Anger in History

The Ohio State University Center for Historical Research
2023-2025 Series

Le Brun: La Colere, Anger 1770. 18th Century engraving by Charles le Brun. Red ink of angry man

With the rise of political protests and populist movements, it has become a journalistic commonplace to argue that we live in an “age of anger.” For historians, this widespread use of “anger” as an explanation for most social movements, from populist protests to human rights or social rights mobilizations, raises many questions. First, this approach postulates that people are acting in “anger” when other motivations, such as “despair” or “disenchantment,” could also be invoked. Second, “anger” is presented as a coherent emotional concept, that works as a powerful drive across human history, with ups and downs coinciding with moments of tensions, political protests, rebellions, or revolutions. Third, “anger” is framed as a universal experience shared across all emotional cultures. All these interpretations universalize and essentialize a category which is, by definition, a cultural construction.

Evidence of the instability of the concept of “anger” can be found in all social sciences. In the late 1960s, anthropologist Jean L. Briggs showed that certain people such as the Utku, a small group of Inuit living in the Canadian Northwest territories, have no equivalent concept of anger. Studies in historical linguistics also undermine the assumption that anger is a single transhistorical emotion. In his 1941 essay on affective life, French historian Lucien Febvre famously argued that each human group in the past had its own mental attitudes and categories, calling therefore for a “history of emotional life of man in all its manifestations”. This proposal for CHR programming for 2023-25 responds to that challenge, offering a series of lectures, workshops and public events that explore anger or rage in all their nuances from Ancient Greece to the present.

Defined by Aristotle as unifying pain and pleasure as well as emotional agitation and complex judgment, should anger be considered a valuable function for defending order or a group’s social position, or denounced as a capital sin (Gregory the Great) and, more recently, a self-destructive force? How does anger, individual and/or collective, contribute to the dynamics of violence in contexts as diverse as riots or revolutions, civil wars, or wars of religions, acts of terrorism or massacres? How does the struggle for emotional control impact the history of ideas, the history of science and medicine, gender history, or the history of family, and what does a more global history of anger, not exclusively focused on the Western world, add to our understanding of the complexity of an emotion, both public and private, political, social, and religious?