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 Metaphysics, Book Alpha

Aristotle: The Master of those who know

Outline of Book 1 (of 13)

All men by nature desire to know. Thus, the senses are loved not only for their usefulness but also for themselves. Sight is loved best of all, for, of all the senses, it is the one that brings the most knowledge. Animals are by nature sensing, and from sensation memory is produced in some of them, which are thereby more intelligent and apt at learning than those which cannot remember. Those that have both memory and the sense of hearing can be taught, but the others cannot. Animals other than man live by appearances and memories and have but little of connected experience, but man lives also by art and reasoning. From several memories of the same thing man produces a single experience, and it is through this single experience that come science and art. With a view to action, experience (knowledge of individuals) is not inferior to art (knowledge of universals), and men of experience succeed better than those with theory but no experience, for actions are concerned not with the universal but with the individual. And yet people suppose artists to be wiser than men of experience because artists know the ‘why’ and the cause, and can therefore teach, whereas men of experience cannot teach. Again, none of the senses are regarded as Wisdom because, although they give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars, they do not reveal the ‘why’ of anything. At first all the arts were admired, but as more arts were invented, the recreational arts (those that pertain to Wisdom) were admired more than the practical arts.

What are the causes and principles of Wisdom? As far as possible, the wise man knows all things, even though he may not have detailed knowledge of them, and he can learn things that are difficult and farthest from mere sense perception. He is more exact, more capable of teaching, and more suited to ordering than to obeying. The most exact of the sciences are those that deal most with first principles, for the sciences that involve fewer principles are more exact than those that involve additional principles. First principles are most truly knowledge, and most knowable; from these all other things come to be known, but not vice versa. The science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative, and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in nature. As the good is one of the causes, this science must be the same as that which investigates the first principles and causes. That it is not a science of production is obvious even from the earliest philosophers, owing to whose wonder men first began to philosophise. A man who wonders and who is puzzled thinks of himself as ignorant, and philosophises to escape ignorance and accede to knowledge, not for the sake of something else but for its own sake. Such a free science only God can have, or God above all others; and God himself is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a first principle.

Evidently, then, we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes, and causes are spoken of in four senses (see the Physics). In one sense, a cause is the substance or essence, in another the matter or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the purpose or the good that it serves. Of the first philosophers, most think that the principles of matter are the only principles of all things. They argue that that of which all things consist, that from which they come to be, and that into which they are resolved (the substance remaining, but changing its modification) is the element and the principle of things; thus, nothing is either generated or destroyed in the sense that the substratum (or substrata) remains. Yet they do not agree as to the number and nature of these principles. Thales says the principle is water (a view that may have been shared by those who first framed accounts of the gods), Anaximenes and Diogenes that it is air, Hippasus and Heraclitus that it is fire, Empedocles that it is all four of the elements, and Anaxagoras that it is infinite in number. However true it may be that all generation and destruction proceed from some one or several elements, why does this happen and what is the cause? The substratum does not make itself change, bronze does not manufacture a statue, but something else is the cause of the change, and to seek this is to seek the second cause, namely, that from which comes the beginning of movement. Some of the first philosophers who maintain that the substratum is one, as if defeated by the search for the second cause, say that the one and nature as a whole is unchangeable not only in respect of generation and destruction, but also of all other change. Those who allow for more elements are better able to account for the second cause; however, it is unlikely that fire or earth or any one element, or indeed spontaneity and chance, can explain why things manifest goodness and beauty both in their being and in their coming to be. When Anaxagoras and Hermotimus of Clazomenae first suggested that reason is present, as in animals, so throughout nature as the cause of order and movement, they must have seemed like sober men. Perhaps Hesiod is the first to look for such a thing, and Parmenides and some others also think of love or desire as the first principle. Certainly, Empedocles is the first to conceive not only of an aggregative first principle which he calls love or friendship, but also of a contrary segregative first principle which he calls strife. Empedocles is also the first to speak of four material elements, even though he only treats them as two, fire as one kind of thing, and earth, air, and water as another. Leucippus and Democritus say that the full and the empty are the elements, calling the one being and the other non-being, and making these the material causes of things. Those who make the underlying substance one generate all other things by its modifications; similarly, they make differences in the elements (namely, differences in shape, order, and position) the causes of all other qualities. All these thinkers evidently grasp, if only imprecisely, two of the causes which I distinguish in the Physics, namely, the matter and the source of movement.

