It has taken me far too long to read Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice – long enough that, in characteristic Nussbaum fashion, she has already authored or coauthored at least three more books since it came out. I say this is too long because Nussbaum’s views on anger were a topic important to my dissertation, which Nussbaum read and thought highly of while she was at Harvard. (The footnotes of Anger and Forgiveness make a couple offhand references to Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra, and I strongly suspect that it was through my diss that she learned about the text.) And what is most striking to me when I read the book now is that Nussbaum’s views on anger have taken a startling turn in this book – one that brings them much closer to Śāntideva’s.
Nussbaum’s previous discussions of anger took greatest length in The Therapy of Desire, twenty-five years old now. There, she considered the arguments against anger that the Roman Stoic Seneca makes in his De Ira, a letter to Seneca’s son Novatus, and rejected them. I summed up her response in my dissertation:
She wonders whether a Stoic could really respond to serious wrongdoing, like that of the Nazis. She recounts how a young Elie Wiesel, in a Nazi death camp, saw the first Allied liberator enter the camp, a large American officer who cursed and shouted in anger at what he saw. “And the child Wiesel thought, watching him, now humanity has come back. Now, with that anger, humanity has come back.” (Therapy 403) But how, she asks, would a Stoic soldier respond? “If a true Stoic, he will think that none of this matters very much anyhow, that such evils are bound to come about in human life, that it’s all what one should expect. This being the case, it’s not worth his while to get very upset about it and cry out.” (Therapy 416; dissertation pp252-3)
Seneca, like Śāntideva, says that one should strive to prevent wrongdoing at least in part for the wrongdoer’s sake: his analogy is to a doctor, curing wrongdoers as one cures a patient. That desire to heal, and not anger, is the appropriate response to wrongdoing, even of the most serious kind. The Nussbaum of Therapy says in response:
Are these, however, the motives we, with Novatus, would wish in a person whose father has been murdered, whose mother has been raped? Don’t we want a response that acknowledges the importance of their death and suffering, that wants the punishment of the offender just because it has caused that pain and suffering? Don’t we want, in Wiesel’s case, the response the American soldier actually had, when he burst out against the horrors he saw, without for a moment thinking of how or whether Hitler’s life might be improved, without allowing any thought for the reform of Germans to deflect him from the suffering of their victims? (Therapy 417)
I noted that Śāntideva would say in response to these rhetorical questions: yes, that angry response is indeed what we want, we human beings, and we are wrong. That desire for an angry response is one more of the kinds of desires that ends us in suffering.
And the Nussbaum of Anger seems to have come around in many ways to Śāntideva’s view. She now poses new rhetorical questions that she answers quite differently, with respect to a character in a Philip Roth novel:
we like him better because he becomes briefly angry. Had he preserved his cool, we might have thought the less of hm. Mightn’t a totally non-angry response have been not quite fully human—as if the pose of being a WASP, penetrating to his very core at last, had deprived him of some part of his humanity? So is it better, given that we are all human, that we do become briefly angry, when seriously provoked, before heading for the Transition? The payback wish is futile and senseless, and isn’t there something weird and not quite human about rising entirely above it, in intimate realtionships? I find this question troubling. On the whole, I think the answer is “no.” Grief and love are enough vulnerability to establish one’s human credentials. (Anger 105)
What has changed, that Nussbaum no longer thinks anger is needed to say “humanity has come back”, but grief and love are enough? Many things, I think, but a key part of it is the nuance that she develops in the just-mentioned concept of “the Transition” – a concept, and a nuance, that I think Śāntideva doesn’t have. She explains the Transition as follows:
Most average people get angry. But often, noting the normative irrationality of anger, particularly in its payback mode, a reasonable person shifts off the terrain of anger toward more productive forward-looking thoughts, asking what can actually be done to increase either personal or social welfare. (Anger 6)
The Transition can be accompanied by “Transition-Anger”, “whose entire content is: ‘How outrageous. Something should be done about that.'” Nussbaum finds this Transition-Anger beneficial, but laments that it is rarely found “in that pure form”, far too often contaminated by the more common wish for payback, the wish to wrong the wrongdoer.
I think Nussbaum is really on to something with this idea of the Transition and Transition-Anger – enough that I suspect her new position in this new book is superior, not only to her old position, but to Śāntideva’s as well. Because I think this idea preserves that which is valuable in anger. I have been angry an immeasurable number of times in my own life. When I look back on them, just about the only times I feel confidently glad I got angry where those times when that anger expressed a new realization: when I had been mistreated or putting up with an unjust situation, and only in that angry moment realizing what was wrong with the situation. Anger can tell us that something is wrong here, and that is a valuable function it serves. Śāntideva doesn’t acknowledge this function that anger can serve – in large part, I think, because justice just isn’t something he’s concerned with, and I do disagree with him on that. But even in those situations where anger told me something was wrong, my anger often lasted far longer than was necessary to tell me that, and continued in ways that either lashed out at targets or ate away at me inside. Anger is a dangerous tiger to ride, a snake it is easy to grasp wrongly, in ways that Śāntideva – and now, it appears, Nussbaum – is rightly aware of.