What Lies Behind Pythagoras’ Theorem

Pythagoras (570-500 BC) was born on the island of Samos in what is now Greece. On the advice of Thales of Miletus, he travelled to Memphis in Egypt where he came into contact with priests renowned for their wisdom. At the age of 40, he fled the tyranny of Polycrates to Croton in Southern Italy, where he established a philosophical and religious community. Those who entered the community’s inner circle were governed by a strict set of ascetic and ethical rules, forsaking personal possessions, assuming a mainly vegetarian diet, and—since words are so often careless and misrepresentative—observing the strictest silence. Some of the community’s more eccentric rules, such as ‘do not break bread’ or ‘do not poke the fire with a sword’ may have been riddles or allegories that required interpreting. Pythagoras’ brotherly community has been hailed as a prototype for later philosophical institutions such as Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and Epicurus’ Garden, and, indeed, for the monastic life and associated early universities.

Music played an important role in Pythagoras’ community. Pythagoreans recited poetry, sang hymns to Apollo, and played on the lyre to cure illnesses of both body and soul. It is said that, one day, Pythagoras passed by some blacksmiths at work, and found that their hammering on anvils produced especially harmonious sounds. He then found that the anvils were simple ratios of one another, one being half the size of the first, another two thirds of the size, and so on. This discovery of a relationship between numerical ratios and musical intervals led Pythagoras to believe that the study of mathematics was the key to understanding the structure and order of the universe. According to his ‘harmony of the spheres’, the heavenly bodies move according to mathematical equations that correspond to musical notes and form part of a grand cosmic symphony.

Pythagoras never separated religion from science and philosophy, which, even in his day, left him open to accusations of mysticism. No doubt under the influence of Orphism, an Ancient Greek mystery religion that arose from pre-Hellenic beliefs and the Thracian cult of Zagreus, he believed in the transmigration of the soul; that is, in the reincarnation of the soul over time into the bodies of human beings, animals, or plants (metempsychosis) until such a time as it became moral. He claimed to have lived four lives and to remember them all in great detail, and once recognized the cry of his dead friend in the yelping of a puppy. After his death, the Pythagoreans deified him, and attributed him with a golden thigh and the gift of bilocation (being in two places at once). But in his own lifetime Pythagoras had always been a paragon of modesty, declining to be called a ‘wise man’ or ‘sophos’, and preferring instead to be called ‘a lover of wisdom’ or ‘philosophos’—thereby coining the term ‘philosopher’.

It is said that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, had been schooled by Pythagoras, whence his great wisdom and piety. This story is referred to and discredited by Plutarch and Livy, not least because the dates do not tally, with Pythagoras having lived from about 570 to 500 BC, and so considerably later than the semi-legendary King Numa. Even though Pythagoras and Numa never met, Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans exerted a strong influence on the Roman mind. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero indicates that Pythagoras rose to fame in southern Italy at just the same time that Brutus brought an end to the monarchy, and that many Roman usages derived from the Pythagoreans. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate on the nature of these usages. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder tells us that, in 343 BC, during the war with the Samnites, the god Apollo ordered the Romans to erect one statue to the wisest and another to the bravest of all Greeks, with their choices falling upon Pythagoras for the former and Alcibiades for the latter. Pliny expresses surprise that they picked Pythagoras over Socrates, whom Apollo himself had called the wisest of all men. But the fact is that the Romans liked to think of the Greek-Italian Pythagoras as their very own philosopher, and spun all sorts of stories, such as the one about Numa, to better appropriate him.

Apart from this, Pythagoras also exerted a strong indirect influence on Roman thinking, and indeed on all philosophy and theology, through the teachings of Plato, the principal architect of the western mind. Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil of twenty years, claimed that his master’s teachings owed much to those of Pythagoras; so much, in fact, that, in his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell upheld not Plato but Pythagoras as the most influential of all Western philosophers. Pythagoras’ influence is especially evident in Plato’s mystical approach to the soul and in his emphasis on mathematics and, more generally, abstract thinking, as a secure basis for the practice of philosophy.