For the Pythagoreans, all things seem to be modelled on numbers, and so they suppose the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things. Evidently, they also consider that number is the principle as matter for things and as both their modifications and their permanent states. According to them, the elements of number are the even and the odd, from which the One, which is both even and odd, proceeds, and number from the One. Other Pythagoreans say that there are ten principles, which they arrange into two columns of cognates, limit and unlimited, odd and even, one and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong. Alcmaeon of Croton also advances that the contraries are the principles of things, but how these principles can be brought together under the causes that I have named neither Alcmaeon nor the Pythagoreans can explain, although they do seem to range the elements under the head of matter. There are also those who speak of the universe as if it were one entity, but since they also maintain that change is impossible, the discussion of them is in no way appropriate to my present investigation of causes. In summary, then, of the earliest philosophers, there are on the one hand those who regard the first principle, whether single or plural, as corporeal, and on the other hand those who posit both this cause and also the source of movement, whether single or dual.

In most respects, Plato follows these thinkers. In this youth, Plato became familiar with Cratylus and with the teachings of Heraclitus that all sensible things are in a state of flux and that there can hence be no knowledge about them. Whereas Socrates seeks out the universal in ethical matters, Plato holds that the problem applies not to sensible things, which are always changing, but to the Ideas or Forms in which sensible things participate. For the Pythagoreans things exist by ‘imitation’ of numbers, whereas for Plato they exist by ‘participation’ in Forms, but what ‘imitation or ‘participation’ involve they do not say. Moreover, Plato maintains that, besides sensible things and Forms, there are the objects of mathematics, which occupy an intermediate position. Since the Forms are the causes of all other things, their elements are the elements of all things. As matter, the great and the small are principles; as essential reality, the One; for from the great and the small, by participation in the One, come the Numbers. Plato agrees with the Pythagoreans that the One is substance and not a predicate of something else, and that Numbers are the causes of the reality of other things. However, he constructs the infinite out of great and small instead of treating it as one, and conceives of the Numbers as existing apart from sensible things.

The essence, that is, the substantial reality, no one expresses distinctly. It is hinted at chiefly by Plato, who does not suppose either that the Forms are the matter of sensible things and the One the matter of the Forms, or that they are the source of movement. Instead, he advances that the Forms are the essence of every other thing, and that the One is the essence of the Forms. When the early philosophers speak of a cause, for instance, reason or friendship, they do not speak as if anything that exists came into being for the sake of it, but as if movements started from it. Thus, they both say and do not say that reason or friendship is a cause, in the sense that it is only an incidental cause.

Those who say that the universe is one and posit one kind of thing as matter, and as corporeal matter, only posit the elements of bodies and not of incorporeal things, though there are also incorporeal things. In giving a physical account of all things, they neglect the cause of movement. Furthermore, they do not posit the substance, that is, the essence, as the cause of anything, and call one of the simple bodies (water, fire, air) the first principle without asking how the simple bodies are produced out of each other, and so without considering their priority and posterity. Empedocles posits that all four bodies are the first principles, but he can be criticised on the same ground and also on grounds that are peculiar to his position. The Pythagoreans do not say how there can be movement if limited and unlimited and odd and even are the only things assumed. It appears that they have nothing to say about perceptible things, for if spatial magnitude does indeed consist of these elements, how, for instance, could some bodies be light and others heavy? Moreover, is the number that is each abstraction the same number that is exhibited in the material universe, or is it another than this? According to Plato, both bodies and their causes are numbers, but intelligible numbers are causes whereas the others are sensibles.

Unfortunately, to posit the Ideas as causes is, so to speak, to introduce an equal number of causes to the causes. Besides which, there is no convincing proof for the existence of the Forms: from some proofs no inference necessarily follows, and from other proofs there arise Forms even of things which are not thought of as having Forms. Of the more accurate arguments, some lead to Ideas of relations, and others introduce the ‘third man’. There are also other objections to the Ideas. Above all, one might ask what on earth the Forms contribute to sensible things, whether eternal or perishable, if they cause neither movement nor change in them.

