Oct 21, 2012

Plato's Treatment of Anger

In my last post, I brought up the emotional response of anger as a topic tangentially touched on -- but never worked out in systematic detail by Plato.  Not surprisingly, given the master dialogue-writer's skill  not only in leading the reader through complexities of dialectic, but in bringing before our eyes living characters, believable situations -- the sorts of encounters and exchanges in which moral discussion so often does take place -- anger does get mentioned in a variety of contexts within many of his dialogues.  I dedicated the last post mainly to enumerating instances of anger, to classifying those instances, and then to examining two sides of the same coin: who gets angry (or could get angry) in the dialogues, and who does not get angry (even though they could have)?

This follow-up post intends to dig deeper into the Plato's texts and thought, determining just how much of a systematic theoretical perspective on anger could actually be derived from those scattered passages.  It's certainly nothing as well-developed or complex as, say, Aristotle's treatment, nor for that matter even one comparable to Epictetus' Stoic perspective -- but it's nevertheless of interest.  Plato only briefly discusses what we might call the "somatic mechanics" of the passion. But he does devote some thought to the psychological workings of anger -- how it arises, what part of our soul or personality it arises within, why people become and stay angry -- and he does consider moral dimensions of it as well -- including questions such as: Is anger a bad or good thing? When should or shouldn't we be angry? -- but also extending to the very connection between anger and moral values.

Why Do People Get Angry?

This question provides a good starting point, not least because, at least in Plato's texts, it doesn't have just one answer.  As I discussed in the last post, we get to see quite a few situations where people do get angry, and for different reasons, in the dialogues. If we focus on specific cases and characters, there are:
  • Thrasymachus -- because Socrates and his interlocutors are talking about the concept of justice without putting forth any real position on it (and Thrasyamachus thinks he has one)
  • Critias -- because his views on temperance (in his view) are being badly presented by Charmides, and then criticized by Socrates
  • Ctesippus-- because it is being suggested that he would like to see Clinias be destroyed, when he really wants him to learn
  • Anytus -- because Socrates is suggesting that virtue cannot be taught, and that the class of Athenian gentlemen to which he belongs don't really know what they're doing
We could set aside Ctesippus' hasty reaction and perhaps also Critias' annoyance -- these are understandable situations in which a modality of anger does tend to arise.  Ctesippus is being told, paradoxically, perhaps from his on perspective even perversely, that he wants to harm the person he wants helped.  Add to that the fact that this is being asserted by a sophist who is jesting with Ctesippus, and playing fast and loose with language and logic, and his irritation makes sense.  Not having things go one's way -- that seems to be the root of Critias' anger as well.

Do these examples lead us into the essence of anger?  Not really -- a kind of angry reaction, but not anger itself.  The anger Thrasymachus openly displays, alongside his contentiousness, his desire for dominance -- this seems closer to the essence of anger.  Likewise, Anytus's own rancor, carried off by him, nursed until it can bloom into full effect in Socrates' trial -- and here would be the place to bring in the anger Socrates recalls having produced in so many other Athenians when by his questioning he deflated their claims to knowledge and wisdom.  I think one can also associate with these the anger of his fellow Athenians that Euthyphro mentions as arising over his prosecution of his father -- and we might reasonably read into his words a second cause as well, one which is very revealing.

It's not often remarked that Euthyphro is claiming a position or condition that is in certain respects similar to that of Socrates -- he guesses that Meletus is charging Socrates for impiety because of the personal daemon or divine sign whose bidding he follows
He thinks that you are a neologian. . . . He knows that such a charge is readily received by the world, as I myself know too well; for when I speak in the assembly about divine things, and foretell the future to them, they laugh at me and think me a madman. Yet every word that I say is true. But they are jealous of us all; and we must be brave and go at them.
Euthyphro portrays himself  (at least early on!) and Socrates as kindred (and equally persecuted) spirits, standing out as wise men by contrast to the foolish many.  Interestingly, Socrates himself will mention anger, or at least "getting riled up" (thumountai, my translation) on the part of the Athenians in his immediate response to Euthyphro. 

