Returning Evil with Good (Ancient Quotations)

Posted on March 31, 2012 by Skarphedin

Jesus said “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborh and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So I went looking for quotes of pagans who said something similar (as long as they were pre-Christian or near contemporaries).

The Advice of an Akkadian Father to his Son (c. 2200 B.C. – source)
“Do not return evil to your adversary; requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, maintain justice for your enemy, be friendly to your enemy.”

Buddhism (roughly 250 BCE)

Dhammapada 3-5
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me!” In those who harbor such thoughts hatred is not appeased.
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me!” In those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred is appeased.
Hatreds never cease through hatred in this world; through non-hatred alone they cease. This is an eternal law.

Dhammapada 223-234
“Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness; overcome the miser by generosity; overcome the liar by truth.
Speak the truth; yield not to anger; when asked, give even if you only have a little.”

Dhammapada 197
“Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us. Let us therefore overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth.”

Majjhima Nikaya 1.129
“Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching.  Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus:  ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love – thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.’ It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves.”

Confucianism (roughly 475-220 BCE)

Analects 4.3-4
“Of the adage, Only a good man knows how to like people, knows how to dislike them, Confucius said, ‘He whose heart is in the smallest degree set upon Goodness will dislike no one.’”

Analects 14.36
“Someone said, ‘What do you say concerning the principle that injury should be recompensed with kindness?’ The Master said, ‘With what will you then recompense kindness? Recompense injury with justice, and recompense kindness with kindness.’” [This shows Confucius did not teach “turn the other cheek” – but it is proposing justice, not revenge or anger – note that is also indicates someone else was teaching “turning the other cheek” – Taoists or Mohists?]

Taoism (roughly 300 BCE)

Tao Te Ching 49
“The Sage has no interests of his own, But takes the interests of the people as his own. He is kind to the kind; He is also kind to the unkind; For Virtue is kind. He is faithful to the faithful; He is also faithful to the unfaithful: For Virtue is faithful. In the midst of the world, the Sage is shy and self-effacing. For the sake of the world he keeps his heart in its nebulous state. All the people strain their ears and eyes: The Sage only smiles like an amused infant.”


Samanasuttam 136
“Man should subvert anger by forgiveness, subdue pride by modesty, overcome hypocrisy with simplicity, and greed by contentment.”

Hinduism (roughly 500-400 BCE)

Ramayana, Yuddha Kanda 115
“A superior being does not render evil for evil; this is a maxim one should observe; the ornament of virtuous persons is their conduct. One should never harm the wicked or the good or even criminals meriting death. A noble soul will ever exercise compassion even towards those who enjoy injuring others or those of cruel deeds when they are actually committing them–for who is without fault?”

Greeks & Romans

Socrates (Crito, 49c) (roughly 470-400 BCE)
“Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him. But I would have you consider, Crito, whether you really mean what you are saying. For this opinion has never been held, and never will be held, by any considerable number of persons; and those who are agreed and those who are not agreed upon this point have no common ground, and can only despise one another when they see how widely they differ. Tell me, then, whether you agree with and assent to my first principle, that neither injury nor retaliation nor warding off evil by evil is ever right.”

Musonius Rufus (Discourse 10)
“For to scheme how to bite back the biter and to return evil for evil is the act not of a human being but of a wild beast, which is incapable of reasoning that the majority of wrongs are done to men through ignorance and misunderstanding, from which man will cease as soon as he has been taught,”
(Fragment 41) “We say that the despicable man is recognized among other things by his inability to harm his enemies, but actually he is much more easily recognized by his inability to help them.”

Seneca (On Anger)
“Man’s nature, then, does not crave vengeance; neither, therefore, does anger accord with man’s nature, because anger craves vengeance. And I may adduce here the argument of Plato – for what harm is there in using the arguments of others, so far as they are our own? “The good man,” he says, “does no injury.” Punishment injures; therefore punishment is not consistent with good, nor, for the same reason, is anger, since punishment is consistent with anger. If the good man rejoices not in punishment, neither will he rejoice in that mood which takes pleasure in punishment; therefore anger is contrary to nature.”

(Discourses ii, 12) “There is this fine circumstance connected with the character of a Cynic that he must be beaten like an ass, and yet, when beaten, must love those who beat him, as the father, as the brother of all.”
(Discourses iv, 5) “How, then, is there left any place for fighting, to a man who has this opinion? … ‘Such a person has reviled you.’ Great thanks to him for not having, struck you. ‘But he has struck me also.’ Great thanks that he did not wound you “But he wounded me also.” Great thanks that he did not kill you… And why do you not come forth and proclaim that you are at peace with all men whatever they may do, and laugh at those chiefly who think that they can harm you?”

Marcus Aurelius
VI – “One thing here is worth a great deal, to pass thy life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men.”
VII -”It is peculiar to man to love even those who do wrong. And this happens if, when they do wrong, it occurs to thee that they are kinsmen [‘kinsmen’ here refers to any member of the human race], and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally, and that soon both of you will die…”
VI 6: “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrongdoer.”
VII – “When a man has done thee any wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong. For when thou hast seen this, thou wilt pity him, and wilt neither wonder nor be angry. For either thou thyself thinkest the same thing to be good that he does or another thing of the same kind. It is thy duty then to pardon him. But if thou dost not think such things to be good or evil, thou wilt more readily be well disposed to him who is in error.”


The prescription to love your enemy and to requite evil with good is sometimes thought of as an impractical and perfectionist ethic, able to be practiced only by a few exceptional souls.  But, in fact, this doctrine is widely taught in all religions as a fundamental principle for pursuing relationships with others.  The person who insists upon vengeance or retribution is not necessarily committing a crime, but neither will his act of revenge be helpful to spiritual advancement.  Revenge, which requites evil with evil, only multiplies evil in the world, while love, by in which one strives to overcome evil with good, spreads goodness in the world.

True love is unconditional and impartial–thus the metaphor of the sun that shines down on all life. It is tested and proven by encounters with those who are difficult to love. Where true love prevails, no enemies are found.

The concluding passages dispute the prescription to love your enemy when it apparently contravenes the principles of justice and right.  Sometimes the best way to love an evil person is to make him face justice, or to hinder him from doing wrong.  Nevertheless, these corrective actions should be done with a loving heart and with the other person’s welfare uppermost in mind.