Adapted from Aristotle’s Universe (NYP)

The Socratic Prayer

Yesterday, I prepared a dinner for some friends, and we recited the Socratic Prayer from the Phaedrus in lieu of grace, with someone reading the lines of Socrates and someone else that of Phaedrus.

I think I will be sticking with the Socratic Prayer, it is absolutely perfect for a dinner amongst friends.

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.
Socrates: Let us go [eat].

Socrates: A life worth living

And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul?
Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.

The ‘real’ Socrates is shrouded in mystery as he did not leave a written corpus of his own and there is no purely historical account of his life and thought. The three principal sources on Socrates are his pupils Plato and Xenophon and the comedian Aristophanes. These sources do not claim historical accuracy, and their portrayals of Socrates are undoubtedly influenced by their authors’ biases and agenda. The richest source on Socrates is Plato, in whose writings it is always uncertain whether the character Socrates is the real Socrates or a ventriloquist’s dummy. It is generally agreed that, as Plato’s thought developed, the character Socrates became less and less of the real Socrates and more and more of a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Socrates was born in Athens in 469BC, after the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea and Mycale, and before the start of the Peloponnesian Wars against Sparta and her allies. According to Plato, Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, was a stonemason, and his mother, Phaenarete, was a midwife. Socrates grew up under Pericles, in the heyday of Athen’s imperial hegemony. He grew up to be ugly: short in stature, pot-bellied, snub-nosed and pop-eyed. In the Theaetetus, Socrates asks the geometer Theodorus to tell him which of the young men of Athens are ‘showing signs of turning out well’. Theodorus immediately singles out Theaetetus, the son of Euphronius of Sunium, whom he describes to Socrates as ‘rather like you, snub-nosed, with eyes that stick out; though these features are not so pronounced in him’.

Socrates married Xanthippe, a shrew of a woman, but some forty years younger than he. According to Xenophon, Socrates married her because, ‘If I can tolerate her spirit, I can with ease attach myself to every human being else’. According to Aelian, she once trampled underfoot a cake sent to Socrates by his eromenos Alcibiades, the famous or, rather, infamous Athenian statesman and general. ‘Xanthippe’ has entered the English language as a term for an ill-tempered woman, although Plato himself portrays her as nothing other than a devoted wife and the mother of Socrates’ three sons, Lamprocles, Sophroniscus, and Menexenus. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates is crazy about beautiful boys, constantly following them around ‘in a perpetual daze’. Yet he also says that Socrates cares very little whether a person is beautiful or rich or even famous: ‘He considers all these possessions beneath contempt, and that’s exactly how he considers all of us as well’.

Socrates’ friend Chaerephon once asked the oracle at Delphi if any man is wiser than Socrates, and the pythia (priestess) replied that no one is wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know’. From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not’. In the Apology, he says that the gods attached him to Athens as upon a great and noble horse which ‘needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly’. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says of Socrates that,

…he makes it seem that my life isn’t worth living! … He always traps me, you see, and he makes me admit that my political career is a waste of time, while all that matters is just what I most neglect: my personal shortcomings, which cry out for the closest attention. So I refuse to listen to him; I stop my ears and tear myself away from him, for, like the Sirens, he could make me stay by his side till I die.

According to Plato, Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, for which he never accepted payment. It is unclear how he earned a living, but a combination of meagre needs and rich friends may have been enough to get him by. Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, and when he did it was always because he had learned it from somebody else or because he had been divinely inspired. For example, he claimed to have learned the art of love from the priestess Diotima of Mantinea, and the art of rhetoric from Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles. In the Theaetetus, Socrates famously compares himself to a midwife who attends not to the labour of the body but to the labour of the soul, helping others to ‘discover within themselves a multitude of beautiful things, which they bring forth into the light’. When Socrates asks Theaetetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus says that he has never come up with an adequate answer to this question and cannot stop worrying about it. Socrates tells him, ‘Yes; those are the pains of labour, dear Theaetetus. It is because you are not barren but pregnant.’ Socrates’ method, the celebrated ‘elenchus’ or Socratic method, consists in questioning one or more people about a certain concept, for example, courage or temperance, so as to expose a contradiction in their initial assumptions about the concept, and thereby provoke a reappraisal of the concept. As the process is iterative, it leads to an increasingly precise or refined definition of the concept or, more often than not, to the conclusion that the concept cannot be defined, and thus that we know nothing.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates says that there are two kinds of madness, one resulting from human illness, and the other resulting from a divinely inspired release from normally accepted behaviour. This divine form of madness has four parts: inspiration, mysticism, poetry, and love. Socrates probably believed that madness, like virtue, is a gift from the gods and that the two are intimately connected. He frequently questioned the sophists’ doctrine that virtue can be taught, and observed that virtuous men rarely, if ever, produced sons that matched them in quality. For Socrates, virtue and knowledge are one and the same, as no one who really knows the best course of action can fail to choose it, and all wrongdoing results from ignorance.

