How to Look at Anger: Aristotle's Example

Among the many philosophers, theologians, and psychologists who discuss anger, Aristotle exemplifies a particularly well-worked out and fruitful approach to that ubiquitous human phenomenon.  Three overarching features of his account are worth pointing out both as essential to it and as reasons for its enduring strength and value.

The first of these, which I will only note but not explore in depth here, is that Aristotle notices that, as an emotion, anger possesses a certain uniqueness.  His teacher, Plato points out something related, even perhaps analogous in distinguishing a thumotic portion of the soul (in which anger presumably exercises its sway), a part concerned with honor and more amenable to the guidance of rationality, from a lower, baser, merely desirous or appetitive part of the soul.  But Aristotle goes further.  Anger has its residence and rule in the intersection of desire and (partial) rationality, involving conceptions of justice and self-worth violated by another.  Anger, as an emotion and as its characteristic response, is inextricably bound up with our moral manifolds.  Other emotions involve moral notions and values as well, even those of justice and injustice, but none are quite so closely connected with them as is anger.  Nor are any other emotions in Aristotle's treatment so closely aligned with rationality (logos) that he can compare anger to a hasty servant who, listening to only half the instructions, reasons to an erroneous conclusion.

The second feature is that Aristotle's discussions of anger are, like the rest of his philosophy, dialectical in development.  He incorporates any and all material which will shed some light or add a new consideration to the complex subject.  Aristotle is an excellent phenomenologist of moral life avant la lettre, providing descriptions of anger's functioning, motivation, and dynamics.  He canvasses the existing literature of his time.  He brings in, as best as could be done in the ancient period, the voices of medicine and natural science.  Then he sifts and questions, fitting anger bit by bit (albeit never in a systematic way -- there is no Aristotelian Treatise on Anger) within the frame of his moral theory. 

The third feature of note is what I am particularly interested in writing about in this blog entry, and it ties in with one of the book projects for which I have been off and on carrying out research and writing.  The aim of that book is to exegetically reconstruct a systematic Aristotelian treatment of anger and to bring Aristotle into conversation with later (even contemporary) thinkers on the subject.  What drew me into that project was not only the opportunity of engaging in the type of "philosophical detective work" I very much enjoy (bringing together in a progressively more systematic totality disparate references to a subject in a thinker's corpus), nor was it just that Aristotle's views and my own on anger coincide so often than I am tempted to think he is entirely right (though I also know that's not so!) -- it was that as I became interested in anger and attuned to the references and passages popping up in his works, and as I read my way in Greek through the portions of his corpus that most interested me (his two Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, Poetics, De Anima, and portions of the Topics, I noticed that his analyses and treatments of anger varied considerably in the vantage points they adopted for its study.  He gives each dimension of the complicated phenomenon of anger its due.

One can take reductionist stances towards anger or any other affective phenomenon in a variety of ways.  This can be corollary to one's larger reductionist philosophical stance, for example in the case of mechanistic materialists in the modern period.  Anger then becomes the psychological manifestation of events of a physical-somatic order, and tends to lose its distinctness and importance as an affective response.  One can unpack Hobbes' definition  of Anger as "sudden courage," the latter being aversion with hope of avoiding hurt by resistance to what threatens to cause it, "hope" then being defined as "appetite with opinion of attaining" -- fairly soon in Hobbes' analysis, one gets to the level of movements, of appetite and aversion, but before that anything that resembles what we think of as anger has long vanished.  There are present day psychologists (as well as philosophers enamored of such approaches) who in their theorizing and experimenting substitute a much-better-worked-out science armed with brain scans and various mind-affecting drugs, for the early moderns' imaginary mechanism, but the positions they assume remain reductionist -- a term one might define like this:
a reductionist is one who, when confronted with real phenomena of an order different from, irreducible to, and yet interacting with the order of being he or she is most conversant with, instead of widening their purview of reality constricts it to only what they choose to imagine can be.
As far as anger goes, I would say that certain other viewpoints which definitely do not reduce it to an epiphenomenon of a physical-somatic order nevertheless risk lapsing into a reductivism of the other extreme.  Some of the moralists and theologians who discuss anger do so solely on the level of moral evaluation.  There are indeed virtues and vices, distinct established patterns of human behavior rooted in character and personality, concerned with anger.  The mistake I see some theorists make is that of treating the emotion, the response, the affect of anger in each case as if it was the pattern, the vice or (less often, for some theorists, never!) the virtue -- at the very least as able to be evaluated morally as bad or good.  This also reflects a reductive attitude permeating their larger philosophies or theologies, one which assimilates too much unproblematically into the moral order, including the entirety of our emotional life.

Aristotle's approach is non-reductionist, deliberately so, as a methodological remark made in the De Anima indicates. The natural philosopher (phusikos), considering anger simply as physical or somatic movement provides us only with the matter (tēn hulēn), whereas the dialectical philosopher (dialektikos) gives us the form (to eidos) and the account (ton logon) of anger (403b2-3). To adequately study and understand anger as a human phenomenon, both the physical-somatic and the psychological dimensions of the phenomenon -- which Aristotle does think interpenetrate each other, since the soul is not only the form of the body but acts and is acted upon through the body as well -- must be attended to.  Anger becomes less than fully intelligible when one of the dimensions of its being is left out or explained away.

In the scope of Aristotle's moral and political philosophy, on the psychological level, anger is not merely a psychological phenomenon either.  It is also a moral phenomenon, a matter of virtues and vices, morally evaluated habitual patters of behavior, revelatory, produced and productive of one's willed choices (prohairesis).  Virtues and vices bear upon not only actions (and anger does produce or at least aim at characteristic actions) but also just as much the emotions -- on their intensity, their objects, their appropriateness, their duration, their display.  The moral dimension of anger is something distinguishable from the psychological workings of anger and its generic dynamics, which is why Aristotle provides separate treatments, a psychological one in the Rhetoric (written principally for the orator), and moral ones in the Nichomachean and Eudemian Ethics (written for the moral philosophy and the student of political science).

So, at the very least, we can distinguish three distinct dimensions of anger Aristotle recognizes and investigates: a physical-somatic one, a psychological one, and a morally evaluative one.  Perhaps the case might be made for yet two more dimensions of Aristotelian study of anger.  The first is clearly outlined in his text, for anger does have a connection with lack of self-control (akratia), which is clearly a moral phenomenon, but is something different from vice in Aristotle's view.  The second is much more implicit:  the implications of anger for communities, particularly political communities.