Anger and the Golden Mean

(I invite people to visit my analysis of the Orchos Tzadiqim’s psychological model. Among the points I discuss is the relationship between dei’os and middos. In painful brevity: a dei’ah is a feature of one’s psyche — which in turn is something performed by the soul. All people have the same set of dei’os. A middah, which literally means measure, is the dimensions it assumes in a particular person’s makeup. I believe the Rambam uses the term dei’ah in this sense.)

When it comes to anger, the question of whether one should seek the middle path is more complex. The Rambam’s Hilkhos Dei’os seems to contradict itself — which is impossible, given the attention he paid every word in the code. A contradiction in two adjacent chapters is beyond unlikely. So the question is finding the subtle nuance that distinguishes the two laws.

Emanuel O’Levy allowed Jon Baker to place his colloquial translation of the first three books of Maimonides’ code on line. So, even though it’s a far looser translation than I’d like, it’s available for easy cut-n-paste so I’m using it.

From Chapter I:

3) There are two opposite extremes to each and every temperament (dei’ah), one of which will not be a good mannerism and which is not fitting to follow or to teach to oneself. If one finds that one’s nature is tending to one of these temperaments or is being directed by one of them, or that one has already learnt about it and accustomed oneself to it, then one should return to good and go in the ways of good – this is the way of the upright.

4) The way of the upright is [to adopt] the intermediate characteristic of each and every temperament that people have. This is the characteristic that is equidistant from the two extremes of the temperament of which it is a characteristic, and is not closer to either of the extremes. Therefore, the first Sages commanded that one’s temperaments should always be such, and that one should postulate on them and direct them along the middle way, in order that one will have a perfect body. How is this done? One should not be of an angry disposition and be easily angered, nor should one be like a dead person who does not feel, but one should be in the middle – one should not get angry except over a big matter about which it is fitting to get angry, so that one will not act similarly again. Likewise, one should not have lust except for those things which the body needs and without which cannot survive, as it is written, “The righteous eat to satisfy his soul”. Similarly, one should not labour at one’s business, but one should obtain what one needs on an hourly basis, as it is written, “A little that a righteous man has is better, et cetera”. Nor should one be miserly or wasteful with one’s money, but one should give charity according to what one can spare, and lend as fitting to whoever needs. One should not be [excessively] praised or merry, and nor should one be sorrowful or miserable, but one should be happy for all one’s days in satisfaction and with a pleasant expression on one’s face. One should apply a similar principle to the other temperaments – this is the way of the wise.

5) Any man whose temperaments are intermediate is called wise. One who is particular with himself and moves away from the middle ways to either extreme is called pious. What does this mean? One who distances himself from pride by moving to its complete opposite of meekness is called pious, for this is a characteristic of piety. But if he distances himself only half-way and becomes humble he is called wise, for this is a characteristic of wisdom. The first pious people kept their temperaments from the middle ways and towards one of the extremes – one temperament they would bias one way, and another the other way [and as appropriate], but this is going beyond what the law requires.

6) We are commanded to go in these middle ways, the good and upright ways, as it is written, “And walk in His ways, et cetera”. As an explanation of this commandment, we have learnt that just as God shows mercy so also should we show mercy, that just as God is merciful so also should we be merciful, and that just as God is holy so also should we be holy. It was with this in mind that the first Prophets called the Almighty with the Attributes of: long-suffering, magnanimous, righteous, upright, faultless, mighty, strong, et cetera, in order to make it known that these are good and upright ways, and that one is obligated to accustom oneself to them, and to make one’s ways as similar to them as possible.

7) How should one regulate oneself with these temperaments so that one is directed by them? One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them, until such actions are easy for one to do and will not be troublesome for one, and until such temperaments are fixed in one’s soul. This way is known as the way of the Lord, for the reasons that the Creator has been called by them and that they are the intermediate characteristics which we are obligated to adopt. This is what Abraham taught his sons, as it is written, “For I know him, that he will command his children, et cetera”. One who goes in this way will bring upon himself good and blessings, as it is written, “…that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him”.

