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Turning Eyes and Temple Tables: Anger in Platonism and Christianity

Anna Danusiar

In the Republic, Plato claims that a man’s thumotic anger “makes war against the desires,” and thus a man “reproaches himself and his spirit is roused against that in him which is doing the forcing,” namely, the misguided appetites.1)1 The appetites are that part of a man’s soul which draw him to certain desires over others. Alluding to his theory of the tripartite soul here— where he differentiates between reason, spirit, and appetites in a person’s soul—he presents thumos or anger as the catalyst for shifting his self control from one part of the soul to another. This notion is also deeply true for Christians, who hold that, by correct thumotic anger, we can foment changes in our behavior. The thumos is the part of the soul that bridges the gap between reason and appetite. By cultivating thumotic anger, man can reform his desires to approach a more graceful, harmonic perspective, and can cultivate a “sharper sense of what’s been left out” 2)2 in a broken world.

To show the formative power of thumotic anger, Socrates recounts the story of Aglaion, an Athenian who indulged himself by looking at the criminal’s corpses outside the city as he [entered or exited] the gates. Aglaion, however, acted begrudgingly and in bad conscience, saying to his eyes, “Look, you damned wretches.”3)3 Aglaion therefore struggled to override his desire for the gruesome sight by inciting anger and arousing his spirt..4)4 Though Aglaion eventually gave into his desire and looked at the corpses, his anger allowed him to resist the desire and cover his eyes. This anger comes from a man’s thumos. When cultivated well, this anger can bring the whole soul under the command of reason, thereby instilling a desire only for good things. Through correct cultivation of anger, man develops the proper reaction to the sight of disorder and injustice. Proper anger, in other words, elicits from man the best reaction to his own imperfection and seeks to create order in the wake of his chaotic appetites.”

This anger is not synonymous with shame. Rather, anger allows you to make the decision between shame or change. When a person finds herself in the wake of a poorly made decision— such as putting little effort into a presentation for a class—she will react angrily to the faulty choice she made. At this point, she may decide to let the anger give way to feelings of shame, discouraging her from trying better on the next project. The other option is to apply the thumotic anger as a catalyst and motivation to avoid the same mistake the next time the situation presents itself—her anger at poor performance in this presentation will drive her to put forth more effort on the next project.

For Christians, living in constant shame is not the goal; instead, the goal is to focus on the centrality of God’s love in all things. When Christ angrily demolished the tables of those who had converted his Father’s house into a commonplace market for their own profit, his actions flowed from a love of and respect for God his Father, and potent anger in the face of the people’s disrespect for him.5)5 Christ’s followers ought not to think that anger is a replacement for the command to operate out of love for God and neighbor. The two—thumotic anger and love—are not mutually exclusive. For example, you should always recognize your error when dealing with your own mistaken or sinful actions. For when one error is properly acknowledged with anger, we avoid further mistakes by catching sight of the more loving option before us. This is most effectively accomplished by training to be in tune with the thumos, that which makes you angry at your sins. Then, recognizing your fallen desires and how they have misguided you, you can respond differently next time and learn to operate appropriately: from love, not from sinful tendencies. This anger is an invitation to love well, rather than, as it may seem, something sinful.

The trick is to cultivate the anger until synchronization with thumos, and thus obedience to reason, becomes habitual. If Aglaion had developed a properly ordered thumotic spirit, the desire to turn to see the corpses, though still present, would have had no power over him. With proper training, he could have resisted the perverted appetites, thereby becoming an ordered and unashamed soul. Children can have this anger if raised to seek grace in the world—to look for perfect, lovely, fulfilled, and beautiful things in creation. If they are taught the nature of beautiful things, they will seek them in the world and will certainly notice when they’re missing. Plato argues that when the young are taught by true stories, they will be better able to identify the holes left by grace’s absence. For example, when a child draws a picture, she sees in her head the way it ought to turn out. She draws the sun, tree, and rabbit just fine, but when she attempts the clouds they come out altogether too dark for the sunny picture. These misfit clouds, an example of gracelessness, anger the child enough for her to reject the drawing. At that point, she may choose petulantly to take a red crayon and strike the page in displeasure, then to leave the drawing table feeling ashamed, which would be a poor reaction. Or , after striking the page with red crayon she may take up a new sheet of scratch paper and restart, beginning with the clouds this time and perfecting their shading relative to the whole picture.

Whatever the ensuing action, the point is that the clouds in the original drawing render the whole picture imperfect. The anger brought about by this mistake is the same kind of anger that, once cultivated, will extend to other moments in her life that need correcting, e.g. an instance of bullying in her third grade class. For the child who drew the picture, whose parents have taught her to be ashamed of gracelessness, anger causes her to react to “what’s been left out” and not to allow its perpetuation.6)6 In this case, by hearing stories of the God who came to the rescue of his Israelites and parted the Red Sea, the child knows what grace is. For example, she might compare the bully at school to the Pharaoh’s mistreatment of the Israelites and can then see the grace that is missing from the situation. She has the chance to respond with a solution and realign the world according to how it should be: harmonious and just, everything in its proper way and place.

