Philosophy Political Philosophy

Lex Talionis and the Principle of Limitation

Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  That passage from Leviticus is often derided as, or pointed to for evidence of, “biblical harshness.”  The principle of the passage is not unique to the Bible, however, for the code of legal retaliation is found in all Near Eastern law codes.  In comparison to the Code of Hammurabi the Levitical laws are quite tame, for false accusation bring the condemnation of death.  Yet, the Code of Hammurabi also reflects the same Levitical mentality of equal reciprocation, “ox for ox” especially, at the close of the laws of Hammurabi.

Given the aggressive and vengeful nature of man, the biblical, and broader Near Eastern, principle of lex talionis is not a reflective embodiment of harshness but a reflection of dramatic ethical revelation.  Instead of seeking to kill one who has harmed you the legal precepts establish boundaries, strict boundaries to be followed, that return—in kind—the harm (or intended harm in the case of false accusations) done onto the recipient.  If a man punched your tooth out then the response should not be to kill the man but to return to him, in kind, the same harm inflicted onto you.  “Tooth for tooth.”

It may be hip for moderns to quote contemporary witticisms, “An eye for an eye makes the world blind,” but such witticisms are shallow and do not understand—in the slightest—the profundity and deep nature contained in the implications of the principle lex talionis and what it represented in the broader context of human evolution.  As man would kill for the most mundane of things in early humanoid history, the principle of limited revenge was nonexistent.  Anyone who has seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, will witness this when the two great ape tribes confront each other over the water hole and one is scared off by the superior tribe.  No physical harm is done to any of the great apes.  But one of the apes learns how to utilize a bone for a tool, and then proceeds to use it for natural conquest and retaliation.  (On an aside it is equally noteworthy to point out that the apes who wield the bones as tool now stand in a more upright posture so as to use the bone-tool more effectively.)  When the two tribes meet again the alpha males battle each other with the bone-wielding ape killing the other and driving off the tribe that had recently taken over the waterhole.  The code of lex talionis would have prevented that: breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  The breach that occurred there had no physical harm done, thus, “breach for breach” would have implied simply driving off the usurping tribe without inflicting physical harm to them—let alone kill the tribe’s leader.

The construction of the law of equal retaliation was, most likely, a construction aiming precisely at preventing such overarching retaliation that was common in early human history.  Reading back, as moderns do, is a wrongheaded exegetical approach that any first-year philosophy student would learn never to do.  Such readings lead to wild misunderstandings of the text in question—case and point with the laws of retaliation.

Lex talionis, far from enshrining violence, seeks to limit it.  It seeks to put up boundaries and specify the legal room for what is acceptable and what is inacceptable.  Moreover, the laws also embody a deep truth about the human being: man is a creature of emotion, desire, and physical confrontation.  Far from banning the essence of humanity the code of retaliation allows for a medium for man to express his inner desires through legal means.  Likewise, it tries to prevent man from using his lust for revenge to kill another.  If you walked away from the confrontation with another man then you, in seeking your retaliation, need to allow him to walk away too.  What was done onto you should be returned onto him.  For if you walked away with your life, only having lost an eye or tooth, then you should not retaliate by taking the life of the man who harmed you.


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