Anger

In 2014, at John F. Kennedy airport in New York, Korean Air executive Heather Cho flew into a rage when she was served macadamia nuts in a bag rather than on a plate, by an attendant on one of her own airline’s flights. Her violent tantrum – which became known around the world as the ‘nut rage’ incident – had serious consequences. Cho lost her job and was sentenced to ten months in prison by a South Korean court.

This was just one of the most recent examples of a proliferation of new and specific forms of rage that emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – many of them linked to modern technologies – starting with ‘road rage’ in the 1980s, followed by air rage, Twitter rage, vending machine rage, phone charger rage, internet connection rage… and now even nut rage.

Listen to a short podcast about anger

‘Anger’ is one of the characters in the Disney-Pixar movie Inside Out

The different forms of rage and anger are among the most talked about emotions of the twenty-first century, and some psychologists argue that anger is one of a small number of ‘basic emotions’, shared by all humans in all times and places. They suggest that anger is rooted in an evolved ‘fight’ response. A very aggressive version of anger was one of the five basic emotions in the 2015 movie Inside Out, and there is no doubt that there are sometimes links between aggressive instincts and angry emotions. However, research into the history and philosophy of furious feelings suggests that there is more to it than that. The words, ideas, and physical movements that help make up our emotions have all changed over time.

For instance, people sometimes say that the ancient Greek epic poem the Iliad – one of the first works of Western literature – is all about the anger of Achilles. However, none of the Greek terms used is really the same as our modern idea of ‘anger’. Sometimes Achilles is described using the term m­ēnis, which is a kind of long-lasting hateful sulk, while later in the book, distraught with grief for the death of his friend Patroclus, Achilles goes on a violent killing-spree among his enemies – something more frenzied and homicidal than we would normally associate with ‘anger’.

We can also think about what anger and related emotions have looked like over time. If the theory of basic emotions were true, then we would expect to find a single ‘angry’ face in all historical periods. What we find, instead, is that the sinful passion of ‘wrath’ or ira was originally depicted not primarily as a facial expression but as a kind of story or situation – sometimes involving drunkenness or violence – as in this depiction of Ira from around the year 1500 by Hieronymus Bosch.

Detail from Table of the Seven Deadly Sins by Hieronymus Bosch (Prado Museum, Madrid)

Only in the seventeenth century did European artists and philosophers start to try to match up emotion words with facial expressions. Even then, what they came up with did not match modern theories. There was no single emotion to correspond with modern ‘anger’, and the faces that were matched with anger-like feelings – such as rage, despair, and hatred – can seem strange to modern eyes. The most influential theorist on this topic was the French artist Charles Le Brun and his face for colère (the French term most often translated as ‘anger’) is pretty odd. Personally I find it physically impossible to produce it in my own features!

Finally, we need to think about what elements, if any, are shared by all experiences of the emotion of anger. What must be present for an emotional episode to count as ‘anger’? Theorists disagree about this. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum thinks that the key components are, first, the belief that I – or someone I care about – have been wronged or insulted in some way, and, secondly, the desire for pay-back or revenge. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t think that revenge is often in my mind when I lose my temper. More often I might just growl in frustration at my own incompetence or curse the uncooperative nature of the world, but not with any thought of getting my own back. I also think that some kind of physical agitation and outward bodily expression is central to ‘anger’, but that is neglected by Nussbaum.

So, even among modern-day users of English it is hard to agree what ‘anger’ really is, even though we all know roughly what it means. It’s something to do with being unhappy about something and probably involves an aggressive feeling – but beyond that, it’s hard to pin down. One of my favourite attempts to summarise this painful passion is a phrase in the King James Version of the Bible – ‘hot displeasure’. This is just one example of how tracing the historical ancestry of our emotional ideas, expressions, and language, can help us to name and understand our feelings today.

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Further reading

Books

  • Jean L. Briggs, Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family
  • William V. Harris, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity
  • Martha C. Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice
  • Carol Tavris, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion

From the History of Emotions Blog

The Emotions Lab