Nice Guys/Angry Men: The Power of Wrath

Peter Chojnowski
Reproduced with Permission

A) Rage in the Modern Age

"In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, weÕve had to kill people." This "matter of fact" statement, from proposition #96 of Theodore KaczynskiÕs Unibomber Manifesto, is indicative of the barely concealed rage which lies close to the surface of many contemporary minds. It is simply the urbane presentation of such a grotesque fact which shocks us. With Kaczynski, the natural or supernatural check which prevents the average frustrated man from such crimes was rendered inoperable. The abiding, almost seething, anger in many souls is held in, not vented in criminal deeds, because of the natural and communal check on such conduct. The long-term self-interest of the angry man is, also, of greater immediate concern than the general discontent and anger which many have concerning their status in a system which they instinctively feel does not "work." This anger, bordering on uncontrolled rage, is normally not conscious of its own existence. With the mind of the Unibomber, rage has become conscious of itself. In the writings of the Unibomber, rage attempts to justify itself.

That anger, which St. Thomas almost equates with the irascible appetite, should, often in our times, degenerate into rage, is indicative of how man, as a natural, and supernaturally-called, being ill-fits the technological liberal age which was, ostensibly, made for him. When we think of all the manifestations of "rage" in our own day, and I am understanding "rage" as a disordered form of the passion of "anger," the violence in Seattle at the World Trade Organization conference, "road rage," the misfits shooting up Columbine High, the stock brokers who slaughter coworkers and family, we cannot but believe that the liberal state and, subsequently, the liberal society which it imposes on men, is a contributory factor. In fact, I would venture to say that for this particular evil, it is the contributory factor. Liberalism is giving man a world in which he cannot live.

Why is this the case? How can the liberal state "produce" rage? For the simple reason that anger is kept from its normal release in the rectification of that which is disordered. When normal release in acts of "ordering" are forbidden due to a legal and juridical preoccupation with "rights" and "tolerance," you have personal and social explosion waiting to happen. In our day, and only in our day, have abstract and ill-defined conceptions of "rights" and "tolerance" kept reason and nature from shedding the monstrosities foisted upon us by liberalism. This produces a situation in which there will be both more "hate crime" laws and more hate. Since, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, wrath is the spiritual strength to attack the repugnant (Ad invadendum malum laesivum), to prevent a man from expressing in any way his repulsion to the disorderly, the perverted, the obnoxious, the dishonorable, is to invite and, even, ensure the engendering of psychological frustration which can only manifest itself in violent rage. If the natural outlets of man, those which allow him to create from himself and his own an environment conducive to an orderly life, are denied him as manifestations of "hate" and "intolerance," rage or pent-up wrath will be the result.

The very fact of being caught in the daily machinations of a system which provides no venues for the expression of the passion of anger, or for the forceful act of ordering by which the vengeance incited by an act of injustice is assuaged, is, without doubt, the reason for so much of the unprecedented weirdness which we see around us. Those who cultivate the bizarre appear, increasingly, to be mocking the sensibilities of the normal man, making clear the fact that he knows it to be the case that the normal man, because of the liberal state, is unable to stop him from trampling upon everything which is decent and fitting. By making "tolerance" the governing psychological motif of its societies, Liberalism is revealing to us its recognition that if anger and righteous indignation should be unleashed, its "society," which is only an aggregate of self-seeking individuals, would disintegrate. Moreover, is it surprising that when this rage violently expresses itself in the public sphere, our populace almost becomes fevered with what one can only call pent-up expectation, only to be disappointed when, for some opaque reason, the "center" holds and liberal "normalcy" is restored.

The problem with man living in a society which has "tolerance" as its governing motif, is that it has no place within it for the legitimate and natural passion of anger. The reason is because anger is precisely the passion of the soul which is intolerant. It is the very expression of manÕs intolerance of the repulsive; the repulsive which taunts the good. It is interesting to note here that in St. Thomas AquinasÕ philosophical anthropology, there is no passion which expresses "tolerance," but there is one which is intolerant by its very nature. Intolerance is natural to man, tolerance is not. Does the body "tolerate" uncooked meat? Pain? The very dynamism of the human soul is driven by an intolerance of the lack of being, goodness, truth, and satisfaction.