Whilst Socrates seldom claimed any real knowledge, he did claim to have a daimonion or ‘divine something’, an inner voice or instinct that prevented him from making grave mistakes such as getting involved in politics. In the Phaedrus, he says,

Madness, provided it comes as the gift of heaven, is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings … the men of old who gave things their names saw no disgrace or reproach in madness; otherwise they would not have connected it with the name of the noblest of arts, the art of discerning the future, and called it the manic art … So, according to the evidence provided by our ancestors, madness is a nobler thing than sober sense … madness comes from God, whereas sober sense is merely human.

Several of Plato’s dialogues refer to Socrates’ military service. Socrates served in the Athenian army during the campaigns of Potidaea (432BC), Delium (424BC), and Amphipolis (422BC), which were more or less the only times he ever left Athens. In the Laches, Laches calls on Socrates for advice because of his courageous behaviour during the retreat from Delium. In the Symposium, Alcibiades says that Socrates singlehandedly saved his life at Potidaea, and that he took the hardships of the campaign ‘much better than anyone in the whole army’.

In the Apology, Socrates says that ‘a man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time’. Socrates cites the time in 406BC when he was chairing the assembly meeting and alone opposed the trial as a body of the generals who, after the Battle of Arginusae, failed to pick up the Athenian survivors because of a violent storm. At the time the orators had been ready to prosecute him and take him away, although later everyone realised that the prosecution would have been illegal. Socrates also cites the time in 404BC when the Thirty Tyrants asked him and four others to bring the innocent Leon of Salamis to be executed, and he alone refused, even though his refusal may have cost him his life.

In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. The real basis for Socrates’ indictment may have been his anti-democratic leanings and his close association with aristocrats such as Critias and Charmides, who had been prominent in the oligarchic reign of terror. Yet his behaviour when faced with the demands of the Thirty Tyrants suggests that he placed his ethics far above his politics.

In the Apology, Socrates gives a defiant defense, intimating to the jurors that they should be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. In an aristocratic flourish, he insists that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence makes wealth and everything else good for men, both individually and collectively’. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he tells the jurors that he was sentenced to death not because he lacked words, but because he lacked shamelessness and the willingness to say what they would most gladly have heard from him. ‘It is not difficult to avoid death, gentlemen; it is much more difficult to avoid wickedness, for it runs faster than death.’

After being sentenced to death, Socrates had an opportunity to escape from the Athenian prison. In the Crito, one of the main reasons he gives for not escaping is that, by choosing to live in Athens, he tacitly agreed to abide by her laws, and is reluctant to break this ‘social contract’. In the Phaedo, which was known to the ancients as On the Soul, Socrates prepares to die. He tells his friends that a philosopher disdains the body in favour of the soul, because the just or the beautiful or the reality of any one thing cannot be apprehended through the senses, but through thought alone. Socrates warns his friends not to become ‘misologues’, as there is no greater evil than to shun rational conversation. Instead, he urges them to take courage and be eager to ‘attain soundness’. After joking with his gaoler, Socrates drinks the poisonous hemlock. His famous last words are, ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’ (A cock was sacrificed by ill people hoping for a cure, and Socrates probably meant that death is a cure for the ills of life.)

After his sentencing, Socrates told the jurors: ‘You did this in the belief that you could avoid giving an account of your life, but I maintain that quite the opposite will happen to you. There will be more people to test you, whom I have now held back, but you did not notice it.’

His pupil Plato was standing in the audience.

Adapted from

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