This is the logic of lex talionis

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye did not make it onto T. Greer’s top 10 reads list for 2017, but he did find it quite thought-provoking:

Miller is an unusual creature: part law professor, part medievalist, Miller is equally comfortable discussing ancient Hittite legal decrees, the etymology of old Norse runes, the tropes of Elizabethan Drama, and modern tort law. I suppose if you were to take J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Schelling, a good dose of dead-pan humor, and a pinch of the morbid, and then shook them up together in a bottle, Mr. Miller is the man who would emerge.

Miller’s book looks at the politics of social life (in places like medieval Iceland):

When one man (or one women) meets another calculations begin: how should I treat this person? Are we equals, or is he my social inferior? Or perhaps he is my social superior? How do I let him know what my social status is, and how should I respond if he does not take the hint? Is this person worth an insult? A fight? What are the consequences of letting things slide? What are the consequences of refusing to do so?

Eye for an Eye looks at lex talionis — “the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law”:

This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn’t just a Viking tick. “Eye for an eye” was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou. We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Miller aims to convince us otherwise.

In Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, Miller tells the story of some Norwegian merchants who had chopped off Skæring’s hand and thought the judgment too steep:

“Then I shall make you another proposal,” said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish.”

This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship.


To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand.

This is the logic of lex talionis, T. Greer explains:

This is why “an eye for an eye” did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is “the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations… getting back to zero, to even.” Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence — not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them. This is empathy enforced by blood. You think carefully about the pain you inflict on others knowing, that measure for measure, the pain you give others will be given back to you.

We have a sorry habit thinking about revenge as “as going postal and blasting away,” but as Miller notes, “revenge cultures did not think of it that way.” This is obvious if you read the stories revenge cultures created. Characters in the Icelandic sagas approach murder with the meticulousness of a father inspecting his daughter’s suitor. They conducted their feuds not in the heat of rage, but through cold, calculations. Heroes from revenge plays like The Oresteia cycle or The Orphan of Zhao plan their vengeance months or even years in advance, and when the moment comes often have to be goaded into taking revenge. One gets the sense that these people believed that feuding was utterly necessary but not entirely natural.


  1. Kirk says:

    An acquaintance of mine referred to the practice as “…reminding the universe not to f**k with me or my friends…”, and framed it as a “training event”.

    The way he saw it, if he responded to provocation with overwhelming and entirely excessive force, well… The rest of the universe would get the idea not to give him or his any trouble.

    Seemed to work out, pretty well–I know that the guy who tried raping (unsuccessfully–the young lady beat his ass) his little sister wound up being found one morning mysteriously beaten into a thin paste on his sidewalk. Dude spent most of a month in the hospital, and left town for parts unknown as soon as he was physically able. If I remember right, most of the bones in his body were broken at the joints, and it was a miracle of modern medicine that he could walk again.

    Strangely enough, the podunk police department that had ignored little sister’s complaint became somewhat more attentive to matters like that, afterwards. “Training the universe…”, indeed.

  2. Graham says:

    Reading that long post on Scholars’ Stage is quite educational and, for anyone a student of the bronze/iron ages, mythology or even fantasy literature, quite entertaining.

    If I might paraphrase Star Trek’s Mr Spock in a rather different situation, “I find the checks and balances of this society quite illuminating.”

    If anything one comes away with a stronger sense of the virtues, checks and balances, and even moderation of those systems, set against a clearer idea of the conditions [concentration of economic and military power, reliance on robust kinship] that can very quickly move it from workable to breakdown, and its limits while it is in working order [no justice for the kinless]. That was well-chosen selection and commentary by Greer.

    Few would not thank Apollo for the gift of public justice. It can, in the hands of a society of a particular mind, even support spectacularly harsher penalties than you could get from a talionis system most of the time without testing the latter to destruction. You might really want to see a rope or take a hand but get told by all parties including your kin to take the wergild and cool your jets. A nicely run 18th century English system might give you the rope. Alternatively, as previous postings here showed, it might just brand the guy on the thumb and let him off.

