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I’m angry, and I have been ever since I watched a 767 slam into the North Tower of the World Trade Center while walking to the office on a lovely late-summer morning last September. Sure, like most Americans, I’ve also experienced shock and profound sadness. But the anger came early, and it’s still there—even after the remarkable success of our country’s military campaign in Afghanistan. Though its intensity has diminished over the past five months, I suspect that the anger will persist until Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Omar, and every other would-be murderer of Americans is, in the words of President Bush, “brought to justice.” By which he means, no less than I do, killed in battle, imprisoned for life, or executed after a lawful but expeditious trial or military tribunal.

The widespread and deep support for our nation’s ongoing war against international terrorism convinces me that most Americans share my anger. But such sentiments are not unanimous. Indeed, two prominent groups tell us that we should be ashamed of our rage. For left-wing academics and intellectuals, the problem isn’t anger itself so much as its object. They claim we must come to “understand” and even to share the anger of those who wish to destroy us, for their hatred is largely justified. One could say that for the far left, anger is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is directed against the United States.

More serious are the arguments of those who reject anger altogether. While some focus on its potential to inspire a bloody “cycle of violence,” the most potent critique of anger is actually made by those less concerned with drawing attention to its negative political consequences. These figures—usually Christian moral philosophers and theologians—argue that the Christian call to righteousness and holiness demands that we transcend the anger we feel when we are intentionally harmed. After all, does Christ not instruct us to “turn the other cheek” and “love our enemies”? Anger might very well be natural, but in this case at least, our nature stands fundamentally opposed to the kind of life we are called to lead by the Church.

There is much to respect in this position. Anger is indeed a powerful emotion that, left unchecked, can do considerable harm to the angry man himself no less than to the objects of his wrath. Nevertheless, we would be wrong to accept the account of anger presupposed by its critics. However much we may admire their motives, the greatest works of both ancient philosophy and Christian civilization give us a much fuller and more nuanced account of anger and its place in a good human life.

Many philosophers have noted that at its most basic level human anger resembles animal behavior. Kick a dog enough times and it will bite; repeatedly steal a cat’s food and it will lash out; approach a bear cub in a threatening way and its mother will respond violently. An animal becomes angry when it—or, in the case of the mother bear, its offspring—is directly attacked or threatened with an attack. A human being reacts in much the same way. For both, then, anger is a response to an assault on “one’s own.”

Yet Plato and Aristotle also recognized that anger is far more complex in human beings than it is in animals. To begin with, because human beings possess highly developed faculties of reason, language, and memory, a man’s sense of what is “his” is not limited to himself, his family, or even those with whom he regularly interacts. A man can identify himself with large groups of individuals united by little other than a shared notion of the good. Aristotle believed that such a capacity is limited to communities roughly the size of the ancient Greek city-states (approximately fifty thousand people living in close proximity to each other), but the modern nation-state proves him wrong. Despite their often considerable physical distance from the carnage in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on September 11, virtually all Americans considered themselves under attack that morning, and for many the instinctive response was anger.

But far more significant than the breathtaking scope of human attachment—indeed, the thing that makes human anger different in kind from its purely animal form—is man’s expansive sense of himself. In contrast to animals, a human being’s conception of “his own” is not limited to bodily goods. Man is capable of judging himself by ideals of goodness, both individually and collectively. He can become angry with himself for failing to live up to those ideals. And he can be driven to anger by another’s refusal to recognize his innate dignity as a being who possesses this moral potential. Such anger can be provoked by a glance—think of the bar brawl inspired by a dirty look—or an intricate argument that catalogues a series of indignities. And of course it can be ignited by violence. Yet even when a violent attack is the immediate cause of anger, it is less the act itself than the implicit denial of the victim’s dignity that inspires the greatest rage. An assault is, first and foremost, an affront to one’s sense of self-worth.

The ancient philosophers thus determined that, although anger clearly needs to be moderated by reason, it is not unambiguously destructive. The fact that many of the greatest Christian theologians appear to agree with this evaluation—Aquinas, for example, argues that “the object of anger is good” (Summa Theologiae,—has led some to conclude that they were insufficiently attuned to the obvious and contrary message of Scripture.

But such a reading is insufficient. Of course it is true that in the Sermon on the Mount, as in the most otherworldly passages of Paul’s Epistles, Christians are told to (in Paul’s words) “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you” (Ephesians 4:31; cf. Colossians 5:8, 1 Timothy 2:8). However, the full Christian teaching on anger is subtler than such passages might lead one to believe. Not only does Paul himself assume the possibility of making crucial moral distinctions when he tells us: “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26); but Christ himself becomes angry on several occasions (Matthew 21:12; Mark 3:5, 11:15; John 2:15) and even describes God the Father, by way of a parable, as responding with anger to human beings who behave unjustly (Matthew 18:34–35). (It should go without saying that this verse conforms quite closely to the numerous chapters of the Old Testament in which God becomes angry.)

At the very least, such passages complicate the somewhat facile denigration of anger heard so often today. Anger—as everyone from Jesus Christ to the wisest philosophers and theologians seem to recognize—is not inherently depraved. It is, rather, a salutary expression of the same natural love for one’s own that motivates human beings to assert their God-given rights and dignity against those who would deny them. It is thus also rooted in mankind’s innate love of justice—a love that ultimately draws us closer to God.

When anger is allowed to consume the soul—to drive a man or a community beyond the bounds of justice to acts of indiscriminate violence or cruelty—it can certainly be a force for evil in the world. But it need not come to this. As the forceful but measured actions of the United States since September 11 make clear, righteous anger, properly tempered by reason and law, can serve the cause of goodness and justice, and even put a stop to the “cycle of violence.”

Damon Linker is associate editor of First Things

Image by J. Paul Getty Museum on GetArchive, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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