The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The brilliant retort that slices the smug back down to size. The shiver of nasty pleasure that comes from seeing someone floundering and speechless who only moments before was bulging with REPROACHFULNESS. Yes, there’s glorious satisfaction in tit for tat. It’s when our PRIDE is wounded by an insult, or some oversight has left us baffled or stunned, that vengefulness gives us a chance to restore lost dignity. Even if the revenge only happens in the mind’s eye—the more baroque and excessive the better—it can still achieve this restoration. “Dishonor,” wrote the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “consists not in receiving an insult but in submitting to it.”

An idea once popular among historians is that vengeful feelings used to be much more acceptable in the past than they are today. According to the influential historian and sociologist Norbert Elias, who wrote in the 1930s about the “civilizing process” of medieval Europe, people of the Middle Ages were “wild, cruel, prone to violent outbursts”: private feuds and vendettas simmered among the nobility, while “the little people, too—the hatters, the tailors, the shepherds—were all quick to draw their knives.” Today’s historians paint a different picture. They argue that even though inflicting punishments was often a matter of individual honor in twelfth- and thirteenth-century England, it was still a tightly regulated process. The rules around private vengeance required that the punishment be carefully matched with the crime (a version of the much older lex talionis; an eye for an eye…) so that victims could achieve satisfaction without setting off a cascade of further retaliations. Against this backdrop, the passion of vengefulness was a two-part process; it involved both an urgent desire to right a wrong, and also the rational task of weighing up appropriate punishment (see also: REMORSE).

However, by the sixteenth century, judges and courtiers were quick to portray vengefulness as unruly and dangerous. With the expansion of the legal system across England, it was no wonder that the official methods of state punishment were being held up as morally superior—and private vendettas frowned upon. Philosophers followed suit. “Revenge is a kind of wild justice,” wrote Francis Bacon, “which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.”

Did these efforts to discredit vengefulness work? The “revenge tragedies,” so popular in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theater, cast doubt on the law’s capacity to provide a reasonable alternative to private vengeance. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, first performed in 1592 and one of the earliest of this form, the law is impotent and untrustworthy: the knight marshal, Hieronimo, “tears the papers” when he meets petitioners who want help with their cases, literally ripping up the letter of the law. So when Hieronimo’s own son is murdered, it’s no surprise that he takes matters into his own hands, plotting a complicated vengeance. Like so many of the plans concocted by wronged characters in revenge tragedies, his is long-winded and complex. The thinking—and often, procrastination—which went into these revenge plots is the opposite of an angry outburst. The revenge ultimately might be bloody and messy, but the vengefulness is not—it is much more deliberate, and its end result is served cold.

Conflicted attitudes toward vengefulness still linger. Of course (of course!) we ought to rise above our desire to get even. We all know the conventional wisdom is that we’re the ones who suffer most from our own vengeful feelings, or, as Bacon put it, “A man that studieth Revenge keeps his owne Wounds greene, which otherwise would heale.” We are suspicious of retaliatory urges—but sometimes, quietly impressed by them too. Why else do we so gleefully recount those urban legends—the prawns sewn into the curtain hem, the immaculate collection of Savile Row suits with the arms scissored off? Perhaps there is a strange admiration for those who daringly act on their vengeful impulses, while the rest of us dutifully submit, if not to the insult, then to the due process—and perhaps feel a little paler as a result.

For another outlawed emotion, see: HATRED.