Excuses for Madness

M.F. Burnyeat

  • Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity by William Harris
    Harvard, 480 pp, £34.50, January 2002, ISBN 0 674 00618 6

‘We should flatten a country or two,’ said a young man to the television camera on 11 September last year. ‘Justice, not revenge,’ the Roman Catholic bishops warned that same day. They were not given time to explain the difference, nor was the young man asked to name a country or two for flattening. But the bishops had reason to speak out.

It would be going too far to say that 11 September undid centuries of Christian teaching and made revenge respectable again, just as William Harris is over the top when he opines: ‘In the United States, views about revenge seem to have sunk to a level appropriate to a neolithic village.’ But it is troubling how much public talk of revenge there is at present. This study of rage restraint in classical antiquity must have been completed before 11 September. In the shadow of that trauma, it has a topicality its author can hardly have expected.

Harris is known for ground-breaking books on Roman imperialism and on literacy in the ancient world. His new book, a vastly ambitious attempt to cover nearly every aspect of anger in antiquity from Homer to early Christianity, breaks fresh ground again. Despite a somewhat rambling organisation and quirky remarks like the one just quoted (what’s the evidence for neolithic views on revenge?), it is full of interest. Harris’s only serious omission is anger in the context of war. The ancients had much to say about anger both as a major cause of war, including civil war, and as a potent factor in the fighting. Harris’s neglect of the military aspects of his subject (just two brief entries in the index under ‘war, warfare’) is a surprising lapse.

In his De Ira (‘On Anger’), Seneca claimed that anger is the only passion that can at times grip a whole nation. By ‘anger’ he meant the desire for vengeance against an enemy that has inflicted injury on one’s people: ‘No entire people has ever burned with love for a woman, no whole state has set its hope on money or gain; ambition seizes individuals one by one; only fury plagues whole communities at once.’ We do not need to endorse this claim (grief is an obvious rival) to appreciate that anger and revenge are back in the news today, precisely in connection with whole communities at war with each other. Not only in the potential war against Iraq, but also on both sides of the conflict in Israel, territory of the Roman province of Palestine.

‘Anger’ is the first word of Western literature. ‘Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles’ is the opening prayer of Homer’s Iliad, but in the original Greek, the word μήνιν, ‘wrath’ or ‘anger’, comes first, in the place of emphasis. The anger of Achilles is the central theme of our civilisation’s first and most powerful epic.

Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has grabbed his girl, his booty in the war against Troy. A great insult to his honour and prestige, which Homeric values count as injury to the person. Athene intervenes to check his urge to kill Agamemnon on the spot, and he withdraws in a sulk from the fighting. Deprived of their best warrior, the Greeks begin to lose ground. Achilles refuses to come to their rescue. It is only when they are pushed right back to their ships, one of which the Trojans set ablaze, that he relents and allows his beloved friend Patroclus to rejoin the Greek army to help drive the enemy off the beaches. And it is only when Patroclus himself is killed that Achilles takes up arms again to avenge his death, slaughtering Hector and dragging his body three times around Patroclus’ tomb.

For centuries, this story was compulsory school reading for both Greeks and Romans. ‘It was at Rome that I was raised and taught how much the wrath of Achilles harmed the Greeks,’ Horace wrote as prelude to recalling his own wretched fate on the losing side at the battle of Philippi, which decided the civil war between defenders of the Roman Republic and the future Emperor Augustus. By the first century BC, the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon had become emblematic of the horrors of internal strife and civil war. Yet that quarrel was only one dramatic episode in a larger conflict between East and West. The cause of the Greeks’ attack on Troy was their outrage at Paris’ abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta. The Greeks sought revenge, booty, annihilation of their enemy’s prosperity. After ten long weary years, they won.