    You can’t win, really. But even so, it’s a useful reminder that the problem for those who think contemporary justice is soft, if it is soft, is not necessarily with the idea of public justice itself, and the solution is not necessarily reintroduction of talionic methods or justifications, even by the backdoor of victim impact. It’s just that public justice reflects the prevailing values of its society and if you don’t like those, you’re stuck in the short term.

  3. Graham says:

    I enjoyed Kirk’s contribution, though.

    There’s something magnificently existentialist about setting out to dictate terms to the universe. That’s how the universe deserves to be treated.

  4. Kirk says:

    The more I see of life, Graham, the more I’m coming to agree with that acquaintance of mine. You want to be left alone? Secure yourself, first.

    You reflect on it all, and I think that the whole grand bargain between men and their social institutions is very akin to the situation with regards to signage on the roads. That Dutch experiment where they removed every sign in a town, and saw simultaneous reduced speeds and far fewer accidents…? That, I think, is very akin to what we’ve done with the law in our society today.

    See, when the results of misbehavior and injury to others is rendered immediately and by way of mob action…? Justice may not always be answered, but I guarantee you that if, instead of CNN broadcasting their interminable wailley-wailley-woe post-shooting “opinions”, you were instead to see the final foot-thrashing death of the shooter at the hands of the mob that ran his ass to ground, disarmed him, and then hung his stupid ass from the nearest tree…? Yeah; I’m pretty sure that enthusiasm for school shootings would see a severe drop-off. Same as for any terrorist action–Care to think what the long-term recruiting results for the Lashkar-e-Taiba assholes would have looked like after Mumbai, if there had been copious video of them dying at the hands of a mob that delivered immediate retribution, instead of deracinated “justice” months or years later…?

    Trust me on this: Remove the hero-worship by the media, and start having these asshats die brutally at the hands of their victims, and I promise you that you’ll have a lot fewer mass school shootings.

    It’s really too bad that there weren’t some of the types of feral humans I grew up around going to school at Virginia Tech where Seung-hui Cho did his little “thing”. Knowing those assholes, they’d have been laying in wait for him with torn-off table legs, and then had someone video them beating Cho to death with him after they ambushed him coming through a door or other choke point. And, that’s assuming they didn’t run to their trucks, get the hunting rifles out, and go hunting “crazy fucks” in the halls. The resulting bloodbath would have been… Instructive. For all concerned.

    I do guarantee you though, that a nutter with a gun getting beaten to death by a couple of enraged rednecked loggers would assuredly be “must see TV” on YouTube, and would have an effect on the mindset of other such potential shooters.

  5. Graham says:


    I tend to agree more with those sentiments than I perhaps used to.

    My particular society is so deathly afraid of that sort of thing, despite being in no danger of it getting out of control, that it would almost certainly penalize the men with the table-legs or the mob of victims as or more severely than the original perpetrator. Anything at all that represents personal or communal self-defense is perceived as far down the slippery slope to Mad Max world of vigilantism.

    As a result, we can only conceptualize a response in terms of, say, disarming the law-abiding, heavily reducing the scope for defense of self or property, or similar measures.

    Somewhere in there is also the desperate need to psychologize the perpetrator, victims, and bystanders in ever more complicated terms. On occasion, to reverse the identification of perpetrator and victim.

    I cannot fully explain it. To also commit the psychologist’s error, perhaps we’d all rather just live in a safety bubble [a might thick one considering even the US is a historically safe society already] than have to even contemplate theoretical responsibility for defense of self or others. I get it- I’d hate to have the make the choice in a shooting situation and have no life experience that would help me to make that choice properly. Still I’d rather have that put before me than have to live the way the majority of Canadians and some large number of Americans seem to aim to live.

    I chuckled at your scenario. I’d watch that video over and over again. I think many Canadians would be driven to hysteria followed by catatonia and consider the guys with the rifles as much a threat as the original shooter.

  6. Kirk says:

    Part of the underlying problem here, Graham, is that we’ve ceded much of public life to the pussies. And, I’m intentionally using that term, to include both the pusillanimous (supposedly the correct source for that particular epithet), and the vaginally-endowed.

