Martha Nussbaum thinks we shouldn't lose our tempers. Good luck with thatby Julian Baggini / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
When a philosopher writes a book with five abstract nouns in a six-word title, you might justly fear a laboured tome of desiccating logical analysis. When the author is Martha Nussbaum, however, you can be reassured. Nussbaum is one of the most productive and insightful thinkers of her generation, though strangely undervalued in the UK. She combines a philosopher’s demand for conceptual clarity and rigorous thinking with a novelist’s interest in narrative, art and literature. The result is an impressive body of work spanning the overlapping territories of politics, ethics and the emotions.
Her latest work examines the significance of anger and forgiveness in the intimate and political spheres, as well as in the “middle realm” between them in which we interact with each other as colleagues, acquaintances and fellow citizens. It belongs to a genre entirely of its own, a kind of highbrow political-, social- and self-improvement.
Its core thesis is summed up in her opening discussion of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. In its final part, The Eumenides, Athena brings the bloody cycle of vengeance to an end by establishing a court, judge and jury. This allows reasoned law to take the place of the Furies, the ancient goddesses of revenge, who are nonetheless invited to take their place in the city. Nussbaum says that many understand the play “to be a recognition that the legal system must incorporate the dark vindictive passions and honour them.” However, when the Furies accept Athena’s offer they do so with “a gentle temper” and change their name to the “Kindly Ones” (Eumenides). Anger and revenge are not reintegrated, they are transformed.
The Oresteia illustrates how, for Nussbaum, “anger is always normatively problematic.” It entails “not only the idea of a serious wrong done to someone or something of significance, but also the idea that it would be a good thing if the wrongdoer suffered some bad consequences somehow.” As Bishop Butler put it, “No other principle, or passion, hath for its end the misery of our fellow creatures.”
Nussbaum has much of human history and culture on her side. Sages such as Buddhist bodhisattvas are portrayed as calm and self-contained. Roman and Greek Gods do fly into tempers but these deities are not ideals, “just flawed human beings with outsized powers.” Anger, claims Nussbaum, is only elevated in the Judeo-Christian tradition where the wrath of God is righteous. Anger is often defended in three ways. First, it is necessary for dignity and self- respect: without it the meek are left silenced and humiliated. Second, if you are not angry at wrongdoers you do not take them seriously, but treat them like helpless children without responsibility. Third, anger is an important motivation to combat injustice.
Nussbaum rejects all three theses. In the political realm, she takes Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela as examples to show how there can be strength, dignity and powerful opposition to injustice without anger. The speeches of King in particular may have been impassioned, but they lacked the characteristic wish of true anger that “the wrongdoer suffer some bad consequences somehow,” in one of two ways. The first she calls the “road of payback,” a kind of misguided magical thinking that “the suffering of the wrongdoer somehow restores, or contributes to restoring, the important thing that was damaged.” The second is the “road of status,” which aims to reverse the debasement of self caused by an injustice by bringing down the perpetrator even more. This makes a “narcissistic error” in that “it converts all injuries into problems of relative position” and so places too much importance on status.
“When a parent is angry at a naughty child there is often no wish for punishment, only that they realise how serious their behaviour was”
But does all anger fit this taxonomy? It would seem not. When a parent is angry at a naughty child there is often no wish for the child to be punished, only an overwhelming desire that they realise how serious their bad behaviour was. The same is often true with anger at adults. I can take negative reviews sanguinely, for example, but when a writer egregiously misrepresents what I have said, I get livid. In part, my anger isn’t directed at the irresponsible reviewer, merely at the fact that falsehoods about me are now in circulation. To the extent that my anger is personal, its main goal is that they acknowledge the wrong and if possible set the record straight. This doesn’t require any magical thinking that the cosmos can be set right.
Nussbaum does allow for what she calls “transition anger,” which she captures in the somewhat anaemic thought: “How outrageous. Something should be done about that.” This also acts as both a signal of the seriousness of the offence and as a deterrent to its recurrence. She is unconcerned as to whether we call this a species of genuine anger and in a sense she is right. Too much political and ethical philosophy gets bogged down trying to demarcate precisely the contested edges of concepts. However, it does appear to be an acknowledgement that anger comes in more varieties than the ones she rejects.
It is one thing to oppose a violent, negative emotion like anger, quite another to criticise a calm, positive act like forgiveness. But for Nussbaum, forgiveness is not meek and mild. Rather, it is intimately connected with anger. In its paradigmatic form, forgiveness is transactional, meaning that someone first has to show their repentance and apologise before the pardon is given in return. “Far from being an antidote to anger,” argues Nussbaum, forgiveness of this sort “looks like a continuation of anger’s payback by another name.” The offender is forced to pay the price of humiliation through confession, giving someone else the power of absolution over them.
