What first drew me to Śāntideva was his critique of anger. I had students read him for a tutorial course on comparative ethics, and one student was shocked by his almost total criticism of anger as an emotion. “What about righteous anger?” she asked. I replied: “according to this text, I don’t think there’s any such thing as righteous anger.” The more I thought about this teaching afterward, the more profound it seemed: the number of times in my life I’d been glad I got angry, I could count on the fingers of one hand.
I would still tend to agree with Śāntideva against that criticism; I don’t see the righteousness of any cause as justifying anger. But there’s another common modern criticism of Śāntideva’s position that I think has more force. Namely: is it even possible to get rid of anger, as Śāntideva recommends we do? Don’t you just wind up repressing it, so that it comes back as a passive aggression that’s ultimately more destructive than the original anger?
This is the kind of objection we would likely associate with Freud, though one sees versions of it in Nietzsche’s attacks on morality – moral blame and criticism, for Nietzsche, is its own form of passive aggression, a less healthy outlet for anger than angry words or blows. Does their objection defeat Śāntideva?
I think it’s possible to put the two together. Śāntideva is not criticizing only the outward manifestations of anger, after all. Anger expressed in the passive-aggressive’s sighs and eyerolls is still anger, just like anger expressed in screams and fists. Anger that has been repressed hasn’t really been eradicated in the way that Śāntideva advocates.
The question remains: is it possible to genuinely eradicate anger, as opposed to merely repressing it? I suspect that the answer may be no – in the context of the hubbub of everyday life. (Śāntideva tells us to be monks, and the monk’s single-minded focus on virtue may make it a more serious possibility.) Nevertheless, I think it’s still possible to reduce anger in a way that does not repress it. Sometimes anger really does go away without resurfacing – through talking it through, through understanding its causes, through meditative introspection (all practices that Śāntideva recommends). The trick is in distinguishing the two; and that may be something you can only learn through practice.
(I don’t think Śāntideva actually says any of this, mind you, and I wish he said more; but I do think this position is compatible with what he does say.)