Summer 2018 Bulletin

A Philosophical Approach to Anger and Fear

Martha Craven Nussbaum and Paul D. Guyer


On April 12, 2018, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences presented the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies to Martha C. Nussbaum (University of Chicago). An introduction by Paul Guyer (Brown University) and acceptance remarks from Martha Nussbaum appear below.

Paul Guyer
Paul Guyer
Paul Guyer is the Jonathan Nelson Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at Brown University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1999.

It is a pleasure and an honor for me to introduce the sixth winner of the Don M. Randel Award for Humanistic Studies in its forty-year history: Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics in the Law School and Department of Philosophy of the University of Chicago, where she also teaches in the Classics Department, the Political Science Department, and in the Divinity School. It is a pleasure for me because I have known Martha since we began graduate school together almost half a century ago, and it is a pleasure to see a friend succeed beyond the wildest dreams that anyone could have had at the age of twenty-one.

It is an honor for me because Martha has been for almost that many years one of the most insightful and productive philosophers and scholars on our scene, and without question the most significant public intellectual that philosophy in America has produced in decades. Indeed, I do not think we have seen a public philosopher like her since John Dewey or before him our former neighbors William James and Josiah Royce. Martha would be just as fitting a winner for any award in public service as for our distinguished award in humanistic studies.

Martha Nussbaum’s academic career has been exceptional. After earning her Ph.D. in classics and philosophy at Harvard, she was a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor of Classics and Philosophy there before moving to tenured positions at Brown, where she is still remembered fondly and is a welcome annual visitor, and then the University of Chicago. From her first book, a scholarly work on Aristotle’s biology published just a few years after she finished her Ph.D., she has gone on to publish more than twenty further books, including such indispensable works as The Fragility of Goodness, Women and Human Development, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, Frontiers of Justice, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality, Political Emotions, Anger and Forgiveness, and most recently, with her Chicago colleague Saul Levmore, Aging Thoughtfully.

Nussbaum has also edited or co-edited another two dozen multi-author volumes. She has received at last count the extraordinary total of fifty-six honorary degrees, and many other distinguished awards, including most recently the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy.

For what? Two of Martha’s titles suggest the unifying threads of an extraordinarily diverse body of work, the “intelligence of emotions” on the one hand and the “frontiers of justice” on the other. In the preface to the book she is currently working on, some of which she presented at Brown a few weeks ago, she describes these as two separate sides of her work, but I think they are deeply connected.

On the topic of justice, Martha has pushed beyond the path-breaking work of John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice appeared while we were in graduate school and has been such an enduring influence on so many of our generation and since. Rawls himself pushed beyond Kant by accepting as his own first principle of justice Kant’s definition of justice as the greatest freedom for each compatible with equal freedom for all, but adding as his second principle equal opportunity for positions and offices and the requirement that differential rewards be to the advantage of the least well-off. Martha has in turn pushed beyond Rawls by arguing for equal opportunity not just for offices and income but for the full range of what she calls human capabilities, and not just for those individuals in an historical position to bargain over a social contract, but for the full range of human beings, including women, the disabled or infirm, all those who in one society or another have been classified as minorities, and even beyond that for animals. And it is Martha’s stress that justice requires opportunity for the full development of human capabilities that links the one side of her work to the other.

Among human capabilities she recognizes the development of emotions, the basis of love, attachment, gratitude, grief, and much more, as well as more obvious bodily and intellectual capacities, practical reason, control over one’s environment, and the like. For her, human beings must have the opportunity to develop and express their emotions but also to learn how to control them. Justice is the sum of the conditions that allows human beings to be fully human, and itself can arise only with both the expression and the control of human emotions. This is the ideal that underlies all of Martha Nussbaum’s work.

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Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, with appointments in the Law School and the Philosophy Department. In addition, she is an Associate in the Classics Department, the Divinity School, and the Political Science Department. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1988.

