It’s natural, but is it right? On the perils of rage

[image: Rage (14th century), Wikipedia; this is essay #293 in the Figs in Winter series]

A few days ago I saw a tweet that talked up a forthcoming book which will argue that rage is necessary to address racial injustice. The book isn’t out yet, so this essay isn’t about it, directly. But it is about the general notion that becoming enraged at injustice is both natural and right.

I have been writing about the perils of anger and rage for a while now, ever since the Stoics have convinced me that these are truly unhealthy emotional responses. Seneca wrote a whole book on anger, which begins:

It has now become a predictable pattern that every time I post on social media something on anger from the Stoic perspective people get angry. They seem to be afraid that I wish to rob them of a god given right to get enraged, obviously — they think — always for the right reasons. But nobody can take away the right to be angry from anyone else. That said, in an open society were public discourse should be encouraged, it may not be a waste of time to listen to an admittedly uncommon opinion about such a common human reaction.

The common opinion about anger and rage is that they are a good thing if two conditions are satisfied: (i) they are in response to an injustice or injury received; and (ii) they are expressed in moderation. That, in a nutshell, is Aristotle’s take on the issue. And here is how Seneca responded to him:

In other words, Seneca rejects the second condition, on the grounds that that’s not how anger works. Once you let it take hold of you it will interfere with your ability to act reasonably, which means that you won’t be in control, you will not be able to pick it up and lay it down as you would do with an actual weapon.

Does anger motivate? This is the implication of the first condition above. And the answer is clearly yes. But here too Seneca warns by way of mocking the Aristotelians:

Just in the same way that a soldier may be more eager to fight if slightly drunk, anger can certainly move us to action. But, again analogously with drunkenness — anger will impair our judgment, making us less effective at what we want to do. It is a well known thing, for instance, that boxers and martial arts fighters will taunt a less experienced opponent until he becomes enraged. He will then begin to strike, powerfully, but imprecisely. He will miss more often than not, waste a lot of energy, and ultimately lower his guard and open himself up to his opponents’ strikes.

Part of what made my Twitter conversation delicate is that the author of the book in question is a Black woman writing about the horrible experience of Black Americans, an experience that is repeated day after day in pretty much every corner of the country (though it is certainly worse in some corners than in others). Who am I, as a privileged (increasingly older) white male to talk to her about racial justice and rage?

Well, I am a thinking person, and I would hope that we still live in a society where, regardless of real or alleged privilege, we can still talk and especially listen to each other, even when — or especially when — we disagree. I don’t pretend to know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that sort of injustice. Lucky for me, I haven’t experienced it. But I am in human solidarity with anyone who suffers injustice. And I have, in the course of my life, felt anger and its nefarious effects, which means that in that respect at least I can speak from first person experience.

Moreover, I am not telling people how to feel or act. I am simply putting out a different perspective that is shared by long standing traditions like Stoicism and Buddhism. Here, for instance, is what the Dalai Lama said when my colleague Owen Flanagan asked him whether one should have killed Hitler — had one had the chance — and shouldn’t such killing be motivated by anger:

That is precisely the Stoic position. When violence is perpetrated against minorities, or when we face yet another instance of structural racism, we react like the Dalai Lama suggests: we protest and if possible prosecute the perpetrators of violence, and we protest against and positively try to undo structural racism. But we do this with compassion toward the people who perpetrate violence and propagate structural racism. Because they didn’t choose to be the nefarious nodes in the universal web of cause and effect that they in fact are.

Does that mean that we should attempt to suppress our anger? No, for two reasons. First off, it is not possible. You negotiate your emotions, you don’t suppress them. Second, anger (or fear, or anxiety) is a primal signal that something may be wrong, and we need to pay attention to it. What we want to avoid is to act on the basis of what the Stoics call unhealthy emotions, because they are not in agreement with reason. What we want is also to actively cultivate healthy emotions, such as love, joy, and a concern for justice, because they are in agreement with reason. Putting it in terms of emotions that are / are not in agreement with reason should help clarify a common misconception: reason is not separate from emotions. Emotions have strong cognitive components, and reason is always emotionally motivated. Therefore it is never a question of reason controlling emotions, a la Plato. Rather, it is a question of modulating our emotional responses so that we move away from the unhealthy ones and embrace the healthy ones.

At the beginning of this essay I said that a common refrain is that anger, or even rage, in response to a perceived injustice is natural. Of course it is. The question, though, is whether it is right. The yet to be published book that began the little Twitter discussion that inspired this post is, apparently, going beyond the descriptive (and obviously true) statement that anger rises in response to injustice. It makes the prescriptive (and questionable) statement that anger ought to rise in response to injustice. The difference is crucial, and to appreciate it let us examine a different case, from Epictetus’ Discourses.

In section eleven of the first book Epictetus is talking to a father whose daughter is very sick. Distraught by her suffering, he got out of the house in search of solace, leaving his daughter in the care of her mother. Epictetus asks the father to account for his behavior:

This is a profound piece of philosophizing, and I heartily encourage you to read the rest of that dialogue. Epictetus is drawing a distinction between what comes natural and what is in agreement with nature. One might think the two are one and the same, but they are not.

For the Stoics, what distinguishes human beings from other animals is a unique combination of two attributes: we are highly social and we are capable of sophisticated reasoning. Nature has equipped us with these two characteristics in the same way and for the same reason it has given powerful jaws to lions and swift legs to gazelles: to survive and thrive. It follows that to use reason and to live prosocially is the best way to live as a human being.

Now, there are of course human behaviors or tendencies that are “natural” in the sense that they are an integral part of our behavioral repertoire, and yet are in contradiction with reason and prosocial behavior. Xenophobia, for instance. We have a xenophobic instinct that we have likely inherited from our early ancestors because it was helpful in a time during human evolution when someone coming from another place and looking different from our in-group was, more likely than not, trouble.

But such instinct ought to be superseded in modern settings by the reasonable thought that xenophobia is actually irrational. We recognize that just because people come from other places, or don’t look like us, it doesn’t mean they are bad or dangerous. This ability we have to correct our natural instincts by prosocially oriented reasoning is why Seneca says that nature provided us with the beginnings of virtue, but that it is up to us to elaborate and go beyond it:

The father who went to Epictetus was feeling a natural sense of distress at his daughter’s suffering. But Epictetus maintained that he ought not to act on the basis of such feeling, because his prosocial reason — “virtue” — told him that he should have the fortitude to stay near his daughter and comfort her.

Similarly, it is natural for us to feel anger at injustice, especially if we happen to be among its targets. But prosocial reason tells us that we should not act on the basis of that anger, let alone actively build it into rage. On what basis, then, do we act against injustice? Seneca again:

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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