Philosophers over the centuries have suggested a wide variety of approaches to anger. The Greek and Roman Stoics thought of anger as a vice. Anger to the Stoic was, as someone said, like a fierce wind that blows out the candle of the mind. Even in the common parlance of our day, we think of becoming angry as “losing it.” For Stoics, of course, one should never “lose it.” They felt that, with due diligence, a sage could conquer anger with reason.
Jesus of Nazareth also looked upon anger as something that should be avoided. Only, he did not advocate using reason to defeat anger, but love. A man should turn the other cheek when someone does something that makes him angry; forgive him; maybe even feel a bit sorry for him. For men like Jesus, anger is dark place, and darkness can only be conquered with light, not with more darkness.
Toward the other end of the emotional and moral spectrum is the idea of “righteous anger”—the notion that anger is not always an inappropriate response to a situation. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived over 300 years before Jesus, said that one should be angry “with the right person, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way”– and then goes on to admit that this is actually hard as hell to put into practice.
The studies of my Self-Doctorate have recently led me to William Scott Wilson’s book, Ideals Of The Samurai, an anthology of samurai philosophies written over the centuries. In it, Wilson describes a code of ethics for the samurai that has much in common with the Aristotelian view. Here, anger at the right time and handled in the right way is valid, even virtuous. For the samurai, there is a time to grow angry and to give full vent to this anger. Indeed, not to release one’s anger at the appropriate time against the appropriate person would be shameful.
At the same time, the samurai must understand that, when it comes to anger, some situations are beneath him. He should not rise to the bait of every rascal. “To be involved in some ephemeral quarrel will demonstrate the indiscretion of one’s house,” warns Shiba Yoshimasa (1310 – 1410) in his Chikubasho, a set of precepts he wrote for the instruction of the warriors in his clan. Shiba says that, “there is nothing more base than for a man to lose his temper too often. No matter how angry one becomes, his first thought should be to pacify his mind and come to a clear understanding of the situation at hand. Then, if he is in the right, to become angry is correct.”
The samurai who does not grow angry at the correct time is not fulfilling his duty to society. The idea that a samurai would stand by passively while bad things are being done is unthinkable to Shiba. “It is not good for others, and does harm to oneself, to simply remain tranquil and speaking like a three-year-old child, never becoming angry or bearing rancor or deploring matters when one should.” For Shiba, a samurai who turns the other cheek is no samurai. “It is a good thing to keep one’s mind tranquil,” he admits, but a samurai should “speak what one should speak when there is a situation that should be reprimanded.”
Righteous anger… pursuit of justice… punishment… revenge… Are these vices or virtues? Does there truly exist a Correct Anger that brings more happiness to our selves and to humanity? Or was Confucius right when he said that harboring anger against someone was like holding in your own hand a hot coal you’d like to throw at them?