My wife Hope, The Fairest Flower in all Christendom, gave our daughters an unbendable rule: “Never marry an angry man.”
Why? An angry man may be an otherwise good man, but regrettable things happen when tempers flare. A beautiful Hawaiian island becomes an inferno when the volcano blows, and a gentleman becomes a cad when anger explodes.
Anger in service to a righteous cause may be empowering, but undirected, selfish anger destroys much that is good. Many a leader who would never use a vulgar word will speak withering criticism to his family, co-workers, and friends.
Anger must be controlled by love and reason.
There is nothing virtuous about the weak man who is not angered by evil, but neither should anger dominate reason and love. Angered love controlled by reason may compel one to do good deeds, but when anger uses reason to wreak revenge, nothing good results.
Sincere anger can serve the honest student by cutting through sugary niceness in a discussion. On the other hand, manipulative people may also use anger to control a conversation.
The angry man often wishes to win rather than to learn. Push too close to his favored position, and he will blow. His opinion is safe from examination because everyone is kept busy dealing with his anger.
How Socrates Defused Anger
Socrates faces an angry teacher, Thrasymachus, in Book I of Republic. Thrasymachus is a blustery beast and he expects to bully Socrates into silence. Socrates faces his anger calmly:
Spare me your anger, Thrasymachus. If there were errors in the argument, believe me, they were not intentional. Had we been searching for gold, we surely would not have played games with each other and risked letting the treasure slip from our hands. But here we have been looking for justice, something far more precious than gold. How could you suppose that we would waste time pretending to defer to false opinions rather than devoting all our energy to finding the truth? We have been in earnest, my friend, even though our explorations have not been successful. In this situation, superior minds like yours should respond with sympathy rather than with scorn.
Socrates speaks bluntly in order to defuse the situation. The angry man may lose control, but truth directly spoken is a tool of reasonable people. An intellectual bully tries to win without real discussion and a direct statement like “uncontrolled anger is not acceptable” helps.
Uncontrolled anger marks the end of wisdom.
Socrates tells the sophist Thrasymachus, who is more interested in collecting tuition than in teaching, that Socrates prizes justice more than gold. He is not playing games—his discussions only look like games to a man for whom time is money and money is why he lives his life.
For Socrates, time is a chance at virtue and money buys the time to pursue the good life. Socrates is not opposed to money, but he is opposed to living for money. Money is a means to a good life, a virtuous life—not the goal of life or the goal of education.
Socrates’ discussion has been in earnest. Why has the angry man missed this seriousness? Socrates is sincere and sincerity is the foe of all tyrants because it hides no ulterior motives. Anger roils up the soul, but sincerity feeds off peace.
The tyrant thinks nobody is sincere:
Thrasymachus responded with sarcastic laughter: A fine sample of your famous irony, Socrates. I know how you argue, as I warned everyone here at the outset. Whatever Socrates is asked, he refuses to answer. He will resort to irony or to any other stratagem in order to avoid being pinned down.
Socrates has not refused to answer. He has defended himself from an attack—but to the angry man, any defense is interpreted as offensive. The angry man forgets he has provoked a defense.
Thrasymachus burst into the discussion, disrupting everything. He used hateful language, and now he attacks Socrates for refusing to answer!
Don’t marry an angry man. If one comes to class, ask him to spare the anger and join in learning. He can. As we will see, even angry Thrasymachus can be tamed!
*I begin an informal summer reading of Republic using Scott/Sterling (a new translation for me). Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19. Part 20. Part 21. Part 22. Part 23.
Rachel Motte edited this essay.