G.K. Chesterton’s essay “Vengeance” suggests that although modern law is highly refined, it can evolve into a system devoid of any passion and become a machine which unreflectively punishes people.
“The evil in our modern law is not one of barbaric passions, but one of passionless routine. The trouble is not that a lawyer really flies into a passion when he thinks about petty larceny; the trouble is that he never really thinks about it at all… He has about as much vindictive feeling against criminals as a butcher has against oxen…”
In the same way a butcher mechanically cuts meat, a lawyer may also go through the motions of prosecuting criminals without meditating on the horror of their wrongdoing. According to Chesterton, the problem is that by making a routine out of punishment, people no longer become horrified and outraged by wrongdoing.
Chesterton offers that we ought to have “a flaming charity or a fierce pity” in the courtrooms. His solution is reminiscent of Aristotle’s model of virtue – appropriately executing justice lies in the median between passionless routine and unchecked outrage. Chesterton offers a middle ground that integrates “flaming” and “fierce” anger at sin with “charity” and “pity” for the perpetrator. In that way, lawyers preserve their hatred for sin while still acknowledging the fallibility, humanity, and even goodness in the criminal.
Rarely do superhero movies explore this balance of hating injustice and cultivating virtue in order to seek proper recourse. As Timothy Lawrence pointed out in his recent review of Black Panther, many simply externalize the struggles of the hero – they don’t need to fight their ego, they merely use their physical capabilities to bash the world into whatever their definition of good happens to be. X-Men: First Class is one of the few that explores both the internal development and degradation of the hero, and the process is most notable in the relationship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender).
The film opens on Erik and his mother being separated in a Nazi concentration camp. Erik’s distress awakens his fledgling magnetic powers, capturing the attention of Nazi scientist Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon). Lensherr and his mother are brought to Schmidt in his lab, where he tries to persuade the child to move a coin. When persuasion doesn’t work, he kills Lensherr’s mother. Enraged, Lensherr kills two Nazi guards and destroys Schmidt’s lab, but Schmidt is delighted – he has confirmed that rage triggers Lensherr’s powers.
Cut to the 1960s, with Lensherr glaring at a wall littered with pictures of Nazi scientists, including Schmidt, who escaped justice. He subsequently goes about killing his targets, and tracks down Schmidt (now known as Shaw) on his yacht. Shaw, a mutant himself, escapes in a submarine and Lensherr dives in after it. He tries to stop the sub, but he’s too weak to stop it and too angry to let go. The sub drags him down, and this is the danger of unchecked rage according to Chesterton:
“Hatred is bad not because it is personal or destructive, but because it narrows the soul to a sharp point… The violent man, in short, tries to break out; but he only succeeds in breaking in. He breaks into smaller and smaller cells of his own subterranean heart till he is suffocated in the smallest, and dies like a rat in a hole.”
Chesterton envisions the self as something that a person can burrow into and die, or escape from and live. When the violent man indulges his vice of anger, he moves further into himself. Although acting on his anger offers him pleasure, he is a slave to it and must satiate the impulse whenever it arises. It’s only when he resists and conquers anger that he moves outside himself and becomes free.
Lensherr’s rage makes him myopic, unable to see that it’s killing him. He sinks deeper and deeper until Xavier saves him. This action is one of many attempts on Xavier’s part to save Lensherr from himself. Later, while they’re training together, Xavier points to a gigantic satellite dish several hundred yards away, and tells Lensherr to move it. Lensherr accepts the challenge, but his rage isn’t strong enough to accomplish the task.
Instead of using rage as a source of power, Xavier offers another way: “I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.” He asks to telepathically access Lensherr’s mind, and proceeds to show Lensherr a memory of him sitting with his mother in front of a menorah. Afterwards Lensherr says, “I didn’t know I still had that.” Instead of narrowing Lensherr to a “sharp point” or reducing him to a tool as Shaw did, Xavier adds to him. He gives Lensherr a part of himself that he forgot he had: “There’s so much more to you than you know. Not just pain and anger. There’s good too – I felt it. When you can access that, you’ll possess a power no one can match, not even me.” Once Lensherr hears this, he moves the dish.
