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Review of "Anger"

By Robert A. F. Thurman
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Tony Milligan, Ph.D. on Oct 13th 2005

This is the latest offering in a handy series of short books on our favorite faults. Although he provides some treatment of Seneca and Aristotle on anger (more so the former than the latter) what Thurman offers is essentially a short Buddhist meditation on the topic. Buddhism is very much his field. This is not to say that he advances the implausible claim given on the dust cover (in the West anger is seen as unavoidable, in the East it is seen as something we can overcome). What it does mean is that he is much more in his stride once he gets beyond his gloss on Western accounts and gets closer to the Buddhist material.

Having said that, one of the most instructive features of the book is the way in which his outline of (one strand of) Buddhist thought on anger reveals it to be substantially in agreement with Seneca. (Someone whose reading of Seneca is a little closer than Thurman's might find interesting similarities here.) Be that as it may, Thurman structures his case against anger around a contrast between resigning to anger and resigning from anger where the former involves the view that you can do nothing about anger and the latter involves the view that anger can (and should) be totally eradicated. Thurman's middle way between them turns out to involve a gradualist attempt to uproot anger rather than a sudden leap out of it. This looks suspiciously like resigning from anger but he may do just enough to convince the reader otherwise.

The contrast between the two paths, although not slavishly adhered to, is given more prominence than any account of exactly what anger itself is. (Another similarity to Seneca, but his manuscript has the excuse of being somewhat incomplete.) Even in a work with a limited remit this is something of a shortcoming. The closest he comes to pinning down his subject is when he treats it as an impulse to a harmful response. This falls short of even a provisional definition given that whatever impulses are, there might happen to be various different impulses of precisely this sort. Nevertheless, Thurman does disclose enough about anger to develop his Buddhist theme. As anger is an impulse to harm, Buddhism views it as a bad thing.

Rather than harming the other, Buddhism would have us cultivate compassion. This is no easy matter, but some definite steps are outlined: tolerance of suffering, forbearance and forgiveness. When we act in anger we act slavishly, not freely. The same is true of others who harm us, so why should we be angry with them? The position at this point reads more and more like Seneca: anger involves us in the cognitive error of thinking that others harm us freely rather than under constrain. Nevertheless, Thurman's ongoing source is not Seneca but the Tibetan Buddhist Shantideva. (He happens to be a rather prestigious translator of the latter.)

The customary metaphorical devices are deployed to outline the Buddhist case: we have so much energy deployed in this way or that. The trouble with anger is that it is such a waste of energy. Ultimately we are to resign to anger but not in the sense of accepting its energy as we find it, but in the sense of reclaiming it for more useful purposes. My problem here is not with the hydraulic/energy metaphor. If Plato and Freud can use it then so can Buddhists. What troubles me is the way in which this theme of the uselessness of anger tends to slip over into an instrumental preoccupation. Whether or not it helps or hinders us on our personal/developmental/spiritual/moral journey there remains the question of whether anger may not turn out to be a necessary part of responding realistically to the particularity of extreme and dreadful situations.

If someone did not respond with anger after entering the concentration camps would we not be inclined to question whether they had really taken in what lay in front of their eyes? Equanimity is all very well, but pursing it will be problematic if it is secured at the expense of a realistic grasp of the situation. Seneca, Thurman, and Shantideva would no doubt dispute the idea that there is any cognitive (or moral) failure. If the harmful other is not a free agent then it is the angry man who is getting it wrong.

Even so, does this not imply a problematic diminution of our emotional repertoire? Right response surely cannot mean responding in the same way time after time, otherwise we will not really be responding to particular situations at all. What Thurman does seem to hint at, and what may head off both problems is the possibility of a 'Good hate' which is 'a perfectly healthy attitude'. It would be nice to see the contrast between this and anger developed a bit further but given that anger is taken by Thurman to involve an impulse to harm, Thurman does leave enough clues to indicate that something more systematic could be said. (i.e. 'Good hate' is not directed towards persons; it involves self-control rather than the passing on of suffering; it involves some recognition of the constraints upon their agency, their lack of 'real' freedom.)

Where this leaves us is with a nice little volume. It's not vastly ambitious. It doesn't overreach itself by pretending to deal in more than a cursory way with anger within the Western Canon. Instead, it focuses upon providing an interesting and worthwhile glimpse over the fence.


2005 Tony Milligan



Tony Milligan completed his Ph.D. on Iris Murdoch with the Philosophy Department at Glasgow University. The main focus of his work is on moral philosophy, tragedy and the emotions. (He has a partner called Suzanne who is much smarter than he is.)

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