Ethical Rage

When rage can help us to make a decision

Posted Apr 08, 2016

Jennifer Hill used with permission
Source: Jennifer Hill used with permission

Months ago, while I was teaching Homer in my class, an exchange with a student made me reflect on a very simple but revealing point. We live in a society that seems to reject rage and even punish it, although its traditional literature seems to commend enraged deeds naming them as heroic.

This remark caused me to ask myself a number of questions. How often do I feel free to go into a rage? How often has my own rage made me act as if I weren’t myself? Have I ever repressed my rage and only afterward discovered that that rage was pushing me to do what was right in order to be faithful to and in contact with myself?

Is rage a feeling that should be removed from our ethical choices? Or is it an intrinsic part of our decisions without which our intentions would remain buried in our conscience?

In what follows I am going to use the poetry of Homer to try to answer these questions. Curiously enough, heroes were often depicted as enraged characters who stood up for what was right for them and fought from a place of fury. In Homer, I think, we can find at least two forms of rage, thumos and ate, courageous and blind rage.

Good and Bad Characters in the Homeric Poems

Jennifer Hill used with permission
Source: Jennifer Hill used with permission

We don’t know what ethical intention may have moved the author of the Iliad and Odyssey to write his poems; we don’t even know if this author ever existed. It is difficult to say if Homer had a pedagogic intent when, for example, he was describing the rage of his hero, Achilles.

In his book Moral Value and Political Behavior in Ancient Greece (1976, 13) Adkins questions the plausibility of the Homeric poems. It is very likely, in fact, that the events narrated in these books never took place and it is possible that Homer or the bards who sang in his name weren’t interested in educating anyone by narrating these stories. After all, the Iliad is a poem about rage and the Odyssey is a poem about the troubles that a man faced in returning back home to his human wife. Yet Adkins observes that Homer does use adjectives like agathos (good) and esthelos (noble) in order to commend his heroes’ deeds. The adjectives—Adkins continues—do not praise heroes’ good intentions, but laud the fact that the heroes did not fail.

Failure is aischron (a shame). The poem commends the agathoi (good people). As Adkins remarks the kakos (evil) hardly exists in the Homeric poem. Even the detestable Agamemnon is just less agathos than Achilles, but nevertheless is an example of good character (Adkins, 1976, 13). Moral values seem to be factual achievements, rather than a compass to orient the action.

Values stem from factual interconnection between characters and their families. Every character is bearer of a time(a value-honor) and is good in that he/she (mostly he) “defends his time” (Adkins, 1976, 16). The actions undertaken by the Homeric characters are good as far as they are true to the character. In the Homeric world every action seems to be meant to defend the personal gift with which everyone is born, that is, the honor of being that person. Those people who help the characters to benefit their time are philoi, friends that deserve affection, otherwise they would be enemies—with nothing in between accepted.

According to MacIntyre (1976) the agathoi (good people) have arête (virtue) because they are able to take action. In MacIntyre’s reading of the Homeric society the virtuous person is the one who is able to function and embrace his destiny within the layer of the society he belongs to (1976, 4-13). Belonging to a class means being aristos, i.e. the best one in defending one’s own destiny. As MacIntyre (1976) remarks in his history of ethics arête is all about social functioning. This notion of virtue as societal functioning will become even more evident in Plato’s Republic.

Fabiola Ferrarello used with permission
Source: Fabiola Ferrarello used with permission

This kind of action is already heroic. As Kerenyi (1974) and Otto (1954) noticed, none is superior to the Moira (Goddess of destiny). The right thing to do is to defend one’s own destiny (moron) as much as possible and let it act on the stage of our life. From the Homeric perspective, we are lucky and good people if our destiny can be entirely fulfilled. According to this very basic set of values, any attempt to prevent the natural course of events is unjust. The dishonorable men are those who do not have the courage to stand up for the narrative of their own life and defend their identity. “The agathos (good person) must defend himself and his own without the help of heaven” (1974, 21) In Homer the positive rage is the thumos, the animosity that drives the hero to fend for his destiny.

Generally, the agathoi (good men) are those who are allowed to belong to a class, because they gained the respect from their community through their endeavors. They proved themselves able to safeguard themselves and their people. Yet, when an agathos (the good man) thinks that he is in control of his own destiny, that is the moment when he becomes blind.

Hybris (arrogance) leads to ate (blindness). This enraged blindness is the negative form of rage for which the Homeric hero is punished. ‘Hero’ as Finley remarked (Odyssey, 1983, 20) is a class term for someone who is good at defending his own without becoming blind. Thinking that humans might be more than Gods, or better, more than Moira, makes them blind. Whenever human beings think that they are in control of their destiny, then their end is close. Nothing, in fact, belongs to us — we are just loci (places) made available to inhabit the portion (moiron) of the story of life that has been assigned to us. If we are lucky, our daimon (fiend, angel) will help us to defend that portion of our life and narrate the whole story, but we don’t have control of this; thinking otherwise is a mortal sin. Homeric characters are therefore one with their feelings; defending those feelings means defending the place in which their story will be performed.

Positive and Negative Rage

Homer seems to warn us that there is both positive and negative rage. There is the rage that we need to be in contact with in order to defend our own destiny. This rage is what makes us good people or even heroes. On the other hand, there is a rage that is ego-driven and can overwhelm our clarity of mind. This rage makes us behave as fools because it gives us the illusion of being in control of our own destiny and life. That is the rage that leads to hybris (arrogance) and ate (destruction). This form of rage is the hamartia (fatal flaw) that triggers the tragic events that will change our life forever. Being able to recognize the moment of rage and handle it in a way that is authentic and sincere is the highest goal we can pursue in our life.

Books on the topic

Adkins, A. W. H. Moral Value and Political Behavior in Ancient Greece, London, 1976.

McIntyre, A. A Short History of Ethics, MacMillian Publishing, New York, 1976.

Kerényi, C. The Heroes of the Greek, tr. By. H. G. Rose Thames and Hudson, London, 1974

Otto, W. F. The Homeric Gods, tr. by Moses Hadas, Pantheon, New York, 1954

Finley, M.I. Politics in the Ancient World, Cambridge, 1983.