What is it about Socrates' characteristic method -- and the results in so many cases -- and what is it about Euthyphro's contentions, that provoke anger on the part of other people?  Answering this gets us closer to the hot glowing heart of anger.  It has something to do with speech, with discussion, with assertion, with moral claims.  Does Plato at least provide us with any clues as to what direction we need to take or look, any Ariadne's thread through the labyrinth of our darker emotions?

Moral Disagreement and Anger

At least in Plato's view, one of the most common types of occasions arousing or provoking anger in when people find themselves in disagreement -- and not just over any matters, but certain types of them, those of deep meaning and concern.  To be sure, anger can arise over other things as well -- which we'll look at shortly -- but it does also develop when people hold, express, or arrive at different judgements about moral matters.  The classic, though unfortunately all too short discussion of this, is in the Euthyphro, when Socrates is questioning him about the sorts of matters upon which gods and human beings not only disagree, but once engaged in disagreement, have no easy, unambiguous, agreed-upon ways to settle -- what we might call the natures, the bearers, and the importance of moral values and disvalues. 

What are these moral values and disvalues?  Plato consistently brings up three distinct modalities -- the just and the unjust, the noble and the base, the good and the bad.  One can add to these several others -- the holy and the profane (or unholy), the useful (or advantageous) and the harmful, as well as others.  Those three, however tend to be accorded pride of place, getting referred to not only in the Republic, but also in the Crito, where Socrates identifies them as what the wise person -- as opposed to the foolish and inconsistent many -- actually does know and understand. 

Given that people do have differing conceptions -- and often unconstant, wavering, unclear conceptions as well -- of these values and disvalues so absolutely and inescapably central in moral life, it's not surprising that they would end up in disagreements.  But it doesn't seem to necessarily follow from this that they thereby end up getting angry with each other.  Why does this happen then?  It does us little good to learn simply that when people do disagree about these -- and can't resolve the disagreements  -- that they get angry, though that does suggest one clue:  the inability itself can be a source of frustration.

Socrates in fact suggests something more definite, stemming from the affective responses which these moral values and disvalues provoke in us.  When a person perceives something -- rightly or wrongly, as the case may be -- as good, or just, or beautiful, or honorable, they feel positively towards it -- in fact he goes so far as to say that in some sense he loves it.  And, likewise, perception of something -- or someone -- as bad, as unjust, as dishonorable (even as physically ugly or musically discordant) tends to produce the opposite affective reaction, going so far as hatred.  Or. . .  anger.

Socrates does not spell this out, and Euthyphro -- preoccupied with the argument -- does not ask about this, but there's no reason we can't reconstruct how these moral disagreements lead to anger.  Let's take the simplest situation possible -- two people, disagreeing about whether one single thing is good or bad, just or unjust, honorable or dishonorable.  Person A believes the thing good, and therefore feels positively towards it.  Person believes the thing bad, and therefore feels negatively towards it.  Person A thinks person B is wrong -- and likely feels somewhat negatively towards person B as a result, since after all, being wrong is a bad thing, and perhaps even a bad quality or characteristic.  And likewise, Person B feels the same of Person A in turn.  Each of them also knows -- and can probably sense -- that the other person feels negatively towards them, which they probably don't like and view as bad as well.  Add all of these affective responses together, superimpose them, even allow them to augment each other, and you've got a situation ripe for -- even rife with -- angry responses, which once added into the mix can generate still more misunderstanding and discordance between the people.

Discussions in several other dialogues suggest determinate ways in which moral disagreement arouse anger between the disputants.  In the Protagoras, that venerable philosopher points out that people do get angry when another person lays claim to a competence which those people do not think the claimant to possess.  He does make an exception for those who claim knowledge or aptitudes in matters of justice or political science, saying that people don't get angry at them.  But, that actually seems less likely.  So long as their claims to a knowledge they don't actually possess -- a knowledge of moral qualities -- go unchallenged and don't present a problem, people don't get angry at those claiming such skills or wisdom.  But, if disagreement does arise, it often bears not only upon the actual topic about which claims are being made, but also about the competences of those making the claims.

