Vengeance is mine, I will repay


1020 | [ Continuing my study of Scanlon’s book, What We Owe To Each Other… ]

According to what Plato says, Aeschylus once wrote in one of his plays that:

“A god makes mortals guilty, when he wants to destroy a house utterly.” (380a, tr. CDC Reeve)

In the New Testament at Romans 12:19, the God says:

“Vengeance is mine, I will repay…”

Finally, according to Scanlon (and I also agree with this at least), guilt is “self-reproach of a particularly serious kind.” (p.334)

If guilt is a way to “destroy a house utterly,” and if being destroyed utterly in this way is a kind of “harm” — then to intentionally cause or inflict guilt on another person (eg, a “guilt trip”) is to intend harm on another person.

Even if one did not instigate the guilt, even just knowingly leaving a person to remain guilty can be construed as a kind of permitting harm by neglect. It is the same as if you stood by knowingly doing nothing, while watching a person slowly drown to death.

But is it the feeling or notion of guilt itself that we’re speaking of, or is it the guilt-inducing action that we’re talking about? In Aeschylus, I think it is the latter thing that he means to speak of. Though in Scanlon, he means to speak of the former sort — the one that has to do with “attributive responsibility.” As for the New Testament, I think that it too has to do with the “attributive” sort, since the verse at Romans 12:19 is said within the context of these other words: “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God…But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

And so what Aeschylus says cannot be combined with what is said in Romans — can it? After all, they seem to be speaking of two different things. Perhaps a guilty-feeling is not a harm. Perhaps only the guilt-inducing action is harmful. Romans also says,

“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things are indeed clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.” (Romans 14:20-21)

This part of Romans is closer to the substantive type of guilt that Aeschylus was likely speaking of.

Plato says in Republic that the ideal city shouldn’t tell their youth stories about how the gods intend for humans to be destroyed by guilt or otherwise. Rather, if a guilt-inducing action happens, then it is a learning opportunity meant to improve the situation and/or the person somehow; it isn’t meant to utterly destroy a person (by metaphor, a house is also a person). However, since the stories about people committing guilt-inducing actions tend to destroy a person because it undermines the person’s essential core if they’re believed in, those stories cannot and should not be told. Hence, nobody is “evil.” Bad people are simply bad-at-being-persons because they ignorant, and it is the essence of a homo sapiens to be knowing.