Mar 12, 2012

Six Dimensions to Anger in Aristotle

A week ago, I gave a talk at Marist College (slides, handouts, and video), opening the cover, rifling through the pages, almost reading a few passages -- so to speak -- from a not-yet-existent book I'm in process of writing.  It still lacks a title or an introduction.  The organization of chapters, even their ordering, shifts occasionally, attaining new configurations as the research, reflection and writing continue.   But, the subject matter remains a constant -- Anger, and Aristotle's understanding of it.  I've long been fascinated by this topic -- anger in general, but also in Aristotle's works, where that emotion, or set of affective responses, or virtue and vices, or . . .  you see how complex it already shows itself to be just when trying to categorize it . . . where anger plays an important role but never gets a full systematic treatment.

Back when I was regularly contributing a set of posts on anger here -- straying rather eclectically through pieces on Epictetus, John Cassian, Anselm of Canterbury, and Martin Luther King -- I devoted two to Aristotle (one and two) in which I praised his complex, attentive, nuanced approach to anger.  Without being very explicit about this, Aristotle clearly distinguished between anger as understood from different vantage points.  At the time I wrote those posts, my view was that there were three main dimensions to the Aristotelian treatment of anger.  Now, after much reconsideration -- and this is what my talk was about -- I actually now think that there are six distinct dimensions of analysis contained in Aristotle's texts -- main books concerning anger comprising a surprisingly large list: Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, Rhetoric, Politics, and the De Anima, with yet others contributing interesting reflections upon the topic as well.


Occam's Razor and Best Explanations

You might wonder why I reconsidered my early schema, and doubled the dimensions of anger distinguished.  One of the central precepts by which I read, think about, think through, and eventually present a philosopher or a text is in a certain sense a reversal of that revered principle called Occam's razor -- or least the bastardized form invoked in contemporary disputes.  William of Occam himself said that when one is striving to make sense out of a complicated, tricky, messy matter, one ought not multiply entities beyond necessity (or at least, something like that)  He expressedly didn't say that the simplest explanation always is the best one -- let alone the most truthful one!

If you think through the full implications of Occam's pointed advice, you'll not necessarily be steered towards simpler explanations, because sometimes they don't satisfy the need, the necessity experienced when approaching something murky, partly known, disputed, even controversial -- let alone one in which we are involved ourselves, or better put, embroiled and entangled.  Anger itself -- the emotion we experience, see and even fear in others, that view-altering, motivating affective force -- that certainly fits the bill.  And, when we expand our purview to the many, never systematically connected passages where Aristotle himself addresses aspects of anger, one ought to be extremely wary of any oversimplifications, if the goal is actually to adequately understand anger -- or even Aristotle.

At first blush, adding new dimensions to a scheme, rather than finding some way to roll them into or under one of the already noted dimensions, risks an open affront to any Occamites out there.  But, in fact, my decision to diversify the philosophical palate with which I paint Aristotle's own position -- perhaps not with photographic precision, but hopefully some measure of fidelity to the original, possibly even revealing more than Aristotle himself had explicitly portrayed -- stemmed from a experimental, experienced, then examined failure, one which ought in fact to have occurred.

Revising My Earlier Views on Aristotle and Anger

Originally, I'd noted that we could distinguish between three levels of analysis of anger:  a physical-somatic one, understood in terms of changes to and within the human body; an emotional-psychological one, understood in more phenomenological terms of the passion experienced by, provoked in, sustained within and between human beings; a moral or ethical one, where anger as a passion and as actions came in for examination specifically in terms of virtues and vices, good and bad dispositions and behavior.

There turned out to be two problems with this.  First, while some discussions could be easily located within these three dimensions, for instance the penetrating examination in Rhetoric book 2 of how anger is produced, what anger is, and how anger can be intensified, a set of discussions which not only fit into but largely comprise that emotional-psychological dimension of anger -- other discussions were not so tractably categorizable.  The references to anger -- sometimes rather oblique but nevertheless there -- in Aristotle's Politics book 5, where social discord and factionalization are the explicit object of focus, seem to straddle the emotional-psychological and moral dimensions.  Other key discussions might do that as well:  considerations of anger's role in lack of self-control centered around Nicomachean Ethics book 7, but also popping up in the Politics, Rhetoric, and even On Dreams and On Memory;  mimetic depiction and evocation of anger in the Politics and Poetics; the connections between anger, courage, fear, boldness, and temperament showing up not only in Nichomachean Ethics book 3, but also in the various works on animals, and in the Politics.

Second, not only did some of these aspects of anger seem to inform more than one of those three earlier-noted dimensions, thus resisting wholesale incorporation into one or another of them, they also seemed to overflow the categories of that tripartite scheme.  The more I thought about it, and the more I pondered Aristotle's own writings and thought, the stronger the impression became that at least some of what I was reading, ruminating, writing about resisted shoehorning into the three available slots.  Each of the three additional dimensions I've settled upon for the time being made its own persuasive claim to remaining irreducible to any of the others.