It is a delight to be introduced by Paul Guyer, not just an old friend but a philosopher whom I deeply admire and who exemplifies a rigor, insight, and dedication that show our profession at its best. I am extremely grateful to the Academy for the honor of this award, and especially honored that it is named for Don Randel, who has been such a paragon of commitment to the humanities throughout his distinguished career. And of course I have been so happy to have worked under Don’s leadership at the University of Chicago, where we shared so many commitments, not least including a deep love of music. Don’s commitment to the humanities and also, as it happens, his love of music find fitting continuation in the Humanities Deanship of Anne Robertson, who is here. In general, I could not do my work without that great university, both its law school and its philosophy department, which have created an ideal environment for work, serious criticism, and teaching.

As Paul said, my career has focused on two areas: normative theorizing about justice and investigation of the nature and role of the emotions. Increasingly I have been bringing the two together and thinking of the role emotions play in moving us toward or, as the case may be, away from a just and decent society. All of this work has been continually nourished by my long study of the history of Greek and Roman philosophy, very much including the philosophical elements of literature. In the process, I have also made an attempt to address a wider public and to play the role of what people call a “public philosopher,” something quite difficult to do in this country. But I have tried to do it always in a way that upholds philosophical standards and honors the work of other thinkers, past and present.

Let me, then, give you just a small example here, showing how a philosophical approach to the emotion of anger and the fear that so often underlies it can help us come to grips with the challenges of our political moment–the theme of my Jefferson Lecture in 2017, so this is but a sketch of a much fuller argument.

I start with poetry, with the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus’ depiction of the birth of democracy and the rule of the law in Eumenides, the third play of the Oresteia. The protagonists of this drama are some rather unpleasant characters. Called Furies or Erinyes, they help wronged individuals wreak vengeance on those who have killed a member of their family. The Furies are said to be ugly and foul, more like rabid dogs than like human beings. Their eyes drip a hideous liquid; they are even said to vomit up clots of blood that they have ingested from their prey. This is Aeschylus’ way of imagining the obsessiveness and ugliness of retributive anger. Unreformed, these Furies could not be helpful in Athena’s project to found a democracy involving legal trials and, more generally, the rule of law.

The end of the drama, however, shows the Furies not just accepting legal constraints but also fundamentally shifting their sentiments. They get a place of honor in the city, but the exchange is that they now want different things. They agree to foster the welfare of all the citizens, describing their new mood as “looking to the future with gentle intent” and also as “a mindset of common love.” Perhaps most important, they agree to listen to the voice of persuasion. They are transformed physically in related ways: they stand up, they are given robes to wear, and they also get a new name: the “Eumenides,” or “kindly ones,” rather than Furies. So, what is the drama saying about anger? Does democracy really ask people to put anger aside? (The Greeks and Romans didn’t think very well of anger or associate it with masculinity, but Americans certainly do!) And if democracy does ask people to give up anger, how would we protest against egregious injustice?

To go further, however, we need a philosophical analysis, and in the Western tradition the definition of anger that influences all subsequent thinkers is Aristotle’s. (It’s actually similar to definitions in Indian philosophy, the only non-Western tradition I know anything about. We should remember always that philosophical thinking has roots in many cultures. And, it also has been validated by modern psychology: philosophers have to be attuned to the insights of other disciplines.)

Aristotle says that anger is a painful response to a significant damage, to something or someone that the angry person cares a lot about–and a damage this person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted, not just accidental. So far, so uncontroversial, and anger so defined seems not bad or destructive, but an ingredient of a good society’s confrontation with wrongdoing.

But then the Furies enter. Aristotle claims that a wish for retribution or payback, some sort of pain for pain, is an essential part of anger as commonly experienced. This needs a long discussion, but if we cut to the chase I think Aristotle is correct: when we are angry we do want the wrongdoer to suffer, if only through legal punishment or even divine intervention. (Gandhi agrees.) Or, even more subtly, we find ourselves wishing that the person who wronged us will simply have a miserable life in the future, that the second marriage of your betraying spouse is a dismal failure.

But (I then argue) the idea of retributive payback, though ubiquitous and deeply human, is empty and quite unhelpful, if what we want is to change the future, which is the only thing we can change. Capital punishment does not bring back the life that was lost; punitive litigation does not make a new future after a broken marriage. So, I then investigate the futility of anger at greater length, and show how this kind of empty thinking is often closely linked to fear and insecurity, to an underlying sense of powerlessness that reaches back to infantile experience, but that is exacerbated in times of personal or social unrest. Feeling powerless, we want control in an uncertain world, and anger gives an illusion of control: inflicting pain on someone feels powerful, and distracts us from the messy and difficult task of making a productive life.

