Is living well the best revenge?

The poet George Herbert once said, “Living well is the best revenge.” When I’m down, I think of this as an urging to take it easy, get up, and do a re-set button of sorts in my life.

Then I ponder. What does it mean exactly? Revenge against what or whom? And what exactly is ‘living well’?

There is at least an answer to a related question: When is living well good revenge? The answer, oddly enough, was to another question: What did George Herbert mean by the saying? I took the answer to mean that living well works against a foe who thinks he got the better of you.

Here’s the answer to the When question – from one James Fisher at

Many people are known to take perverse pleasure in the troubles of others–a sentiment captured in the German Schadenfreude. The obverse applies to those who are disconsolate witnessing others doing well. As Gore Vidal famously (and candidly) said: “Every time a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.” So living well will obviously enhance your life, paying an additional dividend by leaving foe–and maybe friend—dispirited.

More consequentially, is it the best? I think not.

If you really want revenge, and the object of it does deserve it, then it pays to inflict the maximum proportionate response, within legal reason. Otherwise, we would have a world of predators and wimps, with the former thinking they can get away with it.  But then this takes a bit of resources that could have been devoted to ‘living well.’  That’s the economics of the best revenge.

But there are reasons for desistance, or at least taking the long view. The latter derives from the saying that revenge is best served cold. Desistance on the other hand is a Zen thing. Perhaps the object of revenge is simply not worth the energy of even just a good revenge (forget about ‘best’). Desistance is forgiveness, and acceptance. In the end, it is the sane and happy thing to do. And living well is neither here nor there, though it’s something to aim for on its own.

Do you agree?



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