Can we avoid being
angry? Should we
avoid being angry?
It is remarkable that so little is said about what increasingly motivates thought, debate, discussion and action in public life: anger. For example, it has been impossible to avoid the public anger that Fred Goodwin has evoked since the collapse of RBS, but we got our revenge when he was stripped of his knighthood.
Public anger undoubtedly led to Stephen Hester declining his bonus. And of course personal revenge directed at poor old Chris Huhne has led to his resignation. Of far more concern are the rumours circulating in Egypt that last week's football catastrophe was orchestrated by people eager to take revenge on those conspicuously involved in the Tahir Square uprising, both emphasising the power of public anger and its destructive force.
Given the intimate connection between anger and the desire for revenge, what will be the consequences for Russia and China in blocking UN action in Syria? You can be sure the Arab street will not soon forget. Diogenes Laertius defines anger as 'a desire for revenge on one who seems to have done an injustice inappropriately'. Perhaps I am wrong, but I have observed a considerable increase in public anger since the beginning of this century, particularly since 9/11. A land of stoics no longer is the UK. Is this as it should be? What role, if any, should anger play in public life?
From a philosophical point of view anger presents a puzzle for ethicists. Some philosophers, most notably Aristotle, have maintained that anger is sometimes morally required, and failure to feel and express anger can be a moral or human failing. But others, particularly the Stoics, argue that anger is never justified, and that actions carried out in anger can themselves never be justified. Such a view resonates if, like Seneca, you have the misfortune to live with an unbalanced and irascible emperor, boss, or a partner given to outrageously cruel displays of displeasure.
What led to opposing views regarding anger are different assessments of our ability to control it. In the 'Nicomachean Ethics', Aristotle said it is within our power to control our emotions, and so we are praised or blamed depending on how we deal with our emotions. With respect to anger he says '…a person is praised if he gets angry in the circumstances one should and at the people one should, and again in the way one should and for the length of time one should'.
You can miss moderate behaviour either by getting too angry (irascibility) but also by failing to get angry enough (spiritlessness). Spiritlessness, which is associated with the failure to get angry when one should, is, he thinks, foolish, insensate and slavish. In fact if one is going to err one way or the other Aristotle prefers the irascible to the insensate. Those who do not express their anger openly become bitter, and the bitter 'are hard to make up with, and stay angry for a long time'. But the point for Aristotle is that we can rule our emotions, not be ruled by them.
Seneca, a 1st-century Stoic, found Aristotle's attitude to anger unacceptably complacent, for it assumes an unrealistic degree of control over our anger. In 'De Ira', Seneca argues that an angry person is always prone to act violently and cruelly. Undoubtedly his personal experience of the rule of Caligula and Nero led him to claim that 'there is no swifter way to insanity' than anger. It is interesting to note that most dictators, Stalin, Saddam and Gaddafi included, were reputedly angry men. Considered the greatest of moral and psychological ills, Seneca aimed to extirpate anger and curb its impetus. He enjoined this aim on everyone, believing anger to be at best a useless emotion, and totally unnecessary as a motivation to good conduct in public life.
The vexed question is: how much anger is appropriate in order to prevent
the unseemly pleasurable revenge we witness too often? Unfortunately, philosophy does not give us easy answers.
Seneca's claims provoke some immediate questions. How can you help but get angry when you see the wrongs of the world? Why would I not want to be angry? Why should I not get angry at those who display indifference to wrongdoing? Besides, who actually chooses to get angry? As an instinctive response to a perceived wrong, it seems difficult to avoid by choice.
Seneca's claims are based on two general assumptions about the nature of the emotions. Firstly, most agree on the definition of anger. In his 'Rhetoric' Aristotle defines anger as follows: '…an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or one’s friends'. In his 'Anthology' Stobaeus, reporting on the Stoics, agrees. 'Anger is a desire to take revenge on someone who appears to have wronged you contrary to what is appropriate.' And this definition is echoed in the early modern period when Spinoza offers a very similar account in his 'Ethics': 'Anger is the desire, whereby through hatred we are induced to injure one whom we hate'. 'Hatred is pain, accompanied by the idea of an external cause.'
Secondly is the assumption that the emotions are inseparable from, and depend on, beliefs. Aristotle maintains that you cannot feel anger if you do not believe that someone has intentionally tried to harm you or someone close to you. The Stoics went so far as to say that emotions are beliefs: to be angry is to believe that someone has intentionally tried to harm you. But at this point agreement ends.
For a Stoic, such as Plutarch, emotions are false beliefs: 'desire and anger and fear and all such things are bad opinions and judgments'. That is, anger is a false belief that someone has done you harm. Much of this view underpins modern cognitive behavioural therapy. A belief leading to anger is always false because nothing of real value can be taken from you by the actions of others. Consequently, no one can ever harm you and therefore the desire for revenge is always irrational because there is nothing to be avenged. What you must realise, say the Stoics, is that others cannot really do you intrinsic harm, so there is no point in getting angry.
It is this extreme view of what is valuable that leads the Aristotelian, like most of us, to dissent. The pain of human life is precisely that much of what is valuable can be taken from us, either by the indifferent processes of nature, or by the intentional actions of other people.
I'd like to finish with this potent example of justifiable, Aristotelian anger. On the day the Allied Forces liberated the concentration camps, the first soldier the child Elie Wiesel saw was a black, American officer. Entering the camp, the officer swore, shouted and raged for a very long time at the grotesque sight. For the child Elie witnessing the officer's anger, he thought yes, humanity has come back. Although this is a uniquely awful example of a justification for anger, it provides a moral perspective of the humanity of anger.
The Aristotelian response is that yes, it is possible to moderate anger, and that it can be useful and even necessary as a motivating force to good. The vexed question is: how much anger is appropriate in order to prevent the unseemly pleasurable revenge we witness too often? Unfortunately, philosophy does not give us easy answers. I would say this though, moral imagination is essential to quell futile, vengeful outrage, and that imagination is seriously lacking these days.
Eileen Reid is head of widening participation, Glasgow School of Art,
writing here in a personal capacity