"The whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish day-dream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also. "
-George Orwell in "Revenge is Sour", Tribune (1945-11-09)
My own ideas on the quote:
The central idea in this quote is an extremely hard thing for many people to swallow. The idea of revenge is seemingly strongly embedded in many people's minds. This is true, even if in the real world getting your revenge will just all too often mean lowering yourself to the level of the original wrongdoer.
This is also a rather Epicurean, but also a Stoic idea. In this kind of thinking a person is expected to overcome his or her original feelings of hurt when the original hurtful situation is over. He or she is expected to think rationally on the consequences of one's actions in the new situation, at least after emotions start cooling over.
A rational person should understand that his or her response to the original wrongdoing can all too easily constitute just a continuation of injustice on a new level. This is often the case if the action is not aimed at correcting the consequences of the wrongdoings that have been done and most of all preventing them from happening again, but simply aims at revenge.
Of course, no person in this world can be or is wholly rational. Raw emotions do play havoc on the minds of every human being walking the surface of this earth. However, understanding the core message of this quote can help in understanding the mental forces that are at play in situations where people feel that they have been treated unjustly.
George Orwell was naturally speaking in this quote about revenge against the German nation. Germany had just lost a world war in which it had caused the worst human made catastrophe in the history of the world. They had killed, tortured and mistreated other humans on an unforeseeable scale. However, George Orwell did write these terse sentences on the futility of revenge just at that moment of history. One can well ask why he did this?
George Orwell saw that punishing a nation is an act of similar injustice as punishing a whole family including the uncles and aunts because the things that their nephew has done. He saw that punishing those who were responsible for dragging this nation into mud would need be the real objective. However, the main thing should be preventing these awful things from happening ever again.
George Orwell also very well knew the lessons that were learned from the injustice that was levied on Germany on the end of the First World War. The peace treaty of Versailles was a form of revenge dictated by the vengeful French. Many people warned outright that it already contained the seeds of the new war, as the vengeful injustice levied on Germany made them just thirst for a chance to correct that injustice.
For me at least the treaty of Versailles is a classical example of how things can end up of people let emotions like need for revenge dictate real world policies. Nations will not go away, but they will still be there even after your sweet revenge is meted out. Also your mean co-worker will be there even if you beat him or her in a spiraling race of meanness that the idea of revenge so easily unleashes.
(This piece was reworked on 27th of October, 2012)
George Orwell is in Facebook at:
"Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist and journalist. His work is marked by clarity, intelligence and wit, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and belief in democratic socialism."