Dante’s Commedia is often referred to as “the Summa in verse”[i] due to the influence of Thomas Aquinas upon Dante’s theological, philosophical, and moral formation. Aquinas is himself influenced by Aristotle, whom he regards as “The Philosopher.” Dante was undoubtedly familiar with Aristotle.[ii] Thus, by way of Aquinas’ influence upon Dante, and Dante’s own knowledge of Aristotle, we can see elements of Aristotelian thought put into verse, albeit Aristotelian thought strengthened and refined by the Christian faith of Aquinas and Dante. This essay intends to explore Aristotle’s understanding of the varied human responses to anger and then see how Dante’s poetic imagery expresses or expands upon Aristotle’s thinking. This will be done by way of exegesis and comparison of Aristotle and Dante’s work while utilizing Thomas’ commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics as the link. It is hoped that Aristotle and Dante’s unique insights may shed mutual light upon one another.
Before we look at the specific passage in the Ethics it is necessary to express concisely how the passage is framed within Aristotle’s entire work. Aristotle begins the Ethics by stating, “Every art [τέχνη – “art, skill, cunning of hand”][iii] and every investigation [μέθοδος – “pursuit of knowledge, investigation”][iv], and likewise every practical pursuit [πρᾶξις – “doing”][v] or undertaking [προαίρεσις – “purpose, resolution”][vi], seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is That at which all things aim.”[vii] In the Ethics Aristotle explores what this means in all its diversity. There are a variety of Goods at which we aim, as well as a hierarchy amongst the Goods. There is a lack of understanding regarding what the universal conception of the Good is, and what the Good is in relation to particulars. Also, there is the possibility of a rejection of the Good. For humans, the Good is different from that which is the Good for plants or animals, and this is due to our specific difference. The specific difference is our capacity to reason.[viii] This specific difference defines and clarifies the specific function or aim of human life. To live in a good way, or to live exercising our capacity to reason in a good way, means to live virtuously (ἀρετή – “goodness, excellence, of any kind”).[ix] If humans live in this way consistently and fully we will be happy (εὐδαιμονία – “true, full happiness”).[x]
Having defined what the specific function of human existence entails, Aristotle then proceeds to explore virtue in depth in order to study happiness.[xi] Virtue, he discovers is “of two kinds, intellectual [διανοητικός – “of or for thinking, intellectual”][xii] and moral [ἠθικός].”[xiii] The intellectual is linked to feeling, and the moral is linked to action. “Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.”[xiv]
This “determination” means we are responsible for how we think and how we act. We are also responsible for what sort of orientation we set in terms of our thoughts and actions. Aristotle says, “each man is in a sense responsible for his moral disposition [and thus] he will in a sense be responsible for his conception of the good.”[xv] He continues, “Now the virtues, as we say, are voluntary [ἑκούσιος], since in fact we are ourselves in a way jointly responsible for our states of character, and by having the sort of character we have we lay down the sort of end we do. Hence the vices will also be voluntary, since the same is true of them.”[xvi] Actions and states are not voluntary in the same way, however, as actions have a cumulative effect as we live, and states speak to the origin of our actions. Aristotle states,
Our dispositions are not voluntary in the same way as are our actions. Our actions we can control from beginning to end, and we are conscious of them at each stage. With our dispositions on the other hand, though we can control their beginning, each separate addition to them is imperceptible, as is the case with the growth of a disease, though they are voluntary in that we were free to employ our capacities in the one way or the other.[xvii]
Having established what virtue is, and its relationship to human happiness, having established how vices relate to virtue, and having established how these thoughts and actions are voluntary, Aristotle proceeds to examine the various virtues and the vices derived from them.
Aristotle holds that there are primary virtues and secondary virtues. He opens his examination of the primary virtues of courage and temperance by a further examination of “the voluntary” and how it is distinguished from “choice.” At the start of his commentary on Book Four, Thomas Aquinas summarizes Book 3 and introduces Book 4. “Having completed the study of fortitude and temperance which deals with means preservative of human life itself, he now begins to examine other mediums which concern certain subsidiary goods and evils… Initially [in Book 4] he considers the virtues that regard external things.”[xviii] The three “external things” Aristotle treats in Book Four are riches, honours, and external evils. Riches and honours are considered “external goods” with the virtues and vices attending them. External evils, on the other hand, involve anger and the attending virtue of gentleness (or meekness) or the vice’s excess or deficiency.[xix] In this it is important then to remember our responsibility for our character and the ends towards which we aim, as both of these things will impact our response to anger.
