Jan 30, 2011

Anselm on "In What Way an Upright Person. . . "

For today, taking a cue from John Allen, who from time to time supplies translations from Arabic on his blog Thicket and Thorp, instead of continuing the series of recent posts discussing various facets or theories of anger, I've decided to provide translation of chapter of a yet untranslated Latin work, the Dicta Anselmi.  It does have to do with anger, in a somewhat oblique manner, since the passage has to do with the approach one ought to take not only towards good people but also bad people.  Among the possible approaches towards the actions of bad people is to feel and act out emotions of anger (or righteous indignation, or hatred) towards them.

Anselm cautions against following the dictates of our carnal, i.e. fallen and fleshly, appetites, and counsels following the dictates of reason and God's precepts.  The human will is placed between these, and in anselmian moral theory, has the capacity to tilt itself towards following the call of one or the other.

Jan 29, 2011

Rejection, Anger, and Productive Responses

A few days ago, an actor friend of mine brought to my attention an interesting blog post, written specifically with actors in mind, but whose broader implications I saw straightaway.  It was titled How To Deal With Rejection, and three things caught my attention as I read it.  First, the advice it contained applies not just to actors or even to other performers, but just as much and just as well to academics, for reasons I'll mention in the minute.  Second, instead of simply giving advice, it led the reader -- entertainingly, too, which is a plus -- through some tempting though ultimately self-damaging responses to rejection, before suggesting a different, insightful, and ultimately more productive response.  Third, what the author, Josh Pais, wrote in his short piece fits in well with, and would provide a good springboard for, several classical thinkers' theories of anger. 

What is really going on in our responses to rejection is a set of emotional responses, closely tied in with our verbalizable thoughts, other emotions and moods, coalesced in more or less malleable habits.  Anger is a common affective response to rejection.  In fact, one might say it is the common affective response, if it were not for the other emotions rejection tends to evoke in people:  sadness, despair, fear, even perhaps in some relief (if the rejection means one gets out of something causing anxiety).  Notice, though, that these other emotions differ from anger in a very important way:  one tends to remain in them, or turn to something else to displace or numb them.  They are not particularly active responses.

But, anger is an active response.  Even if the response of anger is choked back, that takes effort (until it becomes habitual, and then the effort to maintain the calm, even pleasant mask becomes concealed, unconscious).  When it goes underground, and becomes transformed into passive aggression or into bitterness towards oneself, others, one's situation, it manifests itself in activity.  If misdirected, at the wrong people, the wrong things, flaring up on the wrong occasions, or perhaps fanning out to color one's response to everything surrounding oneself, it is active.  When one becomes angry at the right object, that which inflicted injury, which treated one or those one identifies as of little value, that which threatens the loss of some good. . . (the listing of general dynamics could go on) -- then the active nature of anger unmistakably shows itself.  It gets the person feeling it ready for conflict, for engaging in a battle in which, in the angry person's mind, the first shot has been fired, the first blood already drawn.

Jan 23, 2011

John Cassian on Anger (part 1 of 2)

John Cassian is of the lesser-well-known but historically influential theorists who stakes out an interesting and (to some) attractive position on anger.  An important 5th Century monastic Father (particularly in the West), Cassian traveled from his home in the Latin-speaking West to take vows in a monastery at Bethlehem, and then with permission (and accompanied by his fellow monk and childhood friend Germanus) traveled to monasteries in Egypt to study their ways of life through observation and conferences with abbots.  Back in the West, settling at Marseilles, he set down the fruits of this experience and his reflections in two works: the systematic Institutions, which sets out the practices, insights, rules of the eastern monks, adapting them to a new European milieu and climate; and the more topically organized (still, in sections fairly systematic)  Conferences, reconstructions and recollections of his discussions with the abbots of the East.

Cassian's works played a very important role in the development of Western monasticism.  Since monasteries, institutions oriented by a common and deliberate way of life, were spiritual, cultural, intellectual, and often political centers, the influence of what we might call "Cassian's doctrine" could be more widely extended than just to monks who read him or who heard his books read, e.g. during their common meals (The Rule of Saint Benedict recommends Cassian by name for this).