In politics this is true in spades. Our nation right now has many real political and economic problems to solve: outsourcing, automation, the claims of immigrants and asylum-seekers, the demands of long-marginalized people and groups. It is human to feel helpless in the face of such problems. How easy, then, to turn instead to anger and scapegoating, imagining that inflicting pain on an opponent will fix the problem. (And note that this way of reacting is bad whether the opponent has actually wronged you or not: even real wrongs need to be addressed in a constructive and cooperative spirit, not in the spirit of the Furies.)

A great part of my new book is occupied by tracing the complex interrelationships between fear and anger, showing how fear turns anger toxic, turning people toward retributive fantasy and away from the hard constructive work that must be done to solve social problems.

But my Aristotelian analysis of anger also shows us where Athena’s mediation digs in and offers hope: If we return to his definition, there is one part that seems productive: the recognition that a serious wrong has been done. When the facts are correct, this part of anger, the protest part so to speak, is socially productive. We should recognize the serious wrongs that occur in our society, name them, and protest against them. This part of Aristotelian anger, however, is separate from the payback part. Even if ordinary anger typically contains both elements, there is a conceptual separation between protest and payback. We can demand justice without wishing for painful retribution for our opponents, and indeed, as in the play, while joining in a common enterprise pointed toward future welfare for all.

Interestingly, this idea was used by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his movement. In all the welcome outpouring of work on King, I would like to mention the contributions of philosophers in a first-rate recent collection edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon Terry, To Shape a New World: Essay on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., just published by Harvard, to which I’m honored to contribute, on the topic of King’s thoughts about anger. King read so widely in both literature and philosophy that it is hard to know whether he was influenced by this or that particular source. But in any case, he said the same thing: ordinary anger brings people to a protest movement, and when they arrive they typically want to inflict retributive pain. But once they get into his movement, he continually stressed, that anger has to be, as he put it, “channelized” or “purified,” losing its retributive element and taking on new sentiments of love and hope. In 1959, he wrote that obstacles to the goals of a protest movement can be met in two ways:

One is the development of a wholesome social organization to resist with effective, firm measures any efforts to impede progress. The other is a confused, anger-motivated drive to strike back violently, to inflict damage. Primarily, it seeks to cause injury to retaliate for wrongful suffering . . . . It is punitive–not radical or constructive.1

Studying his speeches, we can see King exemplifying repeatedly a determination to name and vigorously protest the heinous wrongs of racism and Jim Crow, often at great risk–while heading off the thought of retribution and replacing that thought with ideas of constructive work, love, and faith.

Philosophical analysis, animated by literary imagination, does not solve our political problems. For that we need sound economic planning, historical and scientific knowledge, and multidisciplinary cooperation. And we also need an open-minded and well-educated electorate and politicians interested in communicating economic, historical, and scientific knowledge to them, rather than just playing on their anger for their own advantage. But philosophy can help us understand ourselves and see where the problems lie, and it can also help us to identify some not-so-productive way to respond to them.

Furthermore, the contribution of philosophy lies in its methods as well as its content. It can actually help to build the sort of citizenry and the sort of politician that I have just imagined. Following Socrates, philosophy approaches people gently, respectfully, asking them to listen to persuasion rather than to make a lot of noisy boasts. So philosophy also embodies part of the solution we so badly need: a decent, respectful, rational, and imaginatively engaged way of relating to other people.

In these two related ways, philosophy contributes to the task that is always before us, in Aeschylus’ time and in our own–since we always must face forward, wherever we are–of building a constructive, loving, reasonable, and non-retributive society that pursues human welfare.


  • 1 Martin Luther King Jr., “The Social Organization of Violence,” in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume V: Threshold of a New Decade, January 1959–December 1960, ed. Clayborne Carson, Tenisha Armstrong, Susan Carson, Adrienne Clay, and Kieran Taylor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
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© 2018 by Paul Guyer and Martha C. Nussbaum, respectively

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