Sep 17, 2015

How Does Anger Seduce Practical Rationality?

Back in the Spring, I gave a talk down at Columbia University, "Sweeter Than Honey" - An Aristotelian Account of Anger's Seduction of Practical Rationality during which I ranged over a number of related topics in Aristotle's moral theory, all of them connected with anger as an emotional response.

Anger is a matter about which Aristotle does have a lot of useful and insightful things to tell us, and I've been researching and writing on Aristotle's theory of anger for about eight years, working on a book-length study of his views and their present applicability.

One of my YouTube subscribers emailed me, raising an interesting question about the talk, to which I've decided to respond here in this blog:  What did you mean by “anger seducing practical reason”?  That anger, through its sweetness, seduces practical reason into giving assent to our doing things that it wouldn’t otherwise assent to?   When you think about it that way, anger can be a terribly destructive force, because it’s a drug – literally; it’s partly chemical --- that clouds our reason.

Anger and Practical Rationality 

In his texts where he most systematically discusses anger -- and here I have in mind primarily the Nicomachean and Eudemian Ethics as well as and the Rhetoric -- Aristotle stresses that anger differs from many of the other emotions, or even other forms of affectivity more broadly, in that it is more intimately involved with reason or rationality (logos) than are the others.  In fact, the dimension of reasoning or rationality that anger connects with is what comes to be called "practical reason," typically contrasted with "theoretical" or "speculative" (or even, for some, "pure") reason.

Practical reason is concerned with what is to be done or not done -- it is concerned with choices, actions, and reasoning about these.  That's not really enough to adequately specify its range and its objects, though -- it necessarily extends quite a bit further.  Here, I'm not going to try to provide some systematic interpretation of just what practical reason is and precisely what matters it involves in Aristotle's work, but rather just make a few needed points about it.

One of these is that, as Aristotle tells us in Nicomachean Ethics book 6, there is a kind of truth and falsity within the realm of action, and this has to do not simply with whether actions themselves are right or wrong, good or bad, but with deeper structures of motivation, with right desire, or if you like, rightly oriented affectivity, both of those terms -- affectivity or desire -- supplying translations of Aristotle's Greek term orexis.  Anger understood in a very broad sense (as thumos) is one of the main modes of affectivity Aristotle distinguishes, and when he defines anger in a narrower, more specific sense (as orge) he in fact incorporates orexis into his very definition (for more about that, click here).  So, anger is going to be one of those matters -- both in terms of action and in terms of affectivity or passion -- which practical rationality is going to be involved with.  How so?

Practical reasoning is involved in moral evaluations, comparisons, and inferences, and human beings engage in a wide range of these.  In a key passage early on in Politics book 1, Aristotle notes that because human beings possess logos -- which can be understood in both senses of the term, as "speech" and as "reason" -- they communicate and can share in, and even perceive (aisthanesthai) a range of what we might call moral qualities or determinations.  He names specifically not only the pleasurable and the painful, or the useful and the harmful, or even the good and the bad, but also two other opposed pairs -- the just and the unjust, and the beautiful (or noble, or honorable, or fine, kalon) and the ugly (or base, or disgraceful, or foul, aiskhron).  We can also, as he notes in the Rhetoric, make arguments and inferences about these, not least since we often find ourselves in disagreement or even confused about such morally imbued matters.

Anger by its very nature -- as a distinctively human emotional response, as opposed to a merely animal response -- bears upon, or better yet, articulates itself through these moral qualities.  It does involve pleasure and pain -- and these are important, to be sure, but these are not at the core of anger.  There, what we find is a concern, even in some cases an undue obsession with justice and injustice.  One becomes angry not when some sort of harm, threat, or humiliation has occurred, caused by another, but when that is felt to be undeserved, to be wrong, to represent an injustice.  And anger presents itself -- both in its experienced affect and the object of its characteristic expressions -- as a sort of restoration or imposition of justice, what Aristotle calls timoria, setting things right, retribution.

Although more needs to be said about this -- and I've got to do more rereading Aristotle and reflection about this -- I'd like to also throw out there the suggestion that the other set of moral qualities, the noble and the base, enter into anger's consideration and affective texture as well.

Anger Reasons But Not So Well

So anger is connected up with practical reason or rationality -- they share a considerably overlapping head-space, or heart-space, you might say.   In fact, Aristotle tells us that anger involves reasoning processes, most explicitly when he is discussing lack or loss of self-control (akrasia) with respect to anger in Nicomachean Ethics book 7 (supplemented well by Eudemian Ethics book 2 - for a presentation about that, click here).  He likens anger to a hasty servant, who doesn't stick around for all of the instructions -- I have students who are the same way with assignments! -- but hears a bit and then rushes off to implement what it did hear, or thinks it heard, or. . . well, something.

So, in anger a person perceives that some sort of unjust action has taken place towards him- or herself, or those connected with them, those they in some way care about or are concerned with, and then practically reasons to the conclusion that the person ought to feel and to act in ways characteristic of anger.  Along with this often goes the conviction that feeling and acting in that way is indeed the right thing to do, even what is necessary, what is demanded, what has to be the case.