Furthermore, like Chesterton, Xavier adopts an Aristotelian approach to justice by coupling Lensherr’s rage with serenity. While separated, rage and serenity are not enough to bring about justice. To be entirely serene is to ignore the suffering of the world, but to be entirely enraged is to ignore the goodness and beauty of it. Only once the two are integrated can Lensherr hope to pursue the justice he seeks without suffocating himself.
However, Lensherr cannot fully give himself to the idea of integrating his pain with the goodness in his life, and he chooses to indulge his rage. In a conversation with Xavier the night before confronting Shaw and stopping WWIII, he tells Xavier, “I’m not going to stop Shaw, I’m going to kill him.” Lensherr’s rage demands Shaw’s death. The rage not only binds him to a single outcome, but it brings him so deep into himself that he can’t accept anyone unlike him, and he vilifies them as a result. “You think [non-mutants] are all like Shaw,” Xavier warns.
Xavier tries to encourage Lensherr to take the narrow road out of the self, and resist indulging his rage: “We have it in us to be the better men.” Xavier wants people to be integrated with themselves, and he wants mutants and non-mutants to be integrated with each other. Xavier seeks to lay down arms and work for the peaceful coexistence of mutants and non-mutants even if it brings him harm. His idea of being “better” does not come from physical ability as Lensherr’s does, but from inward virtue – humility, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He understands that although mutants and non-mutants are different, their shared striving towards the good is what can unite them.
Lensherr dismisses Xavier’s words, and the next day he captures Shaw to kill him. “If you do this, there’s no going back,” Xavier tells Lensherr telepathically; he tries one last time to prevent Lensherr from trapping himself, but Lensherr ignores him and kills Shaw. Although Xavier is physically distant, he is still intimately involved in their confrontation. Through his telepathy, he gains control of Shaw, melding their minds together, which makes Xavier feel Shaw’s pain. When Lensherr drives a coin through Shaw’s skull, Xavier experiences the same agony. The scene reveals both how Lensherr is causing pain in ways he could never fathom, and the lengths Xavier will go to in order to lay down arms. He doesn’t release Shaw to protect himself from the torture, and furthermore, he doesn’t seek revenge on Lensherr for hurting him.
Despite avenging himself on the man who took away everything from him, Lensherr’s rage demands more casualties. When the Americans and Russians fire on them, he catches the missiles and directs them back at the ships.
“You said we were the better men, now is the time to prove it,” Xavier says, hoping Lensherr will drop the offensive and forgive. “There are good people on those ships. Good, honest men just following orders.” Before launching the missiles Lensherr says, “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders; never again.” However, he doesn’t succeed in destroying the ships, and he paralyzes Xavier. This is the second time when Lensherr is responsible for harming Xavier, yet he still never repays evil for evil. It should be noted that Lensherr, despite deflecting the bullet into Xavier’s spine, cannot see that he is the one who paralyzes Xavier—he blames another character, Moira (Rose Byrne), for the accident. It isn’t until Xavier tells him he’s responsible that he is forced to see what he did.
Lensherr believes that mutants are the next stage in human evolution. He may be right, but this idea leads him to place himself above non-mutants. Whereas Xavier sought a mutual cultivation of virtue, Lensherr thinks he’s above that. He believes his powers excuse him from having to conform to goodness, and he can dictate who is worthy to have a future and who isn’t. The tragedy of this is that Lensherr’s refusal to see his shared humanity and responsibility to pursue the good twists him to become just like Shaw and the Nazis who tortured him.
In “Vengeance”, Chesterton wasn’t advocating for a change of policy in how the West maintained justice. He wanted people to reclaim their sensitivity to sin so that they could detect it in their lives and reform. His end goal can be succinctly expressed in another one of his works: The Secret of Father Brown.
“No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; till he’s got rid of all the dirty self-deception of talking about low types and deficient skulls; till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”
Chesterton wanted his readers to understand that evil resides in their very souls and it must be continually wrung out. Only after they endure that excruciating process can they be called good. As Xavier understood, wrong actions merit punishment (even death in the case of Shaw), but a good person must also protect criminals so that they can be wrung out and reformed as well.