WWAD? (What Would Aristotle Do?)

By Richard Pimentel

Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one's friends. If this is a proper definition of anger, it must always be felt towards some particular individual, e.g. Cleon, and not "man" in general. It must be felt because the other has done or intended to do something to him or one of his friends. It must always be attended by a certain pleasure -- that which arises from the expectation of revenge. For since nobody aims at what he thinks he cannot attain, the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant. (Aristotle, Rhetoric, book II, chap. 2, 1378a)

Does this sound Greek to you? Well it should not. Extraordinary and disturbing manifestations of anger have been seen, heard, and read by many of us and it is a disturbing trend. We see it on the streets, at the store, on television, at work, and, for some, at home. We read about it in the newspapers, magazines, and web sites. Reality shows and uncensored videos display acts of violence that are highly disturbing such as high school girls ambushing a friend when she arrives at their home or a mother spraying high pressurized water on her 3 year old child at a car wash.

Then there are lesser known and sometimes too common moments such as a customer insulting a bank teller or a driver yelling at another driver for the smallest infraction. Events such as these show that anger is fashionable for some; that displaying your indignation is necessary for survival. Before someone thinks that they are not represented here, think twice. Many of us have also acted out in anger for reasons that, in retrospect, may be perplexing. Think of the occasions when we asked ourselves, "Why did I get so angry?" Anger is prevalent and brings great challenges to society but it is an emotion that cannot be ignored. What is this emotion all about?

Aristotle, that great philosophical figure who worked on such ethical problems, had an interesting view on anger. Under the proper conditions, Aristotle considered anger as a virtue. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote "The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised." In addition, Aristotle argued that anger, as a virtue, has an excess and a deficiency and a mean. He wrote that the mean is gentleness. If one gets excessively angry then he is considered wrathful. If one is deficient in anger then he is timid.

Aristotle makes 3 significant points about anger. First, he contends that the proper object of anger must be the right people. It is not right to get angry with just anyone; you must direct your anger to the right person or persons. The second point is the reason for getting angry. Aristotle wrote that the motive for anger must be "conspicuous revenge." What does this mean? When directing your anger towards the right person or persons, it must be noticeable in order to be seen as revenge. The recipient of the anger must be fully aware that anger is directed at them. Lastly, Aristotle is clear that anger can be excessive but if someone does not get angry at the right things, in the right way, and in the right time, then they are a fool. Aristotle was concerned that if someone does not react in anger if insulted or your friends insulted, they are considered unfeeling because they endured the insults. If Aristotle were alive today, what would he say about the modern-day expression of anger?

Of course we must be careful when attempting to "judge" expressions of anger. Certainly, we all are limited to analyzing only those acts to which we have appropriate access. It may be easy to jump to quick judgement when we hear stories about an angry act but prudence demands otherwise. We can really only evaluate and analyze actions, angry or otherwise, from within a fairly limited scope. Second, the motives in displays of anger can be difficult to discern. It can be problematic for the culprits themselves to admit why they got angry. Despite these restrictions, an attempt to assess anger according to Aristotle's ideas is possible.

The objective of Aristotle's writings on ethics, especially Nicomachean Ethics, was to promote the importance of virtuous living and character. This is vital to keep in mind when examining anger according to Aristotelian ethics. When he wrote negatively about anger, it was because it took away from this pursuit and when he wrote positively about anger (e.g. anger as a virtue), it was because it encouraged his objective. Presently, we witness so many expressions of anger that have been directed towards the wrong people and we have been guilty ourselves of this infraction. This violates one of Aristotle's concepts of appropriate anger.

For example, let's suppose that you suspect your neighbor has stolen your garbage cans (excuse the pun, but this situations stinks!). Instead of asking the neighbor or attempting to resolve the situation with him or her, you come home upset and yell at your children out of anger. In this case, the proper object of your anger should be your neighbor, but your children became the object of your anger instead. Now, just imagine Aristotle sitting in your living room when you did this. (On second thought, as a peripatetic, Aristotle would be walking around in your home.) What do you think he would say? According to his definition, Aristotle would judge this to be improper anger and thus, a vice.

In one recent soccer match (or football) in Portugal, one player in possession of the ball was aggressively tackled from behind (unlike American football, tackling in soccer is when one player attempts to take the ball away from an opponent normally through sliding at the ball). As a result, the player with the ball (player A) fell down and incurred an injury in his heel because of the excessive force used by the opponent (player B). As soon as player A was able to stand up (their injury magically disappears, this tends to happen quite a bit), he angrily confronted Player B and threatened to hit him. In addition, one of player A's teammates expressed his indignation towards player B.

If Aristotle were the referee, what would he do? He may be forced by the rules of the game to issue a harsh warning or expulsion to player B for intent to injure and a harsh warning or expulsion to player A for retaliation. But in the post-game press conference, he readily admits that player A was justified in confronting the aggressor and that the anger shown by player A was to be praised. In addition, Aristotle commends player A's teammate for also confronting the violator. The teammate was right in getting angry because the motive was to correct the offense committed against his teammate. He remarks, "The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people...is praised." Can you imagine that press conference? It would be more entertaining than a press conference with Bobby Knight.

Ethically, there is much to learn from his views. The deliberate manner that he ascribes to anger would bode well for us and, as a whole, for society. All too often what is witnessed nowadays is anger directed with no aim or purpose but simply for the sake of getting angry. The objects of anger are aplenty but the proper objects are scarce. It seems that many people are not deliberate enough about the anger expressed and this can produce grave consequences. Moreover, it is important to remember that this problem involves everyone. Although not everyone struggles with uncontrollable anger, all of us have been affected by it either as the guilty party and/or as the victim.