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Simone de Beauvoir

A Question of Vengeance

Pauline O’Flynn explores de Beauvoir’s argument that punishment is necessary to demonstrate that the degradation of humanity can never be ignored.

Simone de Beauvoir poses a disturbing moral question in her philosophical essay ‘An Eye for an Eye’, published in 1946, shortly after the liberation of France. While it was written as a response to the trial and execution of an intellectual convicted of treason, the question de Beauvoir raises has considerable significance for contemporary society. Her question is about vengeance, “the need to punish, to avenge ourselves.” She asks “Is it well founded? Can it be satisfied?” (‘Oeil pour Oeil’, in Les Temps Modernes 1, no.5, 1946: p.247 in Simone de Beauvoir: Philosophical Writings, ed. M.A Simons, trans. Kristana Arp, 2004). De Beauvoir was profoundly disturbed by the notion of punishment inflicted to satisfy a need for the ‘balancing of wrongs’. In the above essay she seeks to analyse the moral justifications for vengeance or retribution against those considered to have committed crimes against humanity, and she asks if any punishment ultimately satisfies the moral purpose to which it is attached.

De Beauvoir asserts that French society learned ‘rage and hate’ when their country was occupied by German forces during the Second World War. “One does not hate a hailstorm or a plague, one hates only men, not because they are material causes of material damage, but because they are conscious authors of genuine evil,” she writes (p.248). Hearing of different atrocities committed against their compatriots, the French swore revenge and said “they will pay.” De Beauvoir claims that the words ‘to pay’ in themselves express the human desire to exact a punishment on the aggressor equal to the horror or brutality he has inflicted on others. In effect it is the law of retaliation, as proclaimed in the essay title, ‘An Eye for an Eye’.

But de Beauvoir struggles with the whole concept of vengeance. Her deepest philosophical concern is for the individual ’s creation of a meaning to existence, and she sees this creation of meaning as inherently bound to an ethical relationship with the other. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, published in 1947, de Beauvoir begins to outline her ethics, based on the atheistic existentialism of herself and Jean-Paul Sartre. What she argues in The Ethics of Ambiguity, and develops in a more concrete fashion in The Second Sex (1949), is the notion that while every individual is responsible for the creation of his/her own existence, this existence is always connected with others. I cannot exist without being in relationship with other people. My presence in the world, the choices I make, even the choice I make to not make choices, impacts on others: “Immobile or in action, we always weigh upon the earth. Every refusal is a choice, every silence has a voice … each of my actions by falling into the world creates a new situation for him [the other]” she says in Pyrrhus et Cinéas (1944).

Unlike Sartre, who believes that the basis of interpersonal relationship is conflict, de Beauvoir sees the self/other relation as always marked by the dichotomies of autonomy and reliance, freedom and bondage. She argues that, in order to fully recognise the humanity of another, one must be able to accept and recognise the ambiguous nature of both self and other. By this she means that one ’s freedom is dependent on the freedom of the other. A ‘will to freedom’ can never be achieved at the cost of another’s freedom, because to do so would in effect be a denial of both one’s own true humanity and that of the person one seeks to master. A reciprocal interpersonal bond is essentially destroyed when one person abuses the other as a thing, when a person is degraded and stripped of his subjectivity and freedom and is treated as an object. Thus de Beauvoir struggles with the notion of one individual essentially claiming mastery over another through an act of vengeance.

Having endured life as a citizen of an occupied country, de Beauvoir is very aware of the horrific acts of brutality committed during the war. She acknowledges that such acts awaken a deeply felt need for retribution. Watching the degradation of our fellow humans to the status of objects arouses in society a passionate hatred and rage against the perpetuators of the evil. When there is great suffering, there is an almost primeval need to avenge, to make it right, to obliterate the horror of dehumanisation from memory and restore a balance or a ‘natural’ order where evil once dominated. Essentially, this need is a cry for the restoration of humanity, for the recognition by the abuser that the greatest crime was to treat the victim as non-human, a thing – to make the abuser understand the impact of his crime on another person. De Beauvoir uses the term ‘understand’ not in an abstract sense, but as Heidegger designated the term; as “the process through which our entire being realizes a situation. One understands an implement in using it. One understands torture by undergoing it” (p.248). So de Beauvoir claims that the demand for vengeance is the demand for the abuser to exchange situations with his former victim, and through himself becoming a victim, viscerally understanding his crime.