Book Review: AC Grayling’s Friendship


It is striking that the great thinkers, from Aristotle to Augustine and Mencius to Montaigne, devoted so much of their time and thought to friendship, but almost none of either to marriage. Grayling’s timely treatise reacquaints us with a great but forgotten good that promises to fulfil so many of our practical, intellectual, emotional, and metaphysical needs. The book principally consists of a history of the philosophy of friendship capped by an account of canonical, often homosexual or homosocial friendships such as that of Achilles and Patroclus and Jonathan and David, who, in the Bible, describes the love of Jonathan as “better even than that of women”. Throughout, Grayling seeks to define friendship and, in so doing, explores its many forms, facets, charms, and consolations.

Perhaps in a desire to be modern, relevant, or politic, Grayling seems to reject the classical notion that, at its best and most meaningful, friendship is a highly elitist good. For the greats, only virtuous men can be ideal friends. Aristotle famously says that, while there are many ways for men to be bad, there is only one way for them to be good, and it is precisely in this sense that an ideal friend is ‘another self’—a historically important notion that Grayling severally dismisses. Because they are all one and the same, virtuous men are predictable, reliable, and therefore worthy of one another’s friendship. In contrast, bad people are in some way unlike themselves, and just as likely to hate other bad people as anyone else.

In my opinion, Plato, whom Grayling underrates, advances by far the most subtle and sophisticated of all theories of friendship, one far superior even to that of Aristotle. Despite the extravagant praise that he lavishes upon friendship, Aristotle is quite clear that the best and happiest life is not that spent in friendship, but in the contemplation of those things that are most true and therefore most beautiful and most dependable. There is a contradiction here: if the best life is a life of contemplation, then friendship is either superfluous or inimical to the best life, and therefore undeserving of the high praise that Aristotle lavishes upon it. It may be, as Aristotle tentatively suggests, that friendship is needed because it promotes contemplation, or that contemplation is only possible some of the time and friendship is needed the rest of the time, or even that a life of friendship is just as good as a life of contemplation. So much for Aristotle, one might say.

Plato’s Lysis may seem to fail in its task of defining friendship, but one should never take Plato or his mouthpiece Socrates at face value. There is far more to the Lysis than a couple of interesting but misguided thoughts on friendship. By discussing friendship with Lysis and Menexenus as he does, Socrates is not only discussing friendship, but also demonstrating to the youths that, even though they count each other as close friends, they do not really know what friendship is, and that, whatever friendship is, it is something far deeper and far more meaningful than the puerile ‘friendship’ that they share. In contrast to the youths, Socrates knows perfectly well what friendship is, and is only feigning ignorance so as to teach the youths: ‘…and I, an old boy, who would fain be one of you…’ More than that, by discussing friendship with Lysis and Menexenus as he does, Socrates is himself in the process of befriending them. He befriends them not with pleasant banter or gossipy chitchat, as most people ‘befriend’ one another, but with the kind of philosophical conversation that is the hallmark of the deepest and most meaningful of friendships. In the course of this philosophical conversation, he tells the youths that he should ‘greatly prefer a real friend to all the gold of Darius’, thereby signifying not only that he places friendship on the same high pedestal as philosophy, to which he has devoted (and will sacrifice) his life, but also that the kind of friendship that he has in mind is so rare and uncommon that even he does not possess it. If friendship ultimately escapes definition, then this is because, like philosophy, friendship is not so much a thing-in-itself as it is a process for becoming. True friends seek together to live truer, fuller lives by relating to each other authentically and by teaching each other about the limitations of their beliefs and the defects in their character, which are a far greater source of error than mere rational confusion. For Plato, friendship and philosophy are aspects of one and the same impulse, one and the same love: the love that seeks to know.

Just as philosophy leads to friendship, so friendship leads to philosophy. In the Phaedrus, Plato’s most important work on friendship (although not generally recognized as such—Grayling fails to mention it), Socrates and Phaedrus go out into the idyllic countryside just outside Athens and have a long conversation about the anatomy of the soul, the nature of true love, the art of persuasion, and the merits of the spoken over the written word. At the end of this conversation, Socrates offers a prayer to the local deities. This is the famous Socratic Prayer, which is notable both in itself and for the response that it elicits from Phaedrus.

Socrates: Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry. —Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.

