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Honor, Worth, and Justified Revenge in Aristotle


According to Aristotle there may be times when the virtuous person is justified in taking revenge. Many commentators claim that revenge, on Aristotle’s account, aims at restoring the honor and reputation of the avenger, but I will show that this cannot be why the virtuous person seeks revenge. I argue, instead, that the virtuous person seeks revenge when she is slighted in order to prove her worth. Aristotle claims that we slight those we think are neither good nor bad nor capable of producing good or bad things. Although the virtuous person will ignore most slights, Aristotle thinks there may be times when even a virtuous person will have to take revenge in order to prove her worth, not because she is insecure or requires honors, but because she cannot function to the best of her abilities within her society if those she interacts with fail to recognize her worth.

I first drafted this chapter during my 2015–2016 sabbatical, which was supported in part by a Loeb Classical Library Foundation Fellowship. The paper was greatly improved by comments from participants of the Philosophy Colloquium at The State University of New York at Albany (October 28, 2016). I am also grateful to Jeremy Reid and Julie Tannenbaum for their incredibly insightful comments on a version of this paper that I presented at the Pacific APA 2018. Finally, I am indebted to Paula Gottlieb, Marta Jimenez, John Kekes, Susan Sauvé Meyer, Carissa Phillips-Garrett, and Leo Zaibert for their helpful comments on different versions of this chapter. Any mistakes remain mine alone.

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  1. 1.

    My main goal in this chapter is to argue for a particular interpretation of Aristotle that, as far as I know, has not been considered before. While it is worth evaluating both his descriptive and normative claims on the nature and ethics of anger and revenge, there is simply not enough space in this chapter to do so. Therefore, my focus will be to get clear on what I take to be Aristotle’s justification for revenge without endorsing or rejecting those views.

  2. 2.

    All translations of Aristotle are mine with some guidance from W.D. Ross (Nicomachean Ethics) and W. Rhys Roberts (Rhetoric) in Barnes ed. (1984).

  3. 3.

    Thumos is the other Greek word that is often translated as anger. Giles Pearson (2012, Chapter 5) argues that thumos and orgē are synonymous, but I think there is good reason to resist such an interpretation. Although I cannot argue for the position in this chapter, I think thumos is broader than orgē, which Aristotle uses narrowly to refer only to a desire for revenge. For this reason, the textual evidence I use from Aristotle focuses on passages where he talks about orgē, not thumos.

  4. 4.

    Nossiter, Adam. (2014, May 11). In Town of Missing Girls, Sorrow, but Little Progress. New York Times, p. A1. Retrieved from; Dickerson, Caitlin. (2018, September 12). Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever. New York Times, p. A18. Retrieved from

  5. 5.

    While I do not have time in this chapter to present Aristotle’s account of emotion, which has been debated over the past few decades, it is worth mentioning here that for Aristotle what differentiates one kind of emotion from another has to do with what the emotion is about. Some commentators, such as Martha Nussbaum (1996), argue that emotions are kinds of beliefs that may or may not be accompanied by feelings of pleasure or pain, for Aristotle. I do not take such a strong view. While I do think that emotions are differentiated based on their content, I do not think that Aristotle is committed to a doxastic view of emotion. See Scheiter (2012). For further discussion on Aristotle’s account of emotion see also Cooper (1996), Dow (2015), Leighton (1996), Moss (2012), Pearson (2014), Price (2010), Striker (1996).

  6. 6.

    He defines pity as “pain at some apparent harm, either destructive or painful, that befalls an undeserving person, which one might expect either himself or some of those close to him to suffer, and whenever this harm appears to be near” (Rh. II.9, 1385b13-16). Conversely, he defines nemesis as “pain at unmerited good fortune” (Rh. II.9, 1386b9).

  7. 7.

    Konstan (2006) points out that the stem for the Greek word oligōria is oligos, which means “small” or “few,” suggesting “a lessening or belittlement” (45).

