Monday, February 05, 2018

Anger and forgiveness

The cast receiving the applause after Hasse's opera "Siroe, Re di Persia"
Wilmink Theatre, Enschede, Netherlands, 26 January 2018

When in Johann Adolph Hasse’s opera “Siroe, Re di Persia”, the Persian King Cosroe appoints his younger son Medarse as his successor to the throne, and not his older son Siroe, a range of intrigues develop. One of the leading emotions in these intrigues is anger: Anger that the characters in the play don’t get what they want; that their victims don’t do what they should do. Siroe, the main victim, is driven to despair and cannot choose when he should have to. This makes his father Cosroe – who doesn’t understand Siroe’s doubts and feels himself betrayed by him – so angry that finally he orders to kill his son. This qua music and expression beautiful opera is more like a soap opera than a play in which characters develop. But here we see anger performed as one of the most important emotions of man. And we see its pernicious consequences: revenge and destruction, which in the end backfire on the protagonists. For which father wants to kill his son, the more so when it turns out to have been done on false grounds?
Anger has been analyzed by such outstanding philosophers as Aristotle, Seneca and Montaigne, and recently by Martha Nussbaum in her book Anger and Forgiveness. They all see a relationship between anger and revenge, or at least “payback and retribution”, as Nussbaum calls it. But as she says “the payback idea is normatively problematic, and anger, therefore, with it.” (p. 15) Before I’ll expound Nussbaum’s reasons why this is so, let’s look how she defines anger. Actually she doesn’t develop a definition of her own but she takes Aristotle’s description, which she then discusses and corrects. Here it is: Anger is “a desire accompanied by pain for an imagined retribution on account of an imagined slighting inflicted on by people who have no legitimate reason to slight oneself or one’s own” (p. 17). Essential is, I think, not only the slighting that hurts but the feeling that we are hurt. The slighting is subjective: We become angry only when we believe (rightly or wrongly) that the damage was inflicted illegitimately or wrongfully. (p. 18) And then and therefore we want to payback.
Now it can happen, so Nussbaum, that you become angry because your social status has been hurt by someone and then it may have sense to payback in order to uprank your perceived downranking. But apart from this special case, does revenge make sense? According to Nussbaum there are several objections to it. Often paying back is considered as assuaging the pain inflicted on the victim and the revenge should arouse a feeling of pleasure (cf. p. 21). However, this view is not correct, so Nussbaum, and she thinks here of cases like rape and murder in the first place, but I think that it applies to many kinds of “little” cases as well, from small crimes like theft to big crimes, from little damages in the private circle to big ones there. We don’t get our damage restored by tit-for-tat actions. By doing so we only bring damage to others, without getting compensation for the damage done to us. But let’s see what Nussbaum says. The problem is, she says, that simply hurting others doesn’t reverse what has been done to you, and from that point of view payback, revenge and retribution make no sense. “Doing something to the offender does not bring dead people back to life, heal a broken limb, or undo a sexual violation. So why do people somehow believe that it does? Or what, exactly, do they believe that makes even a little sense of their retaliatory project?” “[W]hy would someone who has been gravely wounded look forward with hope to doing something unwelcome to the offender?” (pp. 21-22) Pain done to yourself cannot be undone by doing pain to others.
However, anger is not pointless. It can have three functions. It may serve as a signal that something is amiss; it can be a motivation to do something about what is amiss; and it may be a deterrent. (pp. 37-40) But all this doesn’t imply that anger must lead to a kind of revenge. It means only that anger must be a reason to do something about what is amiss. And this is what Nussbaum sees as a very important function of anger. She has also a special name for it: Transition-Anger. Anger must not lead to revenge, but it must be a reason to restore what has gone wrong. “There are many cases in which one gets standardly angry first ... and then, in a cooler moment, [thinks] ... ‘How outrageous! Something must be done about this.’ ” (p. 35). Elsewhere in her book Nussbaum discusses the “extreme” cases of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, but  cannot we each of us be a little Mandela or King?
But, alas, “[t]here are many ways in which anger can go wrong”, so Nussbaum. (p. 35) In Hasse’s opera, out of anger the Persian King Cosroe orders Arasse, Siroe’s friend, to kill his son. Then, when Cosroe hears that Siroe is innocent, he is full of remorse. But as it goes in operas, Siroe comes back on the stage, alive and well. For it was a trick of Arasse to accept the order and he didn’t kill Siroe. And Siroe himself? He was happy that the intrigues had come to an end and that at last he got the throne of Persia. Instead of seeking revenge in anger and rage, he forgives all, despite the slighting and trouble inflicted on him.

Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

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