Phaedrus: Ask the same for me, for friends should have all things in common.

Plato may fail to define friendship in the Lysis, but in the Phaedrus he gives us its living embodiment. Socrates and Phaedrus spend their time together enjoying the beautiful Attic countryside while engaging in honest and open philosophical conversation. By exercising and building upon reason, they are not only furthering each other’s understanding, but also transforming a life of friendship into a life of joint contemplation of those things that are most true and hence most beautiful and most dependable. If only on the basis of his response to the Socratic Prayer, it is obvious that Phaedrus is another self to Socrates, since he makes the same choices as Socrates and even justifies making those choices on the grounds that their friendship requires it. Whereas Aristotle and Grayling try to tell us what friendship is, Plato lets us feel it in all its allure and transformative power.

Arrogant Philosophers

I have spotted a certain propensity for arrogance amongst philosophers and creatives, particularly amongst the most studied or celebrated ones. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, of course, but even doubting Descartes and gentle Hume appear to have had their moments.

Here is a list of some of the most arrogant or downright offensive offerings ever to come out of some of the greatest philosophers and creatives. Needless to say, I do not in any way condone or subscribe to these positions—or, at least, not to the vast majority of them… Some may raise a laugh, others are nothing but distasteful.

And here are some questions that I pondered whilst compiling the list.

What is arrogance?
How, if at all, might arrogance be helpful?
Can arrogance ever be excused or justified?

Your answers on the back of a card, please.

1. ‎I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery. —Descartes

2. Philosophy must indeed recognize the possibility that the people rise to it, but must not lower itself to the people. —Hegel

3. Mark this well, you proud men of action! you are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought. —Hegel

4. I’m not ugly, but my beauty is a total creation. —Hegel

5. Democracy… is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.—Aristotle

6. Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar. —Aristotle

7. I may tell you, between ourselves, that these six Meditations contain all the foundations of my physics. But please do not tell people, for that might make it harder for supporters of Aristotle to approve them. I hope that readers will gradually get used to my principles, and recognize their truth, before they notice that they destroy the principles of Aristotle. —Descartes

8. As a consequence of her weaker reasoning powers, woman has a smaller share of the advantages and disadvantages these bring with them. She is, rather, a mental myopic… —Schopenhauer

9. Only a male intellect clouded by the sexual drive could call the stunted, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped and short-legged sex the fair sex … More fittingly than the fair sex, women could be called the unaesthetic sex. Neither for music, nor poetry, nor the plastic arts do they possess any real feeling of receptivity: if they affect to do so, it is merely mimicry in service of their effort to please. —Schopenhauer

10. Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent. —Nietzsche

11. A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. —Nietzsche

12. After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands. —Nietzsche

13. ‘Evil men have no songs.’ How is it that the Russians have songs? —Nietzsche

14. It is a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave. —Hume

15. I have written on all sorts of subjects… yet I have no enemies; except indeed all the Whigs, all the Tories, and all the Christians. —Hume

16. I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. —Freud

17. To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful. —Jung

18. I don’t do drugs. I am drugs. —Dali

19. My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso. —Picasso

20. There was a time when I was running about the world, fancying myself to be well employed, but I was really a most wretched thing, no better than you are now. I thought that I ought to do anything rather than be a philosopher. —Socrates

21. Men of Athens, I am grateful and I am your friend, but I will obey the god rather than you, and as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy, to exhort you and in my usual way to point out to any one of you whom I happen to meet: Good Sir, you are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul? —Socrates

22. …if you mean to share with me and to exchange beauty for beauty, you will have greatly the advantage of me; you will gain true beauty in return for appearance—like Diomede, gold in exchange for brass. —Socrates

23. Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive. —Nietzsche

Aristotle on True Aristocracy

Is pride a virtue or a vice? Before deciding upon this question, it is important to define ‘pride’ and to distinguish it from other, related feelings.

According to the philosopher Aristotle, a person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things. If he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things, he is not proud but temperate.

On the other hand, if a person thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them, he is vain; and if he thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, he is pusillanimous. Vanity and pusillanimity are vices, whereas pride and temperance are virtues because (by definition) they reflect the truth about a person’s state and potentials. In Aristotelian speak, whereas the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness, and so virtuous.

