Peter J. Vernezze is right, I think, in asserting that “Most of us tend to be Aristotelians when it comes to anger.” In other words, what we’ll loosely label the Aristotelian view, well captures the intuitive, or spontaneous, or unreflective beliefs many if not most of us adhere to about anger. Even the precious few among us who are prone to episodic bouts of sincere self-examination or even temperamentally reflective about anger are likely to subscribe to at least something like, if not the, Aristotelian view. And not surprisingly, the Aristotelian view finds articulate support in contemporary philosophy, keeping in mind that Aristotle does not leave us with a systematic or analytic account of the emotions (pathē) in his ethical writings, although we might, with a Jon Elster, Martha C. Nussbaum, or John M. Cooper, reconstruct the outlines of such a theory from his ethical works and especially the Rhetoric, the latter the source for most of what he has to say about “the emotions” (and only a fairly small number at that). Any such reconstruction, as Cooper has made clear, must draw upon a “closely knit family of psychological concepts: those of happiness (eudaimonia), virtue (aretē), practical wisdom (phronēsis), action (praxis), state or habit (hexis), desire (orexis), pleasure and pain (hēdonē and lupē [the latter can refer to not only bodily pain, but all manner and degrees of negative mental response and attitude, in which case it comes to the meaning of dukkha/duhkhā or ‘suffering’ in Buddhism]), [and] choice or decision (prohairesis)….” It is in the light of such a moral-psychological reconstruction (within the larger ambit of ethical and political theory) that we might find ourselves inclined to endorse Aristotle’s views on anger as rationally defensible or eminently reasonable. No doubt one of the principal attractions of “virtue ethics” today alongside Kantian-inspired and utilitarian or consequentialist theories is this centrally robust inclusion of moral psychology. In fact, a prominent role for moral psychology is a defining feature of all three of the philosphical approaches to anger we’ll examine.
Vernezze provides us with a succinct and accurate summary of the Aristotelian approach to anger:
“While [Aristotle admits] that uncontrolled anger is harmful and ought to be avoided…anger is a good thing. An individual who demonstrates the proper amount of anger is said by Aristotle to possess ‘good temper,’ which consists in being angry ‘at the right things and with the right people’ for the right amount of time [more precisely: ‘at the right time, and for the right length of time’]. This level of moderation with respect to anger—neither too much nor too little—is one of the ethical virtues and as such is a prerequisite in Aristotle’s scheme for attaining eudaimonia or happiness. Hence, without a proper level of anger one cannot be a fully flourishing human being. Indeed, according to Aristotle, those who are not angry at the right things they ought to be angry at are thought to be fools.”
The famous Aristotelian doctrine of the mean cited here with regard to anger means that, given the right circumstances, it may be perfectly appropriate to get quite angry, and thus the formula “neither too much nor too little” can be misleading if we fail to properly consider the determinative part played by circumstances or situations, including “calculation” of the consequences of our actions. Richard Kraut explains:
“The right amount is not some quantity between zero and the highest possible level, but rather the amount, whatever it happens to be, that is proportionate to the seriousness of the situation. Of course, Aristotle is committed to saying that anger should never reach the point at which it undermines reason; and this means that our passion should always fall short of the extreme point at which we would lose control. But it is possible to be very angry without going to this extreme, and Aristotle does not intend to deny this” [emphasis added].
Put differently, “too much or too little” depends, as Richard Sorabji says, on “who we are [our character, for example, as well as our social standing or status], on the occasion, on what and whom our emotion is directed at, on the likely outcome and manner of reacting.” It is worth noting that some negative emotions, like spite, shamelessness, and envy (including what today we call Schadenfreude), are thought by Aristotle to be intrinsically bad (not unlike the Stoic or Buddhist characterizes anger), and thus the doctrine of the mean does not apply to them. Aristotle adds that the person who fails to get angry at things he ought to get angry, seems to be “insensible and to feel no pain,” moreover, he lacks a sense of honor insofar as he is not the sort of person who stands up for himself when insulted, or overlooks insults made to those close to him.
In the Rhetoric, Aristotle speaks of the man who feels anger, and hence pain (see the bracketed comment above for how Aristotle used the term ‘pain’) as well, as a result of being deliberately—and undeservedly—slighted, the pain being of the kind we generally feel when our desires are frustrated, in the instant case, the desire to appear to or be known and regarded by others in a certain way, held in esteem for example, or treated as possessing some sort of dignified standing or self-regard worthy of respect. There is some evidence in the Rhetoric that Aristotle also saw pain as a pre-existing state of mind which (pre)disposes one to become angry. Lack of due recognition, acknowledgment, regard, or respect may occur, for example, through mocking, jeering, laughing, insulting, or slighting. To be slighted is to be treated with contempt, spite, or insolence. Failures of esteem acknowledgment or due recognition amount to violations of our (sense of) inherent dignity that we possess by virtue of our moral status as human persons or our legal standing as citizens of the polis. Such slights or insults to our proper self-regard or pride in ancient Greece fell under the heading of violations of honor, especially in the case of “great-souled people,” the honor in accord with their “real worth,” even if such persons did not, in the end, “view honor [as such] as a terribly important thing.” As Michael Stocker writes, “Aristotle’s depiction of anger and those who get angry shows us men [and only men] who are concerned with their importance, dignity, and with the honor and respect all or some others owe them.”
