The Good Anger

vm1431My attention was recently drawn to the work of Leon Podles on anger, which asserts that anger has a very important role to play in the virtuous life. He contends:

Wrath is a necessary and positive part of human nature: “Wrath is the strength to attack the repugnant; the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul,” wrote Josef Pieper. The lack of wrath against injustice, he continued, is a deficiency: “One who does good with passion is more praiseworthy than one who is ‘not entirely’ afire for the good, even to the forces of the sensual realm.”

He also cites St. Thomas Aquinas:

“lack of the passion of anger is also a vice” because a man who truly and forcefully rejects evil will be angry at it. The lack of anger makes the movement of the will against evil “lacking or weak.” He quotes John Chrysostom: “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 the good to do wrong.”

Podles’ article gave me pause to think. Elsewhere on this blog I have stated:

I will say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a single case of human “righteous indignation.” Just as I have never met a man who was pure in heart, neither have I man a man who is pure in anger.

I have great regard for the writings of the Fathers – and certainly for Chrysostom – though I often find that Chrysostom was a broad enough preacher that a quote for almost any position can be found somewhere in his voluminous writings. As it turns out, it is even easier to find a quote of Chrysostom on a subject, if you include in his writings those of the Opus Imperfectum, the source of Podles’ quote from the great Church Father. The Opus Imperfectum is so named, because, though once thought (in the Early Middle Ages in the West) to be a work of Chrysostom’s, it was, in fact, a 5th century work by an Arian Presbyter in the region of the Danube.

This is not necessarily a problem (Aquinas uses the quote most effectively) if the statement is correct. But of course, this raises the question of anger again. Is there a good anger? I offer here an alternative quote from Chrysostom (the real one):

Anger is no different than madness – it is a temporary demon; or rather it is worse than having a demon; for one who has a demon may be excused, but the angry man deserves ten thousand punishments, voluntarily casting himself into the pit of destruction, and before the hell which is to come suffering punishment from this already, by bringing a certain restless turmoil and never silent storm of fury, through all the night and through all the day, upon the reasonings of his soul (Hom. on St. John’s Gospel, XLVIII.3).

I do not mean to offer an academic argument on the definitive position of Chrysostom on anger. I am not a scholar in the area (owning a copy of his works, finding a quote and offering it does not make one a scholar). What I mean to do is bring the question of anger to the place that Chrysostom notes in this last quote. He describes an experience of anger that is a form of insanity, a “temporary demon.”

Podles has an argument – well established in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, that there is a form of anger that is a proper energy of the soul whose absence would even be a sinful lack. The discussion in Aquinas comes from a fairly theoretical section on the passions. As an “energy of the soul,” anger certainly has a place within someone who is spiritually whole. It is possible, as St. Paul says, “to be angry and sin not” (Eph. 4:26). I will readily grant such a theoretical possibility. Nevertheless, I maintain my earlier observation:

I will say without fear of contradiction that I have never seen a single case of human “righteous indignation.” Just as I have never met a man who was pure in heart, neither have I man a man who is pure in anger.

Just because I have not seen it, does not mean it does not exist.

Podles argues that there is a strange lack of anger in modern clergy (particularly modern Catholic clergy). Podles, of course, has famously written about a dangerous “feminization” of our religious culture – thus it is perhaps possible that this lack of anger seems unmanly to him (cf. The Church Impotent). He cites in particular the failure of moral outrage in the face of sexual abuse of children within the ranks of the clergy.

My experience of clergy over the past 30 or more years of ordained life – whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox – is that anger is not somehow lacking. I have no idea why someone would think that there is no anger among clergy. In many cases, I have found them to be among the angriest people I know. The issue is rather – why no anger over this particular issue? And there, I suspect, the answer would be found. Try another issue and indignation will flow down like rivers.

But this presence or absence of anger is in neither case an argument for a good anger. I again agree that there may be such in the panoply of redeemed passions. However, it is the man of redeemed passions whom I find lacking.

I believe the path to virtue – to right-living in Christ – is ultimately found in the keeping of God’s commandments and the ascetical disciplines of the Church. Most especially do I think this is the case with regard to our treatment of others. In St. Luke’s gospel (6:35-36) Christ states:

love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

His admonition is not unlike that of St. John Chrysostom (after his observations on anger being like a demon):

Let us therefore, that we may deliver ourselves from the punishment here and the vengeance hereafter, cast out this passion, and show forth all meekness and gentleness, that we may find rest for our souls, both here and in the Kingdom of Heaven.

A last point. Podles, following Aquinas and Pieper, argues that the lack of anger results in the failure of a moral will – particularly in righting injustices and in addressing things which must be corrected. This is true, if, again, we are speaking on a theoretical level. We currently have no lack of anger in our public life. And yet, for all the anger, we have little action. Rather, we have the demon of which Chrysostom spoke:

… a certain restless turmoil and never silent storm of fury, through all the night and through all the day, upon the reasonings of his soul….

I have been witness to several major social upheavals. I think particularly of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. There was certainly plenty of moral indignation and little lack of anger (on many sides). Martin Luther King Jr.’s political struggle often included the difficult task of urging non-violence upon those who were rising up in great indignation. It is a great moral task indeed.

My experience is that what progress has been made within the heart of my native culture has been made through mercy and the appeal to kindness and compassion. To a large extent, I believe the same is true in the modern struggle with the rights of the unborn. It is the continued appeal to their humanity and to society’s compassion that has gradually moved hearts towards their protection.

I will easily give way to those whose experience has been other than mine. I can only bear witness to my own heart, in the end. There I find that in the mercy of God I am able to love, to forgive, to do justice and to defend the defenseless.

There may be a good anger – but in the midst of the sea of anger in which we now dwell – it is hard to find.

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