Aristotle goes on to paint a very flattering picture of the proud person. He says that a proud person is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honour, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. A proud person is moderately pleased to accept great honours conferred by good people, but he utterly despises honours from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. In sum, says Aristotle, pride is a crown of the virtues; it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.

True, the proud person is liable to disdain and to despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, mostly to meet their ego/emotional needs). Although the proud person is dignified towards the great and the good, he is unassuming towards the middle classes; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.

Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honour, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honour or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar. —Nicomachean Ethics, Bk IV

In short, be proud of your pride. Give it a free rein. Let it work for you. And if you must still think that pride is a vice, what you cannot deny is that Aristotle is an astute psychologist who, in discussing pride, also gave us our archetype of the aristocrat.

At the Mind Body Interface: Somatisation, Psychoneuroimmunology, and the Ancients

[The mystical physician to the King of Thrace] said the soul was treated with certain charms, my dear Charmides, and that these charms were beautiful words.

Somatisation involves the transformation or conversion of psychological distress into more tolerable physical symptoms. This might involve a loss of motor function in a particular group of muscles, resulting, for example, in the weakness or paralysis of a limb or a side of the body. This loss of motor function might be accompanied by a corresponding sensory loss. In some cases, sensory loss might be the presenting problem, particularly if it is independent of a motor loss or if it involves one of the special senses such as sight or smell. In other cases, the psychic material is converted into an unusual pattern of motor activity such as a tic or even a seizure (sometimes called a ‘pseudoseizure’ to differentiate it from seizures that have a physical or organic basis, for example, epilepsy or a brain tumour). Pseudoseizures can be very difficult to distinguish from organic seizures. One method is to take a blood sample 10-20 minutes after the event and to measure the serum level of the hormone prolactin, which tends to be raised by an organic seizure but unaffected by a pseudoseizure. More invasive but more reliable is video telemetry, which involves continuous monitoring over a period of several days with both a video camera and an electroencephalograph to record the electrical activity along the skull.

Given that all these different types of somatised symptoms are psychological in origin, are they any less ‘real’? It is quite common for the person with somatised symptoms to deny the impact of any traumatic event and even to display a striking lack of concern for his disability (a phenomenon referred to in the psychiatric jargon as la belle indifference), thereby reinforcing any impression that the somatised symptoms are not quite kosher. Ego defences are by definition subconscious, such that the somatising person is not conscious or, at least, not entirely conscious, of the psychological origins of his physical symptoms. To him, the symptoms are entirely real, and they are also entirely real in the sense that they do in fact exist, that is, the limb cannot move, the eye cannot see, and so on. In fact, some authorities advocate replacing older terms such as ‘pseudoseizures’ or ‘hysterical seizures’ with more neutral terms such as ‘psychogenic non-epileptic seizures’ that do not imply that the somatised symptoms are in some sense false or fraudulent. The reader may recall from the discussion on depression that many people from traditional societies with what may be construed as depression present not with psychological complaints but with physical complaints such as headache or chest pain; like many ego defences, this tendency to somatise or physicalize psychic pain is deeply ingrained in our human nature, and should not be mistaken or misunderstood for a factitious disorder or malingering.

A factitious disorder is defined by physical and psychological symptoms that are manufactured or exaggerated for the purpose of benefitting from the rights associated with what the American psychologist Talcott Parsons called ‘the sick role’ (1951), in particular, to attract attention and sympathy, to be exempted from normal social roles, and, at the same time, to be absolved from any blame for the sickness. A factitious disorder with mostly physical symptoms is sometimes called Münchausen Syndrome, after the 18th century Prussian cavalry officer Baron Münchausen who was one the greatest liars in recorded history. One of his many ‘hair-raising’ claims was to have pulled himself up from a swamp by the hair on his head, or, in an alternative version, by the straps of his boots. Whereas a factitious disorder is defined by symptoms that are manufactured or exaggerated for the purpose of benefitting from the privileges of the sick role, malingering is defined by symptoms that are manufactured or exaggerated for a purpose other than benefitting from the privileges of the sick role. This purpose is usually much more concrete than the secondary gain deriving from the sick role, for instance, evading the police, claiming some form of compensation, or obtaining a bed for the night. It should be absolutely clear that such patterns of behaviour are very different from somatisation – even though, it has to be said, I have often observed cases of overlap.

