At an extension class in Philosophy that I attended at UCLA a while back, I learned something that is my favorite kind of thing to learn: a fact or idea so “I never knew that” that it changes my entire way looking at things. (This in a nutshell is why, despite my better judgment, I continue watching cable news – in hopes that I will be illuminated by an insight I did not previously possess. I am not sure how long I’ve been watching cable news, but to date, if “illumination” were measured like “batting average”, I would long since have been designated to the low minor leagues, or, more likely, been given my outright release from the game. I have not learned a thing.)
What I learned in Extension Philosophy concerned a precept from the Bible I imagine everyone is familiar with:
“An eye for an eye.”
What I gleaned from the considerably-earlier-in-my-education Toronto Hebrew Day School interpretation of this precept was that “An eye for an eye” meant “balancing the books.” Somebody knocks your eye out, you are entitled, and should feel in no way bad about, knocking their eye out.
This may sound barbaric (especially for those of us with ocular concerns) but from an Old Testament-era standpoint, it was just. It turns out, however, that, according to my Philosophy professor, the pronouncement was considerably more just than I’d realized.
Apparently, before “An eye for an eye”, injured parties whose eyes had been severely tampered with would retaliate by killing their assailant, in effect, making the equation not “An eye for an eye”, but “Death for an eye.”
It was at this point that the Old Testament intervened, bringing balance and compassion to the hitherto unregulated arena of retributive bloodletting.
“To the Victim:
We realize you are understandably upset about the recent and entirely unjustified removal of your eye, and by the way, our heartfelt condolences. Nobody likes losing an eye. Functioning ‘uni-ocularly’ interferes with your perspective, and makes you walk into trees. Plus, it doesn’t look nice and requires you to wear a patch and be mistaken for a pirate who has lost his way and wound up in a Middle-Eastern desert.
But we are the Bible. And our business – nay, our duty – is to insure that justice and fairness hold sway and dominion upon this land.
“Therefore, we decree that…wait before we decree anything, we need to go on record as opposing all gratuitous eye mutilation whatsoever.
In fact, coming down definitively against gratuitous eye mutilation was actually in the first draft, as a sort of preamble to ‘An eye for an eye’, but it was taken out in editing, because the Bible was getting too long. Besides, there was a faction of our editorial board who believed that the opposition to eye mutilation, like the opposition to, say, urinating down a well, was ‘understood’, and therefore redundant. I myself am not certain, especially in the Age of the Sharp Pointed Stick, that that is actually the case. But, as they say, though not in the Bible, you win some, and you lose some.
“Okay. Where were we? Oh, yes. We are here to tell you, in this insert which you may take as a Biblical commentary – call it, ‘Second Thoughts About What We Put In The Bible’ – that when we – and by ‘we’, I mean God, though if you’re wondering who I am, you may think of me as a Divinely-inspired commentator, I mean this stuff is pouring right out of me, I have no idea where it’s coming from, and ‘from God’ is not an unreasonable assumption.
Okay, so, recapitulating here, and returning to the thread, when the Bible says, ‘An eye for an eye’, our intention is to sanction, not the permission to blind, and certainly not the encouragement to blind, but rather and only to delineate the specific parameters of overall retribution.
“What we are saying is, that when you are, for want of a better description, ‘un-eyed’, the appropriate and only acceptable response is to find the perpetrator, or, if you’re not feeling up to it, or are depressed because you just lost an eye, to dispatch a surrogate to find the perpetrator, and then, not kill the perpetrator – that is entirely too much, as the perpetrator demonstrably did not kill you, so “No” to killing, okay?
Instead, you are permitted only to take their eye out. Call it punishment, call it revenge, call it, “How do you like it, huh, huh!” – you are legally and morally justified to go for it.
“Biblical Law requires that the injurer be injured to the extent that they themselves have injured, and no further! That’s the new idea. And we think it’s a good one.
Future generations may carp, saying, ‘Though it is certainly true that you that have moved the ball forward, you are still, however, supporting poking somebody’s eye out, rather than leaving things to the authorities.’ Let me say only in response, ‘Judge not our times, lest future generations judge your times, and just see how that feels, Mister!’
“We have taken a step in, what we believe, is a decent and moral direction. An eye for an eye, and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be the same eye – we don’t want to overregulate here – but just one. And then you go home. And again this probably goes without saying, but it’s also ‘An ear for a ear’, ‘A nose for a nose’, ‘A chin for a chin’ – I do not know exactly how you ‘de-chin’ someone but leave us cover all our bases – and so on, down ‘a toe for a toe.’
“Not excluding, of course, a life for a life. We are still doing that. We are not revolutionaries. Although sometimes, you execute the wrong person, but what’re you gonna do? It is not a perfect world.
“Okay, so are we clear on this? They take out your eye, you stop at taking out their eye. That’s the Bible talking. Though, generically, it’s the right thing to do. How do I know? Because of the palpable sense of elation we had when we came up with it.
“You arrive at the right precept, you immediately feel better.”
(FULL DISCLOSURE: This was meant to be an introduction for something else. But as sometimes happens, it took on a life of its own. Tomorrow, what today was supposed to introduce:
The promotion of the guillotine as a humane form of execution.