Psychologists and psychiatrists are familiar with intense, pathological anger in the context of several types of personality disorder; for example, patients with Narcissistic Personality Disorder may exhibit so-called “humiliation rage” when their already fragile self-esteem is threatened. But anger outbursts are hardly limited to individuals with narcissistic personality disorder. We see expressions of anger, rage, and revenge nearly every day, among otherwise decent, well-intentioned people. (Think about the last time someone cut you off on the highway or stole that parking spot you were waiting for—how did you react?). Why do we become so angry so often and so easily? Why does “road rage” sometimes escalate into violence? The three spiritual traditions we have been investigating give surprisingly similar answers. From the perspective of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, we become angry or enraged because we fail to understand certain basic facts about ourselves and the world we live in—in effect, we make a certain type of cognitive error.
The Jewish tradition sees anger as a kind of idol-worship, because, as Rabbis Byron L. Sherwin and Seymour J. Cohen observe, “Anger places the ego at the center” of the universe. For example, in his analysis of The Book of Job, Maimonides attributes Job’s anger toward God to Job’s flawed understanding; that is, Job errs in “…imagining [God’s] knowledge to be similar to ours…[God’s] intention, providence, and rule similar to ours” [Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, XXIV). In effect, Maimonides argues, Job sees his own needs and expectations as the moral fulcrum of the universe. The “principal object of the whole Book of Job”, for Maimonides, is that “we should not fall into the error of imagining [God’s] knowledge to be similar to ours, or His intention, providence, and rule similar to ours.”(Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, XXIV). Our modern-day cognitive therapists might put it this way: when we allow ourselves to be overcome by anger, we are really telling ourselves something irrational; namely, that the world ought to conform to our own understanding of what is right, good, and just–and if it doesn’t, that’s just horrible and deserving of our wrath!
Similarly, as the Tibetan monk, Lobsang Gyatso notes, Buddhism understands anger to be a consequence of “the self-centered attitude” which “promotes pride and incorrect views…” This self-centeredness “shows no tolerance of even the slightest mistakes that others may have made with respect to us”, which in turn leads to anger—a pathway we can easily discern in Felicity’s reactions to her co-workers. For Buddhists, the underlying cognitive error is twofold: first, in our supposing that the “self” is something of overwhelming importance whose wishes must always be respected—recall that Buddhism does not even believe in a discrete, autonomous “self”; and second, in our believing that anyone who opposes our wishes and desires must be evil and deserving of our anger. For Buddhist sages, the person who thwarts our desires isn’t the cause of our anger, anymore than the rock on which we stub our toe causes us to be angry! As the Thai Buddhist master, Ajahn Chah has noted, “…all the things in this world are simply there as they are. It’s we who pick fights with them.”
In the Stoic world-view, too, the angry person commits a similar cognitive error, as Marcus Aurelius reminds us: “Whenever you lose your temper or become upset about something…you’re forgetting that everything is what your opinion makes it.” Furthermore, as Marcus notes, becoming angry is essentially a waste of precious time, since “…the present moment is all you have, to live and lose.” (In this maxim, we find a prefiguring of Nachman of Bratslav’s observation: “For all man has in the world is the day and the hour where he is; for the morrow is an entirely different world”).
So, does attainment of “the flourishing life” require that we never, ever become angry? Here there is room for some nuanced debate. We have already noted that the Rabbis of the Talmud did not try to banish anger entirely from the soul of man. Rather, we are commanded to be “slow to anger.” Indeed, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin takes exception to the view that anger is always to be avoided. He writes,
“…Seneca’s reasoning strikes me as unreasonable. For example, those who were infuriated by Hitler, such as Winston Churchill, were more apt to want to fight and destroy him than those who were not particularly angry. . . . For that matter, who would want to live in a city whose police department was composed of officers who felt no anger toward the murderers, rapists, and pederasts they were trying to catch? As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has written: “[Anger’s] complete suppression in the face of outbursts of evil may amount to surrender and capitulation. . . The complete absence of anger stultifies moral sensibility.” (Telushkin 2006)
Perhaps here we need to grant Rabbi Telushkin’s point, while noting an important distinction: that between productive indignation and unbridled fury—very roughly, the distinction between well-modulated anger and rage. I am not aware of any scholars from any spiritual tradition who praise the virtues of apoplexy! But it may well be true that, in order to live the flourishing life, we must sometimes allow ourselves to become angry, up to a point—particularly when the principle at stake is not avenging some trivial slight, but redressing an outrageous injustice. It is one thing to blow your stack because somebody just took your parking space; it is quite another to express anger when a minority group is persecuted for its faith, or when children are sold into slavery. Were we not strongly motivated to right such wrongs, we would be misunderstanding the true moral framework of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. At the same time, we should take note of Aristotle’s advice, as regards the way we express our “righteous indignation”:
“A good tempered [person] is one who becomes angry on the right occasions, with the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time.” (Nichomachean Ethics, Book IV)
[The above is excerpted from Dr. Pies’s book-in-progress, The Three-Petalled Rose]
Ven. Lobsang Gyatso: Bodhichitta: Cultivating the Compassionate Mind of Enlightenment,
Sherwin BL, Cohen SJ: Creating an Ethical Jewish Life. Woodstock Vt, Jewish Lights, 2001.
Ajahn Chah: Living Dhamma, The Sangha, Bung Wai Forest Monastery, 1992.
Teluhkin J. A Code of Jewish Ethics, vol. 1. New York, Bell Tower, 2006.