Philosophy and Anger

The world is full of anger, both well-founded and ill-founded. In a future post I’ll talk about well-founded anger, but this time I’ll provide some reflections on ill-founded anger.

In Chapter 10 of my book Letters on Happiness, I perceived an insight from Epicurus into the nature of anger (although this is an extrapolation from what he says about other emotions):

The fear of being disappointed leads to anger – the desire that other people act as you want them to. Yet the ideal is not feeling that others must conform to your expectations, but accepting others as they are and maintaining your inner serenity.

There are so many examples:

  • If you don’t believe in god, you might feel angry with those rubes who do.
  • If you believe in god, you might feel angry with those heathens who don’t.
  • If you subscribe to a particular religion, you might feel angry with those infidels who subscribe to a different one.
  • No matter how you voted in the last election, you might feel angry with the stupid or evil or benighted people who voted for a different candidate or political party. (We have way too much of this nowadays!)
  • If you live in the city, you might feel angry with those hicks and rednecks who live in the country.
  • If you live in the country, you might feel angry with those slick operators who live in the city.
  • If you’re an intellectual, you might feel angry with those troglodytes who didn’t go to college, don’t read books, enjoy NASCAR, go hunting, etc.
  • If you’re a blue-collar worker with only a high-school education, you might feel angry with those elitist intellectuals.

And so on, nearly ad infinitum. Fear and loathing of The Other is a deep well that never runs dry.

Yet do you really know why someone is other than you along any particular dimension? More pointedly, do you really know why you are the way you are, why you think what you think, why you feel as you feel, why you act how you act? Did you really reflect on and choose your way of being? How much of your self-understanding is really just self-congratulation and in-group psychology?

The worst of it is that anger can feel so good, because it affirms your superiority over others. Yet difference is not superiority. Wisdom comes from working to truly understand others; but, as always, such wisdom is hard-won.

Oh, and if you’ve achieved such wisdom, don’t be angry with those who haven’t achieved it yet.

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