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.