The Angry Boy in the Vigiland Park in Oslo, Norway
When Nussbaum starts to discuss anger she says “that the idea of payback or retribution ... is a conceptual part of anger. ... Either anger focuses on some significant injury, such as murder or a rape or it focuses only on the significance of the wrongful act for the victim’s relative status” (p. 15). Montaigne’s view on anger is very different. For him other aspects are important. As he says in his essay Of Anger: “There is no passion that so much transports men from their right judgment as anger. ... We ourselves, to do well, should never lay a hand upon our servants whilst our anger lasts. When the pulse beats, and we feel emotion in ourselves, let us defer the business; things will indeed appear otherwise to us when we are calm and cool. ‘Tis passion that then commands, ‘tis passion that speaks, and not we. Faults seen through passion appear much greater to us than they really are ...”
When we put these quotations next to each other, the differences between the two authors become clear. For Nussbaum anger is an emotion that leads to a wish for revenge. Moreover, anger happens always because you are seriously hurt, not because of an act that is actually not very significant. She talks explicitly about murder and rape – in the quotation and elsewhere in her book –. Nussbaum argues then that revenge makes no sense for reasons she explains, even though – which is implicit in her argumentation – the eye you wish for an eye or the tooth you wish for the tooth taken from you might have equal values. For Montaigne, on the other hand, it’s no problem to punish a person who has done something to you but for him punishment is not a kind of revenge but it is what it is, namely punishment in the actual sense. It’s a way to correct the perpetrator, or a penalty for what has been done, and not a kind of compensation; or it is a warning for other possible perpetrators. The problem is, however, that your judgment is disturbed just because you are angry: Anger leads to a false judgment. Therefore Montaigne’s advice is: Don’t judge before you have cooled down. Only then your judgment can be reasonable and right. Moreover, as the cases discussed in his essay make clear, usually anger is aroused by minor things, for instance because a servant didn’t do what you had ordered him to do or because someone was rude or disrespectful.
If we compare then how Nussbaum analyses anger and its consequences and how Montaigne looks at it, we can conclude that Nussbaum has an interesting view, but that she actually considers only a part of the idea. For isn’t it so that at most times that we are angry it is not for very significant reasons but for the daily annoyances, rude acts, mistakes and stupidities done to us (or so we think)? Often we explode with fury because of only little affairs, even when we don’t want to, for, as Montaigne says, it’s not we that hold it, but anger holds us.
Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Michel de Montaigne, “Of Anger”, in Essays, Book II-31.