It gets even more interesting.  In the course of that discussion, Aristotle tells us that anger "syllogizes" -- he uses that very term explicitly, in its verbal form -- meaning that it carries out some processes of practical reasoning from premises to a conclusion.  (As a side note, in Aristotle's works, "syllogism" does not always, or even often, mean the 3-proposition argument form we now call by that term.)  So, at least at some point in its arousal, its predominating affectivity, and its characteristic
actions, anger does involve reasoning in a very determinate, even semi-rigorous way.

Of course, one might engage in some hasty practical reasoning, become angry, and then be so flooded with emotion that one simply can't think straight, or even seemingly think at all.  That does happen, and one can be driven by a passion, pushing aside whatever suggestions or commands reason might throw up.  That is one type of loss of self-control, which Aristotle calls "rashness."  There, it's not really a question of anger seducing rationality into its service, but rather a matter of anger simply setting reason aside.  Still, one could examine the reasoning that took place that led to the person becoming angry, not least to see whether (past or present) anger wasn't already tinging that reasoning process.

In many other cases, however, anger can and does seduce practical rationality, leading it astray.  Aristotle's series of "rights" -- are we angry with the right person, for example, or to the right degree? -- are matters about which we can, and indeed ought to, practically reason.  The angry person -- as we all know from having been that person! -- once angry will often make these determinations somewhat or (more often) rather badly.  Turning in anger on a person who is not directly involved or responsible for what angered one is not just a stimulus-response, nor just something that seductively "feels right".  We have our justifications ready, in the form of actual arguments or at the very least enthymemes or maxims, should anyone challenge us (including what's still operative of our consciences).

Aristotle suggests that when we lose or lapse self-control, when we find ourselves in some sense going against what practical reason tells us we ought to do, choose, say, think, or feel, in many cases this is because within us a rival process of reasoning, a second practical syllogism to be technical, is going on.  Anger provides considerable emotional fuel for this -- but it also contributes its own characteristic structures of reasoning as well.  Interpreting what is really a mischance or a forgivable error as a sign of deliberate malice -- that's one example that Aristotle himself gives.

Some of the "sweetness" -- the pleasure, the exhilaration, the rush -- of anger likely does derive from the source Aristotle focuses on most, the hope or the imagination of imposing retribution.  But, I'd like to suggest, this involves a sense of pleasure responding to the notion of justice -- or what appears to be so -- being done, replacing the pain inflicted alongside the injustice.  I think a case can also be made that in the very practical reasoning carried out in the service of anger -- arousing the anger, directing it, determining its intensity or duration, justifying it as it continues, and most of all working out the means to the end of retribution -- there is also a sweetness, a pleasure, one that indeed risks becoming addictive. 

Anger, Vice, and Practical Reason

One can not only understandably go astray in feeling and acting upon anger, engaging in practical reasoning and making choices based on insufficient knowledge or awareness of what is going on, provoked by perhaps long-ongoing frustration, mistaking the motives of others, or getting matters wrong in other ways.  Beyond the lapses of the akratic person who loses or lacks self-control with respect to anger, there are the dispositions of the person genuinely vicious with respect to anger.

Aristotle sets out a number of distinct ways a person can characteristically go wrong in anger -- quite a few commentators distinguish three main ways in his treatments, but I would argue that there are at least five (a topic for another time) -- and each of these represents a habit that has become second nature to that person.  These habits dispose the vicious person to value the wrong things and not appropriately value the right things, to feel pleasure and pain in and at the wrong things, to read situations and persons wrongly. . . and to reason practically in defective and deficient manners.

They do still reason, however.  Aristotle thinks that the vicious person has damaged the higher part of him or herself whose work includes practical reasoning, but this is more of a deformation, a disordering, a messed-up orientation rather than simply nullifying that rational part.  What is characteristic of vice in general is not just habitually doing the wrong things (or to the wrong extent, for the wrong reasons, etc.), nor simply feeling or desiring in the way characteristic of the vice, but also practically reasoning in the wrong ways.  The vicious person differs from the person who lacks self control in that the latter recognizes that what he or she does is irrational, but the former views their behavior and responses as rational. 

Often, they can verbalize these.  They can provide explanations or justifications -- again, sometimes having to provide these to themselves before vice has entirely taken hold of them.  There are such lines of reasoning that have to do with anger -- we've all heard them, and some of us have said them (some of us far too often!) -- and for the vicious person, these end up serving the ends of that vice.

There's much more that could be said about these matters from an Aristotelian perspective -- if there weren't, I'd hardly be engaged in researching and writing a book -- but I'm hoping that suffices to shed a bit more illumination on the question I was asked, about how anger does seduce practical rationality.


  1. I find Aristotle's insight that anger relies on a limited degree of rationality to be particularly powerful. While I am not prone to anger, after reading a little on Aristotle and anger, I realized that when I am experiencing an anxious/depressive episode, I can justify how rational these feelings are (and reinforcing them), only to realize later that my practical reason was operating under faulty premises. If that makes sense - I don't know the technical terms!

    1. That does make sense -- and that's a pretty common experience

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