B) The Body and Soul of Anger

"The power of anger is given to sentient beings so that the hindrance may be removed whereby the force of desire is impeded from striving toward its object, whether because of the difficulty of achieving a good or because of the difficulty of overcoming an evil." There are several aspects of this single quotation from St. Thomas, which shed light on the nature of anger and its role in the life of man. First, the fact that anger is a passion which has both a spiritual and a physical aspect denominates anger as being a passion expressive of the very essence of man. Second, the "power" of anger is necessarily ordered towards what the intellect conceptualizes as "good." Anger is, therefore, a passion ordered towards the complete fulfillment of man. Desire would be thwarted continually if anger did not regularly unleash its scourge. Finally, anger is "called into action" by the intellectual power of man when this power is confronted with an "obstacle" which stubbornly and obnoxiously refuses to make way for the enthused "on rush" of the mind towards that which entices, enchants, and beckons it.

Since St. Thomas identifies anger or wrath (I will treat these two terms as if they are interchangeable, even though we might say that the term "anger" more often refers to a momentary manifestation of displeasure, while the term "wrath" has overtones of being an extended and nurtured desire for the rectification of an injustice) as the passionate desire for just retribution of injustice which has been suffered, he "locates" it in the sensitive appetite and goes so far as to apply the name "anger" to the irascible power of the soul. What this means is that the passion of anger is an act involving both the soul and the body, while it has as its "immediate" object the difficult to achieve good. What is interesting in this basic characterization of the passion of anger is the context in which St. Thomas discusses the entire question of the nature of anger. He emphasizes the bodily aspect of anger when he is refuting the ancient Stoic teaching that all the passions of the soul, as well as what we would term "emotion," are opposed to the order of reason by their very nature and, therefore, are to be understood as evil in themselves. Both the bodily aspect of anger, along with its fitting inclusion in a proper understanding of man and manÕs life, is mentioned in the following: "Because the nature of man is constructed of soul and body, of spirit and sensuality, it belongs to the good of man to devote himself utterly to virtue, namely, with spirit, sensuality, and body alike. And therefore manÕs virtue requires that the will for just retribution reside not only in the spiritual realm of the soul, but also in sensuality and in the body itself."

With regard to the "corporeality" expressed by the movement of anger, there must be in our minds three considerations. First, by speaking of it as an expressive act of the sensitive appetite, St. Thomas assumes that anger will have a physical manifestation which expresses the state of repulsion known by the spiritual soul. In the moment of anger, the desire to strike against the morally repulsive (and, truly, this is the only type of repulsive object we desire to "strike at") the facial expression normally reveals the repulsion and the violent moving of the limbs expresses the desire to strike out against the evil. Second, since St. Thomas insists that the sensitive appetite is the power of the soul which employs anger as a weapon and as a tool, it is to be expected that that which "triggers" the movement of anger is some evil, understood as obstacle, which is, nevertheless, seen by the eye or heard by the ear. One is rarely moved to true wrath by simply conceptualizing a "problem." We can, however, be moved to anger by imaginatively portraying to ourselves an injustice which others have seen or heard.

Finally, the vengeance or punishment which is the actual object desired by the sensitive appetite in the movement of anger, also, is understood by the mind as having a corporeal aspect. It is not surprising that in the scriptural account of Our Lord Jesus Christ manifesting his wrath against the pride and arrogance of the Jews of his time, he should "fashion a cord" and proceed to "cleanse" the temple of moral impurity through the physical chastisement and "overthrow" of the guilty.

Along with this emphasis on the corporeality of man as expressed in the movement of anger, St. Thomas, also, insists that it is the "difficult to achieve" or the "difficult to overcome" which is the proper object provoking the scourge of wrath. This is so much part of St. ThomasÕ conception of wrath as a passion of the human soul, that he even identifies the irascible power of the sensitive appetite with anger. The irascible power, as opposed to the concupiscible power, is directed towards the achievement of that which is difficult, therefore, of the good which is higher and more remote. Only the debased or the petty would become angry over some temporary depravation of food, drink, and sensual satisfaction. What is normally the case, in this regard, is that these "deprivations" are raised to the level of an injury "which [the angry man] deems done to himself."

"The excitement of anger, since it is aroused by an injustice, still in some way appertains to reason." In this quotation, St. Thomas is making a critical point. By being incited by injustice and personal dishonor or injury, wrath is that passion which moves the will to attempt to rectify an injustice; justice being within the domain of the will. It is because anger desires, as its proper object, justice, which is always to the good of the community and even to the good of the one being punished for an offense, that anger can be a very good and necessary movement of the human soul, while, for example, hatred and envy are never good in any circumstance. Even though anger, envy, and hatred agree on desiring "the evil of our neighbor," "hatred desires absolutely anotherÕs evil as such, and the envious man desires anotherÕs evil through desire of their own glory, [while] the angry man desires anotherÕs evil under the aspect of just revenge." What is necessary, then, to move the "hand" of the irascible power to reach for the scourge of anger is a clear intellectual conception of an injustice bearing upon the self or that which the self loves, along with the facility and readiness of the willÕs desire to avenge the misdeed done.

