Retribution is an important ethical issue relevant to an ethos of eremitism. By definition, retribution is a paying back, a compensation, an eye for an eye, an equivalence of “insult.” But on a social and ethical spectrum, retribution is nothing less than the claimed right to equalize perceived imbalance, and is the basis of what is called “justice.” The nature of retribution is at odds with the depicted expressions of this spectrum:

revenge –> retribution –> justice

Revenge is negative compensation dominated by emotion. Revenge was the earliest behavior suppressed by the group, for the sake of the group and social order. Thus, in the scriptural Decalogue, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” forbade vengeance taken up by an individual or clan member in favor of decision-making by the authorities of the clan. The commandment did not forbid killing of enemies of the clan, of outsiders — only of members. The extraordinary power of the Roman paterfamilias was gradually transfer to political authorities. And when a clan member wronged another in Northern Europe until late in the Middle Ages, feuds and blood-killings were unchecked until stronger authority seized the mechanisms of power. Revenge as a right or prerogative was transferred from the individual and the family to the clan and, ultimately, to the state.

Whether conceived as social contract or coercion of the state, the transformation of revenge to retribution was a historical transition. Where authority compensated for crime, the motive was not vengeance because ostensibly authority is oblique and disinterested in the emotional aspects of the original act and the sorrows of the offended kin. The motive of the authority was to compensate or rectify a societal imbalance, an offense to order. A purely monetary compensation was the historical code. In Germanic law, weregild assigned a monetary value to the slain. A peasant or serf was worth little. A bishop was worth a great deal. The system reinforced order of a sort, based on the privilege of the victim.

Eventually authorities recognized that such a system was not a sufficient retribution or equalization in theory or practice, and embraced both a harsher retribution and a loftier motive. The harsher retribution was capital punishment. Capital punishment rather than weregild equalized the victim but more specifically equalized the perceived balance or retribution offered by the authority. Hence “an eye for an eye” was more clearly symmetrical and appealing from the point of view of the authorities if not to kin in the resolution of crime or passion.

The loftier motive was an inevitable mechanism in authority’s justifying its power to make blanket social decisions once reserved to individuals, families and clans. A concept of retribution was inadequate to an authority that had historically abused its power while simultaneously regulating power and abuse among its members. Power reserved to itself the old prerogatives, but retribution does not adequately cover the motives of power. These motives reduce to revenge and the reservation to authority to create disorder and chaos, abuse and punishment, within its own autonomous sphere. As this sphere grew, the weighty need for explication emerged among the intelligentsia. Hence the notion of justice emerged. Hence, too, the just war theory.

Justice is moral justification for power, or, rather, how the powerful explain the motive of their actions. These actions are the exercise of power — not the exercise of virtue, creativity, conviviality, or harmony.

Justice and justification thus become circular: power is just because it exists; power exists legitimately to the degree that it is just. The exercise of power is just because the existence of power is just. When authority intervenes in society (its own or another), its motive is considered impartial and balanced if it is just, but it takes upon itself power to coerce and punish deviations of order when it perceives threats to power. Threats to power are not necessarily threats to individuals or groups — they are foremost threats to the powerful. An entire apparatus of force is created as the enforcers of justice. Justice not being indifferent to perceived, potential or theoretical threats to itself, justice (or power in the guise of justice) preempts situations, actions, even thoughts. The preemption is punishment, either vicarious or to reassert order. The evolution of justice theory from the raw emotion of revenge is not entirely progress. The mask of power obscures the face of justice’s reasoning or the relativity of justice in a world dominated by power.

Authority and power will not likely budge from a posture entangled in a rationalization of revenge and retribution on a state level. The individual who seeks a zone of right conduct must transcend the pinnacle of rationalism in justice and move on to a different plane. To imitate the justice of authorities and powers is to give them credence, to sacrifice one’s integrity to them, blind to the reality that the motive of power is not justice as conventionally pictured: fairness, tolerance, order. Justice is tempered anger, wrath held back, the gloved fist. Justice is privilege, power, immunity from morality.

The ethical spectrum must be extended:

revenge –> retribution –> justice –> mercy

Mercy is a virtue considered optional to the rationalist and the realist. Indeed, mercy ignores justice and the need for punishment, power, and the execution of law. Mercy actively undermines power, and in the eyes of power becomes an enemy, introducing chaos into the order maintained by power. Further, mercy is haphazard and individual. It has no philosophy, no legal or political theory. Granted, mercy is invoked by the powerful as a way of tempering its harsh face, as a diversion and deception. With craft, the deigning of mercy on an impotent enemy or criminal gives a humane appearance to power. But only the individual can give mercy. Mercy is not a tactic.

Mercy is a forgetting. The popular phrase “forgive and forget” takes into account two trajectories of mercy. To forgive is to place an insult into context, to perceive an insult as the weakness and foible of the offender, who is subject to many forces and dependent. In this sense, forgiveness can be haughty or be more like its counterpart forgetting. For to forget is to make oblivious, to not hold anything for retribution, to give up to fate or God or karma that insult taken but not held. Mercy takes the position of a recipient of insult having nothing which can by injured, nowhere that the insult can “stick.” The insult is forgotten because the act is deliberately forgotten, is not remembered. Thus mercy transcends both the emotion of revenge, the calculation of retribution, and the obtuse rationalism of justice.

But to make mercy no longer dependent on individual insults, to make mercy a form of right behavior that does not depend on insult — for many things in life can provoke anger and resentment within the mind, heart and soul — the individual must reach a state of compassion. Hence the spectrum:

revenge –> retribution –> justice –> mercy –> compassion

Compassion is a state of mind rather than a response to insult. Compassion is the active engagement of events and situations that require addressing and rectifying, rather than a response to personal insult or injury. But an event or situation provoking mercy is not an occurrence in the eyes of compassion but, rather, the very condition of solitude and suffering that is universal. This universality is where compassion enters and identifies. The important characteristic of compassion is that it bypasses institutions, authorities, and powers, and enters directly into the psychological and spiritual condition of all. There is no crime, offense, or insult for which to compensate. Compassion knows that each individual is to every degree a bundle of causes and circumstances, and that their inner self is nothing but a churning sea of suffering and solitude. Bypassing the rationalism of power and justice, and not awaiting an injury for which to show mercy, compassion enters the subjective and discovers the true nature of the human situation.

The mindset of compassion is relevant to eremitism because it frees the self from worldly encumbrances, be they emotional, material, or social. The goal of the hermit is not simply to understand solitude but to enter it unflinchingly, leaving nothing behind that calls for compensation.