Your feelings and actions stem from your perspective. And vice versa. This means that if you think in angry ways you will feel angry and act on it. And that if you think in non-angry ways you are less likely to be angry. This give us the freedom, to some degree, to ask whether we should accept our anger, or try to move beyond it. One of the world's leading philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, argues that anger is bad for our lives, that we should try to move beyond it and that there is a better way of being.
Nussbaum makes the case in her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness. She accedes that anger serves psychological functions, particularly from an evolutionary perspective, but she questions whether in today's context it is still good for us.
There are other philosophers who think that anger is part of a good and healthy way of being, provided it is a reasonable response to wrongdoing or trespass. In that case, they argue, it expresses self-respect and a sense of justice. Nussbaum disagrees.
Nussbaum starts by pointing out that emotions expresses attitudes. A lot of people assume that emotions are merely feelings, but tht gets its wrong - they are also perspectives. You could say that an emotion is a perspective which has a feeling, bodily dimension. So to feel anger is feel something, but also to hold the opinion that some wrong has been done. Nussbaum says that anger expresses two kinds of opinion. One is focused on social status, on how another’s wrongdoing has lowered me socially (or lowered those I care about), for example by disrespecting me in front of others. The second tries to undo the wrong through payback, as though we can take back what was taken from us by inflicting a similar wound.
Nussbaum assesses these two aspects of anger. She says that "status" anger is coherent as an attitude, but is morally questionable because it is narcissistic. It is rooted in egoism. The ideal we should strive for is to be less concerned what others think of us - to be more wise and self-possessed than that.
Nussbaum then turns to "payback" anger, and shows that it contains the opposite flaw: it is morally more worthy - we want to right the wrong that was done - and yet it is incoherent: two wrongs do not make a right. An eye for an eye will not restore your sight.
Nussbaum also notes that anger is backward-looking, focused on to the wrong done. She says that while this is psychologically understandable, yet it is a trap. What we need instead is to "transition": to transition to recreating what has been damaged. In the face of harm we need to rebuild. To heal. To protect from further harm. And to create something better.
It can be hard to move on from anger when we have been deeply wounded, and often I have to remind angry people of that: to be patient with themselves, accepting of their human nature. And yet I think Nussbaum is right, when she is talking about these kinds of anger. The ideal we should strive for, if we are to build a better life and contribute to a better world, is the transition, which focuses on building, healing, protecting, and creating.
Anybody who has suffered from anger in the face of a betrayal, or abuse, or neglect, may find Nussbaum's book challenging, but it may help them. For while many people defend anger in theory, I can say from my work that most people who suffer from it long to be free. It is like acid in the soul. And those who embrace anger can become bitter, and this leads to physical, psychological, and social damage in their life. I think of certain clients whom I saw for an extended period, who defended themselves from their emotional pain by losing themselves in anger. I predicted that each would develop a physical problem as a result, and that did happen, usually in the form of chronic pain. Be warned, anger can destroy you. As the ancient Chinese saying goes, When you set out to get revenge, remember to dig two graves.
It can be helpful to realise that anger is usually a secondary emotion. It distracts us from something else. Nussbaum points out that below anger usually lies grief. When a wrong is done to me, for example I am betrayed or abused, the core of the experience involves feelings of loss, violation, devaluation, sorrow, and helplessness. To feel anger in that context is to fantasise that I am not helpless, that I have power ("Watch out!"). This is a refusal to accept the reality of loss and find a proper way of being strong again. Where our profound and noble strength lies most, is in our power to transition, to rise above above the other’s failure and build, heal, protect, and create.
My main criticism of Nussbaum’s book is that I think she is wrong to reduce all of anger to status or payback. Plato was right and she is wrong. We need thumos, the warrior spirit, with its preparedness to do violence - whether that be physical, or in modern civilised society for example legal. We need that strong, warrior energy. But as Plato and Aristotle recognised, it needs to be just. You need to be able to defend yourself and the things that matter, and that sometimes requires a fierce energy we may call anger. And as jungian psycologists like Robert Moore recognise, we need this warrior energy for our own wellbeing, terms of our inner life and way of being. If we try to repress it, for example by ‘rising above it’, it won’t go away, it will simply turn malignant and do us and others harm. I see this regularly as a therapist, and have learned to be wary of anybody who is too nice or too righteous. Just as an excess of bad anger will harm you, a deficiency of healthy anger will harm you too.
At the same time, Nussbaum is pointing to two common, bad forms of anger that enter into all of us. And we are right to overcome them. Human beings have always tried to defend themselves from their vulnerability by unjust anger, and we do harm through that. People love to feel indignant, offended - it is like a drug - but it tears our society and relationships apart, and makes us do wrong to one another. And it makes us reptilian, rather than noble and profound as human beings can be. So the lesson in her book is that we ought, and can, to overcome base or pathological forms of anger. But I suggest we should maintain our noble anger. The warrior spirit which is vital to the wellbeing of all of us.
The the topic of the next reflection is how we do that.