16 July 2009

'Rage—Goddess, Sing the Rage': Leon Podles & St Isaiah on Just Anger

Earlier today, I posted on St Isaiah the Solitary, including a small chapter from his treatise ‘On Guarding the Intellect’, included in the Philokalia. Here is the opening chapter of that treatise, which I thought deserved a separate treatment (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1983], p. 22):

1. There is among the passions an anger of the intellect [nous], and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them ‘dishonourable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to live with the dogs that guard my flocks’ (cf. Job 30:1, 4. LXXX). He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.

Even so ‘Stoic’ a teacher as Evagrius refers to the anger ‘in accordance with nature’: ’24. Anger is given to us so that we might fight against the demons and strive against every pleasure. Now it happens that the angels suggest spiritual pleasure to us and the beatitude that is consequent upon it so as to encourage us and to turn our anger against the demons’ (Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981], p. 23). In Institutes VII.iii.3, Evagrius’s disciple, St John Cassian, has bequeathed this teaching to the Latin world (of course, Aquinas could also find it in St Augustine, De civ. Dei IX.5): ‘Do we not understand that the stings of anger have also been given to us for a very good reason, so that we might be displeased with our vices and errors and occupy ourselves instead with virtue and spiritual pursuits by being most loving to God and patient to our brothers?’ (The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey [NY: Newman, 2000], p. 170). Finally, St Gregory of Sinai has elabourated on this somewhat in his 137 texts ‘On Commandments & Doctrines’ (Philokalia, Vol. 4 [London: Faber, 1998], p. 236):

109. . . . Once our conscience is active, what some call righteous indignation and others natural wrath is roused in three ways—against the demons, against our nature and against our own soul; for such indignation or wrath impels us to sharpen our conscience like a keen-bladed sword against our enemies. If this righteous indignation triumphs and subjects sin and our unregenerate self to the soul, then it is transmuted into the loftiest courage and leads us to God. . . .

I paid especial attention when I reread that first passage in St Isaiah yesterday—and tracked down the other passages—because it reminded me immediately of an article just published on this subject in the latest Touchstone (July/August 2009). In ‘Unhappy Fault’ (billed as ‘Leon Podles on the Integration of Anger into the Virtuous Life’), Leon Podles brings up the traditional teaching on ‘righteous indignation’ apropos of the sexual abuse scandals that have shaken his church in the last several years, citing the Summa Theologica II, II, 158, 1, as well as Josef Pieper’s discussion of the issue in ‘Fortitude’, trans. Daniel F. Coogan, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame, 1966), which of course also cites Aquinas (particularly on p. 130, where Pieper points out how ‘the Dumb Ox’ specifically addresses the ‘turn the other cheek’ saying of Matt. 5:39). Here is an enlightening passage from Pieper, quoted by Podles:

The fact, however, that Thomas assigns to (just) wrath a positive relation to the virtue of fortitude [cf. St Gregory of Sinai, above] has become largely unintelligible and unacceptable to present-day Christianity and its non-Christian critics. This lack of comprehension may be explained partly by the exclusion, from Christian ethics, of the component of passion (with its inevitably physical aspect) as something alien and incongruous—an exclusion due to a kind of intellectual stoicism—and partly by the fact that the explosive activity which reveals itself in wrath is naturally repugnant to good behavior regulated by ‘bourgeois’ standards. (p. 130)

I would point out that Constantine Cavarnos has noted in the Orthodox—as opposed to the Stoic—use of the term ‘passion’ the lack of connotation of any emotions, pleasures, or desires that could be deemed legitimate or according to nature in the light of the Gospel (The Hellenic-Christian Philosophical Tradition [Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 1989], pp. 83-5; I also can’t help but feel that Pseudo-Chrysostom might be overstating the case in the line Podles has selected from him, quoted by Aquinas in the Summa passage mentioned above). But essentially I find here a tremendous overlap between Orthodox and post-Schism RC ethics.

It is a helpful reminder to me personally. Although I have an oddly pronounced sense of justice, and indeed am sometimes capable of being worked into a trembling, unbalanced rage, my strongest temptation is probably to repress and forget feelings of anger, no matter how just they may be. It seems to have become an almost subconscious habit. Recently I actually had the experience of wondering whether someone I knew didn’t want me to become angry about something for them, despite their being unable to produce the called-for passion on their own behalf. But while I agree with Podles on the importance of anger in a case like sexual abuse and the unnatural response of the RC bishops, for my own part I’m always afraid that my own wrath could turn into a volatile mixture of uncontrolled rage and almost self-conscious posturing, before subconsciously quaffing nepenthe and subsiding into a complacent daze. Am I too bourgeois, or is my own problem more complex than that?

By the way, my apologies to anyone that saw the title and hoped this post would be about the Iliad. I just thought it was a nice, poetic title for a post on anger.

The photo above is by Sergey Sosnovskiy, and shows a mosaic from Pompeii at the National Archeological Museum, Naples (here).


Papa John said...

It has often seemed to me that we Americans -- and especially midwesterners -- are trapped in the cult of "niceness," which I take to be different from the biblical virtue of kindness. If you ever feel like delving into that difference I hope you might let me know (in case I miss it). Perhaps it is this need to be nice that stunts even the proper use of anger.

A short personal story. When I first went to St Tikhon's, a recent convert from evangelicalism, I met an old monk who had spent a number of years in Romania during the communist years. Having attended services at Dormition Monastery in Michigan as a catechumen and then as newly illumined, I said to this monk that I know some Romanian nuns and monks. And then I added in my midwestern manner, "They were really nice." He just looked at me and said, "Well, not all Romanians are nice," and walked into the monastery. I felt rebuked, but in a good and instructive way.

Esteban Vázquez said...

I refuse to accept your obviously half-hearted apology!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I was looking forward to something on the son of Peleus and I get "nice" instead? False advertising!

Just kidding! Have a restfully active Memphistic vacation!

Nicholas said...

I just stumbled on your blog. Your reference to stoicism reminded me of a debate I once had with one of the former regulars over at Mere Comments (the Touchstone blog). This is an important point. Some confuse the Stoic ideal (something akin to Spock on a good day) with the Christian ideal. Christians laugh. Spock doesn't. Christians drive out money changers. Spock finds that distasteful.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Sorry I've been too busy to respond. Sometime I should probably blog about Stoicism more positively, because while I agree that it falls far short as a moral ideal, I also enjoy seeing some of the similarities to Christianity, and at a more basic level, I feel like much Stoic ethics can be read as useful everyday, common-sense advice. Anyway, I've long been a fan of the Stoics, despite their shortcomings.

Sergey Sosnovskiy said...

Please specify the author and source of photo:
(c) 2006 Photo: S. Sosnovskiy