It is significant, then, that Liberal Man not only appears unable to generate the righteous indignation which would confront forcefully the great evils of our age, but, feeling its own weakness and degeneracy, would now banish the passion completely from the assemblage of "acceptable" human responses. Liberal Man has lost the intellectual clarity of sharp lines and distinctions. Consequently, the will falls into a lazy inertia, unable to generate the indignation which is the very ˇlan of wrath. Such a civilization, made up of such men, is ripe for its decline and fall. All that is needed is a precipitating event.

C) Anger Good and Bad

The distinction between anger and envy and hatred helps to illustrate more perfectly the nature of anger as a passion of the soul. It, also, allows us to understand what St. Thomas means when he refers to anger as a "passion." Unlike hatred or envy, which are emotions, intrinsically vicious and necessarily desirous of evil for another, anger is a passion of the sensitive appetite which has as its object "the good." What this means is that whereas hatred and envy are not part of the very apparatus of man, anger is. Anger is, therefore, necessary for the fulfillment of the good human life, whereas hatred and envy are not. Anger is a movement of the sensitive appetite which has as it "target" that which obstructs desireÕs movement towards the self-fulfilling good. It is not, then, that we get angry, which is interesting from a moral point of view. What is significant and determinative is both why and how we get angry.

When we consider what St. Thomas says about anger in question 158 of the Secunda Secundae of the Summa Theologica, we find the Thomistic emphasis on the primacy of the intellect and the objectivity of truth determining his teaching in the matter. Along with asserting that "if one is angry in accordance with right reason, oneÕs anger is DESERVING OF PRAISE," St. Thomas states the following: "Anger must stand in a two-fold relation to reason. First, antecedently; in this way it withdraws reason from its rectitude, and has therefore the character of evil. Secondly, consequently, inasmuch as the movement of the sensitive appetite is directed against vice and in accordance with reason, this anger is good, and is called zealous anger." The goodness of anger, according to St. Thomas, depends, then, upon a correct prior assessment on the part of reason of the intelligible "obstacle" which "blocks the way" in my advancement towards the good. Only anger which follows upon a correct assessment of the obstacle is morally good and perfective of the moral agent who becomes angry.

If anger, as a passion tied to the life and needs of the body, circumvents the deliberation of reason concerning the right action to be taken in a given situation, the action will have the character of being morally evil. In such a case, the hierarchy of human faculties and powers would have been overthrown. Passion would be dictating to reason, instead of the truth, discovered and held by reason, informing the movement of passion. It is evident that anger which disrupts the order of reason is evil. Blind wrath, bitterness of the spirit, and revengeful resentment are the three basic forms of intemperate anger. According to the formulation of Josef Pieper, "Blind wrath shuts the eyes of the spirit before they have been able to grasp the facts and to judge them; bitterness and resentment, with a grim joy in negation, close their ears to the language of truth and love; they poison the heart like a festering ulcer."

Must, then, passion, especially the vital force of anger, withhold the scourge in the fiery moment when punishment is executed? Must anger scruple over itself in fear that reason has not taken into consideration all the various aspects of a moral situation? No. It need not. In this regard, St. Thomas intimates that anger as a spontaneous passion can be perfectly justified even though it is spontaneous. Even when anger executes vengeance for an injustice or an indignity done, the act itself is "in accord with right reason," on account of the fact that it has been prompted by a prior consideration of reason. When there is an objective need to punish or to verbally castigate, the act of punishment or verbal castigation can be animated by the passion of wrath without losing its rationality or its moral goodness. In fact, and contrary to a certain anemic understanding of the virtuous life, one who does good with passion is more praise-worthy than one not entirely afire for the good. As St. Gregory the Great has stated, "Reason opposes evil the more effectively when anger ministers at her side." In probably more cases than we would imagine, "letting ourselves go," would be more meritorious and perfective than checking our irascible movements. In the primal force of anger, we find a personal dynamic in which the very "fibers of our being" militate against the repulsive, the evil, the destructive, and the shameful. Anger bespeaks the non-relativity of the good and of values. It reveals at "inopportune" times the fixity of our nature and its essential orientation. "The passion of anger, like all other movements of the sensitive appetite is useful as being conducive to the more prompt execution of reasonÕs dictate: else the sensitive appetite in man would be to no purpose, whereas nature does nothing without purpose."