The centrality of themes of monastic practice and community raises an important issue.  Should we assume that the ethical standpoint Cassian reports on and elaborates is one solely for monks?  Are his insights only for those on the path of perfection, retired from the world and its cares, closer to God than us laypeople living -- and getting angry -- in the midst of things?  He does have several things quite relevant to say bearing on such worries, revealing to us that the human heart, beset by the temptation to and habits of anger remains just as much of a battleground for monks and hermits as it is for clergy and laity.

Jan 20, 2011

Martin Luther King and Anger's Right Uses, Temptations, and Transformation

Anger -- particularly though not necessarily confined to righteous anger -- can be a powerful motivator, affectively sustaining criticism of, and resistance to, oppression and injustice.  It can function as emotional fuel for the many steps to work for changing of social conditions (and even more difficult, human hearts and consciences).  One's own anger -- and that of others -- can even exert an unveiling effect, permitting one to perceive conditions of which one was previously unaware or concealing from oneself.  It is not surprising that anger played a role in the Civil Rights struggle for desegregation, anti-racism, and equality in America, nor that it was a force in the non-violent approach of Martin Luther King.

 King's thought and action, I have claimed elsewhere, is clearly situated within the mainstream of a long-running and well-developed Christian theological tradition grappling with ever-present problems of violence, hatred, unjust social relations, and oppression, elaborating responses to these with the example and words of (and in mainstream tradition, in communion and relationship with) Jesus Christ.  This is not to deny his originality or importance, but rather to stress continuity with other thinkers he names and draws upon, not least of which are SS. Paul, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, all of whom made contributions to the ongoing project of making fuller sense of anger, as an emotion, a response, a virtuous or vicious habit, a dynamic.

Jan 18, 2011

Needed Name Change

After much reflections, tossing ideas back and forth, and soliciting input from friends and colleagues, I've arrived at more suitable, yes, catchier and flashier, but most importantly apter name for this blog site.  It's two Greek words which comprise one single challenging-to-translate term, occurring in a passage where it is paired with its lexical and conceptual mirror:

Orexis  means "desire" (apparently the reason it's also the trade name for a new libido-enhancing product), in a broad sense of the term, extending to "craving" and "lust"-- and  since Aristotle distinguishes between  several different modes of it and because orexis fits into the human passions or emotions as well, I sometimes go so far as to translate it as "affectivity."  Dianoētikē is an adjective, deriving from dianoia, "thought," "understanding," the mind as it actively works things out.  So, Orexis Dianoētikē means something like understanding desire, desire that thinks, or as I've rendered it elsewhere as "desire bound up with mind."

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. 

Jan 13, 2011

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.

Jan 11, 2011

Is College a Ticket to Success?

A piece posted today in the Chronicle of Higher Education, New Evidence That College is a Risky Investment, argues quite rightly that merely choosing to attend college does not translate into the likely successful life our culture unfortunately still promises to prospective students.  It is often overlooked -- and Richard Vedder is doing a service to point out -- that if a student does not actually graduate with a degree, the better-paying job opportunities will remain inaccessible for him or her, and they will likely accrue still-harder-to-pay debt in the process.
I have been saying for years that there is a huge risk that new college entrants will drop out, and that published academic studies usually implicitly look at those who graduate, ignoring a roughly equal number who fail to graduate from college in a timely manner. That is the huge flaw in the Does College Pay? studies annually produced by Sandy Baum for the College Board.

Jan 4, 2011

New Year, Old Blog, New Name?

Over roughly the last month, my blog has laid fallow.  The end of last semester piled on not only the typical final exam/project preparation, grading, answering student complaints about grades, but also much basically administrative and governance work for my university.

As the person at FSU arguably with the most experience in the many possible permutations and features of the CLA, I was drawn into the still rather murky and messy process of writing our university's Quality Enhancement Plan.  The funding for the Writing Across the Curriculum pilot program on Close Readings I'm coordinating finally trickled down to my level, two months later than expected.  The last three weeks of the term also saw Faculty Senate, Academic Affairs, and COACHE report meetings.  I've also been preparing for teaching my typical load of four Critical Thinking classes, with two of these incorporating service learning and focusing on food awareness.  Final presentations and reports for my Chesnutt Library Fellowship (in Information Literacy) -- reporting a very mixed success (about which I'll blog in a later post) brought my on-campus obligations to a close.