Saint Anselm on Anger

As the case with so many other topics, Saint Anselm never provides anything remotely like a systematic discussion of anger, considered as a topic in its own right.  Instead, what he left us -- this great monastic Doctor, who wrote so eloquently and incisively, but typically only when some need of others or delight of his own compelled him -- are just fragmentary passages, like puzzle pieces which have to be assembled, or stones to be composed by attentive eyes and hands into a mosaic.

That Anselm the man, in face to face conversation, in sermons, in his classes and discussions, with people from all walks of life but especially with his beloved fellow monks, had much more to say on the topic than his bare writings communicate, is a certitude.  What we can correlate and extrapolate from what he did write, or what he said that others wrote down (for instance Eadmer, in his Life of St. Anselm, or Alexander in the Dicti Anselmi) is substantive and coherent, but does not exhaustively provide the fullness of thoughts about anger.  Still, an attentive scholar can draw broad enough outlines on the topic from his works, and that -- today and over the next several Sundays -- is what I intend to do.

There are a number of interconnected sub-issues concerning anger that can be unpacked and set out from an Anselmian perspective, including among them how anger affects the will and reason, the remedies for anger, divine anger's meaning, the connection between anger and other emotions, desires, virtues, and vices, anger's relationship with (right or wrong) punishment and the political or social roles and risks of anger in communities.

In this first blog entry, however, I'd like to focus just on one main, perhaps preliminary topic:  what anger is, basically, from an Anselmian perspective.  I'll close by mentioning what other states or comportments Anselm contrasts against anger.

We should also note right off that Anselm -- so far as I know -- never mentions anger as something positively good.  Usually, it is something bad, either in its very being, or in its cause, or its effects, or in the extent to which it is felt.  There are perhaps cases where it might be expediently useful for a person to feel anger, e.g. one who has to administer punishment, defend others who need it, maintain or reimpose (relatively more) right order -- I've written about such cases elsewhere -- but Anselm (as opposed to e.g. Aristotle or Saint Thomas --  even Augustine is some places) does not seem to ascribe any goodness to anger for this reason.  It is just not-bad.

Anselm does not define anger anywhere, nor does he seem particularly concerned to do so for this or any other emotion.  In fact, definitions play a small role (though admittedly an important one, e.g. when working out a definition of freedom of choice in De Libertate) in Anselm's thought.  Instead of looking for a definition, we ought to keep in mind that Anselm and at least some of his interlocutors inherited a certain  common educational endowment, texts of authors, pagans like Cicero, Seneca, Ovid, and Christian thinkers like Augustine, Boethius, and John Cassian (reading the latter was advice of the very Rule by which Anselm lived).  He is presuming in his interlocutors and readers a conversancy with anger not only experiential but also literary, intellectual, even philosophical.

Reading these authors, we discover that anger involves pleasure, pain, and desire -- a desire to punish, to inflict something on another.  It results from being harmed or threatened with harm, injury, injustice, insult, being slighted, looked down upon, or otherwise treated as of less value than one feels oneself to be.  These authors also know anger's propensity to congeal into hatred, to wax out of control into rage, to become a vicious disposition to wrath.

As human beings, we possess certain faculties, Anselm thinks -- among them (no attempt to provide an exhaustive list here) reason, the will, the imagination, memory, the external senses, other external capacities  like speech, action -- and the appetites or desires.  Now among these desires are those which Anselm calls "carnal," or fleshly, "appetites."  These desires are among the lasting effects of original sin, humanity's fallen state, remaining within the body and the conjoined soul even after a human being has been washed clean of the guilt of original sin.

Anger, or at least anger considered as the feeling, the impulse to desire, seek, impose retribution, to punish or to hurt another when we feel or imagine ourselves wronged, falls within the range of these carnal appetites. In our fallen condition, we have a natural (i.e. of a damaged human nature) irascibility or irritability.  He mentions anger specifically in one passage from the Dicta Anselmi, a translation of which I have provided in an earlier blog post:
[A]lthough my carnal appetite desires the harm of my enemy, still I should not call for this by mouth, but rather to lament this harm and -- against my carnal appetite -- to speak well of their prosperity, and to say -- just by words if I cannot [think this] in my heart at the same time -- that their harm displeases me. . . . And so when I by my will [following the dictates] of reason agree consent to God's precept, though the carnal pleasure or desire feels something different, "Now I do not work that, but sin resides in me."  For it is one thing to feel something, another to consent to it.  For when I feel anger, temptation, or some other contrary to the good, if I do not consent to it, it causes no injury.
This issue of the culpability of the person who feels anger is one on which Anselm does stake out an interesting position in general, but one which will be explored in a follow-up post.  The reason I bring up this passage here is that we see Anselm using the feeling and desire of anger as a prime and common example of a carnal appetite. 

In De Conceptu, Anselm discusses these more generally.  Through the fall of Adam and Eve, human nature -- in body and soul -- was damaged:
[T]heir whole being became weakened and corrupted. Indeed, the body [became weakened and corrupted] because after their sin it became like the bodies of brute animals, viz., subject to corruption and to carnal appetites. And the soul [became weakened and corrupted] because as a result of the bodily corruption and the carnal appetites, as well as on account of its need for the goods which it had lost, it became infected with carnal desires. 
Anselm does not regard animality, or even animal, carnal, fleshly appetites, as per se bad.
For if in themselves these appetites were unjust, then every instance of consenting to them would be an instance when they caused the consenter to be unjust. But when irrational animals consent to them, they are not called unjust.
In fact, for brute animals not to feel, and have their wills moved by such appetites, would be bad.  they have the natures with which they have been endowed, which include those appetites, and lack the rationality which opens up possibilities for the will, renders it free, sets responsibility upon it, and also -- in the human being's fallen state -- subjects it to yet greater temptations and vulnerabilities.

