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Review of "Restraining Rage"

By William V. Harris
Harvard University Press, 2001
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D. on Jul 22nd 2002
Restraining Rage

Classical studies earns its salt when it we learn something of value from it; not when philological prowess is displayed in esoteric linguistic disputes. Restraining Rage is an example of the best that classical studies has to offer.  Harris traverses the fields of anthropology, philology, literary theory, philosophy, and psychology with equal facility.  Early in the book Harris claims, "Anger control is rather obviously a contemporary problem, though it is seldom seen as such except by psychiatrists" (8).  The book speaks to its relevance, particularly to mental health professionals, when Harris quotes S.A. Diamond, a contemporary psychiatrist, as saying, "the complicated clinical problems presented by anger and rage remain far and away the most confounding Gordian knot faced in the effective practice of psychotherapy" (8).

This substantial book (468 pages) offers a complex, yet sustained and well-documented, argument that ancient attempts at anger control were responses to social and political conditions.  Its contemporary relevance appears in its claim that the current discussion of this topic in the field of psychotherapy can benefit from a study of its Greco-Roman treatment.  The book is divided into four parts of two to six chapters each.  Part I, entitled "Approaches," sets the stage by tracing the problematization of anger in the ancient world.  There Harris asks why it was that the Greeks and Romans advocated the reining in or the elimination of angry emotions and concludes that the ancients, the Epicureans and the Stoics in particular, developed genuine insights into the subtleties and complexities of human emotion.

Part II, "Anger in Society and in the State," begins with the earliest known Greek treatments of anger in Homer.  The Iliad, he says, offers the lesson that anger can be politically dangerous and, therefore, ought to be controlled.  Harris develops this argument historically and philosophically, examining texts from Pindar to Plato to Aristotle to the Roman authors like Cicero.  He also makes an interesting argument that because anger was generally identified as a feminine characteristic, anger control in the ancient world came to be another instrument of male domination.

Scholarship has often been accused of being a reflection of, an apology for, or an appeal, to social elites.  But Harris avoids such accusations as he examines, in Part III, "Intimate Rage," anger in the family and anger in the relationships towards one's slaves.  Here Harris concludes that the ancients show us that all members of a community, even slaves, can benefit when anger is kept under control.

In Part IV,  "Anger and the Invention of Psychic Health," Harris explores what may be some of the most interesting material in the book for contemporary mental health therapists and theorists, why anger control became a concern for the ancients as a part of the individual's psychic health.  Therapeutic anger control was seen by the ancients as part of an overall program of moral improvement.  This is not an unusual thesis.  In a recently published text, Pierre Hadot claims, "all the philosophies of antiquity…shared the aim of establishing an intimate link between philosophical discourse and way of life" (What is Ancient Philosophy?, Harvard University Press, 2002, p.55).  This message was spread to ever wider circles as ancient philosophy became subsumed by Christianity.

Earlier I alluded to Harris's claim to the contemporary relevance of this book.  He develops a demonstration of this claim in his final chapter.  There he offers three basic lessons to be learned from ancient authors.  The first is how various the anger emotions are.  This is important because much contemporary psychological literature over-generalizes from limited examples.  Second, says Harris, is that scholars must understand that English is not the universal language.  We can benefit from the recognition of the nuances in different anger emotions embodied in the various Greek and Latin linguistic expressions.  The third lesson is that anger is dangerous, and we should perhaps be more cautious in accepting and justifying its expression.

This last point is the important one with which Harris wants to leave readers of Restraining Rage.   Harris suggests that we, psychotherapists in particular, distinguish between angry emotions, such as annoyance, and more intense anger, such as rage.  Restraining Rage is an impressive piece of scholarship.  Its impressiveness in part comes from the contemporary lessons we can draw from it.  The most important lesson, says Harris, is that the intense anger emotions like rage is what we should focus our energies on and that we do our best to eliminate, without throwing out altogether the more subtle, and sometimes useful, anger emotions. 


© 2002 Ben Mulvey


Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Liberal Arts at Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University with a specialization in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches ethics at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network. 

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