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Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins

Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins

Bradley Doucet

9 Mins
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September 8, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Robert A. F. Thurman, Anger: The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 168 pages (paperback), $9.95.

Robert Thurman has always had a problem with his temper, he tells us in Anger, the fifth in a series of books about the seven deadly sins, each by a different author, published by The New York Public Library and Oxford University Press between 2003 and 2006, and all newly available in paperback as of late 2006. A former Tibetan Buddhist monk, the author of several books, and a Columbia University professor, Thurman writes, “I am still imperfect in my patience and self-restraint, though I have experienced enough improvement to feel grateful to the tradition I am still learning, and to feel confident intellectually that the insights are sound and the methods effective.”

Thurman wants to help his readers achieve greater patience and self-restraint, too. He prescribes the use of “a new level of introspective insight and self-mastery to break the chain of descent of inherited personal, family, and cultural violence of mind, speech, and body.” According to Thurman, we must free ourselves from bondage to anger if the world is ever to establish lasting peace.

He begins by sketching out two extreme views of anger, between which he hopes to trace a more moderate view. The first view is that there is not really anything to be done about anger. It is either God-given or hardwired into our brains, so there is no getting around it. In any case, we wouldn’t want to, since “[w]e need anger to right wrongs, overturn social evils, revolt against oppression. Anger is only deadly, sinful, or bad when it is unfair, excessive, or self-destructive.” The second view is that anger can and should be eradicated, for it is always destructive and never justified.

Thurman agrees that the “fire of anger” can be entirely eliminated but worries about the total detachment from the world implied by this second extreme view. He asks, “Is there not a good use for fire, no longer bound up with anger, to warm, to illuminate, to burn away the suffering of others?” His goal is to convince us to conquer anger but reclaim the fire. “We will wield that fire with wisdom and turn it to creative ends,” he declares.

In pursuing this goal, however, Thurman has written a book that is equal parts sensible advice and mystical mumbo jumbo. For those who can sift through the mysticism, there is much good to be found, but finding it is not easy. For example, to stress the urgency of his project, Thurman claims that modern Western culture is angrier, more violent, and more militaristic than any other culture in the history of the world. But, as we shall see, it is a claim not supported by the facts.

IS ANGER USEFUL?

There was a time when we were all on guard against anger for religious reasons. In the West, many of us feared we would quite literally go to hell if we held anger in our hearts, whereas in the East, where many believe in reincarnation, anger was thought to lead to hellish future lives. Today, though many of us still say we believe in some kind of life after death, we are more likely to be concerned about the negative consequences of anger on our relationships and health.

Certainly, secularists (whom Thurman is convinced are undercounted in polls) seek only to manage anger, and women especially seek to reclaim it in order to empower themselves. He writes, “Secularists have no fear of unpleasant future existences, they are determined to improve things here and now, and they see anger as a powerful energy to be employed in that enterprise, eliminating the obstacles to clear and present happiness.” (Interestingly, Thurman points out that the religious in Western cultures also have an excuse for anger: God exhibits anger; men are made in God’s image; and “it would be the sin of pride to think they could alter their own nature.”)

But if anger is not sinful, is it useful? Thurman tells us that, according to Aristotle, anger can be good because it “can banish fear and give persons confidence to deal with what they perceive as a threat, when otherwise they might be paralyzed with fear.” Better to be angry with an attacker or oppressor if that anger moves us to resist rather than be fearful and let the attack or oppression continue unopposed. Angry people even sometimes feel they must be that much angrier to make up for the complacency of others. The idea is that without any anger at all, injustice would go unchecked.

Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, rejects Aristotle’s use for anger in banishing fear. According to Thurman, Seneca argues that “anger can never serve as the tool of reason and so be applied to useful ends effectively, since its nature is to take over reason, and so ignore all calls for moderation.” What about situations that might give rise to righteous indignation—when our loved ones are murdered or our country is attacked, for instance? Thurman writes:

    Seneca argued like a Buddhist that in all these cases, prosecution, defense, prevention and punishment are all better served without getting angry, that anger always makes it harder to get things right. What is [sic] needed in these situations are courage, justice, endurance, and wisdom; such virtues have no need of borrowing their strength from vicious emotions such as anger.

It is true that in anger, we can wish to extract vengeance without regard for our own good and potentially set in motion a terrible, negative-sum game in which fighting and destruction escalate with no end in sight. Instead, it makes sense to punish without anger, ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. By doing so, we neither allow the injuries to continue unchecked nor enter into a vicious cycle of revenge, and we are able to douse rather than feed the flames.

Maybe anger does get things done and is thus better than fear or complacency. But at the very least, it causes harm as often as it rights wrongs. And if it “makes it harder to get things right,” surely there must be a solution that is even better than anger.

TAMING THE FIRE

Buddhism considers anger an “emotional addiction” rather than a sin. Perhaps the most persuasive argument for overcoming this addiction is that it harms the self—not just indirectly through the cycle of violence it begets, but also directly, internally. Thurman writes, “When one has been injured by something or someone, the anger one feels is a second injury from within; it is another wound in itself.” Being angry can suck the joy out of anything, from good food to pleasant company to breathtaking vistas. “When really angry, you cannot even fall asleep, your mind goes over the injury again and again, and plots how to retaliate in kind or worse.”

