An Eye for an Eye by William Ian Miller Cambridge University Press, 278 pages, $28
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" is not a principle of punishment-or, at least, it was not originally. As William Ian Miller shows in An Eye for an Eye, the lex talionis, or law of retaliation, was first and foremost a principle of compensation, a rule that applied to both intentional and accidental harms. By clearing up this common misconception, he wishes not only to rescue the talion from its barbaric reputation but also to show that, in some respects, it was positively humane.
A professor of law at the University of Michigan whose previous books concerned topics as disparate as courage, disgust, and Icelandic blood feuds, Miller here offers an "antitheory of justice," a concrete, unsystematic look at how people historically have perceived and achieved justice through revenge. To the extent that there is a unifying theme in this meandering but fascinating essay, it is that the mercantile diction of obligation-of payback and owning up, of settling accounts and obtaining redemption-cuts to the heart of our deepest intuitions about right and wrong. So, too, does the closely related language of measurement and valuation. We speak of making whole, sizing up, getting even, meting out-all of which Miller takes as evidence that corrective justice is fundamentally about restoring balance, of evening the scales. He shows that even our grammatical discourse, as in "even now" or "just awoke," contains an implicit conception of morality. Miller is clearly entranced by what he takes to be the near magical significance of words and their history, and he is disappointed when an etymology is not what he would wish it to be.
Underlying his method is the assumption that a moral framework can be embedded in ordinary language. By studying our speech, he hopes to reveal the metaphors we live by. The biblical talion, Miller emphasizes, is nothing if not powerful rhetoric. Although the essence of the same principle is seen in earlier legal texts, such as the Code of Hammurabi, it is only in the Bible that the law of retaliation is found in its crystalline form. Chilling and fearsome is its cadence: "Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." Although later in the Torah two slightly altered versions appear (the last of which, he admits, pertains to punishment), it is significant that both include eyes and teeth. Indeed, by the time Jesus refers to it, the talion had reached its most famous, lapidary form of just eyes and teeth. Why these two particular body parts? Miller speculates that their pairing juxtaposes that of great value with that of small, as well as the soft and vulnerable with the hard and sharp. Both are also sensuous, on the face, and easily plucked or extracted. Most important, however, both possess clear boundaries.
Having recognizable boundaries is essential since, in Miller’s view, the talion is about measuring out accurate compensation. He offers ample evidence that human bodies and body parts were used as payment and collateral in the ancient world. Thus it was not always figurative to pay an arm and a leg or to demand one’s pound of flesh. One of Miller’s most penetrating observations is that the talion humanely created an effective initial bargaining position out of fellow-feeling: If I come to take your eye in payment for your having taken mine, I will be able to demand the amount of money you are willing to pay to keep yours. That price should be a just one, since the value you ascribe to your imagined pain and loss should roughly equal the actual harm already done to me. In addition to these functions, instituting the talion also had the benefit of bringing the poor under the ambit of the law by giving them assets with which to satisfy claims. Though it may sound paradoxical at first, giving the poor the ability to be sued made them better off, for no one wants to do business with the judgment-proof.
Another generally unrecognized consequence of the talion is that it makes accidental harms costly, probably even overly so. Against Gandhi’s retort that an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind (which, oddly, is not mentioned in the book), Miller would note that, in a talionic society, rational people are actually likely to be incredibly careful when it comes to other people’s eyes and teeth. This idea was taken to its logical extreme in the striking case of medieval Icelandic law, which stated, "There shall be no such thing as accidents." In fact, Miller contends the inordinate cost of accidents in talionic societies discouraged risky but productive behavior and, hence, is what tended to keep them poor.
Although history is murky as to when and where people first stopped literally applying the talion, it is a particularly intriguing question as to whether it was a dead letter in ancient Israel. After all, we see no actual eyes or teeth paid over in the Bible, and the prohibition (found in Numbers) on accepting satisfaction in the case of homicide or manslaughter suggests that, at that time, compensation already tended to be favored over actual body parts. Thus, Miller thinks it was by no means a stretch for the early rabbis to have interpreted the talion as permitting only money as compensation.
While the intimate connection between compensation and the law of retaliation is an essential element in Miller’s study, he also emphasizes that talionic societies tended to be honor cultures. A central feature of these cultures was that they ranked people ruthlessly: The Norse called it "man-comparing." Such societies conceptualized honor in terms of debt and credit, and they considered taking revenge to be the optimal form of recompense. Yet even when monetary compensation was available (which at least bought a temporary respite from cycles of violence), it is curious that payback in blood tended to be preferred. The Vikings, for instance, sneered at those who "carried their kin in their purse."
