The Nature of Anger

1 May

By Marco Ferraro
Honors 2101: Intellectual Traditions I:
Antiquity and the Beginning of the Common Era
Spring 2008
Professor Eric Hutton

Over the course of the past fifteen weeks, we have been reading several texts starting with ancient Greek mythology up to modern day treatise of anger. Two of the more prominent authors we have covered are Aristotle and Seneca, each drastically different from the other in their notion toward anger on the surface. Aristotle also describes anger as a virtuous emotion, whereas Seneca would like to see anger eradicated. However, when analyzed further, the differences between the two are rooted in the nature of anger. Aristotle is convinced that anger is a natural element of the soul, while Seneca disagrees and dismisses anger as unnatural.
The definition for anger given by Aristotle is as follows: “A desire accompanied by pain, for a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight at the hands of men who have no call to slight oneself or one’s friends” (Rhetoric 1378a30). To this he adds that anger should always be directed toward an individual and not toward ‘man’ in general. To Aristotle, anger is a tool of revenge that is triggered by painful desire. The definition he gives in chapter two of the second book of Rhetoric also includes a “conspicuous slight” or in other words, an obvious insult that has been brought upon somebody without obvious reason. Aristotle continues to give more detailed information on the different slighting methods. He distinguishes between contempt, spite and insolence. Each of the three having its own effect on the victim. Ultimately, anger originates from a disregard of somebody’s feelings or emotional state.

A sick man is angered by disregard of his illness, a poor man by disregard of his poverty, a man waging war by disregard of the war he is waging, a lover by disregard of his love, and so in other cases too. (Rhetoric 1379a19)

Thus, to Aristotle, every man has a predisposition to become angry, because every person may be disregarded in his most personal emotion. It can therefore be said that all men expect sympathy for his situation, but when an unexpected event occurs, anger is stirred.
Seneca defines anger in the first book of his work De Ira by explaining what is not anger. He explains that it is not anger when people get angry with gladiators, just as it is not anger when a child falls and expresses his anger at the ground. Seneca calls these kinds of emotions quasi-anger – seemingly angry (On Anger I.2.5). Anger can therefore only arise in someone that has been insulted directly. The gladiator does not offend or injure anyone in the audience. This is why the spectators have no right to become angry. Additionally, anger cannot be directed toward inanimate objects. A child expressing his grudge with the ground for causing him pain does not experience real anger. Seneca believes that real anger only arises if the mind assents to it. If something unjust has been done, the first reaction of the victim will include an awareness that something wrongful has happened. After that, a natural physical agitation will follow which consists of “pallor, falling of tears, sexual excitement or deep sighing, a sudden glint in the eyes or something similar” (On Anger II.3.2). However, these expressions of emotion should not be confused with signs of anger, but only as natural reflexes. Anger only manifests itself when it “breaks out” (On Anger II.3.4) and therefore outleaps reason.
Because the Stoics did not think of anger as a natural emotion, they found ways to treat it. Aristotle’s treatise on anger involves the management of anger, rather than treatment or cure for it. He believes that anger functions analogous to the virtues. “Like states arise from like activities” in the sense that every action asks for an appropriate reaction (Nicomachean Ethics 1103b). Aristotle illustrates this notion by comparing it to the food intake of a regular person with the intake of a professional athlete (Nicomachean Ethics1106b). If ten pounds of food is a lot and two pounds little, then the arithmetic mean is not necessarily the best for everyone. A small person might require four pounds; whereas an athletic person would need nine pounds. To Aristotle every situation is different and should be addressed with reason and care. The Stoics disagree with this very concept of rational anger; to Seneca anger is not a natural feature. In Book I of his treatise On Anger, Seneca argues that it is nonsensical that humans, being nature’s finest and most flawless work, cannot be infested with savage, ruinous anger (On Anger I.5.3). Because anger is unnatural, he advises to strictly resist the very first indications and make sure not to succumb to the “germs of anger.” In his eyes, “reason amounts to nothing once the affection has been installed” (On Anger I.8.1). Seneca’s way to treat anger then is simply to resist it, similar to a hiccup that forcefully forms itself in the deepness of one’s body.
Anger seems to be a deeply rooted evil that is almost impossible to get rid of. Seneca however explains that one can find a “spot for protection” (On Anger II.12.1) against this evil. Just like one can find a warm place in a cold winter. To Seneca, protection can be found by avoiding anger-inducing environments or by “sheer physical endurance” which has been proven to “master the feeling of … cold” and can therefore also win over anger (On Anger II.12.1). Some people, including Aristotle, will disagree with Seneca on this point. Anger is seen as a natural component of the human mind and can therefore never be controlled to the point where one can get rid of it. Seneca uses various examples of mental strength to disprove his critics. He mentions people who gave up alcohol, sex and even smiling by determination of the mind. To Seneca views the human mind as capable of doing superhuman things including giving up anger by choice. He further adds that the complete abstinence of anger is finally rewarded with “the unshaken calm of a happy mind” (On Anger II.12.6), which to him means the complete escape of all evils. He holds firm to the idea that anger is good for nothing. “Everything that the wise man has to do” he says, “he will accomplish without the help of anything evil” (On Anger II.13.3). With anger being at the root of evil, it is one of his main reasons why anger should be abolished. Seneca only allows anger in one specific instance; to use it as a rhetorical tool, which will arouse the audience.
For Aristotle, anger is permissible, yet he limits its use. In order to fully understand his reasoning, his notion of the soul has to be fully understood. He describes the soul in three parts- feelings, capacities, and states (Nicomachean Ethics 1105b). To him, ‘feelings’ are emotions that are generally accompanied by pleasure or pain, for example anger and love. ‘Capacities’ are described as the ability of experiencing these feelings. By ‘states’ Aristotle refers to our disposition to the feelings. In the instance of anger and emotional extremes, when we feel too much or too little of any emotion, we are badly disposed. Equally, when we remain between two extremes, we are well disposed (Nicomachean Ethics 1105b). This basic principle allows Aristotle to divide between simple feelings and virtues or vices. Anger is a natural feeling, but only the virtuous with capacity and the right state can use anger in a righteous way (Nicomachean Ethics 1106a). Therefore, the feeling of anger only becomes a virtue if the rational part of the body steers it into the right direction.
It is not easy to pick between the two presented schools of thought. Both have very valid points and are coherent. The main difference between the Stoics and Aristotle is the dispute around the nature of anger. Seneca is convinced that anger is unnatural and must ultimately be eliminated, where Aristotle perceives anger as a natural and virtuous part of our body, which has to be applied with utmost reason. I believe that nothing in life should be lived in excess, but every emotion is necessary including anger. When anger separates from reason and is expressed as wrath, it becomes an uncontrollable emotion and is thus an extreme. But I do believe that anger allows for a true communication of ones feelings and adds spice to ordinary emotion.

Works Cited / Bibliography:

  • Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, translated and edited by Roger Crisp. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Aristotle. Rhetoric in The Complete Works of Aristotle, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, 1984.
  • Epicteteus. The Handbook/The Encheiridion, translated by Nicholas P. White. Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.
  • Seneca. On Anger/De Ira in Seneca: Moral and Political Essays, edited by John M. Cooper and J. F. Procopé. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
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