As it began, so it continued. Greek and Roman literature return constantly to the theme of injury, often by way of insult or slight to the dignity of a god or human, followed by anger and revenge, often revenge of appalling savagery. Think of the grisly end of Euripides’ Hippolytus, written in the fifth century BC. Hippolytus, his body mangled by his own horses, is dying because Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, was offended by the chastity of his life dedicated to the virgin goddess Artemis. Or of Euripides’ Medea, in which Medea’s rage at Jason for taking another wife leads her to kill the children she bore him. Not to save them from a terrible fate (as in Toni Morrison’s Beloved), but to retaliate for what Jason has done to her: ‘It’s the way to hurt my husband most,’ she says. Medea was popular enough to be repeatedly restaged in the next century, and was re-created in Latin by Seneca for the brutal world of the early Roman Empire.

I pick these two examples of post-Homeric revenge because one of Harris’s most interesting chapters is on angry women. He discusses Medea and other examples from tragedy, but also less ‘literary’ sources, such as Galen’s description of his mother: ‘She sometimes bit her slave-women; she constantly screamed at my father and fought with him, more than Xanthippe did with Socrates.’ This may be a stereotype masquerading as autobiography (to show that Galen knows what he is talking about in a medical work on the diagnosis and therapy of the passions), but for the historian stereotypes are often more significant than individual lives: ‘A properly organised community, from the point of view of Greek and Roman men, was one in which women knew their place, and knowing their place involved, among other things, avoiding anger. The stereotype we have been examining implies that there was almost no legitimate place for women’s anger.’

So far, excellent. The stereotype can be documented for all periods of antiquity. But that need not mean, as Harris claims, that it ‘represented women as the irascible sex’ or that ‘the angry emotions were feminine.’ The wrath of Achilles was deplorable in many ways, but it was hardly effeminate. I prefer to take the stereotype as evidence that the angry emotions were supposed to be the prerogative of the male. Not of course in excess, or in the undignified manner of Xanthippe’s alleged nagging of Socrates. But the corollary of there being almost no legitimate place for women’s anger was that male anger, appropriately expressed, was not only legitimate: it was required. Aristotle describes as ‘slavish’ a man who does not get angry at insults to himself and his family, meaning that he is ignoble because he does not stand up for himself and his own. The assertiveness required of a self-respecting man was frowned on in slaves and women. Medea’s vengefulness was all the more terrible for being the expression of womanly rage. (A goddess’s anger is beyond condemnation, like a storm at sea.)

To call the non-angry man ‘slavish’ is itself a stereotypical insult. Aristotle is not voicing a personal opinion, but articulating generally accepted values in a chapter of his Nicomachean Ethics devoted to the analysis of a virtue he terms ‘gentleness’ (prao´thV). The gentle man is not, as a modern reader might expect, someone who seldom gets angry, but rather someone whose anger is always proportionate to the offence and the offender. Lack of anger is as much a vice, by Aristotle’s account, as being habitually bad-tempered or unreasonably severe on minor offences. Conversely, proper anger may range from the mild to the extreme, depending on the gravity of the provocation it responds to.

This chapter of Aristotle’s refutes a central claim of Harris’s book. Harris contends that the Greek word o’rgh´ does not correspond to our ‘anger’ because it always refers to intense emotion, anger on the point of bursting out into some violent expression. Mild anger, or anger that is prudently restrained, is not o’rgh´. If this were correct, Aristotle could not introduce ‘gentleness’ as the virtue that disposes one to proper, proportionate reactions of anger (o’rgai´). Nor could Plato in his Laws rule that a young man must endure his o’rgh´ quietly if he is roughed up by a senior citizen.