Miller attributes this preference for blood largely to the aesthetic component of revenge. Justice is most satisfying when it is properly poetic. It was Homer himself who observed that revenge is sweet. From the Odyssey to Beowulf to Dirty Harry, the universal popularity of revenge fantasies points to the psychical satisfaction they provide. In one of the highlights of the book, Miller surveys various cultures’ tastes in revenge and finds general agreement that ideal avenging requires the passage of time, but otherwise there is widespread disagreement over whether it is a dish best served hot or cold, publicly or privately, for the sake of teaching a lesson or merely to cause bafflement. While emphasizing the importance of the aesthetics of revenge, Miller finds it highly significant that many revenge myths contain implicit warnings about taking the aesthetics too far. This is even a recurring theme in the James Bond movies-the villains’ desire to humiliate and kill Bond in a complicated, excessive manner inevitably backfires.
Despite admitting that, like other academics, he is too much of a coward to have succeeded in these honor cultures, Miller is not afraid to confess his admiration for what he calls their talent for justice. Honor cultures allowed men to fulfill their natural desire for revenge while still restraining its exercise within manageable limits. Miller takes it as self-evident that members of honor cultures felt greater satisfaction with the results of their justice system than we do, and he implicitly takes this as evidence of their moral skill. Unlike us lazy, unimaginative moderns, who relegate perfect justice to art or the afterlife, members of honor cultures sought and achieved it in the real world.
Partly out of a wish to pater les professeurs (he confesses that the book is his small revenge on complacent academic moralizers) and partly due to his thirty-year immersion in the study of Icelandic blood feuds, Miller is far too sanguine when evaluating honor cultures. He clearly admires medieval Iceland, but, even if it was as functional and orderly as he claims, its example alone (and it was an unusually sophisticated honor culture) does not belie the conventional wisdom that revenge is a dangerous force unless severely constrained. Likewise, he shows insufficient concern for the well-being of those of low status in honor cultures: those-such as widows, orphans, and the poor-who, he concedes, were not even permitted to play the "honor game." Their only hope for justice lay in God the Redeemer-and thus it was an epochal moment when Jesus counseled us to turn the other cheek in response to an insulting slap, for his act represents the utter rejection of honor-culture values.
But Miller likely does not intend his sweeping generalizations to be taken too seriously. Indeed, that he occasionally plays fast and loose with his language (for instance, in one place he writes that "talionic cultures tended to be honor cultures," in another that "talionic cultures were invariably honor cultures") reminds us that this is not a work of moral philosophy but a meditative essay. And by the standards of that genre-which readers turn to for insight, not rigor, for the stimulation of thought rather than conclusions-he thoroughly succeeds.
Justin Shubow is a student at Yale Law School.
Ambrose’s Patriarchs: Ethics for the Common Man by Marcia L. Colish University of Notre Dame Press, 208 pages, $15 (paper)
Unless one is a regular and diligent reader of the Pentateuch, the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis are known chiefly through vignettes: Abraham and Sarah learning they would have a son in old age, Isaac being led to sacrifice by his father Abraham, Jacob depriving his brother Esau of his birthright, Joseph resisting the blandishments of Potiphar’s wife. Yet the tales of the patriarchs in the book of Genesis offer rich narratives of individual lives, fuller than those of most other biblical heroes save the great kings of Israel. Ambrose seems to have been one of the few early Christian teachers to realize the potential of these stories for moral instruction, and Marcia Colish, professor emeritus of history at Oberlin, is the first scholar to grasp what can be made for modern readers of Ambrose’s four treatises on the patriarchs. The result is an original and suggestive book. She shows that Ambrose chose the patriarchs as subjects for exegetical talks (following the order of the text of Genesis) to catechumens who were soon to be baptized. In contrast to his other ethical treatises that focus on such specifics as vocations, virginity, and priesthood, these were addressed to men and women who were married, breadwinners, parents, and active in civic affairs. To introduce them to their new way of life, Ambrose chose models they could emulate and about whose deeds he could speak in specifics, not simply appeal to general principles or precepts. The message is that virtue is acquired over time and the path to a mature moral life is gradual and incremental. Colish’s insight is that in these treatises Ambrose present an ethics for the common man, a morality for faithful Christians who live in the world. This is not the conventional picture of Ambrose, but Colish knows what she is about, and her new book sheds a fresh beam of light on a beloved early Christian bishop.
