Is venting anger productive, or are we getting caught in the steam of anger addiction?
“The ‘catharsis hypothesis’—that aggression builds up inside us until it’s healthily released—dates back to the Greeks, was revived by Freud, and gained steam during the ‘let it all hang out’ 1960s of punching bags and primal screams. But the catharsis hypothesis is a myth—a plausible one, an elegant one, but a myth nonetheless. Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it.”—Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012)
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle maintains that there’s nothing wrong with getting angry. All to the contrary, there are, he argues, some very good reasons for getting angry, especially in defense of people and things that you care about. You just have to make sure that you’re getting angry
“in the right way at the right time toward the right people in the right degree” (1125b35-1126a1).
For instance, Aristotle would say that this is decidedly not cool: going off on your kid when you get home from work—for some trivial infraction of the house rules—when you’re really pissed off at your abusive boss for treating you like shit all day. That said, going off on the sexist asshole at the dinner party who keeps saying stupid shit about women and rape is entirely kosher. In fact, failure to get angry at a time like this is deeply problematic:
“those who do not get angry at the people at whom they should get angry seem dense … to allow oneself and one’s loved ones to be trampled underfoot and overlook it is slavish” (1126a3-8).
It’s slavish because slaves are forced to repress their anger; expressing it freely could, after all, result in severe punishment (maybe even death). Free men are, by contrast, free to spontaneously express the full range of human emotions, including, when appropriate, anger.
Failure to get angry at a time when you ought to get angry is, then, in the final analysis, for Aristotle, a sign of moral weakness or slavishness: you’re not as free (or honourable or courageous) as you imagine yourself to be, nor is your commitment to the people and things you claim to care about particularly trustworthy, dependable, or strong. Even so, at one and the same time, he argues that being a hothead who flies off the handle at the slightest provocation is at least as vicious—if not more vicious—than being a spineless pushover:
“Aristotle clearly believes,” writes the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in The Therapy of Desire (2009), “that many people get angry too much and for insufficient reasons. His choice of the name ‘mildness’ … for the appropriate virtuous disposition in this area reflects his conscious decision to pitch things rather toward the unangry than toward the angry end of the spectrum (1125b26-29).”
So it would appear that we have here, yet another example of Aristotle’s famous celebration of moderation. Indulging in anger is fine, so long as you do so in a reasonable and moderate manner. But is this realistic? Seneca thought not.
In his treatise on the subject—On Anger—Seneca maintains that Aristotle’s attitude towards anger is remarkably naïve. Anger cannot be moderated by reason precisely because anger actively impairs our capacity for reason. The angrier you get, the more unreasonable you become. As such, only the mildest forms of anger can be controlled by reason. Put another way, expecting your reason to control your anger is like expecting your seven-year-old to control your pitbull. What’s more, avers Seneca, Aristotle fails to appreciate the extent to which getting angry is habit forming. Every time you give in to anger—every time you allow yourself to really lose it—you make it a little bit easier to do the same thing next time. It is, then, not unlike smoking cigarettes.
No one starts off smoking two packs a day. It happens gradually, over time. Nicotine addiction takes over slowly, imperceptibly. It’s almost comical to watch a heavy smoker—who’s never tried to quit—talk about their smoking. They really have no idea how addicted they are. Ask them, and they’ll tell you, with a straight face: “I’m in control of this. Trust me, I can quit any time.” But alas, then they try to quit. It’s only then that they realize—truly realize—how hard it’s going to be to kick this bad habit.
Seneca’s understanding of anger is strikingly similar. No one starts off as a hard-core rageaholic. It happens gradually, over time. Anger addiction takes over slowly, imperceptibly. But, then again, we all (now) know that smoking is dangerous and addictive. As such, comparisons with nicotine addiction can only get us so far. If we are fully to grasp Seneca’s critique of Aristotle—if we are to see anger, for a moment, through Seneca’s eyes—we need to find a critique of a potentially dangerous practice which enjoys widespread cultural acceptance despite its dangers. Strange as it may sound, such a critique is to be found this very evening, in a church basement near you, at an Alcohol Anonymous meeting.
