Sep 24, 2016

One Sentence Summary on Aristotle and Anger

As the current editor of Stoicism Today, and a frequenter of various social media Stoicism-focused groups, I wind up wading into quite a few discussions bearing not only on Stoic philosophy, but on practical philosophy more generally, particularly when the conversation turns to two other matters that I do quite a bit of work on - Aristotelian philosophy, and the emotion of anger.

In the course of one of those discussions in the Facebook Stoicism Group, an interlocutor asked me if I could provide a one-sentence summary of Aristotle's position on anger.  If that was something easy to do, I would have done so right then and there.  But since it isn't I decided I'd put some thought into it and then provide an answer later.  And that's exactly what I'm doing now.

Aristotle's position on anger is that it is one of the most complex and distinctive of the human emotions, that it involves bodily, psychological, social, and moral dimensions, and that anger can and ought to be felt and acted upon in a number of right ways.

An Aristotelian Position On Anger

There's my attempt at a one-sentence summary.  It leaves out an awful lot, as any summary ought to in order to be a summary at all.  So, there's nothing wrong on that account.  But there's another manner in which matters might be left out as well.  If we want to talk about an Aristotelian position on anger - and there's excellent reasons why we ought to do so - then any summary ought at least to attempt do justice to the main features of that position.  And, as it turns out, there are quite a few - more than three at least - main features to the position articulated in Aristotle's texts.

I'd like to say just a few words first, though, expanding on that remark that there are excellent reasons to talk about an Aristotelian position on anger.  I'll just mention four such reasons.  The first of these is that, although he didn't write a treatise specifically on anger, and an interpreter has to do a good bit of work piecing together what Aristotle's position on anger is from multiple texts, there definitely is a coherent and complex position on the emotion and connected topics to be found in his works.

A second reason is that, after Aristotle himself dies, the Aristotelian position continues, sometimes just at the level of commentary, interpretation, and application of his thought (but that's often quite good stuff, and worth reading), sometimes genuinely building off Aristotle's work to fashion new philosophical syntheses both indebted to Aristotle's thought and advancing beyond it (think, for instance of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, or Alasdair MacIntyre in the 20th and present centuries).  Some of these thinkers also make contributions to understanding anger in a fundamentally Aristotelian manner.

There is a third reason closely connected to the second.  When it came to anger, the Aristotelians - both Aristotle and his many successors - were identified as a distinct tradition, with a particular doctrine on the emotion, its workings, its moral import, and other related matters.  In fact, the Aristotelians were identified for the most part by non-Aristotelians as having one of the wrong positions on anger!  Whether we are talking about Stoic, Epicurean, eclectic (like Cicero), Middle Platonist, medical (like Galen), or even early Christian (for instance, Lactantius) writers, there was a pretty clear conception of just what the Aristotelian position on anger was in ancient times.

The fourth reason is that we can continue to meaningfully speak of an Aristotelian (or neo-Aristotelian) position on anger today.  As someone who moves in both Aristotelian and other circles, I wouldn't say that it's a position that's particularly well-known, understood, or appreciated by all of those who self-identify as Aristotelians, but it is by quite a few.  And, although one might certainly disagree with certain components or assertions of that perspective, I think - and I've argued - that it is one whose resources and insights are badly needed in the present.


What More Needs to Be Said About Aristotle's Position

What got left out of that summary sentence above?  Quite a lot, since I didn't think it would be helpful or appropriate to stretch the meaning of "one sentence" into some Ciceronian-length and -complexity paragraph-disguised-as-sentence!  Smuggling in a lot of information through using three "that. . . " locutions already seemed to be pushing it.

Aristotle's position on anger is complex enough in its outlines - not even going into full detail - that are spread out over quite a few of his works that, in an on-again-off-again project, I've been writing a book reconstructing it (which I hope to have done in the next 2-3 years, at my current rate!).  In fact, one of the reasons why those who become familiar with at least part of his theory of anger first-hand often don't realize just how complex it is, turns out to be that it is discussed partly in one work, partly in another, partly in yet another, and so on.

If you come at Aristotle mainly through the Nicomachean Ethics, for instance, you'll certainly get a sense that anger is an important matter for moral life.  You'll see him using it as an example early on for his nuanced understanding of virtue (and virtuous action and emotional response) as a mean, one that is not just a "middle spot" but which involves all sorts of "right"s (e.g. occasion, person, time, intensity, etc.)  You'll also encounter his discussion of the virtue of good temper and a number of opposed vices.  And, you'll discover that he not only views loss of self-control (akrasia) with respect to anger as a distinct mode of loss or lack of self-control, but that he even views it as morally better than akrasia per se.

But what you won't get is his analysis of anger's nature, causes, and effects as a psychological and social phenomenon in Rhetoric book 2, or his less well-worked-out discussions of anger as a bodily response and state spread thoughout a number of other works.  You'll miss his references to anger's role in social discord, faction, and breakdown in Politics book 5.  One could go on and on about this, so suffice it to say that unless one is prepared to read across the Aristotelian corpus - or find a good secondary source doing the work of tying all these threads together - there are aspects to Aristotle's position on anger one is likely to miss.

