Considering a recent book, written by a scholar of medieval history, on the evolution of attitudes toward anger, Shalom Carmy examines Moses Maimonides’ prescriptions about to how handle this powerful emotion:
[Mamonides] offers two evaluations of anger that appear to contradict each other. First, he advances an Aristotelian view, according to which the key to virtue is moderation. The path of wisdom, which is also the way of God, is to be angry at the right time, in the right proportion, about appropriate matters. To be sure, the wise man is likely to deviate a bit from the mean as a precaution against falling into vice, cultivating outrage if he tends to be too cold and analytical, or detachment if his nature is to be hotheaded. But this ideal of the golden mean remains paramount.
Yet Maimonides follows these remarks with a second account. Here, he insists that in certain areas, moderation should not be the goal. With respect to anger, extremism should be the norm. He cites rabbinic teachings that compare anger to idolatry and condemn, in strongest terms, the leader who cows and intimidates the community. According to this line of thought, if, for practical reasons, one must display anger in guiding or educating family and community, the show of anger must be feigned, not felt. Here, the ideal is to avoid emotions that overwhelm one’s capacity for rational thought.
As I see it, the two accounts reflect two different ethical ideals. The first, which advocates moderation in anger as in all things, . . . makes for a decent, orderly society as envisioned by a prudent Aristotelian. If, however, character formation should nurture the right relation to God, this approach is insufficient. More extreme self-restraint is necessary to become a God-fearing individual, one who avoids destructive, idolatrous rage and arrogance.
Carmy then turns to the essays of Samuel Johnson and the plays of Anton Chekhov, which both, in different ways, point to the fact ignored by Maimonides that there is often something comical in rage:
If Johnson and Chekhov highlight the comedy in irritability and its theater of anger, they cannot obscure its tragic potential, even when it does express itself in physical violence. . . . A few unguarded, undisciplined words cannot be undone in a lifetime of regret and remorse, and they can lay waste to relationships that took decades to build up. We should be grateful that humor, anger’s antidote, may, at least sometimes, spare us and spare others that pain.
Read more on First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2021/02/passionate-men