Yet it is not only pain that accompanies anger but pleasure too, for belittlement of oneself or those close to one brings in its wake the “prospect of revenge,” “for it is pleasant to think that one will achieve what one seeks, and nobody seeks those things that are obviously impossible for him [?!], so that the angry man too aims at something that is possible for him,” namely, revenge. And this pleasure is not the result of acting on the desire for revenge but comes merely from the thought that surrounds its contemplation, the entertainment of the prospect of revenge. Aristotle goes so far as to claim that “no one is angry with someone who it seems impossible to avenge,” and, although “nobody seeks those things that are impossible for him,” Elster quotes William Fortenbaugh to the effect that Aristotle “does not deny that [an angry] man may on occasion be in a hopeless position and either not realise it or cling to some irrational fantasy of safety or revenge,” in which case anger accounts for the formation of an irrational belief in the possibility of revenge. Elster reminds us that Aristotle typically associates an emotion—and therefore not just anger—with pleasure and pain, while “modern writers tend to think of an emotion in terms of an exclusive disjunction: pleasure or pain.
In sum to this point, for Aristotle, anger is caused by two beliefs: the belief that the other insulted or belittled me (he speaks of contempt, spite, and insult as ‘three forms of belittlement’), and the belief, in the standard case, that I can take revenge. While we cannot here attempt a detailed critique of this or that aspect of Aristotle’s views, with Elster we might “wonder…whether we cannot feel angry even when there is no prospect of taking vengeance,” which brings us back to Fortenbaugh’s remark that Aristotle envisioned a person in a state of self-deception or denial in this regard, or the possibility that the lack of a realistic prospect for revenge causes the formation of a fantasy of same, in which case we are getting close to if not on the terrain of psychoanalysis. Furthermore, Elster plausibly argues “mere desire-frustration without intent to slight can also trigger anger, [and] it is less likely to give rise to the desire for revenge.” And while I think “desire-frustration” can give rise to anger, it perhaps more commonly or in the first instance prompts irritability, annoyance, disappointment, despair, and the like, all of which might—and thus need not—lead to anger. And simple desire-frustration begins to move us away from anger as an “intensely social emotion” (Elster), as it was for Aristotle, the exemplary cases “involv[ing] the triadic relation of being slighted [by another] before an audience.”
The central role of “slighting” and the “desire for revenge” in Aristotle’s account brings Elster to consider the possibility that his notion of “anger may be a different emotion from what we call anger, and [is] more accurately captured by the term ‘wrath.’” This does raise the question of the precise relation of anger to kindred emotional states and dispositions like resentment and indignation or, of states and dispositions of greater emotional intensity, like hate and rage (‘outrage’ being an expression of intense indignation). Disgust is sometimes mentioned (e.g., by Ben-Ze’ev) as possessing genetic family resemblance to anger as well. We won’t examine these other emotions and attitudes, save hatred (in our next post), as an analytic and phenomenological comparison with hate is important given that anger and hate are often treated together (or fairly close together) in Buddhism.
The central role of slighting and desire for revenge moves Stocker to likewise consider the possible difference between what we mean by anger and the ancient Greek term orgē. Stocker avers that there is “some evidence” that Aristotle’s “men” are suffering “narcissistic wounds,” that they are probably narcissistic (not necessarily in a pathological sense), “their society and social arrangements…allowing, perhaps fostering, narcissism:” “Narcissists are unable to sustain self-respect and self-regard. They need others to assure them of their goodneess, that they are the way they would like to be.” Stocker argues that the Aristotelian model of the angry man is “constituted by a desire rising to the level of a demand, that he be a center, if not the center, of attention, concern, and understanding….”
Our next post will look at the role of what Plato called the “spirited” part (thumos) of the triune soul in the Aristotelian analysis of anger; at discussions of anger by philosophers sympathetic to Aristotle’s treatment; the relation of anger to hate; and anger as a justified emotional response to social injustice and simultaneous or subsequent motivation deemed intrinsic to or essential for the struggle to realize justice.
[A list of ‘references and further reading’ will be appended to the final post in the series.]