That the passion of anger or wrath does not set itself loose from the yoke of practical reason, is the special concern of the virtues of gentleness and mildness. Both these virtues of the good soul involve the mastery of the power of wrath, not its weakening. Whereas mildness is gentleness turned toward that which is without, gentleness is the perfection of soul which allows a man to "draw his own being together like a club ready to strike," without overturning either the order established within his own mind and heart or the true order which needs to be present in a manÕs world. One can be truly angry, therefore, and "gentle" at the same time. It is the dissipated man who cannot strike. He who cannot "get a grip on himself," cannot "grip" the scourge.

D) When Niceness is a Peccatum

Even if we should assert that a virtuous act animated by great passion is of greater merit than one which lacks such passion, can we, also, assert that a failure to become angry in a particular moral situation could be a sin, a peccatum or vitium? The Angelic Doctor is clear. Yes, there are occasions in which failure to become angry would be sinful and would indicate either a defective grasp of the true good or a will incapacitated by intemperance, lust, or lazy inertia. St. Thomas quotes St. John Chrysostom who writes, "He who is not angry, whereas he has cause to be sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong."

The reason which can be given for the sinfulness of those who cannot exert the moral strength to "rise to the occasion" when evil or its protˇgˇs are present, is that the passion of anger has as its objective the meting out of punishment. If punishment is deserved on account of an act of injustice, failure to desire punishment, or the failure to punish when such an act is within oneÕs power, is a failure, a moral deficiency, a sin. Therefore, when we speak of wrathÕs desire for vengeance we are speaking about an act directed towards the order of justice. Such an act can be based upon error or upon false belief, however, "when revenge is taken in accordance with the order of judgment, it is GodÕs work, since he who has the power to punish is GodÕs minister, as is stated in Romans 13:4." In order to be justified, punishment must be exacted both upon the basis of a true judgment of reason and with a proper motive in mind. Somehow, being filled with the desire for the rectification of an injustice and desiring the true good of the one being punished, the inflictor of punishment must desire the physical evil of punishment (man, of course, not being able to inflict spiritual evil) as a moral good both for the punished and for the commonweal. If the man inflicting punishment desires evil for the one he is punishing, he sins and does what is "unlawful."

E) Christian Stoicism and Angry Hope

By what we see both from our consideration of human experience and from the perennial teaching of the Universal Doctor of the Church, it is NOT natural to tolerate evil. Nature, being on its trajectory to the good as has been ordained by the Creator, at most waits before it strikes. Whereas it may be meritorious to bear with an evil which cannot be immediately overcome, there is, surely, nothing meritorious about "tolerating" evil in such a way that we become accommodated to it and, ultimately, cease to view it as an evil at all. Just as the free expression of honest humor might strip the pretense from the visage of modern liberalism for us and for our neighbor, so too, might not productive anger facilitate a rectification of a society and a system which has lost contact with the most basic inclinations of the human heart and the most self-evident principles of human reason. Is not that what the passion of anger is precisely for?

It was the ancient Roman Stoics, reacting to a world in which the individual seemed utterly powerless to affect the course of events, to halt the downward tumble of a civilization which had stretched from the Scottish border to the Euphrates and which had been a cultural and intellectual universe for millions of men and none too few generations, who confronted a situation similar to the one we find ourselves in. Marcus Aurelius, second century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, manned the Roman imperial borders of the north, the Danube and the Rhine rivers, knowing full well that the time of Roman Order would be soon be at an end and the reign of societal dissolution was at hand. In his book the Meditations, the emperor indicates his awareness that all is lost, it being just a matter of time. He rejects sorrow. He will not shed the tear of regret. He clings to duty, naked duty; duty which seeks to fulfill a promise long ago made, even though the very ground upon which that promise stood, crumbles beneath it. To cleave to oneself, to cleave to oneÕs own will, to retire to that which we feel we can control, ourselves, our own will, is to quietly, but effectively, smother the flame of hope. To withdraw to doing oneÕs own duty, was for the Roman a noble form of despair. But despair it was.

It was the Light of Christ which put an end to this noble pagan despair. The Resurrected Lord gave hope and refreshment. A new civilization, a new world. Now that new civilization, that brightened world, that city of hope has fallen. What is to be our response? I would say that we must reject the temptation to cleave to a spiritual state of "suffering endurance," an "endurance" which coldly and pragmatically puts away from our lives indignation, laughter, and tears. For it is precisely in these that hope manifests its claim on the human heart and soul.