‘An Eye For An Eye’ Is Not So Bad After All

“Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.” —Francis Bacon

In A Nutshell

The ancient laws which demand “an eye for an eye” are often regarded as barbaric and excessively punitive. Many ancient societies applied such laws. Yet, those laws were established in order to curb, not promote, disproportionate vengeance.

The Whole Bushel

The principle of retributive justice captured by the phrase “an eye for an eye” is called lex talionis (the law of retaliation). The phrase is a Latin one, but scholars tend to apply it to all laws, across all ages, which exhibit this “eye for an eye” requirement. Put simply, the law demands that the offender is punished in equal measure to the suffering which he has inflicted.

The lex talionis is found in many ancient law codes. We might think of it as being Jewish in origin. It is found, very famously, in the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, but, in fact, it appears in the Babylonian code of Hammurabi (c. 1770 B.C.) which predates the Jewish law books by hundreds of years. Law 196 of Hammurabi’s code reads: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.” Law 197 reads: “If he breaks another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.” And, had the ancient Babylonian not quite grasped the character of the code by this point, Law 200 helpfully reads: “If a man knocks out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.”

Talionic laws populated not only the codes of Israel and Babylonia but also those of ancient Rome, some poleis of Archaic Greece, and Islam. In some cases, but not all, the offender did not literally forfeit an eye or their life. Mechanisms were established whereby the offender was forced to financially compensate the victim with an amount deemed proportionate to the victim’s loss. (Many of these places had no money, so compensation took the form of agricultural produce or labor.)

For all that, most modern folk instinctively regard the lex talionis as brutish and vindictive. But, here’s the thing: Prior to the institution of these laws, punishment and retribution for crime was a largely private matter. The victim, perhaps sometimes under the loose guidance of unwritten tribal customs, exacted his own revenge and, naturally, the extent of the retaliation often greatly exceeded the extent of the original crime. Victims are hurt, they are perhaps humiliated, and they are often motivated by hate. If the victim had received a broken nose, they perhaps gave a broken leg in return; if they had been murdered, the victim’s family perhaps tortured and murdered the offender. Needless to say, this often sparked further retaliations from the offender (now turned victim). The picture is not a happy one. Historians say that most such societies were dogged by blood feuds and escalating cycles of violence that raged across generations. You can catch something of the flavor of these things in the blood-soaked tragedies of the dramatists of Classical Athens: Aeschylus and Euripides.

The application of the lex talionis, administered by central authorities, was intended to limit excessive vengeance. What the offender had given out, they got back, but no more. The transparently proportionate nature of the retribution ensured that the offender had no grounds to feel aggrieved at their punishment. They were punished and that was the end of it. No cycle of violence and no endless blood feuds were sparked.

Against Gandhi who might have said something like “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,” we might say the lex talionis leaves us with two one-eyed men, both feeling very sorry themselves no doubt, but both sure that justice has been done.

Show Me The Proof

Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics: The ‘lex talionis’ before and after criminal law
Hammurabi’s Code Of Laws

  • Hillyard

    Interesting, I always thought that the eye for an eye laws were very harsh. Learned something.

  • Hadeskabir

    In our current society we just send them to prison where they are well fed and given good medical treatment. That isn’t much of a punishment for most of their crimes. We sure need to bring back this justice of “an eye for an eye”. I bet that crime rates would go down like never before.

  • Punishment should be proportionate to the crime. Like when you sing a song against Putin, then Putin could -for instance- sing a song mocking you, and not send you to Siberia doing hard labour for several years under hellish circumstances.

  • Blue

    This is another silly little piece of nonsense to try to back up the eye for an eye retribution aspect of the vindictive Bible, but the actual Code of Hammurabi is distinctly different to this.

    An Eye for an Eye is actually code 196 in Hammurabi’s laws, there are massive amounts of other laws and I will put them here so people can gain an understanding that these laws are ways of settling disputes with “get out of jail” free cards.

    Far from being punitive in creating direct retribution these codes were designed to enable settlement of issues and not to be punitive.

    Just as an example here are Codes 196 to 220:

    196. If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. (This is the one every person who believes in capital punishment quotes as it apparently agrees with their viewpoint – now read on)

    197. If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

    198. If he put out the eye of a freed man, or break the bone of a freed man, he shall pay one gold mina.

    199. If he put out the eye of a man’s slave, or break the bone of a man’s slave, he shall pay one-half of its value.

    200. If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

    201. If he knock out the teeth of a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a gold mina.

    202. If any one strike the body of a man higher in rank than he, he shall receive sixty blows with an ox-whip in public.

    203. If a free-born man strike the body of another free-born man or equal rank, he shall pay one gold mina.

    204. If a freed man strike the body of another freed man, he shall pay ten shekels in money.

    205. If the slave of a freed man strike the body of a freed man, his ear shall be cut off.

    206. If during a quarrel one man strike another and wound him, then he shall swear, “I did not injure him wittingly,” and pay the physicians.

    207. If the man die of his wound, he shall swear similarly, and if he (the deceased) was a free-born man, he shall pay half a mina in money.

    208. If he was a freed man, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

    209. If a man strike a free-born woman so that she lose her unborn child, he shall pay ten shekels for her loss.

    210. If the woman die, his daughter shall be put to death.

    211. If a woman of the free class lose her child by a blow, he shall pay five shekels in money.

    212. If this woman die, he shall pay half a mina.

    213. If he strike the maid-servant of a man, and she lose her child, he shall pay two shekels in money.

    214. If this maid-servant die, he shall pay one-third of a mina.

    215. If a physician make a large incision with an operating knife and cure it, or if he open a tumor (over the eye) with an operating knife, and saves the eye, he shall receive ten shekels in money.

    216. If the patient be a freed man, he receives five shekels.

    217. If he be the slave of some one, his owner shall give the physician two shekels.

    218. If a physician make a large incision with the operating knife, and kill him, or open a tumor with the operating knife, and cut out the eye, his hands shall be cut off.

    219. If a physician make a large incision in the slave of a freed man, and kill him, he shall replace the slave with another slave.

    220. If he had opened a tumor with the operating knife, and put out his eye, he shall pay half his value.

    • Natasha

      #211- Anyone blowing a child is sick anyway. Why can’t they just blow an adult? Sickos…..

    • Debbie Thomas

      Thank you, Blue. That was fascinating.

      202 makes me shutter. How can anyone survive 60 strikes of a whip? Forty strikes was supposed to be enough to kill an adult man.

      • Blue

        No idea, but the laws themselves are truly fascinating and date back to 1772 BCE, that is they pre-date even the earliest Semite cultures by almost 700 years. So the laws themselves must have been pretty well used and understood to influence the early pre-Jewish cultures and remain part of the Christian doctrines after the Torah was finalised.

        Here are all the laws http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/hammurabi.htm

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