Nietzsche on Revenge, Justice, and Punishment

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Friedrich Nietzsche. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What is Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of revenge? How does he explain justice, punishment, and revenge?

On revenge, Nietzsche’s philosophy can be understood, in part, by exploring his philosophical work Thus Spoke Zarathustra. According to the novel, concepts like justice and punishment are just euphemisms for revenge.

Keep reading to learn more about Nietzsche’s philosophy of revenge, based on Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche’s Philosophy of Revenge

No matter how resolutely you take the initiative to direct your own life, sometimes things that you don’t want to happen still happen because other people cause them. In Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the protagonist Zarathustra explores what happens when others offend your “will to power” and the tendency to take revenge. On revenge, Nietzsche uses Zarathustra to expound his philosophy, claiming that most people mistake revenge for justice.

How Free Will & Revenge Are Related

According to Nietzsche’s philosophy, revenge and free will are closely related. When something happens that you didn’t want, your free will becomes frustrated because, while it can shape the future, it can’t change the past. For example, suppose you decide to take a vacation at a beach-front resort in another country. But the taxi driver who’s supposed to take you from the airport to the resort instead takes you out into the jungle and robs you, taking your money, identification, and passport. After he disappears, you feel angry and frustrated—this is not what you had in mind when you planned your vacation. 

Zarathustra says that when this happens, the only way to truly resolve the problem is to convince yourself that what happened was what you wanted after all. You can’t change the past, but you can change what you want, both for the future and in the past. In our example, maybe you learned some jungle survival skills and made friends with some locals who helped you get home. In hindsight, you’re actually glad it happened because you ended up building valuable relationships, feeling more self-reliant, and having a much better story to tell your grandchildren than if your vacation had gone as planned.

(Shortform note: In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama asserts that human suffering is caused by hatred, cravings, or other negative thoughts and feelings. He further asserts that because the cause of suffering is internal, you can overcome your suffering by changing your perspective: If you learn to view the difficulties that your enemies cause you as opportunities to grow in character, building tolerance and kindness toward them, you will no longer suffer as a result of what they’ve done to you. This tends to complement Zarathustra’s perspective, reinforcing the idea that you can let go of frustration over the past by changing how you feel about past events.)

Why Most People Seek Revenge

However, in Nietzsche’s novel, Zarathustra observes that many people don’t do this. Instead, they seek revenge. In Zarathustra’s view, concepts like justice and punishment are just euphemisms for revenge, and government institutions that enforce “justice” are just facilitating revenge. Zarathustra sees no value in taking revenge and believes that ceasing from revenge (and from enforcing justice) will be a significant milestone in human evolution.

So, if someone wrongs you, according to Nietzsche, the best thing you can do is not seek revenge but convince both yourself and the person who wronged you that what they did actually benefited you. For example, if they did something that caused you hardship, maybe enduring the hardship made you stronger. And the second-best thing you can do, according to Zarathustra, is to retaliate in kind. Nietzsche’s novel describes this as competing with the person who wronged you, which to him is different than taking revenge. 

(Shortform note: The idea of retaliation without revenge in Nietzsche’s novel may sound self-contradictory, but we can infer from Zarathustra’s discussion that the difference lies in the motive. Revenge seeks to right the wrongs of the past, which he sees as a counterproductive motive because you can’t change the past. But competitive behavior seeks to change the future in a way that makes the future better for you than for whoever you’re competing against. So, if someone stole money from you, taking her to court and demanding justice would be revenge because you’re motivated by the desire to undo the past. But stealing your money back with interest would just be competition because you’re aiming to improve your future.)

Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer on Revenge

Comparing Nietzsche’s philosophy of revenge to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer shows us that they arrived at remarkably similar conclusions from diametrically opposite viewpoints. Like Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer lived in Germany, and both of them criticized the Christian church. But where Zarathustra advocated abandoning the Christian religion, Bonhoeffer advocated restoring it. 

When Bonhoeffer outlined what practicing true Christianity should look like in The Cost of Discipleship, abstaining from revenge was one of his key points. He argued that revenge is what allows evil to reproduce, so abstaining from revenge allows evil to die. (Unlike Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer believed strongly in objective good and evil.) 

So if someone wrongs you and you seek to right the wrong, either by taking her to court or by taking the law into your own hands, your revenge only perpetuates the wrong that was done. The only way to stop the evil, according to Bonhoeffer, is to accept what was done to you cheerfully and forgive the person who wronged you.

So despite their stark disagreements, Bonhoeffer and Nietzsche both advise you to accept the past as it is and refrain from seeking revenge or “justice” by earthly means. However, where Nietzsche does condone competitive retaliation, at least in some cases, Bonhoeffer sees all forms of retaliation as revenge.
Nietzsche on Revenge, Justice, and Punishment

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Friedrich Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Thus Spoke Zarathustra summary:

  • Friedrich Nietzsche's views about life and philosophy
  • How you should live if you want to participate in the advancement of humankind
  • Why you should never let others do something for you that you can do yourself

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.