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A seal pressed in the hot wax of vengeance: A Girardian understanding of expressive punishment

Steele, John
June 4, 2015

Source: (2001) Journal of Law and Religion 16 (1), 35-68.

In this paper John Steele analyzes the nature of expressive theories of punishment, as well as pathological tendencies in expressive punishment. Such theories-which are quite popular- construe punishment as expressing various individual and social feelings, ideas, and values, such as repulsion toward or moral condemnation of the offending act. For example, in the nineteenth century Sir James Fitzjames Stephens held that the initial impulse to punish is hateful and vengeful. Yet, if properly administered, punishment gives appropriate expression to hatred. Hence, Stephen described criminal law as “a seal pressed in the hot wax of vengeance,â€? thus providing an official expression of society’s condemnation. After surveying various modern theories of expressive punishment, Steele turns to Rene Girard’s analysis of violence, including sacred violence, to explain the popularity of expressive punishment as well as its pathologies.


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