Anger, like other emotions, has a history.

It is not merely that the causes of anger may change, or attitudes toward its expression. The nature of the emotion itself may alter from one society to another. In classical antiquity, for example, anger was variously viewed as proper to a free citizen (an incapacity to feel anger was regarded as slavish); as an irrational, savage passion that should be extirpated entirely, and especially dangerous when joined to power; as justifiable in a ruler, on the model of God’s righteous anger in the Bible; and as blasphemously ascribed to God, who is beyond all human emotions.

This rich heritage offers a wealth of insights into the nature of anger, as well as evidence of its social nature; it is not just a matter of biology. 

Profound social and cultural changes—the transition from small city-states to the vast reach of the Roman Empire, the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome—lay behind these shifting views, but all the positions had their defenders and were fiercely debated. This rich heritage offers a wealth of insights into the nature of anger, as well as evidence of its social nature; it is not just a matter of biology. Anger’s history—along with the very fact that it has one—can shed light on the hypertrophied emotional climate of today.

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Anger was present at the very beginning of classical civilization, pervading its two foundational epics, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Indeed, the first word of the Iliad is mênis, an elevated term bearing something of the tone of “wrath.” It refers to Achilles’s rage, which will break out after he is insulted by Agamemnon, and which will dominate the poem until the end, when Achilles kills Hector in order to avenge the death of his dearest friend, Patroclus. The Odyssey, in turn, is the story of a hero who returns home after the Trojan War, only to find 108 young men in his house, all suing for the hand of his wife and vying to take his role as prince of Ithaca. Odysseus does not stop fighting until every last one of them is dead.

The Homeric epics revolve around a kind of warrior code in which fury is glorified. But as historian William Harris suggests in his book Restraining Rage (2004), the following centuries saw a kind of civilizing process at work: civic society developed a sense that anger must be moderated. Writing roughly 400 years after Homer, for example, Aristotle warned that irascibility—too quick a temper—indicated a lack of moral self-control. The fact that anger could easily get out of control and produce real harm led him to regard it as especially dangerous—in contrast, say, to emotions such as pity or shame.

Moreover, anger, in Aristotle’s view, is not simply a feeling or a reaction, devoid of reason; instead, it responds to reasons and involves cognition. “Let anger be a desire,” he wrote in Rhetoric, “accompanied by pain, for a perceived revenge, on account of a perceived slight on the part of people who are not fit to slight one or one’s own.” For Aristotle, the primary stimulus to anger is the judgment or perception that we have been slighted or put down. It follows, he says, that we cannot be angry at an inanimate thing or an animal—since they may hurt us but do not insult us—and also that anger is associated with status.

The centuries following the Homeric epics saw a kind of civilizing process at work: civic society developed a sense that anger must be moderated.

Indeed, Aristotle’s view of anger is well suited to the competitive world of the classical democratic city-state, where citizens were alert to protecting their dignity in the face of both the rich and powerful and the more humble, who might challenge the implicit social hierarchy. Hence the provision that anger responds to a slight on the part of those who are not fit to insult you. An affront on the part of a superior is not the same as one delivered by an inferior. Slaves, he says, are expected to swallow any resentment they might feel toward their masters; indeed, he suggests that the powerless are incapable of feeling anger at all: “No one gets angry at someone when it is impossible to achieve revenge, and with those who are far superior in power than themselves people get angry either not at all or less so.” On the other hand, a free person would never be expected to endure a comparable insult without irritation. As he says in the Nicomachean Ethics, that would constitute a sign of servility, not of tolerance or noble temperament.

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Yet anger looks very different from the perspective of its victims, and the philosophical tradition of Stoicism, which originated in the increasingly autocratic world after Aristotle’s death, entertained a suspicion of all emotions, above all anger. Writing roughly 300 years after Aristotle, the philosopher Seneca produced the most detailed treatise on anger that has come down from antiquity. He offers a variety of shocking illustrations of how the anger of people with absolute power could have appalling consequences (as the anger of masters did in respect to slaves throughout classical antiquity). Describing the Roman statesman Gnaeus Piso, for example, Seneca says he was “a man free from many vices, but misguided, in that he mistook inflexibility for firmness.” Piso ordered the execution of one of his soldiers when the soldier returned without his comrade, reasoning that the soldier must have killed him. But just as the soldier was presenting his neck to the executioner, the missing man appeared, and the executioner spared him. The crowd rejoiced, but “Piso mounted the tribunal in a rage,” Seneca writes:

and ordered both soldiers to be led to execution, the one who had done no murder and the one who had escaped it. . . .  And Piso added a third. He ordered the centurion who had brought back the condemned man to be executed as well. On account of the innocence of one man, three were appointed to die in the self-same place. How clever is anger in devising excuses for its madness. . . . It thought out three charges because it had grounds for none.

