Anger is a vice that seems to be on the increase, with the country splitting at the seams of religion, class, race, party, and ideology. Pat Buchanan refers to this as the “balkanization” of America. At the opposite moral extreme is the vice of a certain pacifist or soft person, who would rule out all anger as wrong.
In order to situate anger in man, let us for a moment consider man a little. Man has twenty-six faculties, or powers. In common with plant life, we have the powers of growth, assimilation, and reproduction. We further possess powers in common with the brute animals: locomotion; the five external senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch); the four internal senses (sense memory, imagination, the cogitative sense, and the so-called common sense [sensus communis], which is not the same as the “common sense” of everyday parlance); and the eleven passions (more on these in a bit). That makes twenty four.
Over and above are those two faculties that make us human — that put us in the image of God: intellect and will.
If — per impossibile — we could “lobotomize” the soul and remove intellect and will from a man’s makeup, he would cease to be a person. Not only would he cease to be human; he would not be a person at all, but a brute animal. Moreover, he would be a fairly unimpressive higher primate, for our powers of sense and instinct are inferior to those of many animals that are beneath us. We were made to know truth, to think, and to seek wisdom, which is ultimately achieved in the Vision of the Trinity in Heaven. Accordingly, it is those higher faculties by which we reason, and by which we cleave to the known good, that make us human. These, and not some merely material principle, are the parts of our makeup that differentiate us from the brute beasts. Without them, we could not see God in Beatitude.
Those lower parts — the emotions, the senses, and bodily powers — make for good servants when they are under the rule of reason. They are supernaturally good servants when they are ruled by a reason enlightened by grace. But while they must ever be ennobled by being put to good use, they must never be promoted to the top of the hierarchy, for they are very poor masters.
What happens when they rule instead of being ruled?
Someone ruled by his passions (also called emotions and appetites) is often easily spotted, but sometimes not. Whenever reason takes a back seat to the passions — love, hate, desire, aversion, joy, sorrow, hope, despair, daring, fear, or anger — we weaken ourselves and we sin. If not controlled by reason as its master, these passions will become disordered, whether by love of food and drink (gluttony, drunkenness), hatred of our brothers, desire for illicit pleasures, aversion to duty, joy in others’ misfortune, sorrow at the loss of some illicit pleasure, etc. There is no passion that cannot be a cause of sin. On the other hand — and here is the good news — there is no passion that cannot be disciplined and used to our advantage in the great work of glorifying God by holiness in this life and salvation in the next.
Anger is one of those eleven passions. Specifically, it is one of the five “irascible” passions (hope, despair, daring, fear, and anger), which are all directed toward the perceived good and away from its opposite (evil) under the aspect of difficulty. As a passion or emotion, anger is what is experienced in the presence of an evil we have struggled against unsuccessfully. It is not mere sadness or pain (which are among the six “concupiscible” passions), but is an emotion involving struggle. Since ira is the Latin word for anger, this passion actually gives its name to the irascible passions.
Anger also fits into the catalog of the seven deadly sins: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. In this list, it is undoubtedly always a bad thing.
Yet, anger is something that can be used virtuously. Saint John Chrysostom says in this regard: “He who is not angry when he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is a hotbed of many vices” (Homily 11). Saint Thomas Aquinas agrees in saying: “Consequently, lack of the passion of anger is also a vice, [for it is] a lack of movement in the will directed to punishment by the judgment of reason” (ST, II, IIae 1Q. 58, A. 8). If we are not angered by the triumph of evil, then we do not sufficiently love the good.
On the other hand, if we allow anger to consume us, we are beset with a disorderly love of self, love of our comfort, love of the goods of this world, or some other false love.
If someone cuts you off in traffic, that is no doubt evocative of anger; but it would be sinful and vicious to engage in a retaliatory act of “road rage.” If, on the other hand, someone is assaulting your wife and children, anger must be properly channeled to stopping the injustice and threat to those for whose safety you are answerable. (No, this is not a time to practice heroic meekness!) The use of force — at times, lethal force — is appropriate in such situations. It can even be supernaturally meritorious if it is done in the state of grace.
Jesus cleansing the temple is a perfect example of the passion of anger being properly directed into a holy action. Christians are are not pacifists. Jesus externally manifested His anger in a righteous way. We cannot be “better than Jesus.”
While anger is not a virtue, the proper direction of the passion of anger can be an act of one of the moral virtues, e.g., zeal, which was specifically named by the Apostles in connection with Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple (cf. John 2:17, Psalms 68:10). Another virtue that could be evoked by the passion of anger is courage (also called bravery or fortitude).
The virtue of meekness is the virtue that properly moderates the passion of anger and prevents it from becoming the vice (or deadly sin) of anger. The man who practices Christian chivalry and the lady who practices feminine virtue will moderate anger and channel it into virtue. They will work to cultivate this virtue of meekness, yet they will not practice the false meekness that prevents us from acting with zeal or even righteous indignation when that is called for. Far from detracting from just anger, meekness will strip it of all its imperfections and make it truly good.
In relation to the contrast between good and evil anger, here is a practical rule of thumb: The utmost in virtue would be manifested in one who fought with great courage and zeal for the glory of God and the things that pertain to goodness and virtue (even natural virtue), while at the same time practicing lamb-like meekness in the face of personal attacks against himself. Not an easy rule to follow, as I well know, but then, this sanctity thing is not for cowards who back away from difficulties, is it?