Another piece of Aristotelian wisdom which Harris rejects is that even mild anger nourishes thoughts of revenge, retaliation, or getting back at the one who ‘done me wrong’. ‘Let anger be defined,’ Aristotle wrote for his students of rhetoric, ‘as a desire, accompanied by pain, for apparent revenge in response to an apparent insult to oneself or one’s own from persons who ought not to insult one.’ The qualification ‘apparent’ caters for the subjectivity of emotion. You take him to have insulted you, and you respond in a way you hope will hurt. It makes no difference whether you are right or wrong in these assessments. You are still angry. You still desire the satisfaction of revenge as requital for the pain you felt. That, according to Aristotle, is what anger is. And he was not alone in thinking this. Other philosophers’ definitions of anger use different words to say much the same.

If we follow Aristotle rather than Harris, the ancient concern about anger is not just about intense anger, but about anger as such, and a key question is whether revenge and retaliation have a legitimate role in society or one’s personal life. The question is complicated by the ancient context, where the state did not have the official monopoly on violence that we are used to. In Classical Greece there were no public prosecutors to bring an offender to justice; charges had to be brought by the victim of the crime or by relatives of the victim. Under the Roman Empire, when Seneca was writing, an officer could legally execute his soldiers; the head of a household could execute his son or his slaves; and the governor of a province could execute the people he ruled. In such a context it is difficult to maintain a sharp distinction between punishment and revenge, and in fact common Greek and Latin verbs for punishing (timwre´w, ulciscor) also translate in terms of revenge or retribution. If Aristotle and other philosophers are right about the desire to return pain for pain being an essential component of anger – anger as experienced then, in a society where the honour code remained as binding as it was for Achilles and Agamemnon – it is easy to understand why the angry emotions became a prime topic of concern. In a world dominated by powerful men, the consequences of anger could be lethal.

‘There is nothing so ugly as a harsh temper yoked to supreme power,’ Cicero wrote in late 60 or early 59 BC to his irascible brother Quintus, then serving as governor of the province of Asia (modern Turkey). The cure he recommended (without much confidence that it would help with a man of Quintus’ age) was to study the many writings of the philosophers about anger.

There were indeed many. As well as Seneca’s De Ira, read and admired as long as Europeans were brought up to understand Latin, and several pertinent treatises by Galen, we are lucky enough to have two more essays on anger control: one by Plutarch and another by the Epicurean Philodemus, recovered from the ashes of the volcano at Herculaneum, near Naples. But we know the authors and titles of numerous other works on anger which have not survived.

Evidently, anger was a subject of intense concern. A story from Seneca will illustrate why:

There was Gnaeus Piso, whom I can remember: a man free from many vices, but misguided, in that he mistook inflexibility for firmness. In a fit of anger he ordered the execution of a soldier who had returned from leave of absence without his comrade, on the ground that if the man did not produce his companion, he must have killed him; and when the soldier asked for a little time to institute a search, he refused the request. The condemned man was led outside the rampart, and as he was in the act of presenting his neck, there suddenly appeared the very comrade who was supposed to have been murdered. Hereupon the centurion in charge of the execution bade the guardsman sheathe his sword, and led the condemned man back to Piso in order to exonerate Piso from guilt, as fortune had exonerated the soldier. A huge crowd amid great rejoicing in the camp escorted the two comrades locked in each other’s arms. Piso mounted the tribunal in a rage, and ordered both soldiers to be led to execution, the one who had done no murder and the one who had escaped it! What could be more scandalous? Two were dying because one had been proved innocent. And Piso added a third. He ordered the centurion who had brought back the condemned man to be executed as well. On account of the innocence of one man, three were appointed to die in the self-same place. How clever is anger in devising excuses for its madness! ‘You,’ it says, ‘I order to be executed because you were condemned; you, because you were the cause of your comrade’s condemnation; you, because you did not obey your commander when you were ordered to kill.’ It thought out three charges because it had grounds for none.

Most philosophers held that anger neither could nor should be eradicated entirely. It is both an intrinsic part of human nature and an asset to society when there is fighting to be done. To remove anger, they said, quoting Plato quoting Homer’s disparaging description of Menelaus, is ‘to cut out as it were the sinews of the soul and make oneself “a feeble warrior”’. The solution, therefore, is to moderate anger so as to avoid the excesses of Achilles, and to train people to be angry on the right occasions only, in the appropriate manner and degree. Which might mean very angry indeed, especially on the battlefield.

