Wrath & Its Remedies: Lent 2022

Wrath, stabbing himself. Bad anger wreaks more harm upon the angry than the initial injurer. From the penitential psalms, from The Dunois Hours, France (Paris), c. 1339 – c. 1450, Yates Thompson MS 3, f. 165v.

Today, in the fourth of the Lent Seven Capital Vices and their remedies, I’m thinking about anger and its remedies. I’ll preface by saying I’m quite uncomfortable with anger. I grew up in a family that didn’t really express anger, as we have all later acknowledged to one another. I am intimidated by angry people, and when I am angry, I hate it. So I’m carrying some baggage into this one. Anger, like pride, is tough, because there’s good anger and bad anger. In his book City of God, St. Augustine of Hippo categorizes anger as a passion. As a passion, or emotion, or feeling, not a virtue, it is value-neutral, depending on why the person is angry and how they handle and express their anger.

How do we separate good anger from bad anger, while also realizing that perhaps that division is a little too neat at times? Good ire seeks to protect goodness. It’s anger against wickedness, caused by injustice. Such an anger can coexist with one of its remedies, patience. Righteous anger is a mean, opposed to complacency or apathy on one side, and the disproportionate or wrong wrath on the other. The midcentury Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper writes that “The power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul” (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 192). Anger is a powerful motivator to action. It can actually be a problem if one does not get angry about some of the great injustices of the world. Inadequate anger about racism, as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, upholds the status quo and makes real change difficult. The commonplace sign, “no justice, no peace/know justice, know peace” expresses an epistemological reality, not a goal or a threat. 

The ethicist Zac Cogley argues that anger can be virtuous or vicious by how well it evaluates wrongdoing, how it motivates the angry person, and how that anger is communicated (in Virtues & Their Vices). Anger is not virtuous if it fails at any one of those points. If you’re angry for a great reason, but you communicate recklessly or with intent to harm, or if you have fabulous communication but are insufficiently or overly angry, or if your anger is for a bad reason, it does not count as righteous.

Cogley also notes that each and every culture has unwritten rules about the display of anger. I remember I visited Rome as a college student and this woman across the street from me was just furious about something. I couldn’t tell what, because she was Italian and I didn’t speak the language. But she was gesticulating and screaming just on the street. No one around her on a very busy street batted an eyelash. In America, someone probably would have called the cops. I found it fascinating. A less neutral example, however, appears with angry women in America, who are socialized differently with anger than men. Cogley cites Jody Miller’s depressing study, which describes how the display of righteous anger by women in response to harassment, especially young Black women, often resulted in simply more harassment from the offending men (Virtues & Their Vices, 215). Cultural norms deeply affect how people perceive anger—and how they react to it. Anger is culturally complex, and social perceptions of it often unfair.

What is bad anger? According to Geoffrey Chaucer quoting Aristotle, a wicked will to be avenged in word or deed. Chaucer divides bad anger into two varieties: sudden or hasty ire, without the advice and consent of reason (one immediately thinks of the kind of wrath that leads to third degree murder, or to road rage or to an ill-considered cussing out). The other is ire to which reason fully consents, the slow burn anger towards vengeance, and this kind of anger, in Chaucer’s words, “wasteth and destroyeth the likeness of God” (Parson’s Tale). This is the first-degree murder wrath—and it is also the premeditated curse, the mean-tempered criticism, the carefully crafted, devastating slight. “Chiding and reproach” can create cruel, gaping wounds in the heart. These are spiritual manslaughter, note the pastoral materials of the day, following Jesus’s words about murder in the heart. Hate, says Chaucer, is nothing more than old wrath. I imagine a formerly hot soup with a congealed layer on top of it: hate as a gross meal of wrath cooled down and stagnant from its peak at boiling. 

Fire truly is the metaphor of choice for anger. It can warm a house, cook a delicious dinner, or burn down an entire town. It can purge or kill. The parallel to anger is clear. The medieval Book of Vices & Virtues notes the especially deadly combination of wrath and power: when two lords go to war, many of the dead in the aftermath have no guilt, churches are robbed and broken, town burned down, men, women, and children are disinherited. The relationship with wrath and war is also repeated over and over by these medieval writers. Anger’s divisive power is never more visible than in war. The angry person is at war with another person, but also, and perhaps more devastatingly, at war with himself: “when wrath is so full in a man, he tormenteth his soul and his body so that he has no sleep or rest” (Book of Vices & Virtues). Who hasn’t argued with a spouse late in the evening and then seethed under the covers, unable to sleep or be at peace? The Book also tells us that you can tell an angry man by the way he treats those he considers beneath him; I think of servers at a restaurant, fellow drivers, his children, the poor. 

Our wrath also makes rationalizers out of us. As a society, we have gotten too casual with our anger, especially with the commonplace rage inflamed by wicked tongues, and correspondingly, familiar with equivocation and rationalization. Twitter drips with contempt, and Facebook’s algorithm happily inflames open rage. Politicians use wrathful language on a regular basis, hoping to harness its power to their wagon. And it’s often disguised as humor or “just rhetoric,” (though there’s no such thing as mere rhetoric; words always have meaning and consequences beyond what one perhaps intends). 

