Peter Jones

The Greeks were right: Trump shouldn’t live for revenge

Donald Trump’s book on business Think Big and Kick Ass makes taking personal revenge a very high priority. Given recent events in a US court, it will clearly be a priority if he wins the forthcoming election. For ancient Greeks, it was taken for granted that, if you were harmed by someone, it was your duty to get your own back.

So Greeks regularly took their grievances into the public arena. The orator Demosthenes told a jury that, because he saw a man who had wronged him injuring the whole city, ‘I proceeded against him in the belief that I had got a suitable opportunity for defending the interests of the city and at the same time obtaining revenge for what had been done to me.’ Rather Trumpian.

Trump would also applaud the sentiments put in the mouths of Greeks in Thucydides’ history: ‘No one can begrudge a person acting in defence of his own well-being’; and, more fully, ‘It is entirely acceptable in dealing with adversaries to satisfy the anger in one’s heart by taking revenge upon the aggressor, and also that retaliation upon enemies is proverbially the greatest of pleasures.’

But how far should revenge go? For Aristotle, the desire for revenge was triggered by anger at an intentional but unjustifiable slight, which he defined in terms of contempt, spite and insult. But he thought that, while there was a sense of pleasure at the prospect of getting your own back, there was a limit as to how far one should go: it meant righting a wrong, not yielding to hatred.

This was more in line with a Greek view that ‘everyone clings to the hope that, in adversity, the generally accepted laws about such matters will come to their aid; but when it comes to taking revenge, men think they can gain advantage by setting those laws aside, rather than leaving them in force in case they find themselves in danger at some time and need their protection’.

Trump feeds on revenge. But when it comes to making hatred the point of your existence, it is not only ancient Greeks who suggest that this might not be such a good idea after all.

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