From today’s vantage point, such a violent disposition is regarded as wholly irrational. In one sense this is true: it reflects flawed reasoning. But, in the Stoic view, it is reasoning, all the same. Seneca explains that emotions are elicited, in the first instance, by impressions and then judged to be genuine or not by the mind. As he explains in On Anger: “There is no doubt but that what arouses anger is the impression that is presented of an offense.” This account recalls Aristotle’s, and Seneca indeed affirms that “Aristotle’s definition is not far from ours.”

For the Stoics, however, the mere response to an impression—the shock—is not yet anger, but a preliminary step. Imagine I am standing at a street corner, and someone suddenly shoves me from behind. My instinctive reaction might be anger: How dare he? But note that this response requires making an assumption about the motive of the offender. Suppose it turns out that I was standing in the path of an oncoming bicycle, and the shove in fact saved me from harm. I might now feel gratitude, perhaps, or relief, but surely no longer anger. There may be a residue of tension, as a result of the initial shock; but this purely physical reaction is not, properly speaking, an emotion.

Stoicism, which originated in the increasingly autocratic world after Aristotle’s death, entertained a suspicion of all emotions, above all anger.

Seneca describes a class of feelings that, he says, are not emotions in the strict sense but rather “the initial preliminaries to emotions.” He provides a lengthy and, at first blush, rather puzzling list of these proto-emotions, including such responses as shivering or goose pimples when one is sprinkled with cold water, aversion to certain kinds of touch, and the vertigo we experience when we look down from great heights. But he also mentions our reaction to spectacles in the theater, historical narratives, and paintings of horrible things, as well as the sight of punishments (even when they are deserved) and contagious laughter and sadness. These motions are irresistible; they “do not arise through our will” and thus do not yield to reason.

A genuine emotion, on the other hand, involves a judgment, or rather two. As Seneca says, Stoics

maintain that anger does not venture anything on its own but only when the mind approves; for to accept the impression of an injury that has been sustained and desire vengeance for it—and to unite the two judgments, that one ought not to have been harmed and that one ought to be avenged—this is not characteristic of an impulse that is aroused without our will.

Anger, then, requires that “one has discerned something, grown indignant, condemned it, and takes revenge.” This distinction—that the mind consents to the reasons for anger—is crucial, because, as Seneca explains, if anger “arises in us without our willing it, it will never submit to reason,” and philosophy will have no therapeutic value.

Anger, then, is voluntary, insofar as it depends on our assent to the proposition that we have been harmed and that revenge is warranted. But once anger takes over, things change. For, as Seneca argues, reason retains its authority only as long as it is separated from the emotions; once it mixes with them, reason is helpless. The mind, in the Stoic view, has no separate place of its own, and once it is transformed by an emotion, it can no longer free itself. When people are wholly in the grip of anger, for example, they are unresponsive to reason, and the only way they can be discouraged from taking revenge is if their rage is displaced by some other emotion. As Seneca observes, this is hardly a reliable way to curb a passion, and it runs counter to the Stoic condemnation of emotions generally. Far from Aristotle’s notion that an inability to feel anger is servile, Seneca sees anger as a violent master, one that holds us in thrall.

It should be noted here that Seneca, who was a tutor for the emperor Nero, was forced to kill himself for allegedly conspiring in a plot to kill the emperor. Indeed, the new, more cautious attitude toward anger represented, in part, a generalized anxiety among the upper classes who were themselves vulnerable to the rage of their superiors, as Seneca was to Nero’s. By the second century CE, the great doctor Galen was describing anger as “a sickness of the soul.” In his treatise On the Passions and Errors of the Soul, Galen records various anecdotes illustrating the perils of unrestrained rage:

When I was still a youth and pursuing this training, I watched a man eagerly trying to open a door. When things did not work out as he would have them, I saw him bite the key, kick the door, blaspheme, glare wildly like a madman, and all but foam at the mouth like a wild boar. When I saw this, I conceived such a hatred for anger that I was never thereafter seen behaving in an unseemly manner because of it.

Galen also recollects his mother’s fits of temper, saying she “was so very prone to anger that sometimes she bit her handmaids; she constantly shrieked at my father and fought with him.” Then as now, anger would have manifested itself differently according to class, gender, ethnic background, and other variables, not to mention strictly individual differences. But the broad outlines of these examples from antiquity are instructive as they increasingly shift the perspective from those who feel wronged to the perspective of the helpless victims and the trivial oversights that elicit the violence of enraged masters.

