Friday, July 06, 2018

Some thoughts on anger

Some years ago I initiated a series of post “on anger,” only two of which I completed (see here and here), and I’m still not sure when or even if I will get around to completing the series. By way of some rectification, I’ve written the following, which merely skims the surface so to speak, but will have to suffice for now:
Anger is often a vice, and many if not most of us lack self-control when we are angry (e.g., when ‘consumed’ by anger). Spinoza’s conception of anger was a bit different from that of Seneca and the Stoics generally, yet he shared their view that anger is invariably and entirely a negative emotion inherently fraught with danger. And the Buddhist view on anger is virtually identical to that of the Stoics, although they do not have “our” concept of emotion(s) as such, classifying anger as one of the kleśas (‘mental states that cloud the mind and manifest in unwholesome actions’).
But there is another philosophical perspective deserving of consideration, one that goes back to both Plato and Aristotle and to some extent is found in the Hebrew Bible, especially when it comes to God, what we might term “righteous anger,” for example, God’s anger at a person’s sinfulness or the Israelites’ lapses from fidelity to God or the pursuit of justice, these being the more reasonable examples (other instances strike one as irrational and wholly vindictive). In brief, “some form of anger [is] sometimes warranted and often useful.” Plato believed anger (‘as an intrinsic aspect of the spirited part of the tripartite soul’) was capable of being governed by reason. Aristotle’s take was a bit different, for anger can have its reasons: it can be either reasonable or rational to be angry, hence a “good-tempered” man “is angry at the right things and with the right people, as he ought, when he ought, for as long as he ought.” In this case, anger is dictated by reasons, or at least it is in harmony with same. Thus, Aristotle “thought that a man who is angry for the right reason, with the right person, to the right degree, on the right occasion, and in the right manner, is praiseworthy.”
I tend to agree with Aristotle here, although I would add that the “good-tempered” man (or woman) is exceedingly rare, in other words, this dispositional character trait is far from common. A person who does not get angry at Trump’s racist speech and public policies, at his demeaning and degrading rhetoric, at his kleptocratic and plutocratic politics, at his narcissistic megalomania, and so forth and so on, would appear to be cold-hearted, unethical and self-deceiving (perhaps in some state of denial and prone to wishful thinking as well). A person that cannot summon anger in response to the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar is not acting virtuously or ethically. But such anger need not get the better of one, as we say. I think the Aristotelian view is, for most of us, intuitive, and thus at least plausible, although there is much to be learned from both the Buddhists and Stoics about how to deal with our anger when it is likely to trump or eviscerate reason. So I am in agreement with P.M.S. Hacker’s remarkable analysis of anger in The Passions: A Study of Human Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 2018):
“Reason is … needed to apprehend what is offensive, to oneself or others. Indignation or resentment may indeed be appropriate emotional responses to slight and insult, to false accusations or to various forms of offence. That is a proper mark of concern and care. Annoyance and irritation are natural reactions to various forms of disturbance, and natural expressions of frayed nerves. But these natural responses need to be dampened and kept under control lest they feed the flames of fury [or hatred or rage]. Even if anger is warranted, it does not follow that any form or manifestation of anger is warranted. We often have an obligation to control, moderate, or suppress the manifestation of our anger.
Anger is a warranted response to wrong-doing in its manifold forms. It may fuel one’s courage to oppose what is wrong. Nevertheless, to act in anger is never well advised [on this, the Stoics, Buddhists, Plato, Aristotle, and Spinoza can all agree]. One may castigate without rage, censure and deplore without fury. The greater one’s wrath, the more likely it is that one’s judgment be led astray, one’s utterances be inappropriate or worse, and one’s action be unjust and harmful. One may rightly seek redress. It is good to endeavor to destroy evil. But reason needs no support from rage or anger in heightened forms in its quest for the right and the good.”
Toward a Psychological & Philosophical Understanding of Anger: A Brief Reading Guide
  • Averill, James. Anger and Aggression: An Essay on Emotion (Springer-Verlag, 1982).
  • Ben-Ze’ev, Aaron. The Subtlety of Emotions (MIT Press, 2000).
  • Briggs, Jean L. Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family (Harvard University Press, 1970).
  • (The) Dalai Lama (Geshe Thupten Jinpa, tr.) Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective (Snow Lion Publications, 1997).
  • de Silva, Padmasiri. An Introduction to Buddhist Psychology (Rowman & Littlefield, 3rd ed., 2000).
  • de Silva, Padmasiri. Buddhist and Freudian Psychology (Shogam Publications, 4th ed., 2010).
  • Elster, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • Fisher, Philip. The Vehement Passions (Princeton University Press, 2002).
  • Frijda, Nico H. The Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • Hacker, P.M.S. The Passions: A Study of Human Nature (John Wiley & Sons, 2018)
  • Harris, William V. Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • Heald, Suzette. Controlling Anger: The Anthropology of Gisu Violence (Ohio University Press, 1998). 
  • Kassinove, Howard, ed. Anger Disorders: Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment (Routledge, 2013 [1995].
  • Murphy, Jeffrie G. and Jean Hampton. Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  • Nhât Hanh, Thich. Anger (Riverhead Books, 2001).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press, 2016).
  • Roberts, Robert C. Emotions in the Moral Life (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  • Sarat, Austin and Nasser Hussain, eds. Forgiveness, Mercy, and Clemency (Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (Robert A. Kaster and Martha C. Nussbaum, tr.) Anger, Mercy, Revenge (University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  • Thurman, Robert A.F. Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins (Oxford University Press, 2006).


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