Without doubt and without question Martha Nussbaum is a leading authority on classical philosophy. She wrote a doctoral dissertation on Aristotle and reads it in the original Greek. Today she teaches at the University of Chicago.
And yet, when she was asked about what the great philosopher would have thought about anger, and, in particular, the anger that seems to be propelling people toward one Donald Trump, she seems more concerned with promoting her leftist feminist ideology than applying Aristotle’s thought.
Rather than offer some sober reflection about the current political scene, Nussbaum can do no better than say that we need more of “the audacity of hope.” Yes, indeed, when your favorite policy fails, you want more of the same. Some people are impervious to the verdict of reality. Hope is obviously the opposite of despair. But that does not make it the antidote to despair.
Nussbaum does not notice, as very few have, that Obama’s phrase is grammatically incorrect. And she does not notice that seven years of Barack Obama’s flaccidity is the cause, not the solution to the problem of American anger.
For those who do not care to delve into the writings of Aristotle, I would point out a simple and salient historical fact. As you undoubtedly know, Aristotle was the private tutor of one Alexander the Great. Say what you will about Alexander but his life was not about what Nussbaum calls, in her effort to turn everyone, but especially men, into potted plants-- flourishing.
Whatever Aristotle meant by eudaimon, a word that used to be translated as happiness, it has now, thanks to philosophers like Nussbaum, been translated as flourishing, as in flowering, as in potted plants.
I don’t think that you need to know too much philosophy to understand that Barack Obama, a man who prides himself on his ability to surrender, to end wars, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, who has made, through his cowardice, Syria and Iraq into ungodly messes, is not the second or third coming of Alexander the Great.
With apologies for those who have gotten lost in their texts and blinded by their ideology, the two men should not be spoken in the same breath.
From whence cometh anger? According to Aristotle, via Nussbaum, anger comes from the sense of being wronged, from being insulted, from being diminished. By her lights, anger provokes a desire for payback… which is not exactly true.
She might have added, because she surely knows it, but Aristotle was not against responding to insults and slights, to threats to status, to what I would call threats to face. He was opposed to trigger-happy responses and was opposed to gun-shy responses. Courage, he said, lay somewhere between the two. Aristotle saw the expression of anger as an ethical issue: you should express your anger to the right person at the right time in the right place in the right way under the right circumstances.
You may desire revenge, but the philosopher counseled prudence and temperance, even in the expression of anger. Where Nussbaum simple-mindedly says that anger is always bad, Aristotle had a far better understanding of the moral stakes of being angry.
If you fail to be angry when you ought to be angry you will be supinely accepting a diminished status. Of course, Barack Obama is an exemplary instance of someone who fails to get angry when he needs to do so, and thus who caused the nation to suffer a diminished status in the world.
One hastens to add, if you merely want payback, you have gotten it wrong. If your excessive expression of anger draws more attention to your anger than to the issue at hand and labels you a histrionically angry person, you have not restored your reputation. You have affirmed the negative judgment implied in the insult. If you react to insult by bending over and asking for more, you have affirmed the implication of the insult and have shown yourself to have accepted a lesser status.
It ought to be fairly obvious by now, but you do not counter the debilitating and demoralizing effect of an insult by throwing a bunch of hope at it. Nor do you counter it, as Nussbaum notes, by letting loose with a torrent of rage. I will not mention which presidential candidate has become the presumptive nominee by riding a wave of rage. Were I to mention his name, you would get very angry, indeed.
Anger might seem to be something like a desire, but it represents a duty to reassert your standing and status, thus, to save face. Duty and desire are not the same thing. Duty involves what you should do. Desire refers to something you do not have.
But, the interviewer asks Nussbaum the salient question. The nation has suffered through many years of hope and it has ended up angry. It’s not just Trump supporters. We see anger in the mania called Black Lives Matter.
None of it fazes Nussbaum. She sees hope in Chicago, even though her city is undergoing and has been undergoing an out-of-control crime wave. And she obviously does not care about the outcome. Apparently, hope is not quite the balm we need.
If Nussbaum had not succumbed to the temptation to adulterate Aristotle with political correctness she would have drawn the correct conclusion. Americans are angry because Obama has diminished the nation, has sapped its pride, has made it a second-rate power, and has caused it to lose, not to win wars.
America under Barack Obama has lost status; it has lost prestige; it has allowed itself to be humiliated by the tinhorn mullahs of Iran… among others.