Unconditional forgiveness, in which repentance is not required, is not much better. It too sometimes “channels the wish for payback,” following revenge’s road of status by elevating the pardoner to the moral high ground. It is perhaps telling that Christianity often “juxtaposes an ethic of forgiveness with an ethic of spectacular retribution.” Nussbaum points to a fascinating passage in Paul’s “Twelfth Letter to the Romans” which makes this link explicit. Paul advises against revenge, not because it is wrong, but because we should “leave it to the wrath of God.” You should treat your enemy kindly, not to reward him, but to compound his punishment. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Even if we don’t buy Nussbaum’s argument that forgiveness harbours a concealed anger, she gives us other reasons to avoid it. Perhaps the strongest is simply that it “remains backward-looking and not transitional.” This is why she is suspicious of a certain therapeutic model in which emotions like grief and anger have to be “dealt with” before people can move on. On the contrary, “if anything it is the therapeutic insistence on accessing buried anger that keeps it fixed and immovable, like a stone.” True, although it should be said that not all therapists share the psychoanalyst’s preoccupation with digging up the past.
Intriguingly, the Bible provides a vivid example of the compassionate alternative to forgiveness. We tend to think of the prodigal son as a parable of forgiveness, but as Nussbaum points out, the father never says a word about forgiveness and prepares to celebrate his child’s return as soon as he spies him from a distance, before knowing if he has repented. Borrowing a phrase from her former teacher Bernard Williams, Nussbaum suggests that here, as elsewhere, forgiveness is “one thought too many.” We ought simply to move on rather than to pause to grant absolution, as though those who have wronged us require us to release them from a karmic grip.
Nussbaum also presents South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an example of a constructive alternative to forgiveness, a term Archbishop Desmond Tutu used but Mandela never did. In fact, all that people were asked to do in Commission hearings was to acknowledge what they had done. The Commission dispensed with the “apparatus of abasement, confession, contrition and eventual forgiveness” that “often impedes reconciliation by producing humiliation rather than mutual respect.”
Much as she is right to praise the Commission, saying “our institutions should model our best selves, not our worst,” most close observers are more open about its limitations. Many believe the Commission robbed them of justice, among them the family of the murdered anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko, who criticised “the pile of half-truths, lies and amnesia” of the Commission hearings. Surveys in South Africa today suggest that most of its citizens do not believe it achieved reconciliation between black and white communities. As the writer Gillian Slovo, whose activist mother Ruth First was killed by a parcel bomb in 1982, put it, there was a “political transformation of power without a social transformation.” Containing anger and the desire for payback came at a price.
“Seneca wrote against anger, but this didn’t stop being given a bad seat or someone speaking ill of his talent from vexing him”
Slovo’s writing on the Commission illustrates how “negative” emotions can play a positive role. “Personally, if anything, it increased my feelings of hatred,” she wrote, because she had to confront the people behind what she previously had thought of as a purely political act. For Slovo, “the reconciliation that I experienced was with what happened, not with the perpetrators.”
This shows how it is more difficult to disentangle the good and bad of complex human reactions than even Nussbaum allows. For instance, she is critical of victim impact statements, saying the process “simply serves to whip up retributive emotion” with the aim of “getting a harsher criminal sentence for the wrongdoer.” This is certainly not true of the statements made by families of victims of the Charleston church shootings last year. They spoke of forgiveness, not retribution; love not hate. “Everyone’s plea for your soul,” said one, “is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love.”
The most questionable aspect of this book concerns its promise that by understanding why anger and forgiveness are misguided we can in some ways make ourselves and the world better. Nussbaum is clear such improvement can only be limited, candidly admitting that she is “far from non-angry” particularly with “irritating strangers.” She admits to still seething two weeks after a doctor unilaterally decided to help her lift her baggage.
Nussbuam says that “clearly I should work harder” but we are given little evidence to believe the effort will work. Seneca, the Stoic who wrote against anger, examined his conduct nightly because he thought, “a person will cease from anger and be moderate if he knows that every day he has to come before himself as a judge.” But like Nussbaum, this didn’t stop trivialities such as being given a bad seat or someone speaking ill of his talent continuing to vex him. Inner transformation seems less effective than the advice to a friend “to surround himself with people who are not irritating.”
For all her disdain of status anxiety, Nussbaum also seems to still be in the grip of it, needlessly dropping into an anecdote that she has delivered the prestigious Locke Lectures. She dedicates the book to Bernard Williams and their sometimes troubled history was deeply connected with Nussbaum’s status issues. In his obituary she confessed, “For some years, albeit not right at the start, I have wanted to dislodge these feelings of passionate inferiority, to establish some basis of equality, proving that I had something that was just as good as that jet-pilot velocity.”
But the most astonishing way in which Nussbaum undermines the virtuousness of her position comes when she offers a series of four real-life examples of how to deal with anger. For this she creates a fictional alter ego named Louise “to provide an additional layer of fictionality and a fig leaf of protection for the other people who are represented as fictional characters here.” This conceals nothing, as she as good as tells us. Remarkably, she then tells a story against one of Louise’s Nobel Prize-winning colleagues who spoke at a panel “inaugurating a new research centre Louise’s university was opening in a developing country.” People in Nussbaum’s professional circle will know who is behind the leaf instantly and I could find out very quickly with a Google search. She talks of his “characteristic delay tactics” and “infantile narcissism” and says she tells herself “if you really have to work with him, treat him like a selfish genius two-year-old.”
Coming after pages arguing against narcissism, revenge and putting others down, this is breathtaking. If the alternative to the dynamic of anger and forgiveness is this kind of cold and calculating character assassination, then I for one would rather take my chances with rage.