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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/24/17

Feeling Enraged and Practicing Non-Violence (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 24, 2017: The classicist Emily Katz Anhalt's new book Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths (Yale University Press, 2017) is a remarkably accessible and deeply informed discussion of rage and violence portrayed in Achilles' famous rage in the Homeric epic the Iliad in considerable detail (pp. 13-114), but she also discusses rage in Sophocles' play Ajax (pp. 115-48) and rage in Euripides' play Hecuba (pp. 149-83). Her book includes bibliographic and wide-ranging discussion notes (pp. 197-231), a bibliography of important classical scholarly works (pp. 233-53), and an index (pp. 255-68).

She argues that the vivid portrayals of rage that she discusses influenced political thought in Athens where the experiment in limited participatory democracy emerged. The experiment in participatory democracy in Athens was limited to male citizens; women, slaves, and transients were not citizens. Anhalt appears to be mostly concerned with the physical violence that can emerge when an enraged person acts out his or her rage. However, feeling enraged does not necessarily always and everywhere lead a person to act out his or her rage in physical violence. On the contrary, feeling enraged is almost always and everywhere a pre-condition for becoming politically engaged through political activism.

In other words, uncontrolled rage may lead to venting through physical violence -- for example, in a school shooter opening fire with an automatic weapon on school children. But without feeling enraged at all, nobody would become a political activist. So to a certain extent, feeling enraged is a necessary condition for becoming a political activist and engaging in pro-social non-violent activities. (By definition, anti-social activities involving violence are unacceptable.) Let me explain my position.

My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) of Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri. Unfortunately, Anhalt does not refer to any of Ong's publications that are relevant to her theme of rage.

Over the years, I took five courses from him at SLU. For example, with his permission, I unofficially audited his graduate course on Polemic in Literary and Academic Tradition: An Historical Survey in the summer of 1971. Our English word "polemic" comes from the Greek word polemos, meaning war, struggle. Polemic in literary and academic tradition refers to verbal struggle -- a war of words, so to speak.

Ong's massively researched Harvard doctoral dissertation was a study of the verbal arts (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, or logic) in Western cultural tradition. However, he does not explicitly thematize the dimension of verbal struggle in his all-important book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958).

For a discussion of Ong's philosophical thought in that book (and elsewhere), see my online essay "Understanding Ong's Philosophical Thought":


But Ong explicitly discusses polemic structures in his book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967, pp. 195-286), the expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.

In Ong's graduate course on verbal polemic, he worked out his thought that eventually culminated in his 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University -- published as the book Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981). The Greek word agon means contest, struggle. In that book Ong prefers to refer to agonistic structures, instead of polemic structures.

For a short bibliography of Ong's works on the theme of agonistic structures and selected related works, see my online essay "A Concise Guide to Five Themes in Walter J. Ong's Thought and Selected Related Works":


Even though Ong does not happen to advert explicitly to Plato's and Aristotle's references to a certain part of the human psyche as thumos (or thymos), this part of our psyches senses fear, and, in today's parlance, this part of the human psyche involves activating our fight/flight/freeze response. When our fight response is activated, we engage our sense of anger and possibly experience rage -- for example, in road rage, which is not pro-social.

For Plato, Aristotle, and certain other ancient Greeks, virtue was defined as the mean between the extremes of over-doing something and under-doing it. The virtue associated with thumos (or thymos) is courage. Courage is defined as the mean between the extremes of brashness and cowardice.

Then-Senator John F. Kennedy published a book about certain examples of political courage, Profiles in Courage (Harper, 1956). No doubt American politicians, and candidates for elective office, must have a measure of political courage to enter the political arena -- and thick skin. Even in the court of public opinion, commentators must also have a measure of political courage to enter the arena of civic debate.

Of course, there are times in our lives when the thumos (or thymos) part of our psyches is not engaged and activated in a fight/flight/freeze response. Even though the quiescence of this part of the psyche may sound restful, the quiescence of this part of the part can involve political indifference. Conversely, political engagement requires activating the thumos (or thymos) part of the psyche.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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