    We lost the bubble, about the time we started letting these dubiously wise people to start setting policies in public life. You can trace the rise in this sort of crap back to the period when we foolishly endowed the segment of the population that votes more on emotion than logic the vote. And, it’s all been downhill since, as emotion, pity, and false “understanding” have taken over public life.

    It doesn’t matter what you “feel” about a given subject: What does matter is what you do about it. Witness the idiocy surrounding this latest school shooting–The perpetrator was reported innumerable times to the authorities, who did nothing. Broward County schools actually have a policy of “not reporting” misdeeds on their premises, on the emotional theory that subjecting their criminally liable students to the authorities will “warp” their lives. Well, from where I sit, the shooter needed his life “warped”, and probably with long-term incarceration in a mental institution. But, because the schools took it upon themselves to prevent the adults of society from acting, they reaped the whirlwind.

    You can call it what you like–I’ve heard many decry it as the “feminization” of society, but I’m related to some clearly atypical women who would likely be even more extreme than I in regards to dealing with people like the shooter. The root problem is the happy-clappy emotional approach to dealing with issues like mental instability and criminality. I don’t believe in “hug-a-thug” as a cure, since that has never worked in my experience. What has worked? Percussive aversion therapy, otherwise known as the “beat the shit out of them” approach. To my certain knowledge, that path has solved quite a few “interpersonal relationship issues”, ranging from bullying to spousal abuse. It’s amazing how much more permanent and efficacious the application of brute force to a thug can turn out to be, rather than trying to influence their “higher natures”. To paraphrase the Texans, “…some men (and, women…) just need their asses beat…”. Or, in extreme cases, killing.

  7. Graham says:

    Many Americans keep saying they’d like to immigrate to Canada, usually giving me an attack of nausea at the thought.

    I’d be glad to have you, though I can’t recommend it to you as a life choice.

  8. Kirk says:

    I’d fit into Canadian society about like a square block would fit into a round hole — badly. Even the Canadian Forces guys and girls I met over the years, who were really nice folks…? I don’t think we saw eye-to-eye on most issues. I’m a pragmatist, and if something doesn’t work, I quit doing it. And, I quit paying lip service to it.

    While a lot of the Canadians I’ve met agree with me on a lot of basic things, the vast majority were married to the “politically correct” viewpoint that the majority consensus supported. They might agree with me on there being specific issues with things, but the overall thrust…? Oh, no, we can’t have an opinion that isn’t approved by the consensus. Not ever; not at all.

    It’s a lot like the UK, from what I’ve seen: the culture is damn near Japanese, in terms of conformity to consensus, which once you notice it, it is pretty damn disturbing. I like Canada and Canadians, but I’d never be able to really live there and feel at home. The whole country’s culture is very reminiscent of the monoculture that’s taken over US academia, and I frankly just don’t feel at home immersed in it.

    Although, to be quite honest, it’s getting more and more that way here in the US, as well.

  9. Graham says:

    I think you’ve nailed it pretty well, and there’s a degree [like the UK] to which it was always more like that than the US ever was, although once upon a time the Canadian and British consensuses were closer to the way I think than is true today. I mind both the groupthink and the specific content, so it gets pretty wearing at times.

    Although I do remind myself that a lot of the specific content of PC originated on the American university campus and made its way here. We were fertile soil, to be sure, but the plague originates to the south.

    Many times I reflect that progressive Americans are and have their own kind of American exceptionalism and they want to spread it around the world, too. They’re succeeding. The reflected glory, military achievements and policies of an older America actually cleared the way for them in the hearts and minds of millions around the world. There’s a price for everything.

  10. Mike says:

    Kirk says: “It’s a lot like the UK, from what I’ve seen: the culture is damn near Japanese, in terms of conformity to consensus, which once you notice it, it is pretty damn disturbing”

    Speaking as an Englishmen that seems like a good enough comparison. I’ve typically thought of Canada as middle-class (quiet, restrained, polite) like England and the US as working class (loud, assertive, confident); each with their own pro’s and cons.