In the Gorgias -- where, as I pointed out previously, one would really expect anger to occur, it interestingly does not, even on the part of Callicles -- Socrates lets us in on another way in which anger might arise when it comes to disagreements about moral matters.  He suggests that when people are discussing or debating ambiguous or poorly defined subjects -- and by their very nature and difficulty, moral values tend to fall into that class -- people do tend to get angry.  This occurs when one person claims that the other person is saying things that are either unclear, or that are actually incorrect -- and that angers the person against whom that charge is made.  Why?  Because they believe that their interlocutor is not acting in good faith -- they think that the other person makes that claim motivated by a desire to won the debate, rather than to seek truth, or even recognize what might be right about their opponent's views.

In Republic book 5, Socrates provides yet another possibility for understanding this dynamic. After distinguishing knowledge and mere opinion from each other -- discussing the former as grasping the forms in which the many sensible things participate, and the latter as preoccupied with the sensible instances or examples -- he asks what one can do with the person who has opinion but not knowledge.  For such people grow angry when they actually do lack the knowledge which they mistakenly believe themselves to possess, and it is suggested -- truthfully -- that they don't have that knowledge, but mere opinion. Again, when the claims have to do with moral matters, and people both disagree and think that they are not only in the right, but know something about the subjects of dispute, the situation is primed for anger to erupt.

The Moral Status of Anger

It can be said that Plato accords a somewhat ambiguous moral status to anger.  It generally seems to be portrayed as something bad, as dangerous, as both cause and symptom of moral misunderstandings, as an occasion for poorly thought-out decisions that harm oneself and injure others (including Socrates!).  His characters attempt to calm each other or to forestall anger before it breaks out in some of the dialogues, and Socrates actually continues the just mentioned book 5 discussion by considering how such a person might be mollified, rendered calm or gentle. He continues later in book 6, suggesting that the many, who are angry and envious will become less so when faced with philosophers (or other people) who are mild and unenvious towards them, who treat them differently than they might expect -- either from their own example, or from the example of contentious, false philosophers -- who, you might say, break the cycle or dynamic of disagreement, discord, anger, and perhaps even continued grudges, resentment, and eventually hatred.

In the earlier books of the Republic, discussing both the class of the auxiliaries -- soldiers and police who protect the city -- and its analogue in the soul -- the thumotic, passionate, energetic part, the portion by which we feel and act on anger, among other emotions and drives (though that emotion is the one mentioned in order to single it out from the other portions), Plato reveals a few more guarded assessments of anger.

In book 3, he notes that those in whom the spirited element is strong or predominant need the tempering of musical education, lacking which they tend towards a kind of instability, becoming quickly angered, easily provoked -- not a condition Plato considers good by any means.  He in fact contrasts it against a good condition of that part of the soul -- it is prone to irritation and rage -- and against the virtue of that part of the soul, courage.  Although Plato is generally taken to counterpose to courage only the vice of cowardice, in this passage, he seems to be setting out poorly ordered anger as a vice opposed to courage as well.

In book 4, focusing a bit more closely on that spirited portion of the soul, Plato gives us several more indications about his views upon anger.  His focus, of course, remains on what for him seems to be a more important topic -- the function of the spirited part, which is most realized in the development and exercise of the virtue of courage.  But he does narrate a case in which a person becomes angry with himself, or rather with parts of himself -- his eyes, motivated by desires to look upon unwholesome, gross sights.  In such cases, it is the spirited part of the person's soul which is stirred up against oneself -- or, put even more in terms of Platonic psychology, the spirited part becomes actuated against the desirous or appetitive part of the person.  A discord breaks out among the faculties, and even if appetite wins out against thumos in that case, thumos does at least get to engage in its own characteristic activity -- fighting, raging, exerting energy.

