Sep 30, 2012

Anger Arising in Plato's Dialogues

In this series -- started some time back, and now restarted -- of blog posts about philosophers and theologians discussing the topic of anger (whose latest installment addresses the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus), I've been eagerly looking forward to carving out the time needed to talk about the views and insights expressed by one critically important early philosopher, Plato -- poised right between his great teacher, the gadfly Socrates, and his greatest student, the systematic philosopher Aristotle.  There's one place in particular where Plato writes most about anger, or at least the part of our personalities by which we feel that emotion -- book 4 of his dialogue, the Republic, where Socrates analyses the human soul into three main parts, anger falling within the province of the intermediate, third, spirited part, which goes by the name of thumos, or the thumoeides part.

Anger does come up fairly frequently in Platonic dialogues, but not so much as a theme specifically focused on by the interlocutors, let alone subjected to the analysis of dialectic.  Instead, we see references made to different people getting or being angry in various situations, anger brought in as part of an explanation for human actions, anger being aroused (or sometimes significantly not) or at least feared as a threat within the interlocutors during the discussions.  What I've wanted to do for a long time is to assemble these instances, like pieces of a mosaic, and see if by shuffling and sifting, then selecting them, it might not be possible to assemble a composite picture of anger complementary to the tantalizingly short Platonic discussion of anger.

Mentions of Anger in the Dialogues

Where is anger mentioned in Plato's works?  Where does it become a topic, if not of conversation as such, at least one of concern? What people are referred to either as being, having been, or liable to become angry?  And, when do they get angry?  Let's start in a simple way, just by listing the dialogues and occasions in which anger notably arises:

Anger gets treated in relatively systematic manners -- and all too briefly -- in just a few dialogues, first in book 4 of the Republic (in connection with the spirited part of the soul). Plato also begins outlines for an alternate examination of anger as a particular emotion, and in terms of pleasure and pain, in the Philebus.  In the very late work, the Laws, anger comes up again as a topic, this time in terms of motivations of human actions, specifically wrongdoing. 

Some interlocutors (or characters, if you like) grow angry during the dialogues.  If we restrict ourselves solely to instances where Plato clearly employs the terminology of anger (nouns like orge or thumos, and their verbal and adjectivial cognates, as well as verbs like aganaktein, khalapeinein, and possibly akhthomesthai), we can tally up six occasions: Socrates' "old accusers" in the Apology, his fellow Athenians in the Euthyphro, Anytus in the Meno, Critias in the Charmides, Ctesippus in the Euthydemus, Thrasymachus early on in the Republic

If we add in cases where anger is spoken of as a possibility -- for those involved in discussion, or more generally and hypothetically -- rather than as a present actuality, then the relevant dialogues include the Apology again, the Phaedo, the Crito, the Gorgias, the Protagoras, the Phaedrus, and additional parts of the Republic.

We might also place into a separate category -- for ease of discussion -- two other types of references to anger.  One set would concern anger of the gods or other divine beings, mentioned really on in the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, the Crito (if we consider the Laws divine), and the Euthyphro.  The second set, including the same passages from the Euthryphro, but also portions of the Gorgias and the Republic involve examination of how and why anger is aroused.

Who Gets Angry?

Unless, by way of interpretation -- more likely reading in our own imaginations than faithfully sticking with Plato's texts -- we ascribe this to certain characters, it turns out that relatively few people actually do get angry, at least enough for the author to tell us so, in the Platonic dialogues.  There are several instances where we actually see it occur.  The young man Anytus, a bit player in the dialogues but later one of Socrates' accusers, gets angry with Socrates for suggesting that ordinary gentlemen cannot adequately teach virtue to the next generation, agitated enough for both socrates and Meno to remark upon it.  Critias gets angry with his young student, Charmides, for doing a poor job in defending his views against Socrates' questioning, much like a writer becoming irritated with an actor's inadequate performance of his lines. Ctesippus loses his temper when a sophist, trapping him within the nets of a deceptive argument, suggests that because he wants Clinais to learn, thereby becoming better, and thus changing, Ctesippus wants him destroyed. By far the person whose anger burns hottest, brightest, and most bitter in the dialogues, though, is the young Sophist Thrasymachus, whose vehemence and force even disconcerts Socrates.