So, using the terminology I suggested, the Rambam is saying that the Chakham should aspire for middos in which each dei’ah is at the middle point between the extremes. The key tool recommended (so far) for doing so is habituation.

It also seems that this middle is not only being described as half of each conflicting dei’ah, but a mixture, a synthesis, of both. So that a person is using all of the skills given to him as an image of G-d.

From Chapter II:

3) There are some intermediate temperaments which one is forbidden to have, but one should adopt one of the extremities of such temperaments. One of these is the temperament of haughtiness. It is not good [enough] for one to be just modest, but one should be meek, and one’s spirits should be low. Therefore, concerning Moses our Teacher it is written, “…very meek”, and not just, “meek”. Therefore, the Sages commanded that one should be very meek. They said further that anyone who raises his spirits is denying the essence, as it is written, “…then your heart be lifted up and you forget the Lord your God”. They also said that all those with haughty airs should be excommunicated, even if they are only slightly haughty. It is the same with anger, which is an extremely bad temperament and from which it is fitting for one to distance oneself as far as its opposite extreme. One should teach oneself not to get angry, even over something about which it would be normal to get angry. If one wanted to instill fear in one’s sons or members of one’s household, or in the community if one was their leader, and one wants to be angry at them in order that they will return to the good [ways], then one should show them that one is being angry at them just to correct them, and, when displaying such anger, one should bear in mind that one is like a man who is similar to being angry, and that one is not really angry. The first Sages said that if one is angry, it is as if one has worshiped idols. They also said that when a man gets angry, then if he was wise his wisdom leaves him, and if he was a prophet his prophecy leaves him, and that the life of angry people is not [really] a life. Therefore, they commanded us to distance ourselves from anger until one is accustomed to not getting any angry feelings at even annoying things. This is the good way. The way of the righteous is to be humble without being humbled, not to answer back when disgraced, to do things out of love and to be joyous in suffering. Scripture says about them, “…but let them who love Him be as the sun when it comes out in its might”.

The Rambam appears to be contractictin himself. In 1:4, he advises “one should not get angry except over a big matter about which it is fitting to get angry.” But in chapter two , anger is comparable to idolatry, and to be avoided in all circumstances!

The Lechem Mishnah understands the Rambam to be recommending the Middle Path in all cases. However, since anger and egotism are so dangerous, one end of the spectrum is far more hazardous than the other. Therefore, the Chassid chooses to err on the side of caution, and lean toward avoiding them rather than stay in the ideal, the middle. The Lechem Mishnah makes a linguistic note. By most dei’os, the Rambam refers to pursuing the beinonis. But here the middle is described as emtza’is — it is not the middle distance between both extremes, but the mean taking into account the severity of either side. This distinction is the point of chapter 2.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igeros Moshe, Orach Chaim 1:54) explains the seeming contradiction differently. The Rambam’s apparently conflicting advice parallels that of our sages.

In Ta’anis 4, the gemara declares that any talmid chakham who is not as tough as iron is no talmid chakham. However, in Pirqei Avos (5:11) we are told that a chassid is “difficult to anger and easy to appease.” According to Rabbein Gershom Me’or haGolah, the advice is as follows. If a teacher believes he is right and stands up and fights for his position, but then backs down, people will assume he wasn’t as sure as he claimed or realized he was wrong, and is using the anger to mask his incompetence. He will thereby cause people not to follow the truth, his original position, and it will lead them to dismiss his wisdom in the future. And thus, we till not be seen as a teacher (“he is no talmid chakham“). In Avos, it’s discussing the case of someone who actually made an obvious error. And therefore it would be wrong to become angry and defend his error. Anyone who sees him stand up for the truth above his own honor would realize, and think more of him.

Similarly, Rav Moshe understands the Rambam 1:4 as speaking of getting angry over important matters, so that his display and attitude prevent their repetition. However, when one can’t readily see the error, the anger just seems inane and doesn’t help anyone. In this case, one should follow the advice in chapter 2, and avoid anger.

Unfortunately, I was unable to satisfy my own frustration at understanding the Rambam since I couldn’t fit either suggestion into his words.

