Why Anger is Pointless
When is it right to get angry? Probably never.
Posted August 20, 2012
[Article updated on 17 September 2017]
Anger is a common and potentially destructive feeling that urgently needs to be given more thought.
The philosopher Plato does not discuss anger in any depth, and tends to bring it up only in the context of pleasure and pain. In the Philebus, he says that good people delight in true or good pleasures whereas bad people delight in false or bad pleasures, and that the same goes for pain, fear, anger, and the like—thereby implying that there can be such a thing as true or good anger. Later on, he says that pleasures of the mind may be mixed with pain, as in anger or envy or love, or the mixed feelings of the spectator of tragedy or of the greater drama of life—this time implying that anger can be pleasurable as well as painful. In the Timaeus, he lists five terrible affections of the mortal soul: pleasure, the inciter of evil; pain, which deters from good; rashness and fear, foolish counsellors; anger, hard to appease; and hope, easily led astray. The gods, Plato tells us, mingled these affections with irrational sense and all-daring love, and thereby created man.
Unlike Plato, the philosopher Aristotle discusses anger at great length. In Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics, he appears to agree with Plato by saying that a good-tempered person can sometimes get angry, but only as he ought to. A good-tempered person, he continues, might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered; it is only if he deviates more widely from the mean with respect to anger that he becomes blameworthy, either ‘irascible' at one extreme or ‘lacking in spirit' at the other. He then—famously—tells us,
For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle ... anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.
Aristotle also agrees with Plato that anger involves mixed feelings of pleasure and pain. In Book 2 of the Rhetoric, in discussing the emotions, he defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at the person himself or at his friends; he then adds that anger is also attended by a certain pleasure that arises from the expectation of revenge. A person is slighted out of one of three things, contempt, spite, and insolence; in either case, the slight betrays the offender's feeling that the slighted person is obviously of no importance. The slighted person may or may not get angry, but he is more likely to get angry if he is in distress—for example, in poverty or in love—or if he feels insecure about the subject of the slight. On the other hand, he is less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary, unintentional, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offender apologises or humbles himself before him and behaves like his inferior. Even dogs, Aristotle tells us, do not bite sitting people. The slighted person is also less likely to get angry if the offender has done him more kindnesses than he has returned, or reverences him, or is feared and respected by him. Once provoked, anger is calmed by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offender, and/or by being spent on someone or other. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than at Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death.
There is clearly a sense in which Plato and Aristotle are correct in speaking of such a thing as a good or right anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. It can put an end to a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or—failing that—it can mobilise mental and physical resources for defensive or corrective action. If judiciously exercised, it can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, strengthen bargaining positions, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire desirable feelings such as respect and sympathy. A person who is able to express or exercise anger judiciously may feel better about himself, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk-taking that promotes successful outcomes. On the other hand, anger, and in particular uncontrolled anger, can lead to loss of perspective and judgement, impulsive and irrational behaviour that is harmful both to the self and to others, and loss of face, sympathy, and social credibility. Thus, it appears that the sort of anger that is justified, controlled, strategic, and potentially adaptive ought to be demarcated from and contrasted with a second type of anger (let us call it rage) that is inappropriate, unjustified, unprocessed, irrational, undifferentiated, and uncontrolled. The function of rage is simply to protect the ego: it causes pain of one kind to detract from pain of another, and is attended by very little pleasure if any at all.
Another, related, idea is this. Anger, and particularly rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviours to dispositional or personality-related factors rather than to situational factors. For instance, if I forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I suddenly felt very tired (situational factor), whereas if Emma forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is useless (dispositional factor). More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person's actions and the neurological activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person's patterns of thinking. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! This does not mean that anger is not justified in other cases, as a display of anger—even if undeserved—can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose. But if all that is ever required is a strategic display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence only serving to betray... a certain lack of understanding.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.