Jan 15, 2011

Aristotle's (Developing) Definition of Anger

In my last blog entry, I lauded Aristotle for having developed a sophisticated, phenomenologically attentive, and non-reductive treatment of anger which examined the matter from  several different perspectives.  Aristotle himself did not bring together his many different references to anger, many of them mere asides, sketches pregnantly outlined but not elaborated, some of them longer and more systematic but still incomplete analyses and descriptions, but I aim to do so, to set out the Treatise on Anger Aristotle could have written should he have chosen to do so,  in one of the books I am currently writing.  I'd like to follow up with one very important part, a linchpin if you will -- or perhaps better put, a clef de voute -- to all of his thinking on anger:  Aristotle's definition of anger as an emotion (pathos), a passion of the soul.

I'd mentioned in that last entry that Aristotle distinguished between ways anger would be looked at, varying according to the concerns associated with that perspective or methodological stance.  The passage (from the De Anima) I'd cited in part runs (my translation):
In each of these cases, the natural philosopher and the dialectical philosopher would define [the thing] in different ways, e.g. what anger is.  The one [will define it] as a desire for causing pain in return (antilupēseōs), or something like that (ē  ti toiouton), the other as  a surge or boiling (zesin) of blood and heat around the heart (peri kardian).  Of these two, the latter provides its material basis (tēn hulēn), the other its form (eidos) and its account (logon).
The person who approaches anger along its physical-somatic dimension will view it as a biological, perhaps medical, phenomenon, looking to its physical or bodily basis (and for some, reducing psychology to that basis as well).  They will not grasp the essence of anger, however, what it is, what it means.  Knowing the biological portion does not even mean knowing all of the how in how anger works. 
The "dialectical" point of view is not actually one confined to a single subject or discipline. It spans the spectrum from the psychotherapist interested in the workings of anger in order to assist his or her clients in managing it.  It might be the rhetor, the public speaker Aristotle writes to and about in the Rhetoric, who needs to know how to arouse and quell and how to direct anger in an audience.  It could also be the moral philosopher or theologian, the politician, the community leader or organizer.  It might even be the poetic producer, working through writing, music, drama, who needs to understand the intricate workings, unfoldings, and interactions of human emotions. 

The passage explicitly mentions only two features of anger as Aristotle will later define it, but implies a third.  Anger is (firstly) a type of desire, a desire (secondly) for a certain type of retribution, or more literally (thirdly) making another person suffer pain in return.  Looking at two other definitions of anger provided in the Topics, however, it becomes clear that all three of these aspects are integral to anger’s definition.  The first of these alternate definitions runs:  "pain (lupē), with the assumption (meta hupolēpseōs) of being slighted."  The second adds even more relevant aspects: "a desire (orexis) for retribution (timōrias) aroused by an apparent slighting” (dia phainomenēn oligorian, literally "making little of someone").  Yet another Topics passage tells us that “pain  and the assumption of slighting (hupolēpsis oligorias) seem to be predicated within the essence (en tōi ti esti) of anger."

These passages placed together begin to establish a composite picture which resembles Aristotle's fuller, more elaborate definition of anger in Rhetoric bk II. Recurring features emerge from these different characterizations, particularly the involvement of desire, a feeling of pain, the sense of being wronged in some way, and some type of retributive response. Interestingly, in the Nichomachean and Eudemian Ethics discussions, more philosophically rigorous than the Rhetoric, Aristotle never provides definitions of anger.  It seems reasonable to assume that in those works Aristotle relies on his readers already knowing and employing anger’s definition.

The Rhetoric definition of anger runs:
a desire (orexis), accompanied by pain (meta lupēs), for apparent retribution (timōrias phainomenēs), aroused by an apparent slighting (dia phainomenēn oligorian) against oneself or those connected to oneself , the slighting being undeserved (or unbefitting, another way to render mē prosēkontos)  
Notice how complex an emotion anger is, and how it ties the person experiencing it into a social and moral world already imbued by human desires, relationships, affectively charged beliefs and expectations.   Each portion of Aristotle's definition is highly significant and is provided additional explanations and amplifications in his texts.

Anger also has an additional essential component not mentioned directly in the Rhetoric definition, but discussed elsewhere in the that work, i.e., that it not only involves a sort of pain but also a certain kind of pleasure (tina hēdonēn, 1378b).  A composite Aristotlean definition of anger, using the Rhetoric definition as its basis, but taking into account the passages about pleasure and the Topics and De Anima passages could be framed as:
Anger is a desire, accompanied by both pain and pleasure, for apparent retribution (or, the other suffering in return), aroused by an apparent slighting (or, the assumption of slighting), against onself or those connected to oneself, the slighting being undeserved.
This composite Aristotelean definition of anger provides a linguistic and conceptual expression for the most general dynamic of anger, the way in which anger is, works, and functions.  As with the other passions, Aristotle’s treatment of anger is explicitly oriented by three main categories of analysis: the state or disposition of those who are angry; the people with whom they get angry; and the things that make them angry.

Each of these analytic categories fits in with portions of anger’s definition.  The state or disposition of those who are or get angry involves the desire for retribution, pain, and pleasure (as well as, one’s habitual structures of emotion, attitude, and action).  What makes people angry is what appears to them to be undeserved slighting against themselves or their own.  They become angry at those they think slight them or those connected to them without good reason.

Aristotle also helpfully distinguishes different modes of slighting, giving us a better sense of how far that term extends.  Those he mentions and discusses are: contempt (kataphronēsis, literally "looking down on"); spitefulness (epēreasmos); and outrage or insolence (hubris). And, with those, I end this post, leaving specific dynamics, a few puzzles, and virtues or vices concerned with anger in Aristotle's thought for later entries.