So, as a component of human nature as we know it --  and for Anselm we know this through experience of ourselves and others, through theological meditation on scripture correlated to that experience, and through basic metaphysical reflection on human being -- we possess, or better yet remain at risk of being possessed by these carnal appetites, basic and persistent drives and desires which we experience in common with other animals.  The easily occasioned feeling of anger is among these. We do not, Anselm thinks, have a great amount of control (though indirectly, we do have some) over whether these appetites, themselves part of our own selves, assail us and attempt to cajole reason and will into service of their satisfaction.  But, this is only a part of the story, a portion of the picture of anger in Anselm's thought.

In order to more fully understand anger and its place in Anselm's thought, we have to look at it in relation to the faculty of the soul that figures centrally in his moral theory:  the will.  As I've discussed elsewhere (in blog and in article formats), the Anselmian will is complexly structured, and multidimensional.  Will, he tells us, means three interconnected things -- the will as instrumentum, the instrument itself of willing, choosing, preferring, prioritizing (the self-determining faculty, or perhaps better put dimension of human existence, which makes us of all of the other instruments -- including reason) -- the will as usus, as what one actually chooses in determinate situations, what use one chooses to make of the instrument, multifarious as the instances of willing in a life may be (possibly coexisting with or contradicting each other) -- and the will as affectio, the lasting, directed and structured dispositions, drives, orientations, habitudes.

From the point on when he fully and explicitly articulates this threefold distinction (in De Conceptu, De Concordia, and De Humanibus Moribus), Anselm also stresses that these three aspects of will are equally what the will is.  None of them possess what one might call an ontological priority over the others, whereby that one aspect would exist first, and then the others would be mere modifications or particular instantiations of it.  Even in earlier works where he focuses on only two dimensions (will as usus and instrumentum), he adds: "what I am saying about the will can be said about concupiscence or desire, since the will is concupiscence and desire."  In discussions of the will in yet earlier works (e.g. Monologion, or De Veritate), where he does distinguish different senses of the term, the will nevertheless possesses the same breadth and range as the self- and other-determining faculty, extending not only to actual choices, preferences and priorities, actions, strivings, nor even ending with intentions, but also incorporating desires, loves, hatreds,  perhaps even arguably all of the emotions.

Whether the will in its broadest sense for Anselm could be understood as encompassing all affectivity, including each of the human emotions, that is a murkier question, one which when probed reveals some deep tensions within the concept of will as Anselm develops it, but one which I don't need or intend to tackle here and now (it is a problem raised in the book I am currently writing on Anselmian moral theory).  Suffice it to say that no such puzzle problematizes the status of anger understood in terms of will.

How are anger and the will related?  Or better put: in what ways is anger a configuration or shape of the human will?  Considering this, we ought first to adopt the course Anselm himself did when such seemingly simple questions were put to him:  recte distinguamus, let us distinguish these matters rightly.  What do we mean by anger?

There is the impulse, the emotion, the feeling as it arises in response, as quickly as to flare up in a moment's space.  As mentioned earlier, for Anselm, this is among the carnal appetites, forms which the weakness or corruption of our bodies in our fallen state manifest. And, as also noted, the carnal appetites themselves are not identical with, or even parts of, the will (which is after all, a faculty or instrument of the soul, not of the body -- though working through the body) -- though the will can take them up, follow them out, elaborate the activities they suggest.

But what of the emotion past the first impulse? The continued feeling, dwelling on and in the anger, nursing it, rolling over in our minds its cause, our justifications, the wrongness of the hurt, the rightness of our revenge or even retort-- here we are already involved in the will.  And, the will is not so detached from the emotion so that we might say:  there's the emotion which you feel, and then there's your will deciding whether it allows itself to be moved by the emotion.  No, the emotion of anger becomes a modality of will, the will shapes itself along anger's contours, fusing with it, taking on the emotion and making it it's own. 

Anger is also the response, bodily in so many different ways (the action seeking to strike, the pallor of blood vessels' constriction, the shaking of adrenalin infusion, the thickening of the voice, the somatic perception of it in one's chest, or guts, or limbs, face, even eyes and jaw).  Some of these are fairly involuntary reactions.  But, so far as it is also an affective response followed out into action, "acted upon," we say in our contemporary parlance (usually counseling, it's okay to feel angry, but not to act upon it), it is willed.  It may be willed and not-willed (or rather willed-not) at the same time , revealing a conflict, a bifurcation within the will -- but then it is willed.

The tendencies towards anger, or towards what we do when angry -- are these just the carnal appetites?  No, remember what Anselm said earlier in the passage from the De Conceptu:  the carnal appetites (which are not willed) give rise to carnal desires in the soul, that is, in the will.  And this, even more than will as usus, involves will as affectio, the will structured in terms of developed habits, dispositions, fundamental orientations. It is at this point that we can start to talk about anger in terms of virtue and vice.

And, with the introduction of those moral distinctions, I'll end the already quite long post on this topic, which I will be taking up anew for as many Sundays as it requires to flesh out the Anselmian position on anger. Anger can take lasting root in the will as a vice.  What virtues then, would bear on anger?  From Anselm's perspective, I see only those which lessen or counter anger, nothing like a virtue of Aristotelian mildness or good temper.  What are these virtues then?  Patience, for one, including a disposition towards forgiveness.  Meekness, for another, involving associated virtues of humility and concord.  And also, I think, love or Christian charity.