Anger: Melancholy’s Spear or Shield?

Picking up on yesterday’s theme, Montaigne had much to say about the connection between melancholy and anger. Today it is common to consider depression to be anger turned back upon itself. But in Montaigne’s time, this was a remarkable insight:

Another great man boasted to me of the gentle correctness of his manners, which was truly unique. I replied that, especially in one of so eminent a rank and on whom all eyes were turned, it was indeed something to present oneself always moderate to the world, but that the main thing was to provide inwardly for oneself: to my taste a man was not managing his business well if he was eating his insides out. I am afraid that he was doing just that, so as to maintain the mask of that outward appearance of correctness.

This also harkens back to Montaigne’s view of moderation. It underscores just how radical his moderation project is — it’s not even possible to sublimate the passions, you have to conquer them completely within or they will return to do damage.

By hiding our choler we drive it into our bodies: as Diogenes said to Demosthenes, who kept drawing back further inside so as not to be spotted in a tavern: ‘The more you draw back, the further in you go!’ I would advise you to give your valet a rather unseasonable slap on the cheek rather than to torture your mind so as to put on an appearance of wisdom; I would rather make an exhibition of my passions than brood over them to my cost: express them, vent them, and they grow weaker; it is better to let them jab outside us than be turned against us: “All defects are lighter in the open:… they are most pernicious when concealed beneath a pretence of soundness.” — Seneca

This seems contradictory to me. Montaigne made a strong case that many of our strongest passions, especially the aggressive ones, are irrational reactions invited in by mood or physical sensations. This being the case, you’d think we would be wise to ignore angry thoughts, not express them  But there is a subtle difference. If you can let angry thought sit until a mood passes and it disappears, then it is better off left unsaid. But if this thought turns to brooding, then it has done internal harm and might be better off expressed. How it is expressed, of course, is important.

Writing comes easily and freely to me, which makes it all too simple for me express strong feelings through email. Over the years, I’ve learned that this is one of the worst ways to express anger for several reasons. First, people generally do not like email. They associate it with work and obligation. Adding emotional work to the medium does not improve matters. In addition, email is permanent and too easily shared, creating context and tone issues. Finally, even the greatest email ever composed can be destroyed by one ill considered line or phrase. It is in my best interests to use email sparingly, but my passions sometime get the best of me

Montaigne also advises to keep anger focused and specific, otherwise it is remembered purely for the anger and not the content:

I advise those of my family who have the right to show their anger, firstly to be sparing of their choler and not to scatter it abroad no matter what the cost, since that thwarts its action and its weight; even the anger you vent on a servant for a theft makes no impression then: it is the same anger he has seen you use against him a hundred times already, for a glass badly rinsed or a stool left out of place. Secondly, let them not get angry in the void; let them see that their reprimand falls to the one they are complaining about, for as a rule they are yelling before he has answered their summons; and they go on doing so for ages after he has gone.

I would not say that I have a general problem with anger, but I am still working on how to use it productively. My tendency is to not use it often, but when I finally feel the need to lash out (when it takes on that brooding quality Montaigne mentioned,) I tend to scare the hell out of people. Much of this is simple contrast. A usually calm person seems like a totally different human when enraged, while someone who vents often (think Joe Pesci in ‘GoodFellas’) can even seem humorous when out of control.

But before you conclude that Montaigne has this all figured out, notice how he closes On Anger — with a typical Montaigne touch. He doesn’t explicitly say “what do I know?” here, but it is heavily implied:

One more word to close this chapter. Aristotle says that choler sometimes serves virtue and valour as a weapon. That is most likely; nevertheless those who deny it have an amusing reply: it must be some new-fangled weapon; for we wield the other weapons: that one wields us; it is not our hand that guides it: it guides our hand; it gets a hold on us: not we on it.