The immediate acts of vengeance carried out against SS guards by their liberated prisoners were personal acts of hatred and rage, where the “the victims and their torturers had really exchanged situations” (p.251). De Beauvoir suggests that this type of vengeance is a ‘concrete’ relation between individuals, in the same way that love, hate, jealousy or friendship are emotions deeply felt by particular individuals in particular situations. While it would be difficult, she argues, to criticise the actions of these liberated prisoners against their former torturers, she claims that personal vengeance always has a ‘disquieting character’. While one may understand the reasons for acting on the deep wells of hatred and rage, she claims that when an avenger aspires to set himself up as judge, the very notion of vengeance becomes suspect: “But if we look into our own depths, who among us dares say: ‘I am better than that man’? It requires a lot of arrogance and very little imagination to judge another” ( ‘An Eye for an Eye’, p.255). While an action taken to redress a wrong may stem from a desire to restore the balance of justice, it may equally stem from the desire to power and mastery that slumbers in all of us. Who can say if the avenging act is retribution, or tyranny? De Beauvoir believes that if personal acts of revenge or retribution are undertaken, if one acts as judge and executioner in response to a passionate hate, one simply replaces one abomination with another: “One act of revenge calls for another act of revenge, evil engenders evil, and injustices pile up without wiping one another out ” (p.251). Or as Gandhi put it, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Therefore the rule of law justly forbids individual acts of retribution, and in removing judgement to the impartial justice system it effectively distances the act of vengeance or punishment from the passionate hate that demands it. Social justice does not condemn the aggressor in his totality, as mob justice does, but rather condemns the perpetrator as the agent of evil acts repudiated by society. However, the raw emotion simmering below the justice system demands that suffering be avenged, and there is great anger and frustration when this right is perceived to be denied. But, de Beauvoir argues, even if the abuser feels what his victim felt, it won ’t remedy the evil the abuser caused: it will not ‘balance’ the wrong committed. While we seek vengeance as a way of balancing the scales of justice, in reality we are left with the realisation that we cannot ever control the other in his freedom. We can never compel the aggressor to feel the pain of the original suffering. We cannot compel regret or repentance. We can never reach the core of any individual. So de Beauvoir claims that if the intent of vengeance is to reassert the reciprocity of human relations, to restore a balance to the world, then that intent can never be satisfied.

But although de Beauvoir sees all punishment as ‘partially a failure’, she accepts that justice/retribution is necessary if only to recognise the evil that is in man. She claims that “when a man deliberately tries to degrade man by reducing him to a thing, nothing can compensate for the abomination he causes to erupt on earth. There resides the sole sin against man ” (p.257). The mistake, de Beauvoir believes, is to think that vengeance achieves the moral purpose it sets out to achieve. This is rarely possible. Vengeance cannot compel the freedom of a person, the aggressor, to create anything other than what he wants to create for himself. Vengeance is not the “serene recovery of a reasonable and just order” (p.259). If punishment or vengeance is to have any point, it’s not as a balancing or restorative measure, but rather as a public acknowledgement of humanity ’s refusal to accept degrading behaviour.

De Beauvoir sees the ethical perspective as essentially a constant questioning of individual motives and intentions. In The Ethics of Ambiguity, she argues that the meaning of one’s existence emerges through an active acknowledgement of the ambiguities of the past, present and future, of a life lived in consciousness of death, and of the relationship of self and other. She therefore claims that ambiguity is at the core of what it means to be human. The ethics built on that ambiguity bears within it not the certainty of success, but the acceptance of the possibility of failure. In ‘An Eye for an Eye’, Simone de Beauvoir suggests a similar argument. It may not be possible to compel the aggressor to understand or repent his crimes against humanity: it may not be possible to ‘balance’ wrongs; all punishment may be a failure – but nevertheless the human cry for meaning demands that the degradation of humanity can never be ignored: “Their crimes have struck at our own hearts. It is our values, our reasons to live that are affirmed by their punishment ” (p.246). And yet the questions remain, as significant today as sixty years ago: What does humanity lose in the act of vengeance? And what does it gain, if anything?

© Pauline O’Flynn 2008

Pauline O’Flynn combines an interest in philosophy with a job as a primary school teacher. She has an MA in Literature and Philosophy from Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

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