The Romance of Life

The Romance of Life

Mount Herzl Military Cemetery – National Memorial Hall. Photo by Dr. Avishai Teicher.

There are people who suppose, whenever they learn of an act of unbelievable cruelty, that it must have been done in reaction to some unseen but equally towering grievance. To such people, the forces in the human situation are taken to illustrate Newton’s Third Law of Motion whereby any action prompts an equal and opposite reaction. 

Transposed into the language of human values, where we are no longer talking about neutral motions and counter-motions, but about acts motivated by hatred, the Third Law as metaphor would seem to offer a justification for any and all repugnant acts. The worse the outrage perpetrated, the more the metaphor of equal and opposite reaction is invoked: the victim must have done something at least as cruel to prompt it. 

If I myself try, empathically, to think that way, about some real instance of cruelty, an immediate flow of compassion wells up in me – for the perpetrators!

Against this physicalist metaphor, there is a rabbinic saying that describes the same phenomenon without pulling Newton’s Third Law into the realm of human affairs. Here’s how that saying goes:

Whoever is kind to the cruel

will be cruel to the kind.

These reflections put me in mind of an occurrence I wrote about a few years ago in these columns. I’d been having lunch in a restaurant I frequented and also writing in my notebook. The place was empty, save for me and a woman seated some tables away. The woman was exuberantly sharing views with the restaurant owner. Views in the genre of, let us say, country club antisemitism.

Catching the drift, from time to time I would give the woman an outraged look. Our gazes would meet. I can’t be sure how Jewish she took me to be – as opposed to generic Mediterranean – but I suspect that a customer who was writing while having lunch, might be taken to be Jewish!

I won’t go into what I did next but, in the end, the country club lady was tearfully asking me to forgive her. 

However, I did not produce the “I forgive you” happy ending. In the Jewish practice of atonement, some evidence of an inner change is required for forgiveness to be meaningful. What would count as minimal evidence? Well, for a start, she would need to make clear that she understood what she had done – what act called for forgiveness. From the way she simultaneously apologized and explained-away her previous remarks, it seemed to me that what she was mainly sorry for was her social miscalculation.

A friend to whom I told the story afterward commended me for eschewing the expected denouement. 

I woulda hugged her,

my friend admitted ruefully.

So don’t hug ‘em. We owe at least that much truth to our fellow mortals in the vale of tears we share.


Some lives show recurrent themes. I don’t know why but, again and again in my own life, I’ve had to deal with deliberate, precisely targeted and prolonged malevolence! My mother, who loved me, had her own explanation, but as she’s no longer here, we can leave her soothing words out of account. However, among the data that would support my mother’s view: I’ve kept good friends over a lifetime; I prefer and enjoy fun and harmony in groups and between persons; I’m not frustrated in my work; I love the man I married; I don’t lose every combat but from time to time have even won a few. And finally, a dialectical conversation, where participants earnestly and unpretentiously seek the truth about the topic they’re discussing, is close to my idea of heaven.

Nevertheless, I’ve had plural direct confrontations with malevolence. Often, it could have been quickly contained and dispatched if bystanders hadn’t reflexively spun it as a compensatory reaction to some conjectured grievance – an hypothesis that conveniently recast the resistant victim as the real culprit. Thus, misdirected compassion helps aggressors, who never fail to portray themselves as the true victims.

I’m not complaining. To fight the good fight is a fascinating (though also quite painful, injurious and scary) feature of the romance of life!

But how shall we deal with the strategy of Denial-and-Displacement I’ve been sketching here? There are all kinds of persuasive counter-arguments. My book, A Good Look at Evil, musters an array of contexts that can help us to see what’s going on. 

At present, however, I would prefer to approach the Strategist of Denial with a different question:

If instead of what you now do

you were to be merciless to the merciless –

and kind to the kind –

what would that cost you,


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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