Among Christians, anger is one of the seven deadly sins. For Jews, too, it is a major vice. Contemporary secular culture also takes a negative view. It commonly views anger as something to be controlled if not extirpated, if only because it disrupts social life and interferes with the smooth operations of a service-based economy; hence the proliferation of “anger management” programs in our workplaces.
Anger is not without its defenders. Some hold that in the guise of indignation it becomes a virtue. Anger in this form becomes an engine of positive social transformation or helps empower women and other oppressed groups. During the glory years of Freudianism, we were taught that ventilating anger is physically and mentally good for us. Expressing our resentments and outrage was seen as forestalling a dangerous buildup, the way letting off steam is necessary to prevent a pipe from bursting. Today, the “hydraulic model” is out. We have come to recognize the aptness of the tenth-century Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon’s observation that people who plan revenge for wrongs suffered are not liberated from their resentments but, to the contrary, sink into preoccupation with them.
The medievalist Barbara Rosenwein’s new book, Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion, surveys a variety of approaches and treats everyday anger as inevitable rather than reprehensible. These days, we tend to think that flaws in our inner lives become troublesome only when they translate into actions. We tend to ignore the spasms of rage that often punctuate our thoughts while remaining safely invisible. And when we do assess our negative emotions, we focus on their extreme manifestations, which are relatively rare, and therefore assign ourselves better grades than, strictly speaking, we deserve.
My own judgments about the moral significance of anger usually return to Maimonides, so eminent in the Jewish landscape. In his chapters on character traits, he offers two evaluations of anger that appear to contradict each other. First, he advances an Aristotelian view, according to which the key to virtue is moderation. The path of wisdom, which is also the way of God, is to be angry at the right time, in the right proportion, about appropriate matters. To be sure, the wise man is likely to deviate a bit from the mean as a precaution against falling into vice, cultivating outrage if he tends to be too cold and analytical, or detachment if his nature is to be hotheaded. But this ideal of the golden mean remains paramount.
Yet Maimonides follows these remarks with a second account. Here, he insists that in certain areas, moderation should not be the goal. With respect to anger, extremism should be the norm. He cites rabbinic teachings that compare anger to idolatry and condemn, in strongest terms, the leader who cows and intimidates the community. According to this line of thought, if, for practical reasons, one must display anger in guiding or educating family and community, the show of anger must be feigned, not felt. Here, the ideal is to avoid emotions that overwhelm one’s capacity for rational thought.
As I see it, the two accounts reflect two different ethical ideals. The first, which advocates moderation in anger as in all things, is the way of the wise. It makes for a decent, orderly society as envisioned by a prudent Aristotelian. If, however, character formation should nurture the right relation to God, this approach is insufficient. More extreme self-restraint is necessary to become a God-fearing individual, one who avoids destructive, idolatrous rage and arrogance.
One practical limitation of Maimonides’s approach for me, and perhaps for you, too, is that the depiction of anger in its most gigantic dimensions loses some of its relevance in motivating remorse among ordinary people whose anger is not fatal or tragic, which is to say, most of us. As Samuel Johnson puts it, everyday anger “makes those who indulge it more troublesome than formidable, and ranks them rather with hornets and wasps, than with basilisks and lions.”
As is often the case with Johnson, his Rambler No. 11 combines high diction with down-to-earth moral insight. He examines what he calls the “passionate man,” not as a person overwhelmed by a feeling beyond his control, but rather as one who regards himself as entitled to vent rage “in vehement and fierce vociferations, in furious menaces and licentious reproaches.” In part, this is a neo-Stoic or Christian insight that recognizes that when we claim to be out of control, we are in fact more in control than we pretend to be and therefore are responsible for our behavior. More subtly, it is a reminder that what we think we conceal from others is usually well-known to them. In many instances, irascible persons who think they are thus imposing themselves on others are very much dependent on their willingness to indulge them and play their game. Their fuming usually dissipates, and such men “are therefore pitied rather than censured, and their sallies are passed over as the involuntary blows of a man agitated by the spasms of a convulsion.” Once the “passionate man” himself discovers that his exhibitions of temper do not enhance his standing but constitute an annoyance that others are willing to put up with, and that with the passage of time he may end up isolating himself and become laughable, the attractions of venting and expressing bullying emotions are likely to diminish.
Ancient essays on the subject devote a great deal of space to destructive anger. Seneca’s De Ira, for example, features anecdotes about the powerful, men like Augustus, whose displeasure brings sudden ruin to those unlucky enough to be in the way. “The wrath of a king is a messenger of death” (Prov. 16:14). At the world historical level this may still be true. As a rule, however, the modern world is more procedural and “democratic,” and thus the moods of the high and mighty are easier to evade. Nonetheless, Johnson does not forget that people who are dependent on the dispositions of the powerful are vulnerable (though they can learn to exploit the master’s behavior to their benefit, a time-honored strategy of underlings).
Chekhov’s “Difficult People” dramatizes what it means to live under the thumb of a petty domestic tyrant. Shiryaev, the small landowner, is first presented grumbling about the rain. Over cabbage soup, his wife asks him to defray more of their son Pyotr’s university expenses, provoking an offended, greedy tantrum about the family bleeding him dry, after which he curses and leaves the house. This is how this family’s scenes usually end, comments Chekhov. This time, however, the son becomes enraged. After he fantasizes about traveling to the university on foot and in rags he returns home and excoriates his father to his face. When he departs early the next morning, his father informs him curtly that the money is on the table.
At first blush, Shiryaev is the only “difficult person” in this story and in his little fiefdom. He wields the power of anger and the power of the purse. On reflection, though, one wonders whether the unperceptive wife and resentful son are not enabling Shiryaev’s conduct. Perhaps Pyotr’s rebellion, too, reinforces rather than breaks the familiar pattern. Shiryaev may be ridiculous, and he may know it, but this self-knowledge may not be enough to motivate a change. His vices seem to work in the family system of vices. He will continue to reign over a difficult family.
If Johnson and Chekhov highlight the comedy in irritability and its theater of anger, they cannot obscure its tragic potential, even when it does express itself in physical violence. The hornet has not always superseded the basilisk, the sly, reptilian form of anger. The misery that Johnson decries as the fate of the “passionate man,” like the culture of bitterness, disrespect, and wasted lives that Chekhov recounts, continue to blight our contemporary lives. A few unguarded, undisciplined words cannot be undone in a lifetime of regret and remorse, and they can lay waste to relationships that took decades to build up. We should be grateful that humor, anger’s antidote, may, at least sometimes, spare us and spare others that pain.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.