MIDWAY : Rage and its uses

Aristotle argued that anger has a place in the good life. Anger is driven by pain, he said. And when that pain stems from the consciousness of being wronged, it can be the midwife of virtue. Clearly anger can boil over; the angry individual risks losing control. But that is not to deny its value. It is to say that the wise learn to direct their anger correctly.

Seneca disagreed. He thought anger itself was the enemy. The trouble is that anger loses touch with reason, he wrote. So it is naive to think it can be controlled. “It is equally devoid of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent and diligent in whatever it begins.” Like a fire in a forest, it should be quenched before it can speed through the undergrowth. Challenging Aristotle, he went on: “Anger is not expedient even in battle or in war; for it is prone to rashness, and while it seeks to bring about danger, does not guard against it.”But there is a weakness in Seneca’s argument. He puts great faith in reason. Reason achieves everything that anger can, he thought, and with none of the collateral damage. But is reason really more powerful than passion? Interestingly, the Bible suggests not — and not because it is irrational.

Think of the last week in the life of Jesus, which Christians in the west remembered last week. It is called the Passion, and features Jesus displaying righteous anger: There is the incident in the temple when he overturns the tables of the money changers. Anger can not only be righteous, it might be of God. So, if anger has a place in life, how might it be not managed or contained but nurtured? Plato provides a hint. He advised against directing anger at others and suggested turning it towards real problems. He also thought that anger should be directed towards finding answers, not fuelling excuses. A thought of Mark Twain takes the analysis further: “A man is about as big as the things that make him angry.”

Thus road rage is not likely to be on the side of right. But the individual who, prompted by anger, sacrifices his life for a greater cause, is.In short, the value of anger lies in focus and discernment. And if people are becoming more angry in our society, the remedy might not be therapies but learning something about modern life.