Plato also reveals a complex interconnection between the spirited part, the emotional response of anger, and conceptions (right or wrong) of justice and injustice.  Anger arises from a perception not only that some harm has been done, some inconvenience has been imposed, some wish, desire, or intention has been frustrated -- but all the more from a sense that some wrong has been committed, that someone or something is unjust.  This depends then very much upon what a person thinks or feels to be unjust -- and likewise by contrast what they feel to be just.  If a person is mistaken about these matters, or even has a rather confused, emotionally-driven conception of justice and injustice, they are much more likely to become angry in the first place -- and will also get angry over things they ought not to get angry about.  In general:
. . . when he thinks that he is the sufferer of the wrong, then he boils and chafes, and is on the side of what he believes to be justice; and because he suffers hunger or cold or other pain he is only the more determined to persevere and conquer. His noble spirit will not be quelled until he either slays or is slain; or until he hears the voice of the shepherd, that is, reason, bidding his dog bark no more.
Reason might not be working all that well, though -- rather than ruling the spirited part, as it ought to, it can be impressed into its service (or that of the appetites as well), resulting in the configurations representing both badly ordered souls and misordered political communities which Plato sketches in book 8 of the Republic.  In particular, the spirited art of the soul, attentive to and desirous of honor, of victory, of success -- easily tends towards anger.  All that it requires is a mistaken conception of justice and injustice -- say, that other people owe one precisely the degree of honor one desires from them, and that if they do not supply this  they treat one unjustly -- and a provocation, and then thumos is aroused. Reason in that case, rather than setting down limits on the expression of anger, might be employed solely to seek out means for revenging oneself -- or perhaps extended to rationalizing one's own angry attitude, making the case to oneself and to others that the other person really wronged the angered party.

For Plato, a proper orientation towards anger is not merely a matter of the rational faculty ruling, giving its advice to the passionate, spirited faculty, perhaps even making sure it is gainfully employed in restraining the appetites, or in resisting and rising against outside threats -- it involves a tempering, a training, an ordering within that very non-or semi-rational faculty of thumos.  Again, we find a complex set of connections between understandings of justice and injustice, the thumotic faculty, and the response of anger.  So, for example, if:
a man thinks he has done a wrong to another, the nobler he is the less able is he to feel indignant at any suffering, such as hunger, or cold, or any other pain which the injured person may inflict upon him --these he deems to be just, and, as I say, his anger refuses to be excited by them. 
For Plato, the goal is not a total inirascability, an inability to grow angry -- nor is it a godlike self-mastery that would preclude any angry responses whatsoever.  There are situations in which one ought to grow angry, and act out that anger, when morally this is the right thing to do.  But clearly, he thinks that better people will not only fall much more on the side of gentleness and calm than on the much more common side of rage, quick temper, irritability, bitterness -- even when finding themselves right in the midst of galling moral disagreements -- and he suggests that such people will also tend to exercise a kind of calming influence upon others as well.

This is admittedly something that would require to be spelled out in greater detail, and while I think that there are resources in Plato's text to support such an idea, I'll be the first to admit that this position involves some systematic exegesis and interpretation -- entering into dialogue with Plato that goes beyond the mere available letter of the text.  So, at this point I'd just like to point out one passage from Republic book 10 that does explicitly mention anger in relation to training of the soul through artistic production and consumption, through culture -- a discussion echoing a number of other passages in books 3, 4, and 8 depicting similar opportunities for culture and consumption to well or poorly educate the soul.

In book 10, poetry and drama are criticized for depicting the emotions or desires and characteristic associated actions.  If reason or habit have not yet trained us well, we are easily drawn into the mimetic representation of these emotions and desires, and our own souls begin to take on their shapes, directions, evaluations, tendencies, though a sort of communication, or contagion. We try them on, as it were, imaginatively, and come to find them more and more natural, even congenial, appropriate, necessary.  As Plato argues (in Socrates' words):
And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure. . . . poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled, if mankind are ever to increase in happiness and virtue.
We needn't, of course, accept the notion of an irreconcilable conflict between poetry and philosophy -- one difficult to reconcile, in fact, with Plato's own poetic predilections! -- nor even the seeming verdict that nearly all extent mimetic productions contribute to making us worse, making our souls more disordered with respect to emotions, including anger.  But, we ought to reflect not only on the role that these productions -- media, music, drama, even play -- exercise in our moral life.  We ought to think about what would be required for mimesis that places us on a path to progress with anger.