    There’s a model called the Lewis Model of Culture that compares cultures around the world and plots them on a three-axis (?) chart. Funnily enough Canada is close to Japan in terms of the culture, as per your remark. (IDK if Isegoria has posted about it before, I might well have picked it up from this website).

    Here’s a webpage with a graphic and description of the Lewis Model:

  11. Kirk says:


    I think there’s something to the theory an Englishman once told me, which was that the UK had basically committed suicide by forcing all the “troublemakers” out. All the creative animus left with them, and that left behind a nation of, as he put it, “self-satisfied smug little jobsworthies”.

    I don’t think I need to mention this guy was an expat, do I?

    I doubt I could dig up the actual data to prove his thesis, but it does kind of ring true… My question about all this sort of thing boils down to “just how much damn influence do our genes have on behavior and culture, anyway…?”. You look at where my paternal ancestors came from, up on the western border of Scotland and England, and you find that there was a long period of relative placid peacefulness, and then, as the phrase goes about Russia, “…it got worse…”. After the Great Famine that started in 1315, that region went from relative placidity to outright insanity, in terms of lawlessness and sheer mind-numbing thumb-your-nose-at-the-authorities anarchy. One might, just might, posit some sort of methylated switch in the genome that responded to the famine and surrounding conditions, taking the general population of the region from “humble tillers of the soil” to “border reivers”. And, one should also note that after the amalgamation of Scotland and England, a lot of those folks were cleared out and shipped to “the Colonies”, where they later committed grand theft continent on the English Crown. The borderlands also calmed down a hell of a lot…

    I have always felt that there was something concrete behind this idea, and everything I saw of Europe and the UK’s other colonial efforts convince me that there’s some factual basis to the whole idea. Americans are basically the world’s dispossessed and troublemakers, who wound up in charge of enough in the way of resources to actually be a major problem to their original homes. When you contemplate the sheer number of moderate Germans who came here, wanting nothing to do with Prussian militarism, and who wound up putting the boot to the Third Reich…? You really start to wonder if maybe shipping all their troublemakers over here was that good an idea. A German I know makes a well-reasoned case that the US serving as a pressure-relief valve actually enabled much of the Wilhelmine insanity, and left the general population of Germany to consist mainly of conformist militarists…

    Immigration often has as much effect on the home populations as it does on the out-population the immigrants join. We got the troublemakers, and the homelands got all the conformists. How well this will work out, long term? No idea, but I can about guarantee you that the Mexican oligarchy in power today will rue their brilliant little idea of using the US as their pressure-relief valve for poverty and troublemaking, because those Mexicans who’ve lived in the US aren’t going to tolerate the BS back home, when they return. You can already see signs of this…

  12. Mike says:

    Kirk said:

    I doubt I could dig up the actual data to prove his thesis, but it does kind of ring true… My question about all this sort of thing boils down to “just how much damn influence do our genes have on behavior and culture, anyway…?”

    You’re probably aware of the biologst Peter Frost who has actually written on this matter to some extent. He’s studied the criminal record of the UK over the past several hundred years and made a chart of the number of people executed for capital offences (murder basically), and he’s found out that the number of capital offences has dropped considerably since the Middle Ages. His conclusion was that it was down to removal of (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘troublesome genes’ ( (~13 minute youtube: So it seems like you’re friends hypothesis might be correct.

    Though to be fair, I think this is a problem of civilisation rather than just a European or English problem. If you look at the effect of domeestication on both plant and animal species it becomes clearly evident that domesticated creatures are basically more feminine. They are docile, softer, have a higher percent of body fat and so on. Even domesticated plant species are radically different to their wild ancestors (and I would argue more feminine because of their higher moisture content). So it could be argued that a strong component of civilization is about humans auto-domesticating themselves. We are just living through the latter stages of that process and are becoming aware of the effects that is having on individuals and groups like England, like dealing with the proverbial smug jobsworths.

    I like your thoughts on Mexico. It’ll be interesting to see how Mexico and the South-West USA change politically over the coming generation, especially when you throw a huge wad of drugs money into the mix. What happens when the violent criminal gangs are making more money than the police/paramilitary who are supposed to combat them?

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