In considering gentleness (πραότης – “mildness, gentleness”)[xx] as the mean in relation to anger we face an immediate quandary. Aristotle states, “there is as a matter of fact no recognized name for the mean in this respect—indeed there can hardly be said to be names for the extremes either–, so we apply the word Gentleness to the mean though really it inclines to the side of the defect.”[xxi] Thomas elaborates, “the name meekness is taken to signify a mean, although the word implies a lack of anger.”[xxii] The difficulty is that in some situations anger (ὀργή – “wrath, anger… [refers] generally to human anger or divine wrath”)[xxiii] is an entirely just response, and so the mean cannot be regarded as a lack of anger without potentially exhibiting a defect regarding justice. So Aristotle explains that we may use the term “gentle-tempered” if this is understood to mean “a calm temper, not led by emotions but only becoming angry in such a manner, for such causes and for such a length of time as principle may ordain.”[xxiv] Or, to put it another way, in the words of Thomas, a gentle-tempered response is when “reason determines the objects of anger and the length of time within which anger should react.”[xxv]
“Gentle-tempered” must be distinguished from a forgiveness detached from justice or passivity in the face of injustice. Aristotle regards this as a defect which he calls a “Lack of Spirit” or apathy (ἀοργησία – “deficiency in the passion of anger”).[xxvi] Someone with a Lack of Spirit does not get angry at things about which they ought to be angry (and are thus considered foolish), or they do not feel the pain of an injury at all, or respond in a just way to felt pain. As Thomas says, “Whatever indicates a lack of wisdom is blameworthy because virtue is praised for working in accord with the right understanding of prudence.”[xxvii] They may be servile, as they are willing to allow themselves or their friends to be insulted.[xxviii] Thomas states, “only a cringing man suffers his household to be insulted and permits others to injure him without repelling the injury with due force. This follows from a defect of anger which renders a man slothful [from the Latin piger – “backward, slow, dull, lazy, indolent, sluggish, inactive”][xxix] and remiss in warding off injury.”[xxx]
There are other extremes in relation to anger which also defy easy definition. Aristotle invents or adapts words to suit his purpose. Irascibility (ὀργιλότης – “irascibility”)[xxxi] is considered the excess. This is a vice which results in misdirected anger and violence. “They do not keep their anger in, but being quick-tempered (ἀκρᾱχολος – “quick to anger, irascible”)[xxxii] display it openly by retaliating, and then have done with it. The excessively quick-tempered are Passionate; they fly into a passion at everything and on all occasions.”[xxxiii] The display of retaliation is important to note here—it is expressed. Whereas ὀργιλότης is used often throughout the Ethics, Thomas helpfully highlights how Aristotle deepens the definition of ὀργιλότης with the use of ἀκρᾱχολος (used only here in the Ethics) to indicate excessive anger (“from acros meaning extreme and chalos meaning anger”).[xxxiv] Thomas renders this anger in Latin as iracundi meaning “a proneness to anger, hastiness of temper, irascibility; violence of anger, wrath, rage, passion.”[xxxv] This sort of vice is not “complete” in any person (in this life at any rate) as such a man would cause all sorts of trouble to himself and be unable to live with others. Fortunately for them “their anger does not last long but quickly subsides… [and] is not retained internally in their heart.”[xxxvi]
On the other hand, bitter-temperedness or sullenness (πικρόω – literally “pointed, sharp, keen”, but used metaphorically to describe an embittered, spiteful or vindictive state)[xxxvii] is internalized. It is considered another sort of defect, different than those with a “lack of spirit” but which Aristotle contrasts with irascibility (the defect of “lack of spirit” was described earlier to clarify what he means by the mean of gentleness or gentle-temperedness). Aristotle says,
The Bitter-tempered on the other hand are implacable, and remain angry a long time, because they keep their wrath in… But if they do not retaliate [in order to replace the pain of resentment with the pleasure of obtaining redress, they] labour under a sense of resentment – for as their anger is concealed no one else tries to placate them either, and it takes a long time to digest one’s wrath within one.[xxxviii]
Here it is important to note the implacability, inward direction, and concealment of wrath, and how the pain of resentment thus becomes a labour. It takes a long time to digest (πέσσω – literally to “soften, ripen or change by means of heat” but used metaphorically to “nurse, brood over one’s wrath”).[xxxix] This is a “pent up” and internalized anger (which Thomas renders in Latin as tristitiae – “sadness, mournfulness, sorrow, grief, melancholy, gloominess, dejection”).[xl] He concludes, along with Aristotle, that this vice is the most troublesome to the individual as well as to their nearest friends.[xli] Whereas neither Aristotle or Thomas explain why they think this defect is the most troublesome, we will see that it is likely due to the refusal to speak it out, or express it to others. Speech and expression are basic and necessary for human society.
