Heaven" (Genesis 19:24-25).
The episode describes the role of angels as messengers and intermediaries between God and men. According to the Judeo-Roman historian, Flavius Josephus (1st century AD), when messenger angels came to Sodom to find good men, they were instead greeted by rapists who proceeded to molest them:
“And the angels came to the city of the Sodomites....when the Sodomites beheld the young men, who were outstanding in beauty of appearance and who had been received into Lot’s house, they set about to do violence and outrage to their youthful beauty....Therefore, God, indignant at their bold acts, struck them with blindness, so that they were unable to find the entrance into the house, and condemned the Sodomites to destruction of the whole population” (Jewish Antiquities 1:199-202).
According to the Bible, evil acts of wrongdoers impact both victim and perpetrator into the next generation, and even beyond, though in somewhat different ways. The Bible is full of moralistic yarns about the consequences of sins of the parents inherited by their offspring, beginning with Genesis and the expulsion from Eden – the original Garden of Good and Evil - and leading to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The payback flowchart is both vertical and horizontal, extending to the immediate relatives of a wrongdoer as well as to his descendants. The revenge impulse, therefore, finds its justification in both the Greek and Judeo-Christian ethical systems, these being the cornerstones of Western civilization, and finds its expression in Islamic culture and Sharia law, and the codes of other institutions that partake of the Abrahamic tradition, particularly the Italian Mafias.
In the interest of the public good, modern society has usurped the individual’s historical right to exact revenge against wrongdoers and placed its administration in the hands of the state. The underlying principle, however, remains operative. In some Islamic states of the Middle East and elsewhere, for example, a murderer might be arrested by the police and condemned by the criminal court, but it is often the head of the victim’s family who carries out the execution under state supervision with an assault rifle. An alternative involves the paying of blood money to the family of the victim.
Payment of blood money is often an accepted method of diffusing vendettas by satisfying the appetite for revenge without resorting to violence. The Fifth Commandment admonition against killing is thereby observed and further loss of life avoided. This process routinely takes place within the Italian Mafias and, symbolically at least, in Church circles through strategic alliances, appointments to positions of power, gifts of holy relics, money or services, and the ritual granting of indulgences that compensate real or imagined insults and offenses amongst clergy. Money is the preferred medium.
Disputes between cosche, the cells or families or Orders that make up organized criminal networks, can quickly degenerate into vendetta-style tit-for-tat warfare until most of the leadership of both sides is wiped out and not a single male member of some families is left standing. The negotiated marriage of a virginal daughter of one Mafia clan to a member of another rival clan as appeasement is an ancient form of blood-letting without killing, satisfying the revenge impulse.
There is a curious corollary to the Biblical revenge story of the destruction of Sodom, thought to have been the abode of homosexuals, and Gomorrah, a nest of lesbianism. Lot, into whose house the angels had been invited to shelter overnight, confronts the townsmen who demand that he turn over the handsome young men to them for their pleasuring. Instead, he unconcernedly offers his two virgin daughters to the male crowd to do with as it wishes, on condition that they leave the angels unmolested. His sacrificial offer is rejected. Later, Lot’s family is spared destruction in the hail of fire and brimstone that rains from the sky. During their flight to safety in the desert, Lot’s wife, whom we know as ‘Ado’ although Genesis does not specifically mention her name, ignores her husband’s advice and takes one last backward glance at her hometown and is instantly turned to a pillar of salt that melts away in the rains that later wash clean all traces of the holocaust.
The three remaining family members take up refuge in a cave, believing themselves the last remaining humans on earth. Lot’s two still-virginal daughters, doubtless remembering their father’s recent offer to sacrifice them to the lustful designs of his townsmen, decide to make their father drunk with wine in order to commit incest with him, propagating his seed into future generations and thereby saving the human race. They accomplish the task quite successfully, first the older girl in his bed, then later the younger. Despite some mild tut-tutting among Bible study groups, there has been little concern for the escapades of this peculiar three-some, thought to be the progenitors for successive generations of mankind.
