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Horney, K. (1948). The Value of Vindictiveness. Am. J. Psychoanal., 8(1):3-12.

(1948). American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 8(1):3-12

The Value of Vindictiveness

Karen Horney, M.D.

There is a passage in the Bible that has puzzled me for a long time. In his letters to the Romans, Paul says: “Avenge not thyself; vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay.” We understand that God will repay and does repay, indeed. In terms of psychological laws: the consequences of our pretenses, our egocentricity, or whatever faulty attitude, invariably come home to roost. Contrary to neurotic expectations we do not “get by” with the wrong solutions of our inner conflicts. But why the explicit warnings against revenge? Is it another way of asking us to offer the other cheek? No, we can hardly discard it that easily. We feel a deeper wisdom in it that is important for all our lives.

Another question arises: does it not mean asking the impossible? Are not impulses to get back for injuries done universal? Are they not even culturally sanctioned in many civilizations? In Japan, for instance, elaborate rules exist for restoring injured pride by retaliatory measures. But there is another way of looking at such institutions. While they implicitly acknowledge the general existence of needs to retaliate, they also take these needs psychologically out of the hands of an individual by rendering them a civic duty. In this sense they rather confirm the principle expressed in the Bible.

And finally: does it not clear the air if we express a vindictive anger? Do we not thereby forestall the danger of piling up resentment? Is it not, on the contrary, harmful to repress such impulses? Have we not all heard of the beneficial effect in therapy of “liberating aggressiveness?” Sure enough, to repress vindictiveness is harmful.

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