Seven deadly sins: anger

Here’s a clip from our Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar today–Rebecca DeYoung presenting and a number of seminar participants posing questions on the nature of anger, especially as described by Thomas Aquinas (and to a lesser extent, John Cassian). As usual, this is in note form, gaps, elisions, and all:


More than any other vice, there is a debate over whether this is a vice at all.

Evagrius: anger at a brother is the single dominant obstacle to pure prayer. Like Cassian, he says: get rid of anger altogether. Cassian: you can be angry at your own sin. You can be angry at the demons. For Evagrius, that’s the function of the irascible appetites.

Cassian, p. 196, chap. 6. He is SO categorical against anger! NO exceptions as to utility, etc. Also metaphor re: the blinding effect of anger. “Blinds the eyes of the heart. Obstructing the vision by the deadly beam of a more vehement illness . . . it is irrelevant whether a layer of gold or one of lead or of some other metal is placed over the eyes; the preciousness of the metal does not change the fact of blindness.”

Anger, because it’s so adamantly prohibited in Cassian and Evagrius . . .

Anger is a hard emotion to get a handle on. Because it’s both in the irascible power, but also in an area only the reason can comprehend: justice. Also distinguishing anger the passion from anger the disturbing passion, which is what the Stoics talk about.

Charting AQUINAS:

1. Practical reason

2. Rational appetite (will)—anger one of the more cognitive passions. It concerns justice

3. Sensory appetite          Irascible power                 irascible passions:  Hope-despair; Fear-daring; Anger

Concupiscible power

Usually there’s an evil obstacle to a good object. That’s the object of anger. So what’s the obstacle, and what’s the object? (See below)

Matter: what’s the anger about? The subject?


Then some pairings:

IIaIIae 22-48?

If you were a human being who had a will to justice but didn’t have anger to execute that justice, then you would be deficient! You are better if you’re non-Kantian (the textbook caricature of Kant: you’re stoic, passions don’t have any corrupting influence on you). Anger in the stoic mindset is a disturbing passion. It’s not clear whether there’s a healthy form of it that won’t get called a passion because passions for the stoics are by definition disturbing.

Aquinas is an unapologetically pro-passion Aristotelian. He must massage his sources because, e.g. Cassian outlaws anger.

158 article 8 in Summa: instinct behind what Aquinas’s view on anger is all about: it’s a justice-motivated passion. The good of justice, retributive justice, vindication, response to an injustice or wrong that must now be made right . . . that’s the object. And in order to make things right when someone has injured you, there has to be the evil of punishment willed as well. You have to will a harm to the person who harmed you in order to get the equality of justice. What you will is the evil of punishment to the injurer, for the sake of justice. If you will that harm as a harm, then that’s morally  nasty territory. You must will it as a necessary . . . means (18:15). Not sure I ever get this right! Uncomfortable with this.

Jay: Anger can help us identify injustice. Properly tuned, it might alert us to injustice. But . . .

Read the “hasty servant” passage in De Malo. 12:2. Bottom of p. 378, 2nd paragraph of his response. Playing off Aristotle. “And so the Philosopher says in the Ethics that an angry person indeed beings to hear reason, namely, as the person judges that an injury should be avenged, but doesn’t fully listen to reason because the person does not take heed to follow the right ordination of vengeance as reason dictates. And so the Philosopher compares anger to servants who hasten to carry out commands before they hear them in their entirety, and so make mistakes.”

If your anger comes in at a point in the reasoning process so that the passion colors the judgment of reason, then the passion is driving the train. But with consequent anger, first reason judges there is an injustice to be put right, and then action follows from the passion. Not that it always happens chronologically like this, but the point is ontological: reason must be the directive-giver.

(missed some: 23ish through 25)

The way he talks about it in this passage rubs me the wrong way: he runs us through the deliberation of prudence . . . and it seems implausible.

Colleen: The sense here is that reason has a certain priority. Not temporal priority . . . There’s a sense in which A makes careful delineations, distinctions, but thinks all these things are working together. There is a kind of unity of action. Each capacity has a certain function, but looking at the phenomenology, they all come together and work together in the well-ordered person. Laying them out analytically, says Rebecca, just helps you troubleshoot.


How might this discussion link with contemporary discussions about retriubtivism. Restorative justice is what you want. And people associate retributivism with Christianity in not very responsible ways. But here in Aquinas, this looks like what is going on: we do will the suffering of the wrongdoer for the sake of justice.

Rebecca: you need the treatise on justice in the background. There talking about even capital punishment, he’s interested in the way the common good is protected and ensured. The harm of a member of the community is calibrated to the good of the whole. Diseased part of the body needs to be cauterized, etc. Painful, but without it, then gangrene is going to set in and the whole body infected. Not quite utilitarian, though it sounds that way. But justice primarily regards the common good. Everyone’s individual good is caught up in the common good. Retributive justice needed sometimes for the health of the body. Usually it will involve the restoration of the sinner. Unless in certain extreme cases, and he does admit those. The incorrigible. You have to keep them locked up, and without the means to do that, you kill them. I don’t see him as . . . just “eye for an eye,” the good in view is the flourishing and protection of the community. Part of the human good is to be a social being, and we need to protect that good for all. The harm is always harm qua punishment, not harm qua harm. You will the former, not the latter. By the former, something is made right between these two people. To make things right, something needs to be done to equalize between these two.

Kyla: this doesn’t completely mitigate my concern, but it helps. We need to spell it out so it doesn’t look obviously awful.

Colleen: so then his espousal of capital punishment is puzzling. How will this bring out any good for the individual involved or reconciliation for the perpetrator.

Rebecca: what he says is: there will be some extreme cases in which the community itself can’t be the arbiter of mercy, restoration. You’ll have to leave that to God. Humanly speaking we’re at our limit in terms of giving this person another chance to repent. Protection of the good requires this person be kept out of society in a permanent way—death. Giving that person another chance would result in more damage than good.

Bob: what a society can do is contingent on its resources. You can imagine a society with enough resources so that capital punishment is not necessary.

Keith: if there is a society that has someone that is uncorrectably dangerous, and it lacks resources to keep the person locked up, away from the population, then cap pun might be justified (said a lawyer working against cap pun!), but here in America, it would never be justified.

Colleen: actually Aquinas has a low threshold for capital offenses: heresy, etc. Even theft.

Anger one of the more noble emotions because it has the excellence of justice as its end. But anger is also one of the most dangerous passions with respect to its mode: vehement, violent, quickly aroused, potentially damaging in its effects. Impetuous. Yet intrinsically, it has that higher object than sense pleasures, which are the objects of the concupiscible appetites.

Charity helps make anger more about others than always about slights to oneself. But generally respect, disrespect, injury to self, it’s hard to be dispassionate about things I do. You can with justice be angry with regard to injustice done to self—but it’s really hard to do well. The mode can go wrong. You can be angry about the right thing, but be too angry—express your anger in the wrong ways. You need proportionate means, proportionate expression, etc.

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