Understanding Anger - Lecture 9: Thomas Aquinas On Anger

Our series of monthly lectures for this year -- hosted by the historic Kingston Library -- has come to a close, with a well-attended and very enjoyable last session.  The topic for this talk, Thomas Aquinas' perspective upon anger, tied together thematic threads from many of the previous sessions, particularly because Thomas himself was a great systematizer and synthesizer of previous points of view.

In the previous session, we examined several early Christian thinkers who discussed anger (you can watch the video of that earlier session here), taking us up to the 5th century AD, the cusp between antiquity and the middle ages.  In this final session, we focused on a thinker solidly in the midst of the medieval period, the 13th century, often called the "high middle ages."  You can watch the video of that very lively discussion here.

We started the discussion by situating Thomas in his intellectual and cultural milieu, hitting on some main points of his intellectual development and biography, locating him within the broad and tumultuous history of ideas of his time.  Thomas was a Dominican friar --  he joined one of the relatively new and relatively unproven mendicant orders of his day, going strongly against the desires of his family that he become a Benedictine instead.  Along with this dynamic emergence of new religious orders, associated with distinctive spiritualities and ways of life, came a number of other dramatic shifts and developments in medieval culture, society, and intellectual institutions.

I don't want to dwell upon those developments too much here -- if you watch the video of the talk, we go into a bit of discussion about them -- but I would like to mention two that do figure into thinking about Thomas' approach towards making sense out of anger.  One is the rise of the universities as the foremost educational institutions -- supplanting the cathedral and monastery schools that had done such important service in the earlier middle ages.  Another is the new availability of Aristotle's philosophical works in Latin translation -- and the rise of serious interpreters of these rediscovered texts (rediscovered, that is, for Western Christendom).

Thomas was quite literally in the right place at the right time.  In his childhood studies with the Benedictines at Monte Casino, then his encounters with the Dominicans during his studium generale, and then his university studies at Paris, he assiduously read and reflected his way through the wealth of ancient and medieval texts -- philosophy, theology, history, etymology and more -- that were available, culling from them a harvest whose greatest fruits he would store up and consume within the frameworks of his own works.  And although he benefited from this literature, Thomas was no autodidact, for he found himself able to study with great teachers, and then later to clearly surpass them.

The complex position Thomas develops upon anger -- primarily within the pages of one of his most important, later, and in fact unfinished works, the Summa Theologiae -- is at its core a position deeply indebted to that of Aristotle, in more than one way.  Thomas incorporates and reinterprets an Aristotelian understanding of the emotions, reworks Aristotle's views on the rational and affective parts of the soul into a coherent faculty psychology, and draws upon Aristotelian virtue ethics to articulate a robust framework for moral evaluation of anger.

It is not only content that Aquinas derives from Aristotle -- in fact, he draws insights from all sorts of other thinkers as well, ranging from ancient philosophers to Christian theologians -- it is also a general approach.  Thomas Aquinas, like Aristotle, is a thoroughly dialectical thinker, and the very format of the Summa Theologiae reflects that.  What this means, to put it in simple (perhaps a bit oversimplistic terms) is that when you approach a matter -- especially messy matters like those associated with anger -- you canvas the already available perspectives to weigh and sift them, looking to see what in them is right, what can be developed further, what can be successfully incorporated into a fuller perspective on the matter.

While he is indeed an Aristotelian, and he is also a thinker solidly within a Christian tradition, in many respects Thomas' systematic perspective upon anger goes beyond those available in the sources he draws upon.  In the course of this Understanding Anger session -- and in a talk earlier in June about Aquinas, anger, and leadership -- I outline a number of these strong points of Aquinas' position, and how they advance even the classic Aristotelian approach (of which I'm a big fan!), so I'll just mention one of them here.

Thomas views anger as one of the "irascible" emotions -- that is, in his psychology, anger is an emotion which arises in the "irascible appetite" or "orexis".  This is an affective part of the human soul or personality which is concerned with our relations to the good -- but not the good simpliciter, but rather the "difficult good".  This points us towards the legitimate function for, as well as the necessary limits upon, the emotion of anger -- as human beings, Thomas would say, we actually need anger, precisely in order to be able to realize certain goods, particularly those concerned with protecting or reimposing justice.  Thomas goes even further, however -- and I'll end by just mentioning this very interesting point -- in asserting that anger in some cases (he calls this zealous anger) can even be motivated fundamentally by the virtue of charity, that is, by a disposition of Christian love.