Notice that although their anger does nothing to actually advance whatever conversations are going on, there is only one case in which that emotional response risks derailing the discussion -- that of Anytus, who simply exists the stage for the time being.  Ctesippus's quick and basically off-base reaction is an understandable one -- and interestingly seems motivated more by repugnance to the notion of any threat against the object of his affection, than by the fact that a Sophist is playing facts and loose with language and logic.  Critias' irritation, directed less at Socrates than at his own young favorite, is also understandable, and fades away quickly.

It is actually his own anger, as well as desire for conflict and victory, that propels Thrasymachus to insert himself into the discussion up to that point carried out between Socrates and the other young men in Cephalus' house.  He engages Socrates in an angry manner to be sure, lapsing into verbal abuse, perhaps threatening physical aggression -- but he does carry on with the discussion, sticking with it (sullenly, to be sure) when it starts to go against him.  And, very significantly, by the end of book 1 of the Republic, Thrasymachus is said to have become calm or gentle (praos) -- he will even remain, listening patiently to the unfolding discourse, a lengthy, digression-full, deep metaphysical and moral discussion, even at one point joining the others in asking Socrates for more.

These outbursts of anger then -- what sort of moral value, good or bad, does Plato seem to be according them, if any?  Those of Ctesippus, Critias, and perhaps even Thrasymachus give the appearance of momentary lapses.  Would it be better, more rational, for a person not to grow angry in those kinds of circumstances?  Doubtless, but their ire dissipates quickly enough, once matters are cleared up, once the provocation has been placed within a broader perspective.  Such reactions of anger -- and plausibly even Thrasymachus' impatience, dismissiveness, aggressiveness -- are less a sign of a genuinely bad, and more one of an insufficiently refined and disciplined, character. 

The kind of anger that lingers, that smoulders resentfully looking to revenge itself -- that seems to be a different matter.  This is the sort of anger that Anytus threatens against Socrates, motivating him to collude with Meletus and others in bringing Socrates to trial for capital crimes against Athens.  It is also the type of anger long ago produced in, and long-held by the "older accusers" -- the politicians, orators, poets, and even craftsmen of an older generation, whose pretensions to possession of knowledge or wisdom were deflated by Socrates' dialectical questioning.  In the narrative present of the Apology, he arguably provokes anger during his first speech, precisely by his suggestion that some of the jury members might become irritated with him for not using emotional appeals, and vote against him in their anger.

Two other characters express concerns about anger of this type -- anger taking root in, reverberating throughout, not only personal but also political life.  Protagoras, speaking with a young Socrates about his career as a traveling teacher and sophist, admits  his own practice of taking precautions against arousing the anger of citizens in the cities where he plies his art.  By drawing the young men who wish to acquire knowledge to him, he risks causing resentment and hostility on the part of their elder relatives or acquaintances.  Euthyphro courts and even displays contempt towards the anger of his fellow citizens, incurred by prosecuting his own father for murder -- an act that seems impious to many of them, and on grounds that seem either shaky, quibbling, or unjust:  his father bound and placed in a ditch one of his servants who, drunk and in a fit of his own rage, killed another servant. 

Who Else Gets Angry?

The very meaning and possibility of divine anger supplied topics much explored and debated in Ancient, Patristic, and Medieval thought, but little discussed by Plato (or Aristotle for that matter). He does make a few references -- or rather has Socrates make them, all of them as far as I can tell -- to anger on the part of the gods or other divine beings.  The briefest of these occurs in the Phaedrus, where after his long and beautiful discourse upon the soul, love, the heavens, and the afterlife, Socrates asks the god of love not to withdraw his favor from him through any anger on the god's part.  This might easily be written off as mere playfulness on Socrates' part, though.

There is a somewhat more serious discussion, albeit again a very short one, early on in the Phaedo, where the context is whether one is allowed to take, or throw away, one's own life.  Socrates addresses this within a metaphysical and moral framework in which we don't belong solely to ourselves, but also -- and even more -- to the gods.  He sets out an analogy.  We would get angry with one of our possessions that destroys itself without permission.  Likewise, if we destroy ourselves, or at least end our bodily lives, without the express permission of the gods, we risk angering them.

