Sep 24, 2016

One Sentence Summary on Aristotle and Anger

As the current editor of Stoicism Today, and a frequenter of various social media Stoicism-focused groups, I wind up wading into quite a few discussions bearing not only on Stoic philosophy, but on practical philosophy more generally, particularly when the conversation turns to two other matters that I do quite a bit of work on - Aristotelian philosophy, and the emotion of anger.

In the course of one of those discussions in the Facebook Stoicism Group, an interlocutor asked me if I could provide a one-sentence summary of Aristotle's position on anger.  If that was something easy to do, I would have done so right then and there.  But since it isn't I decided I'd put some thought into it and then provide an answer later.  And that's exactly what I'm doing now.

Aristotle's position on anger is that it is one of the most complex and distinctive of the human emotions, that it involves bodily, psychological, social, and moral dimensions, and that anger can and ought to be felt and acted upon in a number of right ways.

An Aristotelian Position On Anger

There's my attempt at a one-sentence summary.  It leaves out an awful lot, as any summary ought to in order to be a summary at all.  So, there's nothing wrong on that account.  But there's another manner in which matters might be left out as well.  If we want to talk about an Aristotelian position on anger - and there's excellent reasons why we ought to do so - then any summary ought at least to attempt do justice to the main features of that position.  And, as it turns out, there are quite a few - more than three at least - main features to the position articulated in Aristotle's texts.

I'd like to say just a few words first, though, expanding on that remark that there are excellent reasons to talk about an Aristotelian position on anger.  I'll just mention four such reasons.  The first of these is that, although he didn't write a treatise specifically on anger, and an interpreter has to do a good bit of work piecing together what Aristotle's position on anger is from multiple texts, there definitely is a coherent and complex position on the emotion and connected topics to be found in his works.

A second reason is that, after Aristotle himself dies, the Aristotelian position continues, sometimes just at the level of commentary, interpretation, and application of his thought (but that's often quite good stuff, and worth reading), sometimes genuinely building off Aristotle's work to fashion new philosophical syntheses both indebted to Aristotle's thought and advancing beyond it (think, for instance of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, or Alasdair MacIntyre in the 20th and present centuries).  Some of these thinkers also make contributions to understanding anger in a fundamentally Aristotelian manner.

There is a third reason closely connected to the second.  When it came to anger, the Aristotelians - both Aristotle and his many successors - were identified as a distinct tradition, with a particular doctrine on the emotion, its workings, its moral import, and other related matters.  In fact, the Aristotelians were identified for the most part by non-Aristotelians as having one of the wrong positions on anger!  Whether we are talking about Stoic, Epicurean, eclectic (like Cicero), Middle Platonist, medical (like Galen), or even early Christian (for instance, Lactantius) writers, there was a pretty clear conception of just what the Aristotelian position on anger was in ancient times.

The fourth reason is that we can continue to meaningfully speak of an Aristotelian (or neo-Aristotelian) position on anger today.  As someone who moves in both Aristotelian and other circles, I wouldn't say that it's a position that's particularly well-known, understood, or appreciated by all of those who self-identify as Aristotelians, but it is by quite a few.  And, although one might certainly disagree with certain components or assertions of that perspective, I think - and I've argued - that it is one whose resources and insights are badly needed in the present.

What More Needs to Be Said About Aristotle's Position

What got left out of that summary sentence above?  Quite a lot, since I didn't think it would be helpful or appropriate to stretch the meaning of "one sentence" into some Ciceronian-length and -complexity paragraph-disguised-as-sentence!  Smuggling in a lot of information through using three "that. . . " locutions already seemed to be pushing it.

Aristotle's position on anger is complex enough in its outlines - not even going into full detail - that are spread out over quite a few of his works that, in an on-again-off-again project, I've been writing a book reconstructing it (which I hope to have done in the next 2-3 years, at my current rate!).  In fact, one of the reasons why those who become familiar with at least part of his theory of anger first-hand often don't realize just how complex it is, turns out to be that it is discussed partly in one work, partly in another, partly in yet another, and so on.

If you come at Aristotle mainly through the Nicomachean Ethics, for instance, you'll certainly get a sense that anger is an important matter for moral life.  You'll see him using it as an example early on for his nuanced understanding of virtue (and virtuous action and emotional response) as a mean, one that is not just a "middle spot" but which involves all sorts of "right"s (e.g. occasion, person, time, intensity, etc.)  You'll also encounter his discussion of the virtue of good temper and a number of opposed vices.  And, you'll discover that he not only views loss of self-control (akrasia) with respect to anger as a distinct mode of loss or lack of self-control, but that he even views it as morally better than akrasia per se.

But what you won't get is his analysis of anger's nature, causes, and effects as a psychological and social phenomenon in Rhetoric book 2, or his less well-worked-out discussions of anger as a bodily response and state spread thoughout a number of other works.  You'll miss his references to anger's role in social discord, faction, and breakdown in Politics book 5.  One could go on and on about this, so suffice it to say that unless one is prepared to read across the Aristotelian corpus - or find a good secondary source doing the work of tying all these threads together - there are aspects to Aristotle's position on anger one is likely to miss.

A Few Resources for Understanding Aristotle's Position

In the course of researching and writing about Aristotle and anger over the last decade and a half, I've ended up giving quite a few talks, workshops, and other presentations that were intended to further my work on the book.  (I have to admit that quite often this hasn't been exactly the case!).  Some of these are recorded, and for those who might be interested, I'm providing links to them here.

I've also got several handouts available that people might find interesting or useful:

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