There was no way for us to turn aside. It took from us our eyesight and pure air.
- Dante, Purgatory
Anger is a spiritual sin which means that it can look different than merely a red-face and a yelling demeanor. Anger can be in a calculated strategy, a committed and decisive act, it can be passive, presenting itself as humble or meek. In other words, anger can be hidden - even from ourselves.
We know what the feeling of anger is, and to St. Thomas Aquinas, passions not merely morally neutral, they have an indirect connection to sin and the good. However, when discussing the deadly sin, we are specifically speaking about an act of the will. It would help us to understand how the passion of anger is generated.
According to Aquinas’ psychology, anger as a passion is considered irascible. There are two types of passions, the other being concupiscible. Both passions can be summarized as either as a type of rest, or a type of agitation. Both are defined or understood according to the perception of good and evil things. Despair for instance, to Aquinas is a type of passion that is concupiscible (restful). Many might think of it as a type of anxiety, but the case is otherwise. Despair is a type of giving-up - a belief that the perceived good cannot be obtained. Its a throw-your-hands up in the air type of reaction. Anger, on the other hand is an irascible passion, and probably the most complex when explained by St. Thomas Aquinas. So I will simplify a bit here and suggest that the passion of anger ultimately arises due to the convergence of two spiritual acts within man.
As we discussed earlier, if we appropriate to ourselves the Divine-Prerogative to define good from evil, then here we will arbitrarily define injustice from justice according to our preferences. Therefore, I add the word “perceived” to denote the subjective dimension of man, and his responsibility in how he interprets good from evil. Many children have been know to cry out to their parents “that’s not fair” but wouldn’t stand to reason against Socrates as they explain what exactly isn’t fair about a parent asking them to go to sleep at bed-time. The pride active here is in part, how we define the good. Do we surrender to God’s notion of it, the natural law, right-reason, humbly as such. Do we admit of our own injustice, our own imperfections? How objective can we really be? Our relativism, our pride, is the smoke that blinds us to make clear decisions. What is our motive for claiming this to be unjust? These days with the great rallying of tribes in various forms of activism, could this be little more than a seeking of acceptance, and community? I don’t know, but these are possibilities amongst many others. Sometimes we need a purpose to give our lives a sense of import. Could we be condemning what we choose to be an injustice to feel like we have meaningful lives? I really hope not. If this is the case, then our concern isn’t justice…but exploiting what is perceived or truly as such injustices.
Perceived Hope (Control)
It might sound odd, but here St. Thomas Aquinas asserts that hope is the second converging factor in anger. Although we may perceive injustice, anger is not always the response. Sometimes horrible things occur, and there is truly nothing we can do about it - and instead of getting angry, we weep, mourning the loss of some good. Anger therefore, as a passion in anyone results from the spiritual disposition that holds to hope even if its unreasonable to do so. This doesn’t mean that all experiences of hope generate anger, but when coupled with the object of something perceived as unjust, it does generate this passion. Think about the reality of anger when it is generated physiologically. Your heart pumps, you dislike being seated - you are ready to act. This passion thereby demonstrates a type of motivation to take control, to exert some effort and overcome what is perceived to be unjust. It assumes that this injustice can be addressed by our own circle of influence. The question arises, as prideful people, do we ever exaggerate our sense of control. Do we consider our station in life, are we perpetually an activist, shouting and bothered. Do we look to places outside of our preview rather than being preoccupied with what is within our realm of self-control. For instance, Jordan Peterson often says why would one want to clean up the world without first beginning with your bed at home? I might ask the same question from the point of view of a relationship - why would we espouse some type of love, when we cannot even get along with our next-door neighbor and co-worker? This is telescopic philanthropy - it is the illusion of control, but a type of displacement. Sometimes we have to sit within the realities we cannot control and cry. We cannot be permissive, enabling, and all that - nor can we become micromanagers, excessively preoccupied with what happens outside of our circle of influence.
When these two converge, we get the passion anger. We see this on display in Genesis. First comes pride, then comes envy, then comes murder. There is a straight line that can be traced here. The sickness of self-preoccupation is passed down to Cain and Abel. Abel chooses to remedy this by making a pleasing sacrifice to God. Cain chooses to use the sacrifice as a means to one-up Abel. This of course works against him, and causes his sacrifice to not be acceptable. Cain is envious, and his reaction to this envy is to eliminate the competition.
Murder may not he the common way in our western culture to express our anger. However, the seed is there, spiritually. If we so much as hate our brother, the spirit of murder exists in our hearts. Are we willing to admit that? And critically, are we willing to examine in the light of truth what objective type of hope and injustice we are to face?
Counter Virtue - Meekness
I disagree with Bishop Robert Barron in his excellent series on the 7 Deadly Sins. I highly recommend watching that series. When he mentions the counter-virtue to Wrath I find myself and St. Thomas Aquinas diverging from his position. He mentions that FORGIVENESS is the counter virtue to wrath. However, sometimes we are angry at a person, yet they did nothing wrong. We could be wrong at God, or a police officer for pulling us over for breaking the law. In all such cases we do not counter our anger by forgiveness. That could actually enable further anger down the road, as we dig our heels in the ground demanding that it was an injustice, when the opposite is true. Would it be a virtue to forgive God? Hardly. Rather, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, the counter-virtue to Wrath is meekness. Meekness may involve forgiveness, but the virtue better corresponds to what must take place interiorly in man. The example Dante uses in Purgatory is that of Mary who finds Christ in the temple after three days of him being lost. Many parents would relate to this - the decisive chastening that would immediately follow finding their child is common. However, Mary asks Jesus a question when she finds Him. In this, she interiorly bends before God, and instead of accusing, instead of insisting that his behavior was unjust, she attempts to understand. She gives him the chance to explain himself. She gives him a non-naïve type of benefit of the doubt. I don’t know about you, but I’ve experienced being the object of discussion, whereby tempers flare, and yet I’m entirely absent from the conversation. Suddenly you are broadsided by some malicious interpretation, some judgment, some harsh criticism. Their mind is already made up, their heart is already a stone to throw. Its a horrible experience of rash, angry, malicious and uninformed judgment. Sadly, are we all not just victims of this, but also victimizers? Like Mary, lets pause and ask questions before accusing. Lets chasten that temptation to jump to conclusions about another’s behavior, and whether it was actually unjust. Lets attempt to reasonably bend before the other as a fellow sinner, and hope to hear the best.
Someone wise once said to me - we tend to judge others by the effects their actions have on us, but rarely do we wish to be judged by anything other than our own intentions. What is the measure we give out - and it is meek?