Anger-language occurs in the Crito as well, where again, placing words in the mouthes of the personified Laws, Socrates makes another comparison.  A person's country or city has done much more good to that person than has their other benefactors, i..e their parents, and is therefore still more worthy of respect than are one's parents.  But, if one's parents become angry with one -- with good cause or without it -- a child ought to try to respect and appease that parent's anger.  So, all the more,
one ought to do so with anger borne towards one by one's own country.  The Laws add another consideration as well.  If  Socrates does take the offered opportunity to escape Athens, contravening the death sentence imposed upon him by the Laws, he will not only incur their anger.  They intimate that he will encounter anger of the laws below upon entering the afterlife.

In the Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro analogize from the lower to the higher, from human beings to gods.  Human beings get angry with each other when they disagree about certain topics in particular -- an issue we will explore further in the next post on Plato and anger -- and the gods similarly, disagreeing, get into arguments, become angry, and even hold grudges.  One has to ask, however, how much Socrates actually buys any of what is being ascribed to the gods in that discussion, given his criticism of the all-too-anthropomorphizing poets elsewhere.  And, that at least places into question the other mentions of divine anger just mentioned, in the Crito and the Phaedo.

Who Does Not Get Angry?

Against this backdrop of actual and imagined expressions of anger, one thing that might easily escape a reader of Plato's works is the lack of angry responses in certain characters and settings.  This is a line of discussion I intend to explore in more detail in another post, but I would like to call attention briefly to one interlocutor in particular, Callicles in the Gorgias.  It would be easy, given the similarities between the ideology he and Thrasymachus both espouse, to assume that his own dialogue with Socrates is marked, if not marred, by his own irritability -- but that turns out not to be the case.  Not only is Callicles not described by any of the other characters using any of the copious anger-terminology available in the Greek language, he of all people would actually have a legitimate occasion for becoming angry -- after all, Socrates is essentially heckling and insulting an honored guest (Gorgias), his student (Polus), and their profession (rhetoric) within Callicles' own house!

For his own part, Socrates appears to be as impervious to anger as he seems to be to any of the other desires or movements of the non-rational portions of the soul.  He endures heat, cold, thirst, hunger, sexual desire with equanimity.  He responds to insults, whether open or veiled, in good humor. In the Gorgias, as well as in his discussion with Polemarchus in the Republic, and in the Crito, Socrates defends a position that rules out retaliation against those who do one wrong -- an impulse not only at the root but of the very essence of anger as an emotion response.

One of the greatest dialogues, the Phaedo, contains two brief references to anger. In one of these, near the end, the jailer, bringing Socrates the brew of hemlock he is appointed to drink, contrasts him to other people in the same situation.  He notes that he won't have anything to complain about in Socrates' case, for he knows that Socrates is not angry with him, unlike the others, who do get angry with him and curse him out.  For this reason, he calls Socrates, among other things, the most mild-tempered (praotaton) of all the people who have passed through his jail.

Does this represent merely a condition of character on Socrates' part -- unmoved by other things, he's likewise unmoved to anger?  Or is this part of a deliberate decision or discipline?  Does it have some aim, some moral concern - if not for himself (since he's unlikely to lose his temper), for his other interlocutors?  In a passage of book 6 of the Republic, which we'll examine in greater detail, and set into proper context with other passages about anger from that work in a future post, Socrates suggests that the many -- who are angry and envious -- will become less so when faced with philosophers (or other people) who are, or who behave as, mild and unenvious towards them.  This involves a choice not to retaliate or respond in kind when anger arises, not to continue, let alone to intensify the course of emotion and response.  The many expect others -- including philosophers, not least because of the bad example set by the contentious, false philosophers -- to behave, to feel, to think along the same lines as themselves.  So, the genuine philosopher treating them gently offers the possibility of lessening or even entirely calming anger in them -- and this in turn affords them the chance to participate in philosophical dialogue.

Just how well this jibes with the alternate picture of Socrates as a self-proclaimed gadfly, who clearly does take jabs at and engage in irony with his interlocutors. . . that's a matter I'll have to address in a later post, along with other issues raised by -- though not entirely resolved within -- Plato's treatments of anger.