Stoics such as Seneca, however, argued that anger could and should be banished altogether. The Stoics were inspired by Socrates’ revolutionary stand against revenge, as expressed in a passage of Plato’s Crito (often echoed by Christian writers in later antiquity) where Socrates insists that we should never return wrong for wrong, injury for injury. Socrates was no Jesus commanding his followers to turn the other cheek, but a thinker reminding his old friend Crito of the conclusion of many arguments they have shared in the past, to the effect that the urge to hit back is demeaning and harmful to anyone who succumbs to it. This does not commit Socrates to pacifism (he fought bravely for his country), but to a view of war as the administration of just punishment aimed at restraining and, if possible, reforming the offenders. And that is the view he espouses in Plato’s Republic when discussing war between one Greek state and another. About larger conflicts with non-Greek peoples of the East he remains silent. His more conventional interlocutor Glaucon recommends a no-holds-barred approach to barbarians.

The Stoics, who view mankind as a global community, share Socrates’ opposition to revenge and his judicial approach to the use of violence. Seneca continues the passage quoted earlier with the following words:

Anger, I say, has this great fault – it refuses to be ruled. It rages against truth itself if the truth turns out contrary to its desire. With outcry and uproar and gestures that shake the whole body it pursues those whom it has marked out, heaping upon them abuse and curses. Not thus does reason act. But if need should so require, it silently and quietly wipes out entire households, destroying families baneful to the state – wives, children, and all; it even tears down their houses, levelling them to the ground, and abolishes the very names of the foes of liberty. All this it will do, but with no gnashing of the teeth, no wild tossing of the head, doing nothing that would be unseemly for a judge, whose countenance should at no time be more calm and unmoved than when he is delivering a weighty sentence.

Modern weaponry, operating from a great distance, makes calm slaughter much easier. Nowadays it is the folk back home whose anger is needed to sustain support for a war. In antiquity, many of those involved in a decision to go to war would themselves have to take part in the fighting – face to face with the enemy. That did not make wars less frequent than they have been since. But it did allow critics of the Stoic position to complain that it is unrealistic to expect soldiers to stay cool, calm and dispassionate in the turmoil of battle.

Harris agrees with this complaint, although he is aware that Stoics think it beside the point. It is beside the point because the judicial impartiality Seneca describes is an ideal: reason at its human best directed by perfect wisdom. The Stoic claim is that we should aspire to that ideal, not that any of us are likely to attain it in practice, and they spell out the life we should strive for by describing the character and conduct of a sage who has achieved it. Harris may see the figure of the Stoic sage as a philosopher’s subterfuge, but there were Greeks and Romans who did seriously try to live up to Stoic values. One such, no ordinary soldier, was the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled from 161 to 180 AD.

His Meditations open with a tribute to his grandfather Verus for having provided him with an inspiring example of nobility of character and freedom from anger. The relevance of this tribute (mistranslated by Harris into a boast by Marcus to be free from anger already) becomes clear in later pages, where the supreme commander of the Roman army records the efforts he makes to help himself live up to his grandfather’s example and restrain his temper. One of the things he does is scramble the stereotypes. He tells himself that calm gentleness is both more human and more manly than indignation, that gentleness is the character which has strength and sinews and fortitude. Gentleness is closer to power because ‘as grief is a mark of weakness, so is anger, for both have been wounded and have surrendered to the wound.’

This gentleness is not identical with the Aristotelian virtue. As a Stoic, Marcus condemns all anger, not just anger disproportionate to the offence. And the Stoic case against anger is at its strongest when applied to the big strategic decisions that fall to emperors and generals. It is entirely realistic for both soldiers and civilians to demand that anger play no part there at all.