The final defect Aristotle calls “Harsh-tempered” (χαλεπός – “hard to deal with, cruel, harsh, stern”).[xlii] The Harsh-tempered are those who “lose their temper at the wrong things, and more and longer than they ought, and who refuse to be reconciled without obtaining redress or retaliating.”[xliii] Thomas renders this as irascuntur, which means “get/be/become angry; fly into a rage; be angry at; feel resentment.”[xliv] Whereas this word is very close to the earlier iracundi there is subtle distinction which Thomas expresses. “Indeed their anger lasts long not because of a retention alone that can be dissolved in time but because of a firm resolve to inflict punishment.”[xlv] In light of this it is certain that he means some sort of outward oriented and active resentment as opposed to rage.
Aristotle admits that
it is not easy to define in what manner and with whom and on what grounds and how long one ought to be angry, and up to what point one does right in so doing and where error begins… It is… not easy to pronounce on principle what degree and manner of error is blameworthy, since this is a matter of the particular circumstances, and judgement rests with the faculty of perception.[xlvi]
Perception limits us as we are unable to see the interior state of those who are angry, nor do we always have access to the particulars related to the circumstances.[xlvii] Though it is difficult to pass judgment, this much is clear, the mean is that for which we should strive. The mean is the virtue of gentleness which means being slow to anger. If anger is justified, we are to express it in the right way, towards the correct people, mindful of what just redress entails if that is necessary.
In the Inferno there is no virtue – there are no means between extremes. Those in hell have “lost the good of the intellect.”[xlviii] Without the good of the intellect, they have lost also the power of volition. In hell the souls have only the character of the bad choices that were made while volition was operative. Before Minos they can only “confess all” and he then directs the souls to that region of hell which coincides with character of their primary choice while on earth.[xlix] Dante’s poem gives imaginative force to the consequence of willing vice instead of virtue, or sin instead of grace. In Canto VII Virgil leads Dante along the banks of Styx. Styx is one of five rivers which surround Hades and it is “named from sadness” (tristitia).[l] Here is the entire passage in Sinclair’s prose translation with key Italian words inserted,
We crossed the circle to the other edge, past a spring that boils up and pours over by a trench leading from it, the water of the blackest purple, and following its murky waves we entered the place below by a rough track. This gloomy stream, when it has reached the foot of the malign grey slopes, enters the marsh which is called Styx; and I, who had stopped to gaze intently, saw muddy people in that bog, all naked and with looks of rage [offeso]. They were smiting each other not only with the hand but with head and breast and feet and tearing each other piecemeal with their teeth.
