On Wrath and Anger

Attention Californians: TCT’s founding editor-in-chief, Robert Royal, will be in the Golden State later this month. Here’s Bob’s schedule, with a couple of links for more information (and more to come): Sacramento Catholic Forum, noon on Thursday February 18; Kolbe Academy & Trinity Prep, Napa CA, 7:00 PM on Friday February 19; University of Santa Barbara, Catholic Chaplaincy, 6:30 PM Monday February 22; and Claremont McKenna College, 4:00 PM Tuesday February 23.

Contrary to what we might think, both “anger” and “wrath,” considering them accurately, are good things. Both words, however, often refer to a natural emotion when it is excessively strong and not guided by reason. Anger indicates a strong reaction. We always knew when our fathers were angry.

Wrath depicts something even stronger, the difference between a downpour and a typhoon. The topic of anger comes up in Book Four of Aristotle’s Ethics. It is one of those givens in us that needs to be self-governed. We are to be angry in the right time, right place, right degree, and under proper guidance. People vary in the ease that this emotion becomes out of control. But it is possible to be either too excessively angry or not angry enough.

In Scripture, anger and wrath are used of God in His reaction to when He does not like what the Hebrew people are doing. He loves them, but that does not prevent Him from being angry with them. Yahweh always has a good reason, one of which is that they straighten themselves out.

Psalm 88 says: “Your wrath has swept over me.” St. Paul tells the Thessalonians: “God has not destined us for wrath but for salvation.” (1Th. 5:9) This remark implies that “wrath” might have been a quite legitimate option because of our sins. But the Book of Jonah tells us that “a gracious and merciful” God is “slow to anger.” (4:2) This slowness implies: “Don’t press too far!”

And in Ephesians (4:26-27), we read: “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you.” Here, we find both a sinful and a non-sinful anger. But “wrath” in this context seems to be something we should take care of, even if justified. It can lead to much greater problems.

Wrath (Ira) from The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]
The capacity to be angry is given to us by nature itself. It is part of the whole inter-related “package” of items that constitute what-it-is-to-be-a-human-being. Without it, we would be less than we are. We would be crippled, lacking something that ought to be there. Tell me what makes you angry and I will tell you what you are. The same point can be made negatively. Tell me what does not make you angry and I will likewise tell you what you are.

In the belated publicity about selling fetal parts, for instance, many people were angry, even wrathful, on learning of this atrocious commerce. Yet these same people were often not angry at the evil of abortion itself. That reaction, I suppose, is better than being angry at neither. It makes the point of greater and lesser evils proportioned to greater and lesser angers.

In my own teaching experience, I always explained that Aristotle treated both envy and anger in the same general way, in the same book. Envy always struck me as a much more destructive and prevalent vice than greed, with which it is often compared. Greed is an acquired habit of not controlling our need for food or money. Envy, as Aquinas put it, is “sadness” at the good of another. That definition is most perceptive. Unlike drinking or money-gathering, this “sadness” is not a physical thing, though envy and jealousy can change our visage.

Like pride, envy is rather a spiritual thing. Nothing is gained or lost by it. It is an intellectual estimate of another’s good that we do not ourselves possess. The problem is not the good that the other really has, but our “sadness” or chagrin at his having it. The point is that he deserves it and we know it.

Pride, as the primary capital vice, is likewise a purely spiritual disorder. All is attributed to oneself. This spiritual element is why both angels and men can suffer from pride and envy, whereas angels cannot be greedy in the strict sense.

What about anger and wrath? What now strikes me is that anger also is a spiritual thing. This also explains talk of God’s “wrath.” It means more than envy. It indicates the need of real, “visible” response to evil or disorders, even if we cannot “do” anything about them because of free will or other causes. God’s anger does not eradicate the free will that originates the disorder at which the anger is directed.

This factor is why we can understand that God’s wrath is directed at our world, at our deeds, while we, on our parts, blithely go on approving, fostering, and living disordered lives as “rights” or “diversities.” Again, this divine reaction explains the theoretic need of a final judgment on our sins whereby God’s “anger” is, as it were, visited on those who, in their pride and envy, refuse to live in any other world but their own.

*Image (above): Wrath (Ira) from Table of the Seven Deadly Sins by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480 [Museo del Prado, Madrid].


The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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