The 2016 presidential election was, it seems, decided by angry white men in the Rust Belt: angry that their fellow Americans increasingly do not look or sound like them; angry that black lives matter and that a black man is in the White House; angry that the movements of capital are indifferent to their needs and that movements of people have increased; angry that a woman thought herself fit to run the country.
One might well think that anger itself was the problem. Many have been calling for a return to a more civil and reasonable form of political discourse. But some go even further: Perhaps what we need is the total eradication of anger from our politics. If so, then those of us on the left should respond to Trump’s election not with our own anger but with something altogether cooler and calmer.
In her latest book, Anger and Forgiveness, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues for just this. Even “great injustice,” she says, is no “excuse for childish and undisciplined behavior.” For not only is anger bad because of its consequences—alienating political opponents, breeding revenge and violence, inhibiting progress—it is also a bad thing in itself, an immoral and incoherent way of responding to the world.
To be angry, according to Nussbaum, is to thirst for revenge, either as a means of recompense for a wrongdoing or as a means of restoring one’s damaged social status after one. But revenge, she thinks, never works as recompense: The suffering of others cannot undo harm to oneself. At best, revenge repairs wounded egos: Humiliating my wrongdoer can elevate me by downgrading him. But that, Nussbaum says, is to operate in the barbaric logic of the honor code; it is not the stuff of justice. Thus “in a sane and not excessively anxious and status-focused person, anger…is a brief dream or cloud, soon dispelled by saner thoughts of personal and social welfare.” Resisting anger, Nussbaum thinks, is a mark not only of our humanity, but of our sanity.
Nussbaum describes this view of anger as “radical.” But it is not radical in the sense of being unfamiliar. With the notable exception of black and feminist thinkers who have defended anger as a vital tool of the oppressed, almost all of Western political thought since the Stoics has largely shared Nussbaum’s dim view of anger. Seneca condemned anger as “the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions,” “closed to reason” and “wholly violent.” It had no place in our personal or political lives.
The liberal tradition in which Nussbaum works has largely inherited this ancient view of things. The public square, if not the private realm, should be a place of cool deliberation rather than hot emotion. But what is radical about Nussbaum’s case against anger is that it puts baldly what is often taken for granted in our political culture. In so doing, Nussbaum inadvertently tells us something about the limits of the liberal worldview she has spent much of her career defending.