The Divine Gift of the Irascible Faculty
It is difficult today to speak of anger as the Bible speaks of it without being misunderstood, and almost impossible to speak of manly anger without alarming people who assume that you mean an abusive, self-indulgent, uncharitable indulgence in sexist rage. Christians must learn to distinguish anger and wrath. The second is a deadly sin; the first is a requirement of Christian charity.
To be charitably angry in the way our Father expects us to be, we must have the chest that wise men from Plato to C. S. Lewis have told us we must have. The Wendlings [Letters, page 8] are correct in saying that in The Abolition of Man Lewis attacks the reduction of standards of Truth and Beauty to mere subjective impressions, effectively allowing the belly to rule the head. But Lewis specifically says, following Plato, that the Head is to rule the Belly by means of the Chest.
To use Plato’s metaphor, the charioteer cannot rule the stubborn and wayward horse without the assistance of the noble horse. That horse represents what Lewis broadly called the “chest”: spirit, drive, ambition, the “irascible” faculty of the soul. This faculty thirsts for beauty too, and it rises up against the unseemly—against mommies on the sidelines of a high-school football game, to take one very silly and (for the poor boys) uncharitable example—and the ugly.
That faculty may express itself in anger, which may, in turn, be good or evil depending upon its use. I note that Scripture is not only full of holy men (and women; I think of Jael) growing righteously angry, it also condemns those who, under certain circumstances, fail to grow righteously angry. The danger that zeal may lapse into rage does not absolve us from our duty to be zealous.
The fact is, our irascible faculty is a gift of God, as are our lower appetites. He has given it to us that we may hate injustice and love justice—and take action accordingly. Think of Ransom in Lewis’s Perelandra: He finally understands that he was sent to that planet for the humble purpose of restraining Weston by physical force. Hard to do when your adrenaline is not up.
The Bible is pretty severe on men who do not take up their fatherly roles in the family and in the society. Eli could have used more chest. Barak was a tad of an embarrassment and had to be rebuked by Deborah. But does the Bible not tell us to open our eyes, and to treat one another justly?
As I write this, one in ten black men in their twenties are languishing in American prisons, no doubt for crimes they have actually committed. Those men were never taught to be men. Most of them grew up without their fathers, and without the fatherly institutions we have dismantled. Where are the Christian men with the hearts of lions who will rise up against that wrong? At the very least, there are schools to be razed and rebuilt; where are the men with the chest to do it, and the women with the wisdom to stand clear?
And not only schools. We have Temples of Dagon everywhere, crushing the people. God give us the high-hearted Samsons to rip their doors off the hinges.
— Anthony Esolen
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Chest Errors” first appeared in the July/August 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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