A Few Resources for Understanding Aristotle's Position

In the course of researching and writing about Aristotle and anger over the last decade and a half, I've ended up giving quite a few talks, workshops, and other presentations that were intended to further my work on the book.  (I have to admit that quite often this hasn't been exactly the case!).  Some of these are recorded, and for those who might be interested, I'm providing links to them here.

I've also got several handouts available that people might find interesting or useful:


Sep 13, 2016

Stoic Comedy and Commentary

A few years back, I came across some of an Australian comedian, Michael Connell's, philosophically-focused comedy routines on YouTube.  After I emailed him and proposed having a chat sometime, we ended up not only doing that, but also carrying on an online correspondence and occasionally collaborating on various projects where our skills and interests intersected.

The first of these collaborations took place on my long-since-lapsed philosophy forum series.  Back then, I was experimenting with Google Hangouts on Air, and so I proposed that Michael and I discuss philosophy and comedy.  Each of us was a seasoned professional in one field and an interested amateur in the other, and it went quite well, I think.

Since then, Michael has been developing a lot more philosophy-informed content - really excellent stuff! - including a short bit with him dressed like the Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.  More recently, he released his much longer Stoic Comedy Special.   He's also engaged in some thoughtful and illuminating discussion about what attracted him to Stoic philosophy, how he managed to fit it into his comedy work and his life, and what implications it has had for his own craft.

Aug 21, 2016

Should Stoics Be Concerned About Others?

In a 6-week online course on Epictetus I'm presently teaching though my company, ReasonIO, I got asked a question that keeps popping up, quite naturally, when we're considering Stoic Ethics.  I'm also in the process of consolidating and rewriting posts from my other blogs into pieces here in Orexis Dianoētikē. Here's a piece originally published in Virtue Ethics Digest that frames and addresses those general concerns - Should a Stoic be concerned about (non-)Stoic others? And further, how and why?

Over the course of Stoic Week 2015, I created a sequence of seven videos, four of which focused on discussions of key Stoic doctrines in the works of the Roman orator, statesman, and philosopher, Cicero (who was not himself a Stoic, but who did admit himself attracted to a number of their doctrines, particularly in the field of Ethics.  On one of those videos, one of my interlocutors - a very bright, young South African student and blogger, Marc Smit asked me a very important question.

I feel that Stoicism does offer relevant ideas for me as individual, in the sense that I can apply it to my own thoughts, feelings or actions bearing on things that happen to me, but how do I respond to these things when then happen to others, notably friends or loved ones?

Aug 17, 2016

Musings About Life On YouTube

This weekend, my main YouTube channel - a largely academic channel devoted primarily to lectures about philosophical texts and thinkers  - passed a significant milestone.  Over 30,000 viewers are presently subscribers to the channel, and we're rapidly approaching 3 million total views.

Those numbers are particularly gratifying given that the videos I produce are on the low-tech, low-production - but high-content - end of the spectrum.  It shows that there's a real desire for substantive engagement with ideas out there, and that, if you produce content that helps people grapple with those ideas, what you out out there will indeed be watched.  And not just watched, but shared, commented on, and used by students, lifelong learners, working professionals - and even other academics.

Once I passed the 30,000 subscribers mark, I took a look through the figures - the "analytics" - YouTube provides me about the channel and the videos in it.  There's several other figures that are in many respects even more telling.  One of those is the total number of minutes that have been viewed - and that's a staggering number.  As I recheck those numbers tonight, it's 29,104,280 minutes.  29 million!  That has me once again mulling over something I've thought about from time to time over these last five years.  Quite simply - my YouTube avatar has existed for more total time than I have.

Jul 19, 2016

Worlds of Speculative Fiction - An Update

Earlier this year, I announced the start of a new public lecture series, called "Worlds of Speculative Fiction," partnering with the Brookfield Public Library.  I've still got the intention of engaging in some writing here about the philosophical themes in the authors and works that we've been focusing on - my involvement in a variety of other projects, and other commitments, have unfortunately precluded me from getting those posts finished and published (but I'll have some coming out in August, when the author I'll be focusing on in the lecture will be Ursula K. Leguin).

We've already held seven of the scheduled twelve lectures and discussions for 2016 - and there's a good chance that we'll continue the series with twelve more in 2017 (if we do, keep an eye out for a post soliciting suggestions about who I might tackle in the new year).  For those who - due to geography or time - haven't been able to attend, but are interested to see what we discussed, here's the videos in the series so far:
We've got some heavy-hitters of science-fiction and fantasy lined up for discussion the coming months.  Ursula K. Leguin and her Hainish stories in August.  Then Michael Moorcock's Multiverse and his Eternal Champion in September, followed by the alternate America found in certain of Phillip K. Dick's novels in October.  November will focus on Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy, and we will round out the year in December by discussing George R.R. Martin's massive Song of Ice and Fire (what we've got of it so far!).

If there's sufficient interest down the line, we may consider putting together some online events oriented around the intersections between science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy as well, but that's something perhaps better discussed later on....