I’ve seen a lot of rage recently centered on Critical Race Theory. I’ve been fascinated and repelled to see that most of this rage is generated without even quite knowing what it is, let alone reading it. Someone ran for school board in my neighborhood solely on opposing critical race theory—when critical race theory isn’t even remotely taught in the school district here. This candidate hoped to channel the countrywide rage around a literally nonexistent local threat to the benefit of his personal victory. What the nation witnessed on January 6th of last year spoke to me of a society, made up of a lot of Christians, enamored with their anger, fed by it, consumed by it. DeYoung concludes, “When wrath lacks justice’s good judgment and genuine impartiality, good reasoning becomes its puppet” (146). Sometimes our anger drives us to good purposes, as with Martin Luther King’s urging for white moderates to be more angry, not less, about the prevalent racism which they blithely underestimated. But too, too often, our reasoning becomes the puppet of wrath, and we ourselves become the puppet of whatever is inflaming that wrath. Don’t let yourself become a tool for anyone else. It is ultimately dehumanizing.

Anger, good or bad, is not to be tossed around or cultivated lightly—just as you watch your young child carefully around a fun campfire, just as you install smoke alarms in your house. We are all excellent rationalizers, quick to categorize our wrath in the first category rather than the second. And we do need to feel our feelings—to shove anger down and ignore it is to miss many important signs about who you are in the world, what is just and unjust, and what you need. But it is equally important to note that to turn to wrath without thought time after time creates its own habits. Aquinas observes that the passions become more out of control the more we give them free rein. Jacob’s Well notes that some angry people are like a man who sees someone else’s house on fire and then lights fire to his own. He destroys his own soul by denouncing the sins of others.

Everyone knows angry people, people ready to be furious at the drop of a hat. Jacob’s Well also advises one to avoid these people as one would a mad dog or an ogre, because they are dangerous. Dallas Willard nicely sums up Thomas’s tradition when he writes, “feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters” (The Renovation of the Heart, 122). 

One of the most fascinating things about reading these ancient texts attempting to describe human behavior and figure out the world is that sometimes they come very close to modern ideas in psychology. Chaucer writes that wrath is usually a secondary sin, generated from pride or envy. Later that day, in a modern-day paper on anger, I read that anger is a secondary emotion, usually masking something else like fear or sorrow. DeYoung notes that people with high standards or ideals are often troubled by anger. The closer and more precious is the threat, the bigger the reaction. If someone’s child is threatened, see the anger that erupts from parents! As any teacher knows well, this anger is sometimes in response to a real danger to their children, or merely ruffled pride. It does not make the anger in a fearful or offended parent less potent. DeYoung teaches that the desert father Evagrius impels us to ask, “What is your anger guarding?” (Glittering Vices, 142).

I find it incredibly fascinating that unlike envy and love, or pride and humility, the tradition disagrees on what remedy is most suitable for anger. Because anger is sometimes good and deeply needed, the remedy becomes more complicated. Patience has been suggested, as has meekness. And I found more curious remedies: the gift of knowledge, for instance, or a medieval virtue called “evenhead.” 

Knowledge does not really count as a virtue—it’s really more of a gift, to be sought and received. However, willingness to learn and learning itself are both important habits. The Book of Vices and Virtues notes that often, the gift of knowledge casts out the sin of wrath. Knowledge makes men and women more wise and measured in all things. The Book announces that with this gift you will become more like the angels of the Lord, who “all full of eyen to-fore and behind.” Sign me up! I want to have eyen to-fore and behind, I could read books in the front and the back! But seriously, who hasn’t flared up in anger to discover mitigating circumstances? A simple example: your friend is uncharacteristically late to lunch. You’re angry, because your time is limited. They get there, and they are teary-eyed. They got in a fender-bender on their way to lunch, or had a difficult phone conversation that delayed them. The irritation leaves you, as wind out of your sails. On a much bigger level, the magnificent book by Eli Saslow, Rising Out of Hatred, depicts the transformation of the white supremacist wunderkind Derek Black. Black attended college, and some brave Jewish students befriended him. The power of their friendship, and the newfound knowledge about Jewish people that Black was confronted with, challenged Black’s hatred to his core and led him to publicly renounce white supremacy. His openness to learning changed him. Though he was rejected by his family and friends, Black could not unlearn what he had learned from his college friends. His reason and his passion became aligned in the light of this new knowledge, and his hatred, old wrath, could not bear the light. 

The Book of Vices and Virtues uses some vivid examples to describe the person endowed with gift of knowledge: you become like the master builder, who knows the measures, who doesn’t miss a line or a levelling. Or like the prior who makes order in the cloister of the heart and all its sides: the understanding and the will, the reason and the passions. When these sides accord, they make a sweet melody together, each informing the other. Your task, as a human in pursuit of this gift, is to inquire, to judge, to consider carefully, and then to communicate your understanding. If you find yourself angry about something you have not encountered personally or do not understand—as in, say, the previous critical race theory example, or really anything wielded by public figures to stir up emotion and response—it’s important to proceed with caution and investigate for yourself. Don’t take others’ words for it, unless they are personally learned on the subject themselves. The questions of the gift of knowledge are, in interrogating something wrathful: what’s the manner? What’s the intent? Note: knowledge can often make you angrier. This is why it’s a good remedy in many respects for wrath. It can help redirect us to fruitful anger, rather than embitterment.