The Jew is used to the depredations of foreign invaders and one pogrom after another characterize his past; and yet, in spite of continual persecution at the hands of Christians for having been the offspring of incestuous parents – that is, Lot and his daughters – and the enemy and killer of Jesus, he does not usually demand revenge. He is compelled to acknowledge that the root causes of violence lie in revenge killings caused in the main by wholesale lack of accountability for past crimes, particularly those wanton acts of murder and destruction committed by Christians against Jews or other fellow believers in the so-called One True God, at best a form of fratricide.
On the other hand, if a Christian is wronged by another Christian or by a Jew then an act of revenge is initiated at high level, that is, by the state, as this is enshrined both in civil and Canon law, although the outcomes are different. The celebrated case of Count Francesco Cenci in the fifteenth century is a case in point. No matter how serious the crime, and his offenses were indeed legion, in the end this very rich man had only to pay a fine, whatever amount was levied by the Holy Office in accordance with the current month’s deficit in the Vatican treasury. Not much has changed in the past five centuries as the Vatican Bank has been accused of laundering money for the Mafia. Catholics continue to ‘fall away’ faster than newly minded humans can be baptised. It’s still all about money.
But let’s get back to the Jew. In the end, he is human and hence indistinguishable in his impulses from the Gentile. The dilemma is granted form and expression in the art of William Shakespeare, “…if you wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” (Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice).
For today’s Italians living within their proverbial Garden of Good and Evil, the boundaries between what is considered right and what is wrong are blurred ones. Adam and Eve had it easy. To follow God’s law, they only needed to avoid eating fruit from a single tree in the Garden. In contemporary Italy where almost everyone, including politicians and government functionaries, displays open contempt for the rule of law and the state is perceived as an annoying thorn in everybody’s side, no one can rule definitively whether or not any particular act is criminal. All is relative, without limit to the number and variety of mitigating circumstances that might come to bear on a case.
In this corrupted and corruptive democracy where everyone thinks himself to be free, one is free to commit crimes more likely to be punished in any better-regulated society. One is free to exact personal vengeance against individuals who have exercised their own perceived freedom of transgression. Even the very definition of crime is open for debate. An act that elsewhere might be regarded as chargeable under the criminal code – robbery, extortion, fraud, murder, rape, to name only a few – in today’s Italy is often relegated to the status of a dispute between individuals and none of the state’s business.
This phenomenon is reflected in the process of Italian criminal justice. An offender may be convicted by a district court but the verdict is almost always reversed in appeal or, finally, in cassazione, the last court of review, as long as the accused enjoys the support of influential parties or has deep enough pockets to carry his appeal that far before the cell doors slam shut behind him which, in the case of persons of high rank, is practically never. This is especially true where the Catholic Church, the Mafias, and political parties are involved, as the internal codes of these organizations are in practice respected by the state even when they conflict with the civil law. Unlike other western societies, in Italy the Church as well as the mainstream Mafias are acknowledged as ordinamenti giuridici, and therefore are free to impose parallel legal codes on their subscribers, codes that may at times conflict with those of the secular state.
This trend toward the deconstruction of whatever civil guarantees and justice there are is itself a type of virus that propagates both inside and outside the legal jurisdictions of the Vatican and even the Italian state. The Church has a long and controversial history of establishing Concordats, that is, treaties, with foreign governments, exempting its Faithful in those countries from the usual protections that democratic institutions normally provide their citizens, thereby creating a parallel, Old Testament-style, legal environment. The movement among immigrant Muslims to establish their own Sharia courts within the United States is another example. Chattel slavery, the general disenfranchisement and degradation of women in these countries, vendetta logic, and the sponsoring of cruel and unusual physical punishments is how the Church maintains its medieval grip on some far-flung Catholic communities, contrary to the guarantees of equality and fair play enshrined in the civil codes. Islamists fare no better. 'Any eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,' is a still cornerstone of the Abrahamic tradition of which both Christianity and Islam partake. The Mafias operate quite successfully on an international scale using the very same basic formulae. Their ‘Faithful’ subscribe to a parallel legal code that is respected by the Italian state, a state that allows and supports and even profits from the expansion of Mafia influence in the international marketplace.
At the root of the Mafia phenomenon is the uniquely Italian perception that acts that are considered fundamentally evil and repugnant and therefore attract revenge are resolvable only between individuals according to the basest of human impulses. The public attitude is reflected in a popular definition of the word delinquente, which actually distinguishes between dishonest criminal acts and honest criminal acts. Dishonest crime is nominally abhorred by all and punishable under the law. Honest crime, on the other hand, remains honorable so long as it meets certain basic criteria.
