On several other occasions (here and here for example) I have mentioned a particular distaste for the ubiquitous habit of theological hair-splitting perpetrated by the priest and lay alike. One might even say it makes me angry—except for the fact that this post itself is about anger. Specifically it is about the follicle-parting habit of saying that “anger is not a sin, but depends on what you do with it.” As usual our armchair theologians are mixing just enough truth with error that it satisfies all but the most conscientious of interrogators. The problem of course is that anger is one of the seven capital sins, that is, the seven vices that flow from our fallen nature and animate much of what we do. Given that anger is a core element of concupiscence, it merits a more accurate and thorough response than the Reader’s Digest version we reflexively offer.
To begin we should go to the heart of our apologist’s argument and make the necessary distinction between anger solely as an emotion and anger as an emotion that is willed. Our emotional life in this post-lapsarian world is a source of interior conflict. Emotions can rise within us without any engagement of the will. But they always act so as to gain consent of the will so that they may endure. Anger in this regard is no different. Anger itself is a passion that is part of the irascible appetite meant to assist us in driving away an evil that is difficult to avoid. It has two elements to it and it is the taking of offense and the taking of revenge. Without the engagement of intellect and will, anger can arise when an evil is perceived. Left unchecked or even consented to by the will, it can intensify making rational judgment difficult. It can also be deliberately aroused.
Some examples might help us see how this works. Suppose you are on a bus, keeping to yourself, when someone walks by and steps on your foot. Without any thought, you feel angry. You look up and see that it is an old woman who accidently put her cane on top of your foot. You are now at the moment of judgment, should I be angry or not? The emotion arose without any judgment or willing it, but the moment comes when you must decide whether it should persist.
Now change the example slightly. When you look up it is a young man who is going up and down the aisle stomping on people’s feet. You realize it was done deliberately and you must decide whether to allow the emotion of anger to persist or not. In both of these examples the emotion of anger arose antecedently, but now you must “decide what to do with it.” To multiply the examples, suppose further that when you get home, you begin to recall the actions of the young man and the more you think about it, the angrier you get. As you will to reflect on the slight, you are deliberately willing the anger.
Using the three examples, we would say that in the case of the old woman once you judge it to be accidental your anger should dissipate. With the young man your anger was probably justified. But what about when you dwell upon it later on? We clearly see that each of these examples highlights the inherent problem with “it depends on what you do with it”—it assumes that we know what to do with it. That is, it neglects the fact that anger is more than just any other emotion, but also a capital vice.
This is where the language of St. Thomas Aquinas is helpful because he speaks in terms of the “quantity” of anger and how it must be done according to right reason. Anger may be justified (like in the case of the young man slamming your foot) but this does not make it righteous anger. In order to be righteous anger it must seek to punish only those that deserve punishment and only in the measure in which they deserve it. It must be moderate in its execution going only as far as is both necessary and allowed according to justice. Finally it must be animated by motives of charity aiming at the restoration of order and amendment of the guilty.
The enumeration of these three conditions ought to give each one of us serious pause. The only time we should “do something with our anger” is when all three conditions can be met. Without the accompany virtues of meekness and justice, righteous anger is practically impossible. St. James seems to be speaking in absolute terms when he says that “the wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
What then should we do with it? According to St. Francis de Sales, we should mortify it, literally killing it when it arises— “better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control lawful anger… it is better to drive it away speedily than enter into a parley; for, if we give it ever so little leisure, it will become mistress of the place, like a serpent, who easily draws in his whole body where he can once get in his head…You must at the first alarm speedily muster your forces; not violently, not tumultuously, but mildly and yet seriously.”” Like all the vices, each time we allow our anger to go unchecked we create a bodily disposition that both increases the intensity of it and makes it easier to experience anger. This includes not only full “rage mode”, but even seemingly small acts of impatience, flashes of temper, and harsh words. Anger has a power to overcome reason, blinding it to every color but red, making it something that should not be lightly trifled with.
Mortification is one of those dirty Catholic words that needs to be understood, especially in this context. The goal of mortifying our anger is not so that we will never be angry, but that we are able to bring it under the control of our judgment. As St. Thomas reminds us, righteous anger is a “simple movement of the will, whereby one inflicts punishment, not through passion, but in virtue of a judgment of the reason” (ST II-II q.158, art 8). This starts by doing as St. Francis de Sales suggests—“drive it away speedily”—but that is not the finish line. We subdue our anger so as to unleash its goodness.
The Daughters of Wrath
If we are to drive it away, we must first recognize the effects of disordered anger, what St. Thomas calls the “daughters of wrath.” These are the seemingly hidden ways innocuous ways in which we feed the beast of anger. There are three sets of them that have to do with disordered thoughts, disordered speech and disordered acts (c.f. STII-II q.158, art 7).
The daughters of thought are with indignation and what St. Thomas refers to as swelling of the mind. Indignation may be directed at “the person with whom a man is angry, and whom he deems unworthy.” But it has a certain gravity to it that always causes the person to reflect on how vile the person whom he is angry at and how grave their injustices. This leads to both a magnification and amplification of the actual offense. Much anger is fed and expressed in our current political climate based upon the division of left and right. “Swelling of the mind” is manifest in the angry man who “mulls over different ways and means whereby they can avenge themselves.” So, while indignation causes focus on the imagined depravity of one’s “enemy”, “swelling of the mind” imagines ways in which one can gain vengeance against the evildoer.
The daughters of speech are clamor and contumely. The former denotes disorderly and confused speech.” This is essentially what we would call unintelligible ranting. While the latter, is unnecessarily harsh and insulting language. Likewise the daughters of acts are blasphemy (contumely directed to God) and quarreling. Quarreling bears special mention because it means more than just “arguing.” Argument is a good thing when it is in the service of the truth, but often degrades to quarrelsomeness as jealousy for our own ideas creeps in. This daughter also manifests in the habit of having imaginary arguments in your head, with either real or imaginary foes.
With the awareness of the daughters of wrath, we can see how often we fall victim to them and why we may have so much difficulty in controlling our anger. It is these daughters, because they are feeding our anger, that need to be mortified. We need to mortify our imagination and memory not allowing it to dwell on real and imaginary slights. We should mortify our speech by controlling our volume and tone of voice. We should avoid arguments about things that really don’t matter and be willing to concede when arguments become quarrelsome.
“Anger can be a sin, but only if you don’t learn how to use it!”