In recent decades, it has become increasingly clear that psychological stressors can lead to physical symptoms not only by the psychological defence of somatisation but also by physical processes involving the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. Since Robert Ader’s initial experiments on lab rats in the 1970s, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has taken off spectacularly. The large and ever increasing body of evidence that it has uncovered has led to the mainstream recognition not only of the adverse effects of psychological stress on health, recovery, and ageing, but also of the beneficial effects of positive emotions such as happiness, motivation, and a sense of purpose. Here again, modern science has only just caught up with the wisdom of the Ancients, who were well aware of the link between psychological wellbeing and good health.

In one of Plato’s early dialogues, the Charmides, Socrates tells the young Charmides, who has been suffering from headaches, about a charm for headaches that he had recently learned from one of the mystical physicians to the king of Thrace. According to this physician, however, it is best to cure the soul before curing the body, since health and happiness ultimately depend on the state of the soul. ‘He said the soul was treated with certain charms, my dear Charmides, and that these charms were beautiful words.’ As the virtue of temperance (sophrosyne) is the marker of the health of the soul, Socrates asks Charmides whether he thinks that he is sufficiently temperate. The Charmides takes place in 432 BC, the year of Socrate’s return to Athens from service at the battle of Potidaea, and its subject, as it turns out, is no less than the nature of sophrosyne, a philosophical term loosely translated as ‘temperance’ but with the etymological meaning ‘healthy mindedness’. As is typical with Plato, the dialogue ends in a state of aporia (a state of inconclusive non-knowledge), with Socrates accusing himself of being a worthless inquirer and a ‘babbler’. Charmides concludes that he can hardly be expected to know whether he is sufficiently temperate if not even Socrates is able to define temperance for him.

Whereas Plato associates health with the virtues and in particular with temperance (‘healthy mindedness’), Aristotle associates health with the Supreme Good for man. This Supreme Good, he says, is eudaimonia, a philosophical term that is often translated as ‘happiness’ but is perhaps best translated as ‘human flourishing’. In short, Aristotle argues that to understand the essence of a thing, it is necessary to understand its distinctive function. For example, one cannot understand what it is to be a gardener unless one can understand that the distinctive function of a gardener is ‘to tend to a garden with a certain degree of skill’. Whereas human beings need nourishment like plants and have sentience like animals, their distinctive function, says Aristotle, is their unique capacity to reason. Thus, the Supreme Good, or Happiness, for human beings is to lead a life that enables them to exercise and to develop their reason, and that is in accordance with rational principles. Part of living life according to rational principles is to seek out the right sorts of pleasure, underplaying those brutish pleasures such as food and sex that are only pleasurable incidentally in that they act as restoratives, and privileging those higher pleasures such as contemplation and friendship that are pleasurable by nature and therefore cannot admit of either pain or excess. To pursue the higher pleasures is ‘to stimulate the action of the healthy nature’ (NE, Book VII), and to be healthy is not only to be free from pain and disease, but also and most importantly to flourish according to our essential nature as human beings. So, although Plato associates health with ‘healthy mindedness’ and Aristotle with the Supreme Good, once the Supreme Good is unpacked it becomes very clear that this is merely a difference of emphasis, and that Plato and Aristotle are not in any fundamental disagreement on this issue.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

On Anger

The bringing up of repressed material can lead to anger, a common and potentially destructive feeling that urgently needs to be given more thought. Plato does not discuss anger in any depth, and tends to bring it up only in the context of pleasure and pain. In the Philebus, he says that good people delight in true or good pleasures whereas bad people delight in false or bad pleasures, and that the same goes for pain, fear, anger, and the like – thereby implying that there can be such a thing as true or good anger. Later on, he says that pleasures of the mind may be mixed with pain, as in anger or envy or love, or the mixed feelings of the spectator of tragedy or of the greater drama of life – this time implying that anger can be pleasurable as well as painful. In the Timaeus, he lists five terrible affections of the mortal soul: pleasure, the inciter of evil; pain, which deters from good; rashness and fear, foolish counsellors; anger, hard to appease; and hope, easily led astray. The gods, Plato tells us, mingled these affections with irrational sense and all-daring love, and thereby created man.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle discusses anger at great length. In Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics, he appears to agree with Plato by saying that a good-tempered person can sometimes get angry, but only as he ought to. A good-tempered person, he continues, might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered; it is only if he deviates more widely from the mean with respect to anger that he becomes blameworthy, either ‘irascible’ at one extreme or ‘lacking in spirit’ at the other. He then – famously – tells us,

