Fabian Bernhardt in conversation with Stéphanie Rohde

Uma Thurman as avenging angel in “Kill Bill” – beyond cinema, however, modern societies repress revenge, says Fabian Bernhardt. (picture alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library)

Tit for tat? Revenge has no place in modern self-image – but feelings of revenge are by no means foreign to us, says philosopher Fabian Bernhardt. He calls to see revenge with an open mind in order to better understand it.

eye for eye, tooth for tooth: when we talk about revenge, we often think of bloody excesses in the distant past, other countries or so-called parallel societies. In reality, says the philosopher Fabian Bernhardt, we are more familiar than we think with revenge: “The affects and feelings that lead to revenge have not become foreign to us – but they are no longer recognized in our society as motivations for action. And if you’re acting out of revenge, even in everyday forms that maybe aren’t very dramatic, then you usually won’t admit it. “

Revenge against right?

Revenge, as Bernhardt writes in his book of the same name, is “the blind spot of modernity”. And philosophy played a considerable role in it: “When philosophers dealt with revenge in the Enlightenment, it was not to better understand or describe revenge, but always immediately to the question of legitimacy. And with that something begins what I call the theoretical blackout. . “

In antiquity and in the Middle Ages, there was a much more differentiated thinking about revenge – it was not until the Enlightenment that a general moral judgment of revenge began: “There are no more differentiations made. . And of course this has a lot to do with the development of the state monopoly on punishment and violence. »Consequently, revenge and law are perceived as opposites:« Revenge is separated from the domain of law, it becomes the embodiment of the other in modernity in general – and of all the values ​​defended by modernity.

The myth of the state of nature

The fact that modern societies thus reject revenge also serves to reassure themselves about the progress made. But this only succeeds at the cost of a false image of revenge in premodern societies: “There is a widespread notion that in societies that are not organized by the state, all conflicts are waged through the medium of violence and basically only the law of the strongest applies. “Bernhardt traces this notion back to Thomas Hobbes’ idea of” the state of nature “, in which there is a” war of all against all “which can only be overcome by the state.

This idea of ​​pre-state societies is based on a misunderstanding: It is not because there are no institutions similar to our legal institutions that there is no law: “Revenge in the premodern societies is legal and not the other of the law. ”The“ retribution logic ”according to which conflicts are conducted there obeys strict public rules. Reprisals for violence with counter-violence are also the exception: “The rule is that we try to find a balance in another way, in the form of compensation. And very often it is certain goods that migrate from one group to another.

Fabian Bernhardt is a researcher at the Collaborative Research Center “Affective Societies” at the Free University of Berlin. (Ken Yamamoto)

An example of this is the so-called “Wergeld” – from the Latin “vir” for “man” – as compensation for the family of a person killed. In these transactions, however, the material value of the goods is not in the foreground. On the contrary, what is essential is the “symbolic content”. Bernhardt compares this to gifts in our society: “With a real gift, it does not depend on the material value, but on the attitude with which it is presented, on the spirit that inspires that gift.

The modern era has banned revenge from the cinema

In fact, this “vengeful justice” in premodern societies is by no means purely emotional, but often follows a complex negotiation process. The mixture of affect and rationality is characteristic of revenge, according to Bernhardt: “Revenge can never do without a certain rational element. Being animated by a burning passion and proceeding with a cold calculation are by no means mutually exclusive. He finds proof of this in the many tales of revenge in literature and cinema – from the Odyssey to the Count of Montechristo to today’s films:.

Cinema and literature, “the cultural imaginary”, according to Bernhardt, is also the domain – besides the mental cinema of personal revenge fantasies – where revenge holds its place in modern societies after having been officially banned from them: ” One could say that the imaginary is the affective reserve in which are relocated these dark impulses, supposedly destructive, which seek revenge. ”

Even the imaginary revenge of pop culture is mostly only available in the modern age as “broken”: Batman, unlike Achilles, can only take revenge in a mask, as a ‘alter ego – for revenge, however, the visibility of the avenger is essential. If he doesn’t reveal himself, “then what Batman does can no longer be revenge either.” Instead, he becomes the “outstretched arm of the police”. “As a result, revenge fundamentally ceases to be revenge – because the victim and the perpetrator no longer come together in the same identity.”

Free revenge for its negative omens

For the future, Bernhardt wants a more differentiated view of revenge. To better understand them, Bernhardt is convinced, we must first “free them from their negative omens”. It is not expressly a question of questioning the modern rule of law, but rather of a truer picture of our history: “I am a big fan of the rule of law, it is very precious, but I think it’s problematic if you shoot in linear development: if you look at how violent modernity has been, then I think it’s hard to hang on to such a linear progress narrative. “


Fabian Bernhardt: “Vengeance. On a blind spot of modernity”
Matthes & Seitz, Berlin 2021
413 pages, 28 euros

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