Writing to the Romans, the Apostle Paul explains how anger manifests itself in his life, when he is driven “not to do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”7)7 Paul too grew angry at his own acts of sin, still committing them despite his understanding of Christ’s sacrifice and God’s love. He also wrote, “nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh.”8)8 Here he evidences the Christian understanding of humanity being morally bad but ontologically good. Man was created morally good, but in the fall his moral goodness was lost to him; the goodness with which he was created remained inasmuch as he is still a creature of God, but is lost insofar as his moral guide is tainted with bestial desires. Hence, as Paul says, “I have the desire to do what is right,” because of the goodness created into his very being, “but not the ability to carry it out” because he is morally misguided and sinful.9)9

By realizing his struggle against his own misguided morality, Paul exemplified the sort of vigor Christians must demonstrate: knowing the wrong in what they’ve done, Christians must choose to change from the state that allowed them to commit sin. They must see, angrily, how their own absent-mindedness, pride, or selfishness misguided them towards a sinful act. Thus they recognize with Paul their inability to completely carry out a right desire; they can only desire to do the right and then fall short. Christians must not use this as an opportunity to heap blame upon themselves in such a way as to inhibit progress, nor to reinforce a sense of the unimportance of sinful actions on account of their ubiquity. No, followers of Christ are to take advantage of this conscientious part of them, which, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, convicts them of wrongful behavior and fuels the newly corrected desire to perform the right action.

That is not to say that Christians who understand this will learn to avoid sin altogether, nor that thumotic anger is the sole solution to sinfulness. Instead, correct application of and attunement to this anger can prevent complacency, stagnation, or doldrums in particular instances of sin. By rightly responding to your own sin, you may progress towards a better imitation of Christ and the Truth. Anger acts as a trigger; the action taken after the person releases the trigger of anger depends on the person’s own choice. Should a person choose repentance, his heart and desires are refined and changed, allowing for progress and growth. In this way repentance is like to thumotic anger, yielding good change. Such growth is valuable because of its essential progression towards the goal of living in such a way that honors God. Being lukewarm, remaining complacent, or feeling indifferent is not acceptable, for humans have been created good by their Good Creator. Contrary to popular preference, hot anger is preferable in this case; there is no stigma against hot thumotic anger as there is with hot-tempered or impatient personalities. Typically, people discuss the hot temper of an acquaintance, implying their quick wrath—a rather unappealing trait. A more mild-mannered personality would be more pleasing. But, in situations requiring thumotic anger, the heat is good: it prevents Christians from being lukewarm, something God finds so wholly unpalatable in Revelation 3:16.10)10

Jesus Christ himself exhibited this kind of anger when he encountered moneychangers and pigeon sellers making their living in God’s temple, as John recounts in the second chapter of his gospel. The injustice these merchants brought to God’s own house so appalled Jesus as to elicit a table-flipping righteous anger. As John reminds us, Christ’s action here called to mind for the disciples the Psalm describing the “zeal” or “passion for your house that will consume [Christ himself].”11 By Jesus’ very example, then, Christians may know how to utilize this kind of thumotic or righteous anger; indeed, they can see that it is not only permissible but necessary as well. The anger Jesus felt at this flagrant misuse of his Father’s house of worship led him to react violently enough to upset the sinful corruption and crookedness, as well as fulfill the Psalmist’s words. The difference between Jesus’ expression of anger and mankind’s lies in the fact that, inasmuch as he is fully God, Jesus is perfect. He has no cause for anger at himself, for he is without sin. Christ’s anger is an example worth personal application and pursuit.

Reacting well in the face of temptation is something for which all Christians must strive. By this, man may redirect the soul back to its proper order: anger at sin and other shameful evidence of the fall of man. The Christian, possessing ordered desires, would avoid the satisfaction of his appetite and become angry at the sway a desire holds over him. Then he would use that anger to realign his heart towards the good desires that God provides him. In order to realign his world, Plato proves, man must learn through these moments of thumotic anger to deny the allure of his shameful appetites. Paul, in addition, reminds Christians they come into God’s grace by correctly honing their anger and allowing it to redirect them towards acts in which, unimpeded by sin, Christ’s love will shine forth.

Sources:

1 Plato, The Republic, trans. Allan Bloom (Basic Books, 1968), 440b.

2 Ibid., 401e.
3 Ibid., 440a.
4 Ibid., 439 d.
5 John 2:14-17
6 Ibid., 401 e.
7 Romans 7:15 ESV. 8 Rom. 7:18.
9 Rom. 7:18b.
10 Revelation 3:16, ESV.

 

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