The good Master said: ‘Son, thou seest now the souls [l’anime] of those whom anger [ira] overcame; and I would have thee know for sure also that there are people under the water who sigh and make the water bubble on the surface, as thine eye tells thee wherever it turns. Fixed in the slime they say: “We were sullen [Tristi] in the sweet air that is gladdened by the sun, bearing in our hearts a sluggish [accidioso] smoke; now we are sullen [attristiam] in the black mire.” This hymn they gurgle in their throat; for they cannot get the words out plainly.’[li]
We must address a translation issue from the outset. Dante’s use of the word offeso is usually translated as “rage,” or something similar (at least in the various translations at hand – Cary, Longfellow, Norton, Sinclair, Sayers, Mandelbaum, Musa). In light of the passage from Aristotle, and Thomas’ commentary, which frame the vices against a backdrop of “external evils” that arouse anger and potentially rage, it seems this word is wrongly translated as rage. Why so many translators translate offeso in this way difficult to say. Norton is alone amongst the above translators in correctly translating the passage as “with look of hurt.”[lii] A literal translation would render the passage as “with looks of offense” and this is more inline with the Aristotle and Thomas’ ethical framework. The word is used only one other time in the Inferno (Canto 33, line 22) where it is variously translated as “offence,” “injury,” or “wrong.” Offeso should here be translated as “offence” (or something similar) because it is precisely due to some offense received on Earth which aroused the passions that resulted in a total capitulation to rage in the first place. Furthermore, the defining characteristic of this part of the Inferno is the total absence of a virtuous response to offense (not to mention nonexistent forgiveness, largesse, and justice). The imagery of this part of hell expresses the perpetual reception of offense by everyone and anyone proximate to one another in the marsh, which results in them being eternally “overcome by anger” which thus generates the perpetual orgy of hellish rage. Thomas’ translation of Aristotle’s ὀργιλότης as iracundi (irascability) and χαλεπός as irascuntur (harsh-tempered) provide the link here between Aristotle’s Greek and the Italian word ira which carries the same meaning. As both these forms of anger were expressed externally, we see them on the surface of Styx.
Beneath the muck we have the sullen. The Italian words tristi and attristiam show their lexical similarity to the Latin tristitiae. The context is clear that their state here is not mere melancholy, but rather it is a wrathful response to offense which is directed inward. Here it is that Dante’s use of the word accidioso shows his own profound moral insight and deep familiarity with classical philosophy and patristic theology. Whereas Aristotle did not use ἀκηδία (“indifference, torpor, apathy”)[liii] to describe the sullen, there is a link between ἀκηδία (Latin – accidia) and Aristotle’s internalized and unexpressed wrath (“Bitter-tempered”) and the slothful and servile (“Lack of Spirit”). Thomas provides the link in his translation of Aristotle. Aristotle, for his part, in making this wrath inwardly oriented and devoid of communication anticipates the deeper significance of acedia in Christian moral teaching. Singleton notes in his commentary on the Commedia, “Thomas Aquinas cites Gregory of Nyssa’s view that “acedia est tristitia vocem amputans.” (“Torpor is sorrow depriving of speech”).”[liv] Apathy towards offense is not a virtue, as Aristotle noted, and the refusal to express and defend one’s self in a rational, good, and just way destroys the soul. Later the word acedia evolves to include “weariness (of body or soul).”[lv] Aristotle anticipates this also. He expresses this weariness when he writes that the Bitter-tempered “labour under a sense of resentment” and concealed anger.[lvi] Dante exhibits the horror of voluntarily choosing to embrace this vice. As the sullen souls refused to express or communicate their anger while on Earth, here they are unable to externalize it at all (a self-amputation of one’s capacity to speak) and they are eternally suffocated and hidden within the muck of rage. It is for Virgil to communicate to Dante the speech which is now gurgling in their throats – the only thing we see are bubbles on the surface.
We have examined Aristotle’s understanding of human anger and our varied responses to it, and we have compared it to Dante’s poetic imagery of the wrathful in his Inferno. It is inevitable that human beings encounter external evils resulting in anger. We see that anger itself is not a vice, but an unavoidable emotional response to external evils, a response that must be controlled and moderated by one’s reason and acted upon justly. The moderation and response require strength, self-overcoming and often a measure of courage in facing injustice squarely. In considering the virtue of gentleness Aristotle is aware of the need to be on guard against misconceptions surrounding that word. Misconceptions regarding gentleness extend to our culture and language also. Gentleness is not weakness, passivity or indifference.
Dante vividly expresses anger without moderation in his Inferno. Anger directed outward in an excessive and unjust way destroys us, as well as our relationships. The inward-directed vices relating to anger, characterized by concealment and inexpression, show an even deeper rejection of our human identity as those endued with the power to express our reason through speech. Thomas and Dante understand the significance of speech, and it’s relation to human identity, in a more profound and clear way than Aristotle, understanding its significance and power in light of the Divine Logos.