The Rambam’s exact words in 2:3 are “אלא יתרחק עד הקצה האחר — but he should distance himself until the other extreme”. Not “el – toward”, but “ad – until”. That makes it hard for me to embrace the Lechem Mishnah’s interpretation that the Rambam was saying that one finds an emtza, weighted average based on the evil of anger or egotism even when compared to the opposite extremes. And with respect to modesty, the Rambam even writes “מאוד מאוד הוי שפל רוח — be of very very low ego.”

Rav Moshe’s position assumes that the two are discussing different situations. When anger is productive, in standing up for something right that others may not otherwise realize is important, then one needs the middle path. But when someone makes a mistake, standing up for one’s error is misplaced, and therefore one should avoid anger in the extreme. However, the Rambam discusses general advice, what should be someone’s approach to the dei’ah in general. In one chapter, follow G-d and assume the middle/synthesis. In the other, avoid anger altogether because it’s tantamount to idolatry.

A possible resolution that seemed more straightforward to me is suggested by the Rambam’s words (also from 1:4). Obviously, advice about how to be a good Jew carries more weight when informed by the Lechem Mishnah’s knowledge or Rav Moshe’s, but this is how one person naively read the Rambam’s approach(es) to anger:

Any man whose temperaments are intermediate is called wise. One who is particular with himself and moves away from the middle ways to either extreme is called pious. What does this mean? One who distances himself from pride by moving to its complete opposite of meekness is called pious, for this is a characteristic of piety. But if he distances himself only half-way and becomes humble he is called wise, for this is a characteristic of wisdom.

Maimonides is defining two possible paths: the Chakham (Wise), and the Chassid (Pious). Both laudable ideals. In the majority of chapter 1, he addresses the path he himself took, that of the Chakham — finding the middle. In chapter 2, when he discusses modesty he clearly describes the Chassid approach. It would seem the same would be true of his discussion of anger in chapter 2.

(Similarly, the gemara in Ta’anis speaks of the iron-strength of the talmid chakham, whereas the mishnah in Avos describes the person as a chassid.)

Another possibility is that chapter 2 isn’t focusing on an ideal, but rather on how to cure a defect in one’s middos. From the previous law in that chapter:

2) How do they cure? They tell someone who is of an angry disposition to establish himself, and that if he is hit or cursed he should not react, and he should follow this way until his angry disposition has left him. If he was haughty, he should subject himself to a lot of disgrace and sit low down, and should dress in torn rags which are a discredit to normal clothes, and do similar things until his haughtiness has left him and he returns to the middle way, which is the good way. Once he has returned to the middle way he should follow it for the rest of his life. Other temperaments should be treated in this manner – if one was far over to one extreme, one should move oneself to the other extreme and accustom oneself to it for a long time, until one has returned to the good way, which is the intermediate characteristic that each and every temperament has.

Contrast that to the advice in 1:6, that the person “is obligated to accustom oneself to them” and 1:7, “One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them.”

One can combine these notions. The ideal, as described in chapter 1, is to follow the middle path in everything. To live that ideal is described in laws 6 and 7 (above) as “one is obligated to accustom oneself to them” and “One should do, change one and change one’s actions which one does according to the intermediate temperaments and always go back over them”. Habituation.

The Chassid ַadapts that situationally. When speaking of the more severe possible errors, one can’t rely on waiting for habit to set in. Instead we focus on a “cure procedure”, to tend to the other extreme. Training the vine by pulling it beyond where you want it to settle.

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  1. January 16, 2008 – ט׳ בשבט תשס״ח

    […] The basic problem of understanding the difference between the Rambam Hil Dei’os ch 1 and ch 2 is not anavah, but ka’as (anger). With ka’as he explicitly invokes the middle path in ch. 1, and yet calls on you to eliminate anger entirely in ch. 2. But the Rambam makes a distinction at the end of ch. 1. He’s describing two different ideals: the chokhom (wise person) is one who seeks the mean. The chassid (pious person) is one who goes beyond that to reduce his own “space”. We could extend that resolution to anavah too. (This is discussed at length, here.) […]

  2. May 21, 2010 – ח׳ בסיון תש״ע

    […] Anger and the Golden Mean […]

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