Anger

“Study of a Woman’s Head”
Leonardo da Vinci c.1483

Anger

At one of the numberless administrative hearings held during my seven-year job fight, the opposing counsel asked me, with an insinuating sidewise smile,

“Are you very angry at the people who fired you?”

I glanced down the long table where a bunch of former colleagues were seated, not looking friendly.

“No,” I answered truthfully. “I am not much given to anger.”

When I was eventually reinstated with tenure, collegial friends expressed anxiety about the buzzing, hissing nest of revenge-seekers I’d be reentering.

It did not fall out that way. I did not feel resentful of those who had put me through seven years of professional hell. I rather felt sorry for them. In my view, they’d picked the wrong parts to play in the movie we’d shared. Like the bad guys in Westerns, they’d had to have the unshaven chins, wear the black hats and ride the swayback horses.

My Gandhian affect must have been felt, for on the whole they relaxed and our relations became amicable.

Actually, I didn’t get my peaceable attitude from Gandhi, much as I revered the Mahatma. It came from reading Benedict de Spinoza, the great seventeenth-century philosopher. Here is his recipe for not holding a grudge:

  • Find out what made you angry, which will be something external that (in your belief) has taken your power away.
  • Do what you can to exercise the very power you think you lost, or the nearest capability to it that’s accessible to you.
  • If you can’t get back that power, or its simalcrum, understand the conditions that moved your adversary to protect his vulnerability by attacking yours. Your exercise of understanding is itself a power and your use of it a remedy against your sense of other powers lost.

This is how, for many years, I have sidestepped anger.

Till yesterday. Something happened that made me so angry that my heart pounded all afternoon. And the Spinozistic remedy, though I knew how to use it, didn’t seem to fit the case. Rather, my anger was what seemed to honor the person who I felt had broken a written agreement and now gave not the slightest indication that he knew what he’d done. It seemed better to remain angry. Not more fun. Not a healthier vent for my inner steam. Just better.

No need to wallow in it. But let your anger see the light of day.

Give it its hour.

What had changed in me to bring about this new approach to my anger?

Spinoza’s God is not personal. It’s also called Substance. It’s Ultimate Action, Ultimate Causality, Unqualified Power. It has infinitely many infinite dimensions. Only, it doesn’t love you back and you can’t pray to it. The divine attributes and modes of attributes are brilliantly deployed in Spinoza’s system. He’s a very great philosopher and an exemplary man. But I no longer think that way.

To me at the present hour, God is more personal than that. In the aspect of the divine that I relate to, God is a Person whose witness and care support my attempts to make sense of the person I am. Part of making sense of who I am involves a struggle to make the right prevail over the wrong — so far as I can tell which is which. The double combat is what makes our lives dramatic, risky and real.

What does that mean, so far as anger goes? It means those who deliberately injure others have the freedom not to. If we say that really, deep down, they couldn’t help it, they become objects, subject to laws of nature or history. But we are not objects.

The perpetrator could have done otherwise

and merits anger therefore

– even if the victim is me.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Anger

  1. Abigail says:

    Good advice! In my experience, anger shouldn’t just be treated as an untamed force. It’s more like a flashlight, which our British friends call a “torch.” Kept within bounds, righteous anger can illuminate a dark place. Allowed to run unchecked, it will cause a lot of destruction. Like fire, it’s not self-limiting. One has to watch it! Thanks for the reminder, Jerry.

    Like

  2. Jerry Schmoyer says:

    “Be angry but don’t sin” (Ephesians 4:26)

    Like

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