Feb 12, 2011

John Cassian on Anger, Revisited

john cassian monk monastic anger desert institutes conferences god religion spirituality virtue vice
In a previous blog post, discussing the great monastic author John Cassian's very interesting views on anger (and by the way, recently saw an excellent piece on John Cassian and Church Tradition), I ended by setting out a paradox
If a person is entirely responsible for their own anger, if seeing things rightly and making progress depends on grasping this very truth that one cannot displace the blame for one's anger onto another, onto the towards whom one feels angry -- doesn't that go for me too?  Why isn't my neighbor also entirely responsible for his own anger?  Does not his or her responsibility absolve me then of mine?  Going further, if there is some responsibility still on my side, well then, what of God, if He made me angry -- or certainly made people angry with Him as recorded in Scripture?  Would not that line of reasoning make God also responsible?
As typically the case with  paradoxes, more resides beneath the surface than appears at first glance.  One can twist this plaint in two different directions: a horizontal one,  remaining on the same, human level; and, a vertical one, looking upwards, bringing God in for argument.  This latter, one should point out, can go two ways as well: one might point to Scripture's instances and examples of divine anger, and ask:  look, if it's all right for God to be angry -- and He's God after all -- why not me?  Alternately, one might also find fault with the way God has managed matters, the providential ordering by which He arranges the world, one so complex, flexible, and yet inescapable that even human free will is able to be incorporated within it.

One can scour John Cassian's works and not find passages precisely addressing all of these possible objections a person struggling with anger -- their own against others or that of others against them -- might articulate.  One of them is, however, very specifically addressed:  What does it mean when Scripture says God is angry, speaks of God's wrath?
We have heard some people trying to excuse this most pernicious disease of the soul, in such a way as to endeavor to extenuate it by a rather shocking way of interpreting Scripture:  as they say it is not injurious if we are angry with the brethren who do wrong since, say they, God himself is said to rage and be angry . . .
Cassian's response in the The Institutes is immediate, assured, and not particularly original (not that the latter is any fault), for this was already a longstanding, even traditional topic addressed by theology or philosophy of religion in the ancient world -- whether Christian, Jewish (Philo of Alexandria provides an excellent example), or pagan (it was commonplace to make sense of anthropomorphism about the gods through allegorical interpretation).

Those proffering such justifications "are ascribing to the Divine Infinity and Fountain of All Purity a taint of human passion," or put in another way, they are attributing to God something that, when one first imagines it, could seem to make sense, but when thought through really couldn't fit.  Cassian notes that if one chooses to understand anger to be attributed to God "literally in a material and gross signification," then all of the other metaphorical language -- God sits, sleeps, stands, has hands, forgets. . . .  -- all of that has equal cause to be granted.

Instead, we ought to rightly understand these sorts of expressions as allegorical (side note: those who appreciate Saint Thomas' fourfold senses of scripture:  literal, analogical, moral, and anagogical, will find that precise distinction in Cassian's Conferences). God does not suffer the passion of anger (nor for that matter, could He be subject to the vice).  Rather:

When  we read of the anger or the fury of the Lord, we should take it not anthropopathos; i.e. according to an unworthy meaning of human passion, but in a sense worthy of God, who is free from all passion; so that by this we should understand that He is the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in the world; and by reason of these terms and their meaning, we should dread him as the terrible rewarder of our deeds and fear to do anything which is against his will.
What is perhaps somewhat original (not being an expert in patristics, I cannot say for certain) is Cassian's further explanation.  Those who have done wrong, or who worry whether they might do wrong (John Cassian is a proponent of free will, so he knows that it is quite reasonable for an imperfect creature, endowed with free will, to worry about their future uses of it in the face of temptations) -- those people fear the anger of the judge, the "avenging wrath."  The object of their trepidation  is the typical effects, not the passion of anger, in the person of the judge and against themselves. They attribute the passion, and perhaps even the vice of anger to the judge, but this reflects their own skewed perspective, a phantasmagoric projection of their fear, rather than reality:
[N]ot indeed that this passion exists in the minds of those who are going to judge with perfect equity, but that, while they so fear, the disposition of the judge towards them is that which is the precursor of a just and impartial execution of the law.  And this, with whatever kindness and gentleness it may be conducted, is deemed by those who are justly to be punished to be the most savage wrath and vehement anger.
What particularly struck me me when reading this again -- one of the areas of my research being debates about the existence and nature of Christian philosophy (a term Cassian uses, at least once) -- was that Cassian's and other patristic authors' discussions of anger provide excellent examples for how Christian philosophy, as Gilson, Maritain, Blondel, and others conceived of it, actually developed:  the necessity of grappling with divine revelation, to explore its intelligibility, to unpack and follow its exigencies, patterned not only new ways off thought, but new ways of life which then told the rationally inquiring  human subject not only more about God, but also about their own selves, human nature, the social order, and the richly created world.  That is a large subject, however, and I now have to set it aside for the moment, relegating it to a blog post later down the line.