-Robert Louis Wilken
Who Owns the Bible? Toward the Recovery of a Christian Hermeneutic by Karl Donfried Herder & Herder, 176 pages, $19.95
A spirited inquiry into contemporary Biblical interpretation, Who Owns the Bible? examines tendentious methods of reading the Bible in many of the mainline churches-which resulted in the introduction of an "alien hermeneutic" (that compromises the more rigorous demands of Christianity with a less judgmental "theology of inclusion") and a weakening of densely textured articles of faith in favor of an affirmation of the Triune God as simply "a God of love." By avoiding the difficult task of discovering how that love is to be worked out in the moral life, much of current mainline thinking falls prey to various forms of relativism. And, in the end, what the churches offer the modern world are various forms of "cheap grace" that Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized. Inclusive theologies have a difficult time with the high demands the Bible places on the believer; the Pauline maxim that one should work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling no longer has much resonance. Almost half the book is spent on how the Gospel of Matthew and the Pauline letters depict the moral life. The key points of departure are the way Matthew understands discipleship and Paul depicts justification. In both, Donfried sees the need to balance the electing hand of God that calls the Christian to enter the Kingdom with the gradual training in the life of virtue. On this view, justification by faith does not rule out good works; indeed, "good works" are the fruits of the spirit that will mark one’s life as transformed on the day of judgment. Salvation, in this view, is not an accomplished fact here and now. As Paul develops the concept, it must be understood as a radically eschatological affair that is solely in the hands of God. To be saved at the last judgment, one must hold fast to one’s faith and new life in Christ. To speak of being saved right now (as evangelical idiom is fond of putting the matter) is an error in theological grammar. There is also an extended discussion of what a biblical approach to the problem of homosexuality might look like. It was a bit surprising that no mention was made of Richard Hays’ contributions on this subject, since his approach is both well known and quite similar to that of Donfried.
-Gary A. Anderson
Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics by Elizabeth Campbell Corey University of Missouri Press, 253 pages, $39.95
American interest in Michael Oakeshott’s work has been steadily increasing over the past decade, with the appearance of a significant number of dissertations, essays, and monographs on his work. Much of this is attributable to a group of remarkable younger scholars, such as Elizabeth Corey of Baylor University. Oakeshott was the leading British political philosopher of the twentieth century. His analysis of Hobbes, his skeptical conservatism, his critiques of arationalism and ideology, and his theory of civil association and the rule of law are the most widely known and discussed elements of his thought. Now, with access to his notebooks and papers in the library of the London School of Economics, analyses of his ideas on religion and aesthetics have also begun to proliferate. An expert on these aspects of his thought, Corey introduces comparisons of, for example, Oakeshott’s critique of arationalism with Eric Voegelin’s critiques of agnosticism. This is a welcome extension of the terrain in which Oakeshott’s (and Voegelin’s) work is perceived. Oakeshott was a man of romantic spirit with an unconventional but deeply felt religious sensibility. He was a philosopher realistic about the human condition, but one discerns the poetic spirit in his prose that often transfigures the quotidian without disguising it. Oakeshott thought that preoccupation with politics is a mistake: Politics is to keep the ship afloat so that we are free to pursue the meaning of life elsewhere. Corey captures this with clarity and lucidity. A most worthy contribution.
Conversations with Poppi About God by Robert W. Jenson and Solveig Lucia Gold Brazos, 160 pages, $18.99
One of our favorite theologians responds to questions by his grand-daughter about the really big things. Our editor in chief, who is also the girl’s godfather, says this on the dust jacket: "Eight-year-old theologians are not so rare as we might think, but few have a theologian grandfather with the patience and learning to appreciate their profundity. Readers will thank Solveig and Poppi for their winsome engagement with the surprising simplicity of Christian wisdom." Father Neuhaus says he stands by that.
By a Slow River by Philippe Claudel Knopf, 208 pages, $23
Set in a French village close to, but tenuously protected from, the trench warfare of World War I, this relentlessly desolate story of murder, loneliness, the petty abuse of power, and general human beastliness will be relished by those few who share the narrator’s (and author’s?) belief that life is a series of tragedies to be remedied, however unsatisfactorily, by death and, if necessary, by suicide.