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Another historical inflection of anger arrived in the second century CE as Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, culminating in the conversion of the emperor Constantine around 312. The Bible made it clear that God could be wrathful, and Christian writers were confronted with the task of rehabilitating this emotion, so roundly condemned by the Stoics. There must be a right way to be wrathful, they thought. Thus Tertullian, writing early in the third century, affirms God will indeed grow angry, but “he will do so rationally, at those with whom he ought to be.”

Lactantius, an advisor to Constantine, made a similar move. In his essay On the Anger of God, he notes the Stoic view that God possesses gratia or “grace” but not anger, since anger is a reaction to harm (to which God is not vulnerable) and takes the form of a perturbation of the mind (which is foreign to God’s nature). Lactantius replies, however, that if God is not angry at the impious and unjust, neither can he love the pious and just; for as he loves the good, he hates those who are evil. The two emotions, anger and love, are necessarily paired, and one can no more exist without the other than right can exist without left. There is a just anger and an unjust anger.

The two emotions, anger and love, are necessarily paired, and one can no more exist without the other than right can exist without left. There is a just anger and an unjust anger.

When Seneca, agreeing with Aristotle, speaks of anger as a desire for revenge, he is referring, Lactantius explains, to the unjust kind of anger; proper anger seeks rather to correct wickedness. The great Cappadocian theologian Basil of Caesarea expresses a similar view in his Homily Against Those Who Are Angry: “For if you are not angry at the Evil One, it is impossible for you to hate him as much as he deserves. For it is necessary, I believe, to have equal zeal in regard to the love of virtue and the hatred of sin, and for this anger is most useful.”

On this account, a good king was not one who had eliminated anger, as Seneca argues. On the contrary, such a disposition signaled a lack of righteous will. As Stephen White observed in Barbara Rosenwein’s collection Anger’s Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Middle Ages (1998), “Whether or not displays of lordly anger express what we would recognize as anger, they were gestures of a feuding culture.” White cites the example of Henry I, who in a rage punished the traitorous Conan without even giving him the chance to confess his sins: “Henry, stern avenger of his brother’s injury, trembled with rage and, scorning the wretch’s prayers, thrust him violently with both hands, hurling him down from the window of the tower.”

No age is monolithic, of course, and there were Christians who were profoundly opposed to the idea that God could be the bearer of any human emotions, much less one so violent as anger. The first-century Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria had already denied, in his work That God Is Immutable, that references to God’s passions in the Bible were to be taken literally. If Jesus wept for Lazarus, some argued that it was as though out of grief. The monk and theologian John Cassian maintained in his Conferences that the “disease of anger must be utterly rooted out of the recesses of our soul.” Cassian knew that some defended human anger on the grounds that “God himself is said to be furious and angry with those who either are unwilling to know him, or, though they do know him, scorn him.” But Cassian denounces this view as “a most abominable interpretation of the Scriptures,” on a par with supposing that God sleeps or sits or has a body similar to that of human beings. Rather than understanding mentions of God’s anger as referring to the human passion, Cassian urged, one must realize that God is “a stranger to every perturbation.” As Cassian and many others since have reasoned, the ascription of anger to God is a way of inspiring fear of offending him, but does not imply that his judgments are motivated by some just and pure version of the emotion.

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Let us take stock of the transformation we have charted. In the face of insult or injustice, Aristotle found it demeaning to demonstrate meekness or humility. Three hundred years later, Jesus recommended turning the other cheek. These and other interpretations of anger continue to be manifested in the way we think and feel now. Is anger a desire for revenge, a product of false reasoning, a form of righteous indignation, or foreign to the nature of God and the wise ruler?

Is anger a desire for revenge, a product of false reasoning, a form of righteous indignation, or foreign to the nature of God and the wise ruler?

Today there is an entire industry devoted to anger management, which commonly treats anger as an irrational impulse needing to be controlled or repressed. Others have encouraged anger, regarding its repression as a technique by which the oppressed are kept in their place. Donald Trump, for his part, is at the center of conflicting views about anger. In headline after headline his anger is said to “boil over,” reflecting a hydraulic image of emotion, and he is accused of fueling the anger of his base, like a flame destined to catch on in deadly fashion. But Trump also causes anger and stress in his opponents, and many on the political left are angry about his policies.

This complex repertoire of rage is not atavistic, and it is not new; these are the shapes that anger has taken, in its multiple dimensions, and it is not always regarded, felt, or understood in the same ways. A historical perspective does not allow us to adjudicate when and whether anger is due, or what form it should take. But it may help to clarify our sentiments, and that is a good beginning.