affectivity anger

My Problem with Angry Politicians

4:19:00 PMCatherine Yanko

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Pursed lips, chins raised high, stern voices, and derogatory commentary. The recent presidential debate was not much of a surprise to anyone who has been following modern politics for some time. Clinton criticized Donald Trump’s unreleased tax returns and business practices and Donald Trump returned the gesture with jabs at Hillary Clinton’s lack of ethical character in her now infamous e-mail scandal. As the banter flipped back and forth, Ms. Clinton’s hair remaining perfectly quaff and Donald Trump’s lips becoming more and more pursed, I couldn’t help but laugh. I went into the debate ambitiously craving political integrity (I bet that could be classified as an oxymoron to the modern ear). I left the debate with a new insight. Whenever Trump threw light onto Clinton’s lacking character or Clinton criticized Trump enterprises, the response from the receiving party was anger. Anger has become not only fitting but even virtuous to the modern person.

Where did this transformation of the value of anger begin?

Virtue has been among the top subjects of philosophical inquiry since antiquity. Engaging a critical understanding of the history of philosophy, it is very clear that the field is a male dominated one. Taking a brief survey of the social position of men, it is true that for most of history men have been in positions of leadership and, quite frankly, dominance. I am not advocating for this (I agree much more with Edith Stein that women in authority are valuable to every sphere) but I raise the point because this social position of men combined with their dominating of philosophy certainly has had its effects on the ideas everyone holds of virtue.

I think it starts with the Greek gods. Zeus, the manly man that he was, had Athena, the sex goddess, at his right hand to protect his dominion and provide judgment (1). The gods, the model exemplar for living, very much shaped the ideas of gender in their worshipers. Along the same lines, the metaphysical claims of the day also held that all women are simply a privation of man (2). So, the standard set by gods and the terrible metaphysics quickly led to the idea that women’s virtue came from being obedient to man. The Aristotelian tradition infiltrated thought with the idea that women ought to obey men because of her inability to reason discursively (3). The idea of women coming from antiquity was one of subservient dependence and they were in no way on the same level as men.

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As metaphysics developed in the medieval times (and grew relative to antiquity), philosophers began to recognize that women in fact do have a human nature, SURPRISE! She is now being understood as capable of reasoning. But, there was still some issues. Philo, an ancient philosopher, identified women with the passions, which was equated to the “inferior” parts of the soul. Men were given the capacity of higher reasoning (4). In part, the tendency to value what was male as higher in order led to a construction of the passions as lower.

This understanding of the human person quickly transfers into what we consider to be virtue. Peter Gerlach, another philosopher, says that virtue is what is needed for the fulfillment of human identity (5). Thus, if we take this androcentric view of the person as being someone who rules over the passions and others, then what is seen as virtuous quickly becomes misshapen from what is truly virtue. The way to fulfill human identity has become a path of control, as seen in instances such as the political debates. Anger allows one to control what is at hand by either manipulating one into a false compassion or overpowering another into fear through overbearing and threatening passion. Both are towards a determined end that does not allow the other to choose freely. But, in a world where we too often find fulfillment in merely solidarity with the masses, anger is employed as a tool to such end. And thus deemed virtuous since it leads to a type of fulfillment (although incredibly fake).   

Even when metaphysics started to argue that women did indeed have the same nature as man, further issues insued. Chrysippus, in De Virtute, began to argue that because man and woman have the same nature, thus their virtue is the same. This sounds great until he then concludes, “Women as well as men become wise and virtuous by living in accordance with the masculine principle of reason” (6). The movement from metaphysics to virtue was not cohesive because a male centered metaphysics was adopted to encompass females. Women were then evaluated under male standards and not truly human standards.
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This history may seem obscure or hypercritical (although deservingly), but I think it impacts our understanding of virtue. When we apply this history to Gerlach’s definition of “fulfillment of human identity”, we see that in a society where, historically men have a role of authority and were often pushed to dominate their environment, the way virtue is then perceived has a very narrow connotation. Any passion that helps manipulate and control the environment is virtuous because it allows persons to reach their highest form of virtue. Those that are receptive to one’s environment are quickly avoided. Thus, we have a modern world lacking reverence and one valuing anger for the way it motivates us to exercise domination over our environment. (In fact, there are studies done that show that anger is often displayed for the sake of manipulation.)

I bring this up not to evoke further anger against ancient philosophers as completely demeaning to women and human nature in general, but to evaluate our modern tendency to find anger virtuous. Especially in cases where we are evaluating others on the basis of their ability to lead a whole country, anger mistakenly becomes a sign of a great leader. Instead of looking for displays of anger, I advocate that we return to what Hildebrand calls “tender affectivity”. This is an affectivity of a personal and human character. A person who has this tender affectivity is able to be moved by their environment: they can rejoice in the truth and be hurt. Particularly, it is manifest in love (7). An admiration for tender affectivity allows for the fullest flourishing of man’s nature to become his aim: love. Love is replaced by domination.
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Finding this tender affectivity valuable not only allows persons to live in freedom of their human nature, but also counteracts some of the tragic philosophical errors of the past that continue to linger on. Refusing to believe anger is virtuous renews a respect for each gender as such. We can restore lived virtue to not mean one’s control and dominance but rather a true pursuit of the good.
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  1. Ibid, 427.
  2. Ibid, 234.
  3. Ibid, 67.
  4. Ibid, 11.
  5. Ibid, 163.
  6. Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart, 23.

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