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Aristotle also agrees with Plato that anger involves mixed feelings of pleasure and pain. In Book 2 of the Rhetoric, in discussing the emotions, he defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at the person himself or at his friends; he then adds that anger is also attended by a certain pleasure that arises from the expectation of revenge. A person is slighted out of one of three things, contempt, spite, and insolence; in either case, the slight betrays the offender’s feeling that the slighted person is obviously of no importance. The slighted person may or may not get angry, but he is more likely to get angry if he is in distress – for example, in poverty or in love – or if he feels insecure about the subject of the slight. On the other hand, he is less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary, unintentional, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offender apologises or humbles himself before him and behaves like his inferior. Even dogs, Aristotle tells us, do not bite sitting people. The slighted person is also less likely to get angry if the offender has done him more kindnesses than he has returned, or reverences him, or is feared and respected by him. Once provoked, anger is calmed by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offender, and/or by being spent on someone or other. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than at Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death. (Footnote: Callisthenes concluded a premature peace with Perdiccas, king of Macedonia, while Ergophilus failed in an attack on Cotys, king of Thrace.)

There is clearly a sense in which Plato and Aristotle are correct in speaking of such a thing as a good or right anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. It can put an end to a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or – failing that – it can mobilise mental and physical resources for defensive or corrective action. If judiciously exercised, it can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, strengthen bargaining positions, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire desirable feelings such as respect and sympathy. A person who is able to express or exercise anger judiciously may feel better about himself, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk-taking that promotes successful outcomes. On the other hand, anger, and in particular uncontrolled anger, can lead to loss of perspective and judgement, impulsive and irrational behaviour that is harmful both to the self and to others, and loss of face, sympathy, and social credibility. Thus, it appears that the sort of anger that is justified, controlled, strategic, and potentially adaptive ought to be demarcated from and contrasted with a second type of anger (let us call it rage) that is inappropriate, unjustified, unprocessed, irrational, undifferentiated, and uncontrolled. It goes without saying that the anger that arises from bringing up repressed material is of this latter, insightless and destructive kind. The function of rage is simply to protect the ego: it causes pain of one kind to detract from pain of another, and is attended by very little pleasure if any at all.

Another, related, idea is this. Anger, and particularly rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviours to dispositional or personality-related factors rather than to situational factors. For instance, if I forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I suddenly felt very tired (situational factor), whereas if Emma forgot to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is useless (dispositional factor). More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person’s actions and the neurological activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking (see The Art of Failure, Chapter 2). It follows that the only person who can truly deserve anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! This does not mean that anger is not justified in other cases, as a display of anger – even if undeserved – can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose. But if all that is ever required is a strategic display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence only serving to betray … a certain lack of understanding.

‘Aristotle’s Universe’ is finally out

Aristotle is without doubt one of the most influential people in history. His belief that philosophy should be grounded in observation laid the foundation for the scientific method. His moral philosophy exerted a profound influence on religious thinking and has recently returned to prominence with the resurgence of virtue ethics. His works are so thorough and wide-ranging as to constitute a quasi encyclopaedia of Greek knowledge. Amongst the most important are Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, On the Soul, Poetics, and the Organon, with which he created the field of logic and dominated it so thoroughly and for so long that even Kant thought that he had said the last word upon it. Following in the footsteps of ‘Plato’s Shadow’, this book aims to provide the student and general reader with a comprehensive overview of Aristotle’s thought. It includes an introduction to the life of Aristotle, and, for the first time, a précis of each of his works, including Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Poetics, Rhetoric, and several others.

You can find it on Amazon (click on the picture) or in any good bookshop.

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