Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, September 16, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 9: Anger)

Is anger bad for me? That may sound like a dumb question. But sometimes it helps to try and answer dumb questions. For starters, what do we mean by “bad”? For example, modern medicine has proven that too much anger can be bad for our health. But that’s not very helpful. Too much of anything can be bad for our health. Aristotle bases his whole theory “On Happiness” around the basic principle that the middle way is the best way to be happy. Take anger: too little anger is cowardice; too much anger is foolishness. That’s the sort of thing Aristotle was driving at. In the Iliad Homer agrees with Aristotle. The main theme of the Iliad is the anger of Achilles. Achilles gets too angry. Not just a little too angry. Way too angry. Fury may be a better word. The fury of Achilles leads to the death of many a good Greek soldier. Aristotle asks: for what purpose? What good did anger do him? What good did it do anybody?
But there’s another side to the story. Too little anger would be just as bad as too much anger. Maybe there are some things we should get angry about. There are some things that if we don’t get angry then something is wrong with us. For example, in Euripides’ play “Iphigenia at Aulis” Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia so the Greeks can sail to Troy. Would it be normal for the mother (Clytemnestra) to say, “Gee, that’s too bad; I was kind of fond of Iphigenia, but that’s the way it goes I guess.” No. This is not an appropriate response for that particular situation. Again, that’s what Aristotle was driving at: what is the appropriate amount of anger to deal with the situation at hand? He would agree that Achilles has a right to be angry at the way Agamemnon treated him. The question is: how angry? Even Jesus got angry. In the Gospel of Mark he drives the moneychangers from the temple. In that situation Jesus’ anger was appropriate. He drove them out of the temple but he didn’t try to kill them. So the following statement seems to get the Great Books Seal of Approval: it’s ok to be angry at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason and to respond in the right way. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. The Great Books rarely come down squarely on just one side of any major question. The subject of anger is no exception. And as usual we do well to turn to Socrates. What would Socrates say? He would probably come out with something like, “you say that ‘it’s ok to be angry at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason and to respond in the right way.’ Who can argue with that? I certainly don’t disagree, so far as that goes. But if we think about it, isn’t it ok to do just about anything in the right time and the right place for the right reason and in the right way? Then here’s what we really seem to be asking: is this the right time for me to be angry? Is this an appropriate place? What things should I get angry about and how angry should I let myself become? Also, how should I respond when I do get angry? Goodness. We start with a simple question: is anger bad for me? But instead of a simple yes or no we open up a whole slew of new questions that seem harder to answer than the one we started with. Is this the purpose of philosophy; to lead us into more confusion? My friend, I think not. Is there not a much simpler answer to our original question: is anger bad for me? Philosophy says yes, anger is bad for me. Why? Anger leads us into confusion. The purpose of philosophy is to lead us out of confusion. In “The Apology” I once said that a bad man can never harm a good man. He can kill me, but he can’t harm me. What did I mean by that? I meant that a bad man can harm my body in many ways. But he can only harm my soul if I let him. When I become angry with him then I allow him to harm my soul. I believe Achilles did much more damage to himself than Agamemnon ever did. Homer is a good poet but he’s a bad philosopher. Aristotle is a good philosopher but even he gets things wrong sometimes. Anger is bad; that’s the simple answer.”


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