The funny little medieval virtue called “evenhead” is closely related to knowledge. It’s closely related to what we might call temperance, or equanimity. The evenheaded person has accurate self-judgment, and is good at examining her conscience. She does not put herself in positions where her anger might spiral out of control, for example, in getting drunk or overfasting. She takes care of her body, because she knows that her body is the source of good and bad anger, the fight-or-flight response, the gut instinct that says to remove yourself from a situation, or alternatively, to intervene in righteous anger. She is a careful listener, and hesitates to judge others’ secret motives. She refuses to “affirm” anything but what she has “well-inquired” (Book). In her speaking, she is deliberate. She follows the counsel of Proverbs 29: “If a wise man contend with a fool, whether he be angry or laugh, he shall find no rest.” This is not a very modern virtue. We often prize brute honesty at the cost of a measured and deliberate response, which is a double-edged sword that is both good and bad for us today. But medieval evenhead is worth thinking about further, especially in the context of the online world.

It’s not too far from the next remedy, meekness. Now the word meekness has survived to today, but it has acquired a very negative connotation. One of the pieces on anger I read even treated meekness as a straight up vice, similar to apathy or cowardice. As a woman I feel extremely uncomfortable with this word. It has, for centuries, been attached to a culturally valued form of womanhood, especially of wifehood, as the meek wife entirely under her husband’s thumb, one who never complains or reveals her true needs and thoughts. But historical meekness is richer and more nuanced than these things. When Jesus says “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” meekness can’t possibly mean cowardice, or a mealy-mouthed refusal to engage, or womanly reticence. What might it mean?

John Chrysostom, as quoted by a very influential medieval book of virtues, the Summa Virtutum de Remediis Anime, says “meekness is the calmness of a mind which cannot be easily vexed by the evils it suffers nor be provoked to inflict evils” (152). I think of meekness as the power to choose your battles. If you are not “easily vexed,” in the words of Chrysostom, your anger becomes more moving and powerful when it is aroused. And a resistance to inflicting evils means that, in the words of the Summa Virtutum, “Meekness is the soft pillow on the bed of conscience, on which our soul rests in safety.” Unlike the wrathful, tossing and turning, unable to rest, meekness gives space to rest for a moment. And, if, as medieval writers point out time and time again, wrath and power are extremely dangerous bedfellows, then “meekness deserves to be a leader,” in their fascinating explanation of the meek inheriting the earth (Summa Virtutum). The meek listen and are ready for correction. And all of our cultural understandings of meekness are upended, as we see the meek only fit for following the brave or outspoken or defiant. Meekness fits one for power and influence—the opposite of disqualification.

Finally, we have patience. I’m running out of space, so this is NOT a good summation of patience, but here goes. The Summa Virtutum distinguishes between the two by saying meekness measures anger, while patience suffers under external hardship. Note: patience can be misinterpreted as shut up and take it. But it isn’t. We are told Job is both meek and patient, while not scrupling to doggedly question the Lord or call out his friends for their terrible interpretation of events and God. Chaucer tells quite a different little story about the need and utility of patience:

A philosopher upon a time, that would have beaten his disciple for his great trespass, for which he was greatly amoved, and brought a yard to beat the child, and when this child saw the yard, he said to his master, “what do you think you’re doing?” “I will beat thee,” said the master, “for your correction.” “For truth,” said the child, “you ought first to correct yourself, that have lost all your patience for the guilt of a child.” “For truth,” said the master all weeping, “thou sayest truth. Have thou the yard, my dear son, and correct me for my impatience.” 

Chaucer, Parson’s Tale

Patience is a remedy because it keeps us from mimicking the impatient philosopher and beating a child. In patience, as we endure the suffering of some external event, we discern large evils from smaller ones and modulate our behavior accordingly. Patience allows us to endure the anger-inducing situation in order to respond righteously. An angry reaction while stuck in traffic is different than an angry reaction while witnessing or experiencing discrimination. An angry response of beating a child is different than an angry response of gentle chastisement over failure to apply oneself. 

Patience has also been compared to good anger, in the sense that it allows one to keep going, to keep working for love in the world. Martin Luther King Jr is a famous, often used exemplar of both good anger and patience. He suffered deeply, yet endured. His patience was the very opposite of a quietist passivity.

My final thought: as a woman socialized into not expressing anger and as someone generally uncomfortable with anger, I want to feel my anger, and not shame myself for it. Anger itself is not a sin. What constitutes vice comes afterward, in my actions, in my thoughts, in how I treat others. Instead, I will ask myself, like Evagrius did 1700 years ago, what is my anger guarding? Then, I can act.

Next week we will think about the strange vice of sloth and its remedy, strength. If you’d like to see more of what I’m up to, sign up for my free substack newsletter, Medievalish with Grace Hamman.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s