It is hoped that some concluding devotional thoughts are allowed. Gentleness is understood by Aristotle from within the bounds of human reason. We see him struggle to articulate the character of this particular virtue, due to the limits of language – the means by which we express reason. The Word of God incarnate said “I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29, ESV). Jesus’ own life and ministry embodied the strength, courage, and justice of true Gentleness and so in looking to Christ we may have our own misconceptions corrected. Thomas and Dante received the aid here offered by Christ. Though Aristotle could not know this supernatural Gentleness, Dante in his work acknowledges the wisdom received from Aristotle and grants him the perfection of human virtue within the bounds of reason. Through faith, Thomas and Dante understood no mere human Gentleness, but rather a Gentleness which overpowers all wrath on the Cross and opens for us a path out of self-destruction, beyond mere virtue, and into the ultimate reality of holiness.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by John Donaldson Sinclair. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
Aquinas, Thomas. Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. Litzinger, C.I., trans. 2 vols. Library of Living Catholic Thought. Chicago: Regnery, 1964; reprinted in 1 vol. with revisions as Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotelian Commentary Series, Notre Dame, Ind.: Dumb Ox Books, 1993.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed. Edited by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934
Bouck, Dominic. “The Summa in Verse, ” at The Dominican Journal, 12 May, 2014, at http://www.dominicanajournal.org.
Lewis, Charlton, T. and Charles Short. Harpers’ Latin Dictionary. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1891.
Liddell, Henry G., and Robert Scott. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Singleton, Charles, S. The Divine Comedy. Inferno: Commentary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
West, Jim. “Divine Wrath,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Bible Reference Series. Bellingham, WA, Lexham Press, 2014.
Whitaker, William. Dictionary of Latin Forms. Bellingham, WA, Logos Bible Software, 2012.
[ii] Charles S. Singleton. The Divine Comedy. Inferno: Commentary. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 119.
[iii] Liddell, Henry G., and Robert Scott. An Intermediate Greek- English Lexicon, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1785.
[iv] Liddell, Lexicon, 1091.
[v] Liddell, Lexicon, 1459.
[vi] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 1466.
[vii] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Rev. ed. Edited and Trans. by H. Rackham. (Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), 1094a.
[viii] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1098a.
[ix] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 238; Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1098a15-20.
[x] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 708.
[xi] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1102a5.
[xii] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 405.
[xiii] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 766; Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1103a15.
[xiv] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1107a.
[xv] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1114b.
[xvi] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1114b20.
[xvii] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1114b30.
[xviii] Thomas Aquinas. Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. Litzinger, C.I., trans. 2 vols. Library of Living Catholic Thought. Chicago: Regnery, 1964; reprinted in 1 vol. with revisions as Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, (Aristotelian Commentary Series, Notre Dame, Ind.: Dumb Ox Books, 1993), §649.
[xix] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §800.
[xx] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 1459.
[xxi] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1125b25.
[xxii] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §800.
[xxiii] Jim West, “Divine Wrath,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
[xxiv] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1125b30-1126a.
[xxv] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §801.
[xxvi] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 173.
[xxvii] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §804.
[xxviii] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1126a5.
[xxix] Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, Harpers’ Latin Dictionary (New York; Oxford: Harper & Brothers; Clarendon Press, 1891), 1375.
[xxx] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §806.
[xxxi] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 1246.
[xxxii] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 55.
[xxxiii] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1126a15.
[xxxiv] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §809.
[xxxv] Lewis and Short, Dictionary, 1000.
[xxxvi] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §807-809.
[xxxvii] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 1404.
[xxxviii] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1126a20-25.
[xxxix] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 1396.
[xl] Lewis and Short, Dictionary, 1902.
[xli] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §810.
[xlii] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 1971.
[xliii] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1126a25
[xliv] William Whitaker, Dictionary of Latin Forms (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).
[xlv] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §811.
[xlvi] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1126b-5.
[xlvii] Aquinas, Commentary, trans. Litzinger, §813.
[xlviii] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Translated by John Donaldson Sinclair, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 47.
[xlix] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. by Sinclair, 73.
[l] Charles S. Singleton. The Divine Comedy. Inferno: Commentary. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 118.
[li] Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. by Sinclair, 103-105.
[liii] Liddell and Scott, Lexicon, 49.
[liv] Singleton, Inferno Commentary, 118.
[lv] Whitaker, Dictionary, Logos Bible Software.
[lvi] Aristotle, Ethics, trans. Rackham, 1126a20.