Understanding Anger - Lecture 3: Plato on Anger

The series "Understanding Anger" continued with the third installment -- a lecture focused now not on literary or religious texts, as the previous two were, but on a philosophical perspective upon the emotion of anger.  At least in Western Philosophy, Plato is one of the first philosophers to devote sustained -- though not exactly systematic -- attention to anger in his works.

To be sure, there were a few pre-Socratic philosophers who made isolated, though interesting remarks about anger, but those don't provide enough to say that we have any real articulated perspective upon anger and the many other phenomena with which it is -- or can be -- connected.  In Plato's works, we find considerably more intellectual resources available -- as I discussed in my talk (the video of which you can see here).

We touched on quite a few of Plato's dialogues, since there are many in which some mention of anger comes up.  Certain dialogues have much more to say than others, of course -- the Republic, the Gorgias, the Euthyphro, and the Timaeus in particular -- but none are primarily concerned with the topic of anger, so we have to piece together as best we can what we might call a "Platonic perspective upon anger," by connecting up the varied discussions.

In the presentation, I focused on four main dimensions revealing Plato's perspective:
  • depictions of characters getting angry, or expressing concerns about the anger of other people.
  • discussions about the causes of anger – how and why anger arises
  • discussions about where anger happens in a person – for Plato, in thumos one portion fo the the tripartite soul
  • and lastly discussions about addressing anger when it arises -- how to calm it, or temper it properly
Plato regards anger as primarily situated within the working of a part of our souls -- or if you like, personalities -- for which he appropriates a term already in use among the Greeks -- thumos, the "spirited" or "passionate" (as it is often translated) part of the soul.

Within his perspective, anger has a fairly positive role in moral, social, and even philosophical life.  In fact, while excessive or wrongly directed anger can become a serious problem -- think about the longstanding anger directed at Plato's teacher, Socrates, and the role that played in prejudicing the jury against him during his trial -- the rational part of the soul, the highest and best part, requires the assistance of thumos in order to enforce the rule of reason over the lower appetites, the unruly desires that will otherwise call the shots, determining the choices and actions of the person.

In discussing the causes of anger, Plato also very interestingly observes something that most likely we all have experienced.  Anger is not just caused by a perception that the other person has wronged or harmed us, that some sort of transgression has occurred.  Nor is it simply a response to a perceived threat, a bodily and emotional response that steels us for battling those who would cause us some harm, indignity, or pain.  We also -- and especially -- get angry with those people who we find ourselves in moral disagreement with, disagreeing about the nature or the application of moral qualities, such as goodness and badness, rightness and wrongness, or even what is noble or base.

Again, in Plato, we aren't treated to a fully systematic philosophical viewpoint upon anger -- that's yet to be developed and articulated in the later history of ideas -- but we do get a fairly well-developed, and quite attractive (at least for me!) perspective that can be lived out and thereby put into practice.