This is compelling, appealing as it does to our self-interest. If we have a limited amount of time in this life, do we want to waste any of it being angry if anger so thoroughly wipes out joy? And it gets worse: “Anger is like fire—it burns you, and it burns others. You cannot be happy when others are closed off to you, which they will be if they perceive you as harmful and wounding, as you always are when you are angry.” Anger drives people away, and not just those who irritate or injure us.

Thurman is optimistic that we can master our own emotions. “You can understand your drives, see where they come from, block the source, and divert the energy for your own use. You can resist all imperatives and learn to wield the underlying energies. You can reclaim those energies for your life, for your happiness, and the happiness of your loved ones.”

The trick is to intervene before losing control, either by dealing with the outer situation or by dealing with your internal reaction to it. “If you act outwardly, you can be energetic, even aggressive (since anger is not merely aggression but rather an extreme kind of aggression), to make what you want happen or to prevent what you don’t want from happening.” This active but reasonable engagement will be much more effective than losing control and overreacting with anger.

Of course, there are times when one cannot change the outer situation. In these cases, one must intervene internally. Thurman lists a few strategies for doing this, from counting our blessings, to looking for ways to use the frustrating situation to our advantage, to seeing it as an opportunity to develop tolerance and strength, to viewing the situation from another perspective. “Minimally, you realize that letting yourself get all freaked out is not going to improve the situation but simply add to your unhappiness—add an inner pain to an outer one.”

TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK

Would that Thurman had left it at that, maybe just elaborating a little further on this sensible advice. As it is, he dilutes the value of what he has to offer by mixing it with obscurantist Buddhist mysticism like the following: “Once wisdom has released you from the self-absolutizing delusion, the energy of solidification of subject and object becomes relativized and can be wielded creatively, and delusion itself becomes the ‘mirroring wisdom,’ diamond white, the element earth, and the process of materiality.” Say what?

This might seem like harmless distraction, but it is much more than that. Thurman’s belief in such things as reincarnation and the “oneness” of all life leads him to supplement his sensible recommendations with other, far less salutary advice.

Thurman writes that once we realize how harmful anger is, once we are free from “all dualities such as self and other,” then we are ready to “learn to tolerate injury” instead of seeking justice. In addition, “you can love not only your friends but also and equally your enemies, wanting them all to be as happy as you.”

This advice is not only unrealistic but also imprudent. Under certain circumstances, we might properly elect to tolerate an injury, in a strategic, choose-your-battles kind of way. A blanket policy of tolerating injury, however, only encourages further injury. This is bad for us and also bad all around; allowing people to wrong us with impunity does not help them learn the error of their ways. Rather, forcing them to take responsibility for the injuries they cause helps them choose a better path in the future.

As for loving our enemies as much as our friends, this would be an insult to our friends. It would also devalue the meaning of the word “love.” It is good, I think, to be concerned for our fellow humans who have chosen to walk a destructive path, and to wish that they would be happier with life and with themselves so that they wouldn’t lash out at others. But love, as opposed to mere concern, is a response to values. A healthy person cannot properly love a thief or a thug given their chosen actions.

Thurman is not done trying to convince us, though. When we become angry with someone, he writes, we often attribute a malevolent intention to that other person. It is true that we may be mistaken about this—we are not mind readers, after all—but we may be surprised to hear from Thurman that we are in fact mistaken in assigning to the target of our anger any independent agency at all. He writes that, when you look more closely, “you can quickly see how the enemy is simply an automaton like the earth or a river, his behavior is driven by unconscious impulses and attitudes, just like your own. He has no independence of will at all, but is a helpless victim of his inner drives, just like you.”

While it may be true that, in the throes of anger, we can lose control, does that mean free will is nonexistent or that we should not be held responsible for losing control in the first place? Someone who chooses to drink to excess, then gets behind the wheel of a car and kills someone, is clearly out of control. But just as clearly he is responsible for having lost control. One does not need to intend harm to be responsible for causing harm.

Every single day, in those times when we are not filled with rage (for no one is angry 24/7), we make choices, and among those choices are whether or not to acknowledge that we have anger issues and whether or not to deal with them and cultivate some self-discipline. In fact, acknowledging and dealing with our anger is just what Thurman would have us do. He can’t have it both ways, though: If we have the ability to control our anger, then we are, all of us, responsible if we don’t.

But when things catch fire, Thurman tells us, we focus our attention on putting it out, not wasting time and energy getting angry at the fire. (This image reminded me of a cousin’s two-year-old daughter who, when being buffeted around on a blustery day, turned on the wind and yelled, “Stop pushing me!”) Similarly, according to Thurman, “you need not bother to get angry with the unenlightened when they harm you.”

But since—despite what Thurman writes—the unenlightened do have agency, we may in fact be entirely justified in getting angry with them. He might still have a case, though, if our anger, however justified, only redoubles the harm and serves no useful purpose. It might make sense from an anger-management point of view to temporarily treat our attackers as if they have no agency, as if they are as causeless as the wind. Then, once the “fire” has been put out, we can assess with a cool head what to do about those attackers—and the fact of their agency can be reintroduced at this time.