A friend of mine quit drinking a few years ago, for all of the usual reasons, and he’s been going to A.A. meetings religiously ever since. Truth be told, he’s a better man for it, though I must confess that his stridency and intolerance can be annoying at times. Like many a recovering alcoholic, my buddy has become highly critical of social drinking—much to the chagrin of many of his old friends (myself included). Regardless, what my buddy says about alcohol is virtually indistinguishable from what Seneca says about anger: alcohol cannot be moderated by reason precisely because alcohol actively impairs our capacity for reason. The drunker you get, the more unreasonable you become. As such, only the mildest forms of alcohol consumption can be controlled by reason. What’s more, he says, those of us who see drinking as more or less benign fail to appreciate the extent to which it is habit forming. No one starts off as a raging alcoholic. It happens gradually, over time. Alcohol addiction takes over slowly, imperceptibly:
“For years I could handle my drinking, or at least I thought I could. But things started to change in 2006. Looking back, at the end of the year, I could clearly identify two times that I got really drunk and did something (or said something) that I deeply regretted the next day. At the end of 2007, I counted five deeply regrettable incidents. In 2008, it had risen to seven. And by the summer of 2009, I was getting wasted and doing (or saying) something seriously stupid at least once a month. I had lost jobs and relationships because of my drinking. And I had alienated friends and family members because of my drinking. That’s when I realized I had to quit. That’s when I realized that there’s really no such thing as drinking in moderation.”
Seneca did not share my friend’s view of alcohol. In what is, to my mind, his greatest essay—On the Tranquility of the Mind—he goes so far as to recommend “convivial company and generous drinking” as one of the ways which we can (and indeed should) “show kindness to the mind.” And, just so we’re clear, he’s not talking about one or two glasses of wine with a respectably middle-class dinner; Seneca’s advocating some pretty serious Dionysian drinking:
“Occasionally,” he writes, “we should reach the stage even of intoxication, allowing it, not to drown us, but to take over our senses; for it washes away our cares, and rouses the mind from its depths, acting as a cure for its melancholy.”
Alas, Seneca’s view of anger was not nearly so sanguine as his view of alcohol. His reasoning comes down to this: anger cannot be controlled over the long-term. Sooner or later, this day will come: you’ll be looking back at the previous year and you’ll be able to clearly identify two times wherein you really lost your temper and did something (or said something) that you deeply regretted the next day. The year after that you’ll be able to count five deeply regrettable incidents. And so on and so forth. Before long, you’ll be losing your temper and doing (or saying) something seriously stupid at least once a month. Eventually you’ll look back—on your increasingly sad and lonely life—and realize that you’ve lost jobs and relationships because of your nasty little temper. You’ll realize that your angry outbursts have alienated friends and family members unnecessarily. And that’s when you’ll realize that it’s time to make a change. But it’ll probably be too late for you at that point. After all, deeply entrenched behaviour patterns are not easily changed, and deeply damaged relationships are not easily repaired.
We live in a therapeutic culture that’s been extolling the virtues of venting for the better part of a century. As such, we’ve all heard a great deal about the need to express our anger and talk, at length, about things that have made us angry in the past. All of this is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind that was popularized during the Industrial Revolution, a model that still relies heavily—perhaps unsurprisingly—upon steam-engine metaphors (e.g., pressure build-up, the importance of pressure-release valves, etc.). But since we’re dealing here with the received wisdom of our age, this underlying rationale is rarely made manifest, nor is it subjected to serious scrutiny. Most of us simply assume that venting is good for us. What’s more, we assume that its benefits have been proven (somewhere) and backed-up by solid research. In fact, the rationale for venting is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind which researchers disproved and discarded decades ago. The model that’s replaced it is strikingly similar to the one advanced by Seneca two thousand years ago.
Getting angry isn’t really like releasing the built-up pressure in a steam engine; it’s far more like exercising a muscle group. Every time you give in to the desire to lose it, you strengthen your “anger muscles”; every time you resist the urge, you weaken them. You don’t have to teach a toddler how to have a temper tantrum. That seems to come quite naturally to them. We do, however, have to teach them how to resist the urge to succumb to a temper tantrum. But how are we to do this when our so-called experts keep telling us that resistance of this kind is somehow pathological? Anger is a regular part of the human experience. No doubt about that. But it’s also dangerous, and, it seems, habit forming. As such, perhaps it’s time to stop preaching the gospel of expression, and revisit the much-maligned virtues of repression.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
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