Take theft, for instance. Theft – or any other nominally criminal act, for that matter – is justifiable if it is committed out of necessity, for one’s survival, or on behalf of one’s family or loved ones. Secondly, theft becomes acceptable behavior when it focuses on the liberation of superfluous goods from persons, such as the rich, who do not earn or deserve them. Lastly, thieving can even be admirable when it is carried out con il tocco di classe, that is, with ingenuity and imagination, making the perpetrator a Michelangelo of crime.
Revenge appears to impose the only limitation on this kind of personal freedom, especially where it is inextricably linked to corruption and therefore treads the fine line between honest and dishonest crime. Freedom in this context is synonymous with power and the ability to exact revenge.
A crime carried out in a fit of passion may be excused as a typically human response to conflict or provocation, nonetheless deserving of punishment on the basis of lost self-control. L’affronto che si paga col sangue is a case-in-point. A wife or husband encountering a mate in flagrante delicto with a lover is almost universally expected to respond with violence, killing the offending mate, the lover, or both, or else suffering ostracism at the hands of neighbors. Social obligations notwithstanding, a crime of passion is expected to be punished under the civil law with a brief prison sentence and a shrug of “A così sono le cose, che c’è può fare?” or “That’s the way things are, so what can anyone do?” Capitulating to the force of destiny, that is, to the fatalism that operates in everyone’s life, in practice such crimes of passion bring average sentences in Italian courts of two years or less.
In the Odyssey, Homer’s lyric tale set in the Sicily of 800 BC, it was Ulysses’ slaughtering of Antonous and the others who, in his absence, had lain with Ulysses’ wife and with other women of his household that inspired his call for sulfur to expunge the stench of blood from the house. Sulfur (brimstone) is the very essence of this land, blasted and scraped from beneath the volcanic native soil from which all human, animal and plant life come and to which they must eventually return. In modern day Italy, thousands of years after Homer, the responsibility for protecting the genetic line by avenging any injury to one’s own bloodline is still passed down from father to son to grandson until the historic cause of a vendetta is lost to living memory. All that remains is the hatred after the root cause is long forgotten.
Premeditated murder, here known as caro pensato, on the other hand, is another matter entirely. If one’s father, mother or brother is killed, for whatever reason, and the killer goes to jail for twenty years, the obligation on the part of the victim’s blood relatives to avenge the death is not erased by the convicted person’s having paid a debt to the civil authorities. In the vendetta, where blood calls for blood, premeditated murder is entirely forgivable, and carries the weight of social obligation. Anyone lacking the intestinal fortitude to fulfill his role in the matter of ‘blood of one’s blood’, considered an injury or threat to the survival of the genetic line, is deemed a coward and shunned by his community. By the observance of omertà, or secretiveness, a man shows that he is truly a man by his silence, especially to the civil authorities, and in this way, he puts time on his side in settling personal scores. ‘Premeditated’ is therefore not equated with ‘in-cold-blood.’
If Justice and mercy were to form the cornerstones of a modern, compassionate state, then the current Italian model must be abandoned. The same would need to be said about Sharia law. Fortunately, Canon law no longer condemns the accused to torture in the dungeons of the Castel Sant’Angelo or execution by being beaten to death with hammers in a Vatican piazza as it once did. At the base of this new order there must remain the more solid Aristotelian logic. The administration of justice in the country and the world at large must be blind, that is, equitable and fair for all, regardless of whatever has gone before. Disputes must be settled before Heaven rains down fire on the whole community as it did in the story of Lot and his brood.
The curse of fire and brimstone visited on mankind during World War II and afterwards should compel ourselves, the offspring of the incestuous daughters of Lot, to seek out, indeed to demand, a new ordering in the world. The European Union is, in a large sense, the expression of that impulse. This new ordering must prevail over the former international boundaries wherein national, cultural and religious rivalries are subjugated to a single universal value system based on law. It’s a case of survival, end-game style. Then perhaps la vendetta can be relegated to the museum of curiosities.
Unfortunately, the current trend is back to tribalism. But that’s the subject of a future blog posting.
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