This is one of those cases where whether one is really a philosopher gets put to the test -- or rather, putting it with a bit more needed humility:  whether one remains faithful to the deep and defining demands of one's own discipline.  The philosopher is someone who makes a leap of faith, to follow reason wheresoever it should go -- not blindly, making a dogma out of reason, espousing an irrational rationalism -- but humbly, appreciatively, willing to scale the crest and survey what lies beyond rather than pronouncing beforehand like a spoof of a policeman that there is nothing to see here, move along, there are simple explanations . . .  and so forth.  Equally characteristic of genuine philosophy is that, in it, as in woodworking or making music, the material being studied calls the tune, imposes its own requirements, leads one along the grain -- and so integral to the attitude of the philosopher is a kind of attentiveness.  This is even more true when one is delving into a matter aided by inquiries and insights of much better minds, like that of Aristotle.

In short, when it becomes clear that the schema, by which one is trying to make sense of something admittedly difficult, is inadequate but susceptible of improvement, one must -- oversimplifications of Occam's razor be damned! -- develop the more complicated but hopefully more adequate set of categories required by the instrument, the object, and the other persons involved in philosophy.  So, that's precisely what I did.  The six dimensions of anger -- or rather of the analysis of anger by Aristotle which I'm now working with and exploring are:
  • Physical-somatic 
  • Emotional-psychological 
  • Ethical-prohairetic 
  • Volitional-practically rational 
  • Political-legal 
  • Responsive-tharetic
These are admittedly a bit jargon-laden, so I feel as if I own some explanation for each of them.

 Dimensions of Anger

The physical-somatic dimension of anger involves the changes and processes that occur in relation to anger -- or also its lack, absence, the failure for anger to manifest.  Aristotle himself frames these in archaic biological terms of the heat or coolness of the blood, its movement around the heart, and temperaments -- not particularly useful for anyone wanting to think about anger in terms of contemporary notions of physical response, evolutionary biology, scientific study of the brain, physiological effects of hormones or other chemicals, and so on.  But, this dimension is still of considerable interest, not least because Aristotle stresses the existence of  some physical substratum for what we experience as anger, and he displays his attentiveness to phenomena in the descriptions he does provide.

Much more interesting -- not least because developed in much greater depth and detail -- is the emotional-psychological dimension, which focuses on what anger, as an emotion and response, actually is, what the angry person wants, feels , thinks, hopes for or mulls over.  It also includes study of how anger is provoked -- what its causes are -- how anger is intensified, prolonged, or directed, and even specific interpersonal dynamics whose determinate shapes anger can adopt.

Equally important and thoroughly explored is what I call the ethical-prohairetic dimension.  The first term is familiar enough, but the second is less so -- prohairesis is a key term in Aristotle's moral theory, often translated as "choice" or "deliberate choice," but perhaps better rendered by an English locution used to translate the same term in Epictetus "moral purpose," since it has not only to do with choices made in particular circumstances but the overall pattern and orientation of a person's choices and commitments.  So, on this level, we are looking at what a person does with anger, whether they exhibit virtue or vice in relation to the feeling and the actions it typically urges one towards.

Closely aligned with all three of these other dimensions is the volitional-practically rational one.  Under its rubric, I place the passages where Aristotle discusses anger's relationship with akrasia, weakness of will, a condition in which a person on some level knows what is good or bad, right or wrong, but finds him- or herself choosing and acting discordantly to that moral knowledge.  Other passages, bearing on anger's positive or negative role in practical reasoning, in determining what ought to be done, flesh out this dimension, as do other, closely connected passages where Aristotle considers the moral responsibility of the person affected by (and even those provoking) anger.

There are yet other passages concerned with responsibility, where the stress, however, falls upon the legal responsibility -- the responsibility of the person as judged by the laws or the political community.  I place those, with a few misgivings, within the political-legal dimension.  There are other discussions which clearly figure into this broader, through less explicitly explored area:  anger's role in the civil discord and factional strife Aristotle simply calls by its Greek name, stasis;  the function of public punishment and rectification; legal restrictions, at least in well-functioning communities, upon vicious expressions of anger.

A last category, about whose unity I still have the most misgivings, is what I have termed the responsive-tharetic dimension.  Anger does produce or consist in a set of responses, not only bodily but affective, which are associated not only with a desire for retribution stemming from perceived injury or insult, but also evoked by the sense of threat, whether physical or psychological. Aristotle does discuss such responses, mainly in terms of animals and their own characteristic behavior, which he takes to reflect particular temperaments, in which human beings can and do share.  We also share with the other animals an anger response analogically suggestive of the virtue of courage, dampening fear and promoting, or at least provoking action seemingly exhibiting, confidence. 

Is this the final configuration my own study will impose on the dimensions of anger Aristotle investigates?  I cannot say for certain, not least because of the misgivings -- hopefully just excessive scruples eventually to be dismissed or dispelled -- expressed just above.  I also have some thinking to do about the all to allusive references to mimetic representations -- in drama in the Poetics, music in the Politics -- of anger as well.  Perhaps after being fleshed out, they will deserve a distinct dimension of their own.