SEEK SUFFERING?

Another strange belief of Thurman’s is that because there are more causes of suffering than causes of pleasure in the world, “the only way you can begin to find a more abundant happiness is to discover a way to employ the usual causes of suffering and turn them into causes of happiness.” In fact, he says, if you want to be reliably happy, you should renounce superficial pleasures and instead “seek suffering to strengthen your enduring patience, your power of tolerance, which leads to freedom, which makes happiness possible.”

Again, Thurman goes too far. Though we do not want to be ruled by superficial pleasures, must we actively avoid them? And though we do want to face necessary suffering with courage and endurance, must we seek out more suffering than will naturally come our way?

To use a sports analogy, it is true that training for endurance running does involve some suffering, so a runner is seeking out suffering, in a sense. This shows us that it is at least important not to avoid suffering in the pursuit of our life goals. It is a common and grave mistake to substitute the avoidance of suffering for the pursuit of happiness. Instead of seeking suffering, though, better to seek our goals and use whatever suffering we encounter along the way to train our endurance. Instead of avoiding superficial pleasures, better to use them wisely, in moderation, as moments of respite and well-earned reward.

ANGRIER THAN EVER?

The fact that Thurman’s advice goes overboard is directly related to the mystical mumbo jumbo that peppers his book, which is why it is important not to read it simply as poetic window dressing. He goes so far as to suggest that we are in fact responsible for all harm that comes to us, for even if we think we are innocent, we have surely caused harm in past lives. And anyway, we should thank our enemies—even the Tibetans should thank Mao and his successors—for the opportunity to practice and develop patience!

It is worth examining how realistic Thurman’s goal is on a societal level. Like socialists who think life would be great if we could just eliminate greed, Buddhists (who also dislike greed, incidentally) think we need to eliminate anger. Some toned-down variant of this might be a worthwhile personal goal, a component of a happy life, but is it realistic as a solution to society’s woes? Might it not be better to find ways of working around anger’s worst effects?

Due process is one way we have invented for nipping the cycle of vengeance in the bud when it comes to individual injuries. On a larger scale, what we need is to supplant the negative-sum dynamics of war with positive-sum dynamics. Free markets allow for the voluntary exchange of goods and services to the mutual benefit of all involved. They also provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, and they encourage tolerance and cooperation by demonstrating that we all need the same things and actually help each other while helping ourselves. We need to keep striving to include all nations in our system of global trade, for the more interlinked we are by commercial ties, the more costly it becomes to wage war against one another.

Thurman is wrong to think that modern Western culture “is, in fact, the most angry yet, in the sense of most violent and militaristic culture yet apparent on this planet.” America may have the largest military budget in the history of the world, and we may rightly ask if this money is all well spent or if specific efforts like the Iraq War have done more harm than good. But by and large, America keeps the peace rather than disturbs it. America (and modern Western culture more generally) is far less militaristic than Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Red China, or Imperial Japan, and far less violent than Ancient Rome, for instance.

In “A History of Violence,” published in The New Republic on March 19, 2007 (online at http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/163), prominent Harvard University psychologist and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker thoroughly debunks the view that we moderns are becoming ever more violent. Though we did admittedly reach a peak in the first half of the twentieth century, Pinker informs us that “the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade.”

A closer look at Pinker’s source here, the Human Security Brief 2006, shows that this statistic is per interstate conflict; as the number of such conflicts is also decreasing, the downward trend is actually even steeper, if the total numbers are somewhat less impressive. Furthermore, it is also worth noting that all types of state conflicts show similar overall downward trends (including intrastate conflicts like the Iraq War). While terrorism, in contrast, has been trending upward in the last few years, it still accounts for only 4 percent as many deaths as do state conflicts, so the overall picture is still positive.

Taking a longer view, Pinker tells us, “If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die [sic] in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.” Our societies have also become far less violent internally over the long run, especially in the West. Murder rates have fallen sharply, “from 24 homicides per 100,000 Englishmen in the fourteenth century to 0.6 per 100,000 by the early 1960s.”

So why is Thurman so far off the mark here? And why are most of us shocked to learn the truth about trends in violence? Pinker’s answer deserves to be quoted at length:

    Partly, it’s because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. Partly, it’s an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it’s the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead.

Pinker notes that this is not necessarily “grounds for optimism about the immediate future, since the world has never before had national leaders who combine pre-modern sensibilities with modern weapons.” But this rightly situates the blame to where it belongs: squarely on the shoulders of those who have “pre-modern sensibilities.”

All in all, Thurman’s general aim is a good one, and he does have some helpful insights. It would be great to transform anger into “joyous heroic energy” and become a “self-fulfilled, ecstatic, blissful, perfectly self-satisfied being.” Renouncing the separateness of self, however, is not the best way to become self-fulfilled and self-satisfied. And while we can improve when it comes to conquering our anger and putting that fire to better use, we should stop maligning our modern Western culture that has already accomplished much in that direction.