What about the two other points to the paradox?  If Cassian genuinely believes in a providential ordering of the universe by God, then how can He (or anyone, for that matter) rightly fault me, hold me fully responsible for offending and enraging my neighbor?  There are several viable responses that could be made to this, and most of them would steer us into (at least to me still-) murky and complexly eddied waters of Cassian's position on the interaction between grace, providence, and human free will.  So, I will simply say this:  two commonplaces of monastic literature are highly relevant here.

What the virtue of humility requires, embodies, and is gradually built up through, is a realization and focus on one's own condition, one's own responsibility, one's own efforts and strivings.  It is a matter of attaining perspective, by which the insistence of certain questions will lessen, not because they have been provided a systematic, logically arranged answer, but through a realization that the questions are perhaps badly put, reflecting a mistaken perspective, both practical and theoretical.  For instance:
If the words of the Gospel bid us make satisfaction to those who are angry for past and utterly trivial grounds of quarrel, and those which have arisen from the slightest causes, what will become of us wretches who with obstinate hypocrisy disregard more recent grounds of offense, and those of the utmost importance, and due to our own faults; and being puffed up with the devil's own pride, as we are ashamed to humble ourselves, deny that we are the cause of our brother's vexation and in a spirit of rebellion disdaining to be subject to the Lord's commands, contend that they never ought to be observed and never can be fulfilled?  And so it comes to pass that as we make up our minds that He has commanded things which are impossible and unsuitable, we become, to use the Apostle's expression, "not doers but judges of the Law."
The other thing one ought to keep in mind is the view that God's providential arrangement of matters, including people getting angry with us, even without good cause, is ordered to provide us occasions for following the Christian way, for doing or enduring those sometimes bitterly painful things that are ultimately for our benefit, for developing closer towards the divine likeness yet marred and distorted but still within our beings.  Cassian touches on this while explaining one of Christ's precepts about anger:
And because we often spurn the brethren who are injured and saddened, and despise them, and say that they were not hurt by any fault off ours, the Healer of souls, who knows all secrets, wishing utterly to eradicate all opportunities of anger from our hearts, not only commands us to forgive if we have been wronged, and to be reconciled with our brothers, and keep no recollection of wrong or injuries against them, but He also gives us a similar charge, that in case we are aware that they have anything against us, whether justly or unjustly, we should. . . . hasten first to offer satisfaction to them. . .
Still, setting aside issues of the providential order, just focusing on oneself and one's neighbor, it remains fair to ask:  I'm wholly responsible for my own anger, right?  I'm not supposed to blame it on anyone else.  I'm supposed to cultivate the connected virtues of patience and meekness (or mildness, gentleness, what the Greeks termed praotes, and which we translate by all these different terms into English), and if I haven't got them, it's somehow my own fault? All right, I'll grant all this. But then, my neighbor is a person like me, no? Well, why isn't he or she just as responsible for their own anger, their own irritability, their own lack of virtue?  How is it that I somehow share blame in it?

Cassian's works address this in several ways.  One, which is not particularly well-worked out, involves teachings about the specific faculties and dynamics of our common fallen and damaged human nature, and this helps us understand the workings of anger in ourselves and in our fellow creatures.  Another turns such questions aside, steering consideration to strength and weakness.  A third, yet more practically oriented, charts out the path to virtuous dispositions respecting anger, which when developed will heal not only our own ire but that of our (perhaps all too easily) offended neighbor. I'll end with a passage which does not tie these three themes together in a clean knot, but which at least begins looping them into each other.
But you must certainly know that in general he plays a stronger part who subjects his own will to a brother's, than he who is found to be the more pertinacious in defending and clinging to his own decisions.  For the former by bearing and putting up with his neighbor gains the character of being strong and vigorous . . . . [H]e may be sure that he has gained much more by his virtue of long suffering and patience. . . . For a weak man will never support a weak man nor can one who is suffering in the same way, bear or cure one in feeble health, but one who is himself not subject to infirmity brings remedies to one in weak health.