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Like modern democracies, the ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem. Read the historians, and you will see some things that are not remote: individuals litigating obsessively against people they blame for having wronged them; groups blaming other groups for their lack of power; citizens blaming prominent politicians and other elites for selling out the dearest values of the democracy; other groups blaming foreign visitors, or even women, for their own political and personal woes.

The anger that the Greeks—and, later, the Romans—knew all too well, was an anger full of fear at one’s own human vulnerability. The Roman philosopher Lucretius even says that all political anger is an outgrowth of fear—of the terror of each human infant, who comes into the world helpless, and, unlike all other animals, can do nothing on its own to get what it needs to stay alive. Lucretius sees that as life goes on, vulnerability continues or even increases, since the awareness of death hits us hard at some point, making us realize that we are helpless with respect to the most important thing of all. This fear, he says, makes everything worse, leading to political ills to which we’ll return. For now, however, let’s focus on anger.

The Greeks and Romans saw a lot of anger around them. But as classical scholar William Harris shows in his fine book Restraining Rage, they did not embrace or valorize anger. They did not define manliness in terms of anger, and indeed, as with those Furies, tended to impute it to women, whom they saw as lacking rationality. However much they felt and expressed anger, they waged a cultural struggle against it, seeing it as destructive of human well-being and democratic institutions. The first word of Homer’s Iliad is “anger”—the anger of Achilles that “brought thousandfold pains upon the Achaeans.” And the Iliad’s hopeful ending requires Achilles to give up his anger and to be reconciled with his enemy Priam, as both acknowledge the frailty of human life.

I believe the Greeks and Romans are right: anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it is all the worse when fueled by a lurking fear and a sense of helplessness.
- “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame” by Martha C. Nussbaum

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