  8. 8.

    On Aristotle’s account, both bad and good characters would have intrinsic worth. To say that something or someone has intrinsic worth does not automatically mean that it is good.

  9. 9.

    Aristotle does not appear to be committed to the strong claim that the slighter must think the person being slighted has no worth whatsoever, either intrinsically or instrumentally. Rather he seems to be making the somewhat weaker claim that we slight only those who are worthless to us. We could, for instance, slight someone we think is a good father, thereby recognizing his intrinsic and instrumental worth to his children, but if it does not matter to us, then we may not see him as having worth we care about. Thanks to Julie Tannenbaum for this point.

  10. 10.

    The slighter may receive other benefits from slighting others as a consequence of his slight, but the point is that the slight is not motivated by these other gains.

  11. 11.

    Of course, we could act condescendingly towards someone because we are tired or feeling irritable and not because we think the person is worthless, in which case the action would not be a slight even if it appears to be a slight to the person we are being condescending towards. In such a case, we only appear to slight the person or treat the person with contempt. The recipient of our condescension may feel slighted, but no slight has actually occurred even though we nevertheless acted badly.

  12. 12.

    Aristotle is very careful here to say that forgetfulness can cause us to become angry because it seems to be a sign of negligence. But it is not entirely clear if he thinks that forgetfulness constitutes an actual slight. In order for it to be an actual slight forgetfulness would have to be voluntary and it is not clear whether or not Aristotle thinks we can voluntarily forget someone’s name.

  13. 13.

    Thanks to Phillips-Garrett for helping me get clearer on what exactly the slighter achieves when she slights another.

  14. 14.

    See also Konstan (2006).

  15. 15.

    Many contemporary commentators find it surprising that megalopsychia is a virtue. For a defense of megalopsychia see Curzer 1991.

  16. 16.

    Thanks to Phillips-Garrett for pushing me on this point.

  17. 17.

    Also see Leighton (2002), who argues against Stocker and Hegeman’s claim that Aristotle’s angry man is narcissistic.

  18. 18.

    I first started thinking about these three conditions that constitutes an act of revenge in a very short paper, “Aristotle on the Purpose of Revenge,”, I presented at the 2010 conference on Revenge in Oxford, UK and has since been published in Best Served Cold: Studies in Revenge (Sheila C. Bibb and Daniel Escandell Montiel (eds.))

  19. 19.

    Of course, legal recourse is not the only way in which Aristotle thinks we can seek vengeance. Revenge can, and perhaps often does, take place outside a court of law.

  20. 20.

    Aristotle does say that we may take pleasure in deserved suffering (Rhetoric II.9, 1386b26-29). So even if we are not the cause of the offender’s suffering we may feel pleased, but we will not feel like we have achieved vengeance. Revenge is only one of many ways in which we may calm down from our anger (see Rhetoric II.3, 1380b2-33).

  21. 21.

    If we imagine ourselves seeking revenge, but know that we could never actually get revenge no matter how badly we wanted to we would presumably not feel pleasure, on his account, but rather pain at our inability to get what we desire.

  22. 22.

    When the virtuous person seeks revenge, she will be acting virtuously and so those who see her seek revenge and know that her actions are virtuous will also see her action as a sign of her intrinsic worth, since they recognize that her actions are an expression of her virtue. The person who has slighted her, however, will probably not be able to see her act of revenge as a virtuous action. Presumably a person who slights the virtuous person is not very good at distinguishing between virtuous and vicious actions. But all that is needed for revenge to be effective is that it forces the offender to see her instrumental worth.

  23. 23.

    See also Jimenez (2018), 162–16.


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Scheiter, K.M. (2022). Honor, Worth, and Justified Revenge in Aristotle. In: Satne, P., Scheiter, K.M. (eds) Conflict and Resolution: The Ethics of Forgiveness, Revenge, and Punishment. Springer, Cham.

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