:: Article

Out Of Sheer Rage

By Max Dunbar.



Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation, Peter Sloterdijk, Columbia University Press, 2010

For there is something to be said for negative emotion. From Aristotle’s Politics:

There are two chief motives which induce men to attack tyrants – hatred and contempt. Hatred of tyrants is inevitable, and contempt is also a frequent cause of their destruction. Thus we see that those of us who have acquired, have retained their power, but those who have inherited, have lost it, almost at once; for living in luxurious ease, they have become contemptible, and offer many opportunities to their assailants. Anger, too, must be included under hatred, and produces the same effects. It is oftentimes even more ready to strike – the angry are more impetuous in making an attack, for they do not listen to reason. And men are very apt to give way to their passions when they are insulted. To this cause is to be attributed the fall of Peisitratidae and of many others. Hatred is more reasonable, but anger is accompanied by pain, which is an impediment to reason, whereas hatred is painless.

Homer considered rage a valid component of the psyche. It lived in the thymos, the part of the soul containing ‘human pride, stout-heartedness, craving for recognition, drive for justice, sense of dignity and honour, indignation, militant and vengeful energies.’ Sloterdijk’s fascinating book examines how anger went from a constructive and welcomed instinct to a repressed sign of weakness. For us, ‘the virtues of hesitations have become authoritative.’

Christianity neutered rage to some extent by confining it as the preserve of the gods. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord: and mine only. God could inflict plague, curses and apocalypse on his enemies but Christians were taught forgiveness, nonjudgementalism and noble victimhood. ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’ – as Christopher Hitchens points out, you could not convict Josef Mengele or Ian Huntley on the basis of this. Just as damaging is the Christian legacy of pacifism, the idea of nonresistance to evil. It is astonishing that these traits are so often said to be to Christianity’s credit.

Religion is well known for its repression of sexuality. When psychoanalysts began to hack away at the pillars of the temple, they made the mistake of trying ‘to explain the human condition in its entirety based on the dynamics of libido’. For Sloterdijnk psychoanalysis would have been more productive if it had concentrated on freeing negative energies as well as positive ones.

Emergent Christanity dictated that Romans stay away from the Coliseum. Chariot races, theatre and gladiatorial combat offered the same traditional excitement and schadenfreude as football does today. The Carthaginian fanatic Tertullian thought that theatres were ‘the romping places for demons’. He offered Christians a reward for missing the games. It appears that the supreme delight of God’s kingdom is the spectacle, from above, of the sinners burning in hell. It’s worth repeating Tertullian, such is the relish in his words:

What sight shall wake my wonder, what my laughter, my joy and exultation? As I see all those kings, those great kings… groaning in the depths of darkness!… those sages, too, the philosophers blushing before their disciples as they blaze together… And then there will be the tragic actors to be heard, more vocal in their own tragedy; and the players to be seen, lither of limb by far, and then the charioteer to watch, red all over in a wheel of flame… Such sights, such exultation, – what praetor, consul, quaestor, priest, will ever give you of his bounty?

You see what happens when emotions are suppressed rather than dealt with in rational ways. As Christianity began to deteriorate in the later half of the twentieth century, business courses and New Age spirituality took up the cudgels against hate and rage. Both advised a gung-ho positive attitude as a cure for everything from career stagnation to pancreatic cancer. In an excellent article for The Skeptic, Steve Salerno explored the mainstreaming of ‘posi-psych’ (how many times have you heard the term ‘negative’ used as a rebuke?) He argued:

The notion that the riddle of success is more easily solved by attitude than aptitude may be one of the more subtly destructive forces in American society. Not only is it a reproach to rational thought, but in a society already veering ominously towards narcissism, this ‘hyping of hope’ also erodes reverence for hard work, patience, scholarship, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, due diligence and the other time-honored components of success.

In the UK the repression of anger built up in what Sloterdijk calls ‘rage banks’: valves occasionally released on designated targets. Earlier, Aristotle justified anger and hatred against those who have everything. Politicians and commentators in the late twentieth century gave his thesis a bizarre twist: they advocated rage against those who have nothing. It seems that not a day has gone by in living memory without a dubious story in some national newspaper about immigrants, beggars and benefit fraudsters supposedly living in Knightsbridge mansions at the expense of the rest of us. Read the comments on newspaper websites and you’ll see people take this seriously. The discourse, visceral as it is, is nothing like noble thymos. It’s the politics of envy, resentment, self-pity, victimhood and miserabilism.

As Carl Hiaasen’s Clinton Tyree says: ‘Nothing shameful about anger, boy. Sometimes it’s the only sane and logical and moral reaction. Jesus, you don’t take a class to make it go away! You take a drink or a goddamn bullet. Or you stand and fight the bastards.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 8th, 2010.